How Chinese “mom groups” share parenting work

How Chinese "mom groups" share parenting work

In Chinese cities, raising a child is a burden that most families have to bear alone. Since the collapse of the work unit system in the 1990s, the cost of raising a child has risen, even as public childcare resources have dried up and urbanization fast separated families from their extended family and social networks. The sense of community among neighbors has faded, and with it, the idea that everyone bears the responsibility of caring for “our” children.

As a result, parents, especially mothers, feel increased pressure and children are deprived of vital social interactions with peers and the community. For some, it may seem hopeless. How do you raise a happy, well-adjusted child in an age of “devolutionary” and “chicken-blood” parenting?

One answer lies in rebuilding a sense of community in atomized neighborhoods. While conducting fieldwork and interviews with members of a Shanghai mothers’ group, I documented how an engaged mothers’ group partnered with local government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and businesses. to create safer and more engaging communities for their children. In the process, they spread the burden of child-rearing across the group, allowing members to feel like an active presence in their children’s lives while still having time to pursue their own careers and interests. .

The group’s founder, Sun, moved to Shanghai about 12 years ago. (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.) Sun grew up in rural eastern China; like many Chinese of his generation, his father left the family to find a better paying job in the city. When Sun decided to have her own children, she was determined to be part of their lives. However, she also did not want to give up her career and devote all her time to her children.

Sun’s dilemma is shared by many educated Chinese urban women who join or found motherhood groups. Some continue to work full time after giving birth; others left their jobs to become full-time mothers or find part-time positions. Having grown up in a time of only children and divided families, they believe in the importance of being involved in their children’s lives and want their children to have a relaxed and fun-filled childhood. For Sun, organizing activities for local kids — in her case, an online book group — was a way to feel engaged and socially active.

Over time, the book circle turned into offline meetings. The main members of the group pooled their skills, organizing lessons in painting, baking and storytelling. This attracted other mothers from the community, who were impressed with the group’s peer-to-peer model and varied list of activities.

Mu, who leads the art club of the mom group, is an art teacher at a private high school. She told me that she finds teaching art to children in her community more relaxing than her classes. She doesn’t have to worry about discipline or face pressure to fit lessons into set blocks of time. All that is expected of her is to make art with her child and the children of her neighbors. In other words, she can act like a mother rather than a teacher.

For parents, grassroots community organizations such as mothers’ groups are more responsive to their specific needs than school-organized or private after-school programs. Many working parents in the Sun community face the “3:30 p.m. dilemma” — the need to find daycare for the hours between the end of the school day and the end of the work day. To solve this problem, the moms’ group organizes evening and summer classes, the mothers taking turns to lead the neighborhood children in studies, crafts and games until their parents leave work.

Contemporary Chinese society is highly atomized, but these types of mutual parenting arrangements, focused on informal play and social interaction, suggest an alternative approach to childrearing. Many members mentioned their desire for their children to grow up in a real, grounded environment, to learn how to perform chores at home and to have a strong sense of community. To that end, in the summer of 2020, the Moms Group hosted a Community Worker Appreciation Event. They divided the children into groups; some were sent to the supermarket to buy mung beans; others went to a nearby community garden to harvest mint leaves. The mums then taught the children how to make mung bean soup and mint tea – two products considered refreshing in traditional Chinese medicine – which they then delivered to local security guards, cleaners and members. of the neighborhood committee.

These activities, which focus on community building, differ from those organized by private training schools or other commercial establishments. By engaging with local businesses and community groups, they also educate the local population about the needs of children.

The group not only introduced the women to new parenting allies, but it also allowed them to rethink the way they wanted to raise their children.

In addition to the lack of public resources for childcare and a sense of community, Chinese cities suffer from a severe shortage of child-friendly spaces, especially within walking distance of residential communities. To solve this problem, Sun’s group held coffee-making classes at a local Starbucks, visited a small neighborhood showroom, and organized community garden maintenance. The group identified child-friendly spaces in their neighborhood and worked with the owners or custodians of those spaces to make them more welcoming to local children.

Perhaps the most significant impact of the mothers group has been on the mothers themselves. The group not only introduced the women to new parenting allies, but it also allowed them to rethink the way they wanted to raise their children. Membership has awakened many mothers to childcare opportunities outside of family boundaries, eased the pressures of raising children, and expanded the range of childcare resources available to them.

Yet, for all their positive effects, mutual parent groups are not always sustainable. For starters, they often depend too much on core members. It is the mothers who have the time and the will to organize, teach and finance activities. It is difficult to maintain the group if they move house, or if their needs or those of their children change.

Then there is the fact that, even in mutual care arrangements, the responsibility for raising children still falls primarily on women. This is true not only for mothers’ groups, but also for their supporters in community and sub-district governments, many of whom are also women. At most, men play a secondary role. Until China has an honest discussion about the unequal expectations placed on mothers, a sustainable childcare model will likely prove elusive.

Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Children draw their mother’s face during a Mother’s Day activity in Yantai, Shandong province, May 8, 2022. Tang Ke/VCG)