My mother and I have the same blood running in our bodies, but we are completely different women.
Changing Chinese Mothers:
Coping, pushing, letting go
– Jiang Zidan, Dengdai huanghun (Waiting for Dusk).
Fu Yuanhong wakes up at 5.45 am every day. As a teacher in a Beijing middle school she leaves for work at 6 am, a little earlier than her eight year-old daughter leaves for her school. "I have a very busy day until 5 pm. I have to take care of my students. On my way back home, I keep calling their parents and talking to them. When I get home, I go through their homework and publish it online so that they know how their child did at school today. Then my daughter returns and I have to spend time with her, cook dinner. Even though her grandma's around and helps, it is all very exhausting," she says.
Cai Zhao Rong's husband looks after the family business in Xiamen, and she helps him manage his fleet of delivery vans from home. She's on the phone much of the time, but her child is always within sight when at home. She tells us, "I am responsible for my child like a housewife. I do not need to work outside. The child needs a mother's care and my husband does not want the old to take care of the child. If I go out, there is no one to take care of my daughter. I think the most important thing is the child's education and I'm afraid of her being left behind in her studies."
When Xiao Yan returns home from the shopping mall in Shenyang, where she works, at 6 in the evening, there's dinner to be made. "After doing the housework, and taking my bath, I look at my son and all my tiredness disappears. He is so considerate. He tells me to lie down, pounds my back and sometimes I just fall asleep," she says. "Occasionally I check his homework, but he says he's finished. I check nevertheless."
Ma Yili is one of the most popular actresses in China. Last year, she walked away with the Best Actress award at the prestigious Changchun Film Festival for her performance in "The Good Man". Her own good man, Wen Zhang, is nine years her junior. Earlier this year, she gave birth to their daughter and put her career on hold to spend more time with her daughter. "Why not? I have plenty of time for work and filming in the future, but only such a short period in which to breastfeed my baby. I don't dare cut it short. I want her nurtured in the best way," she said in a radio interview.
Go-getting. Dedicated. Easygoing.
All Chinese mothers are not the same. In a China where women indeed hold up half the sky, there are an estimated 320 million working mothers. That's more than the entire population of the United States.
The least we must do is recognize the differences between them and go beyond the stereotype of a working mother, a mythical superhuman who can effortlessly balance the professional demands of an office, the emotional and sexual demands of a husband, play the nurturing role of a mother – and contribute to the advancement of society, all with the bat of a shimmering eyelid.
Indeed, Chinese mythology recognized the difference between a mother's characteristics. The mother's image was more identifiable with the power of nature than with nurture, or tender love. During the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC), the sun was referred to as Dong Mu (East Mother), and the moon as Xi Mu (West Mother). The former was not all nurturing. The Goddess Xihe was said to be the mother of ten suns, which baked the earth so dry that many people died, Hou Yi had to shoot down nine suns and leave the one that we have today. Even Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the Western Paradise, is portrayed as a complex character. She has the fangs of a tiger and the tail of a panther. She lives alone and is protected by birds of prey and fearsome beasts. She also controls plagues and evil spirits. However frightful her appearance and her powers, Xi Wang Mu is a motherly figure to all the gods in heaven. In her enchanted garden grow the coveted peaches which she plucks and serves at a sumptuous banquet for the gods. She is an alchemist, or a person who practices the art of combining substances that will transform.
Much of the mother image in early Chinese mythology emphasized her reproductive function rather than her tender love. It was during the May Fourth cultural rebellion that this image was reconstructed. An idealized maternal figure became a key feature of China's new literature. What was created was a gentle nurturing figure, selflessly and naturally loving, sometimes suffering, occasionally joyful. Opposite her would be a child, usually male: an infant in her embrace, a schoolboy making his first foray into the world, or an adult-child finding solace and strength in her love. This reconstruction of motherhood amounted to a rediscovery of genuine human nature at a time when traditional Chinese personalities were being castigated; and commentators have suggested that this was a deliberate effort by young intellectuals to discover and define what humane social relations in a future modern Chinese society might look like.
We have taken this brief detour for one simple reason: to emphasize the point that mothers in China have had conflicting expectations thrown at them over centuries. Two decades of modernization is not going to change the severe identity crisis which they encounter. We know quite well that women adapt to change. It is just that everyone isn't quite adapting in the same way. There are significant variations in their attitudes and beliefs. It is these differences which we've been able to uncover through out study, and would like to explain in this cover story.
Many of the mothers we spoke with belong to the post-80s generation. The popular notion about this generation is that they are all career-oriented, the husband and wife equally share the responsibility of raising children, but keep their financial affairs to themselves. We found that this is true for less than one-third of the mothers.
The study finds that there is no predictable pattern which the groups follow in their concurrence or divergence of opinion. For example, while Go-Getting Moms and Easygoing Moms believe that the greatest pressures they face comes from balancing work and educating their child, they have diametrically opposing views about kids supporting parents in their old age. Easygoing Moms feel that it's being distracted by kids while at work which is a bottleneck for them in their careers, as do Dedicated Moms; but the two groups do not agree on giving up taking care of their husbands for their kids, with the latter believing that this does happen with them.
What this means is that mothers in urban China follow different styles of parenting. These styles are determined by a mix of factors: their own career ambitions and workplace expectations, the kind of financial control and independence they enjoy, self-image in terms of role in the family, beliefs about how children much be raised, and ambitions for and expectations of their own child.
Read the cover story
(pdf, 594 KB).
View the accompanying press release