Whilst around a quarter of grandparents in the UK provide regular childcare for their grandchildren, it is normally out of choice. Either because they’d like to help out and spend time with their grandchildren or because there is a special need, perhaps their child is a single parent and they feel duty bound to help out. In China this is a formalised tradition, ie it’s expected of grandparents. The tradition has adapted since the Chinese revolution and sees parents moving in with their sons as soon as their daughter in law becomes pregnant. In pre industrial China when a couple married, the new bride would move in with him and his family, often far away, visiting her own family infrequently which is why now it’s still more common for the husband’s parents to move in not the wife’s, although in practise this can vary.
What’s interesting about this and is one of the things I’ve found most interesting about studying anthropology is just because it’s a tradition it doesn’t mean everyone’s happy about it. It’s easy to describe a society and make it sound very neat and that everyone knows their place and what is expected of them. Unsurprisingly, just like in our society, there are always tensions and contradictions that lead to friction. So with Chinese grandparents, it turns out that because of the lack of choice many feel rather resentful about the sacrifices they make in order to take care of their grandchildren, especially for the better educated and wealthier grandparents. This is exacerbated by the fact that many Chinese, especially the older generation, don’t trust home help, so not only do they feel obliged to care for their grandchildren they also take on the majority of the housework including the cooking, cleaning, washing and food buying.
When I read the account in Alma Gottlieb’s book, of a mother in law moving in and taking over pretty much all the household chores even before the baby was born, I was a little bit jealous. Not only that but traditionally new mothers are meant to ‘lie in’ for the whole of the first month, doing nothing but breastfeeding and eating especially prepared fortifying meals and drinks. Sounds wonderful! The caveat being that she was also not supposed to take showers or brush her teeth which might be pushing it, even for someone who loves sitting down as much as I do.
However, most Chinese women are in full time, six days a week work and once they return this grandparental care isn’t a luxury but indispensable in a country with very little childcare provision. And this can and often does cause domestic strains. Many grandparents surveyed expressed feelings of resentment and that they were being taken advantage of. Whilst at the same time new parents complained that their parents wouldn’t allow them to help or to buy in any domestic help. So why do they do it? Esther Goh explains it as follows:
The sense of obligation that is placed on the grandparents by their adult children is best explained by the Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe (Li, 1994). According to her, the Chinese parents invested themselves in their children not only for support in old age but even more for the continuity of the family line. She explains that this continuation of family line is not a mere extension of one’s life. Instead it is to chuan zhong jie dai (to ensure the passing down of the family lineage). Therefore, parents sacrifice themselves for their children because they are driven by this cultural ideal, and adult children take parental help for granted because they know it is for the family rather than for them (Yan, 2003:260). Li also reported that adult children do not feel a sense of shame or guilt in requesting financial and other forms of help from their parents. Esther Goh
Why don’t British or European parents get more involved? My parents for example would say I live too far away but in the Chinese examples I read most of the grandparents had left their own homes, often to other towns where they had few friends in order to be closer to their grandchildren. Following Li Yinhe’s assertion I would say we in the West value our individual experiences and lives more which means our parents get status and pride and satisfaction from living their own lives and not necessarily through their children and grandchildren so they are not as motivated nor obligated to help. For Chinese grandparents, many of them take on all this work because of the pride and satisfaction they get in seeing their grandchildren do well and flourish.
Here’s a video of a Chinese ‘granny’ dancing, perhaps with the joy of a little spare time from her grandmotherly duties!
A World of Babies: Imagine Childcare Guides for Eight Societies
Alma Gottlieb and Judy De Loache