Although I didn’t think I would write any more blogs, recent conversations about children, childbirth and childrearing have proved so revealing about ‘new’ China, that I feel compelled to record them. Both of the two young women we know best are pregnant. They married recently and convention dictates that a child must follow soon after the wedding.
Chinese society, at least in a third tier city like Ningbo, is stiflingly conservative. Traditions seem to apply with extraordinary rigidity in the context of pregnancy and childbirth. My language teacher, Yona first announced she was pregnant when she arrived for a lesson and refused my usual offering of green tea. She hadn’t yet told her mother. The doctor told her she must only drink hot water from now on. Fintan’s assistant Alice is also pregnant, and for the first few weeks, her mother arrived in her office at lunchtime with hot food for her.
Yona attends regular check-ups at one of Ningbo’s hospitals. I asked her the other day if she had access to any classes about childbirth or childcare, or a peer-group of young parents-to-be. She looked surprised at my question, although she said there were one or two ‘lectures’ at the hospital. ‘We do what our mothers tell us’, she said.
In China, for the first month after childbirth the mother ‘rests’ while traditionally the father’s mother looks after her and the baby. Neither mother nor baby leaves the house for 28 days. However, urbanisation has meant that nowadays many young couples have moved away and mother-in-law may not be available. Sometimes there is a tussle between the two grandmothers as to who will get this important role. Alice’s mother-in-law is sick, so her own mother will move in for at least a month to take care of her and the baby, along with a live-in ayi or nanny. Another couple we know have a house in the UK, to which they recently returned to have their second child. The mother is Chinese and her parents went back to the UK with them to ensure the month’s rest.
Fintan recorded an amusing conversation with Alice. She asked him what help we had when our children were born. She looked bemused when he explained that we didn’t have or expect any, other than a loving grandmother in the same city who occasionally gave advice if asked. The fact that, as a man, he provided all the necessary care and attention I needed, was met with stunned surprise. He casually described a useful piece of kit he’d recommend, a ‘bouncy’ chair for the baby, which kept the baby happy with a few toys, while he cooked or did housework. After 10 minutes he gave up trying to explain about the chair. Why would you need such a thing when you always have one or two grandmothers to hold the baby?
Yona is far more ambivalent about the mother-in-law/mother tradition. She realises that she cannot fight against the one month’s rest rule, although she draws the line at some parts of it. For example, she intends to wash her hair during the 28 days, a rebellious act in itself. It will be her mother who moves in, as her mother-in-law lives a couple of hours’ drive away.
But despite the distance, her in-laws have certain expectations. As they don’t see so much of his parents, her husband feels it is necessary to go to his village for New Year, which next year falls when their baby will be about three weeks old. They should then be able to celebrate the baby’s first milestone – reaching one month – with his family.
This leaves Yona in a difficult position. Is it safe or desirable to travel with such a tiny baby she wonders? How will her mother react? How will her mother-in-law react if they don’t go? She has already told her mother that she, Yona, is planning to take care of the baby herself after the first month, and not go back to work full-time. To her parents and grandmother this is incomprehensible, and I imagine difficult to accept emotionally. There is a strong expectation that grandmothers will take care of the child for the years before kindergarten. But Yona now lives in a completely different world from her semi-literate parents. She has knowledge of child development, especially in terms of language, and realises the importance of early years’ education. She realises that the old ways of doing things in rural China are not necessarily the safest or the most desirable. She has aspirations to teach her child English as early as possible.
Recently, my Chinese lessons have been taken up with these and similar problems. For example, yesterday we discussed where the baby should sleep – in traditional China, the baby sleeps in bed with its parents. We start in Chinese, but often revert to English as Yona desperately wants some answers to help her chart a course through her dilemmas. Although I am a foreigner from a very different culture, she clearly feels that I have more understanding of her aspirations for her child and knowledge of the kind of world in which he/she will grow up in than her own mother could possibly have. In a way it is flattering, but I feel both frightened by the responsibility and a pang of sadness for her mother.