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Under Pressure: Chinese Full-Time Mothers Demand Time Off

With the number of stay-at-home mothers on the rise in China, so are the challenges that come with being a full-time mother.

Manya Koetse

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The story of a full-time mother who was slammed by her husband and mother-in-law for asking some ‘time off’ for traveling during the national holiday has gone viral on Chinese social media. Her account strucks a chord with other stay-at-home moms, who face difficulties in being a full-time mother in a society where family responsibilities are shifting.

Chinese netizen ‘@DoubleTrouble’ (@二捣蛋), a Guangzhou stay-at-home mother of two kids, recently posted about her desire to take “an absence of leave” (请假) from her life as a mum and travel by herself during the Chinese National Holiday.

The woman shared her grievances on WeChat about being severely criticized by her husband and mother-in-law for wanting some time for herself during an 8-day vacation after taking on the sole care of her two children non-stop for years.

The unhappy mother’s story, which was posted some days before the start of China’s national holiday, was picked up by Chinese media and went viral. It triggered heated discussions on the role of China’s stay-at-home mothers within the family.

 

A FULL-TIME MOTHER’S DILEMMA

“I raised the subject of wanting to go away for a while. But I couldn’t even finish speaking before my mother-in-law said: How dare you think of things like this as a mother?!”

 

The original text, which was posted by the woman on a WeChat forum for Guangzhou mothers (gzmama.com), is as follows:

“The past two days I’ve had a falling out with my family members. I wanted to use the National Holiday to travel somewhere, but my husband and mother-in-law strongly opposed. Now, there is all this turmoil because of this, with them criticizing me for being selfish. They also say I am irresponsible and that I am an unfit mother. I feel really low.

The situation is that I have two children, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, both raised by me. Although my parents-in-law are also in Guangzhou, they’ve never helped me out at all. Even when one child gets sick, it is me who has to take both the children to the hospital.

I’ve been married to my husband for six/seven years now. After we got married, I resigned from my job to become a full-time mother. We did not hire a nanny and I took on the care of the two kids by myself. My husband is very busy, and couldn’t help out either.

The last couple of years have tired me out. All mothers will know what I mean, even if they don’t say it. For this year’s [national] holiday, my husband also got a few days off, which is very rare, so I finally wanted to seize this opportunity to go out for a while, and let my mother-in-law help out for a bit to take care of the children.

A few days ago, we were all having dinner together, when I raised the subject of wanting to go away for a while. But I couldn’t even finish speaking when my mother-in-law said: “How dare you think of things like this as a mother?!” My husband also strongly opposed to me leaving the house. My father-in-law said nothing; he didn’t oppose nor approve.

My husband and my mother-in-law at the dinner table took turns in telling me how selfish I am, and how irresponsible I am, and I could not help but quarrel with them.

Now the family relations have gone sour, and my husband and I have not spoken for few days, I also haven’t gone to see my mother-in-law.

Am I really being selfish? The two children are already older now. The little one does not get breastfed anymore, and the kids get along great, they hardly ever fight.

Sigh, I do not know what to do now. Should I go anyway, regardless if they are against it or not? Or should I just forget about it it and just bitterly stay at home with the kids?”

 

The woman’s post received some 17,000 views and over 200 comments from other mothers on the Guangzhou forum before it was widely shared and discussed in Chinese media, receiving thousands of reactions on Weibo.

 

STAY-AT-HOME MOMS IN CHINA

“Once you have children, your time is no longer your own – your time must be dedicated to them.”

 

More than two-thirds of mothers in China work full-time. According to this report (video) by CGTN, China’s modern-day moms belong to a generation that attaches great importance on having a job – so much so that there is an alleged social stigma to staying at home full-time to raise the children.

“There are a lot of Chinese mothers who work, and this might not necessarily always be their choice,” says Roseann Lake, author of upcoming book Leftover in China: The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower.

Lake tells What’s on Weibo that the relatively high percentage of working mothers in China, on the one hand, can be explained through the historical background of the Cultural Revolution, which placed great importance on the full participation of women in the labor force. On the other hand, she notes, it also has a lot to do with today’s China.

“Giving the nature of China’s economy, there is a need for double-working households. And at the same time, there are also many grandparents with free time on their hands who are willing to take care of their grandchildren.”

Lake does not think there necessarily is a social stigma attached to being a full-time mom: “If the financial conditions allow it, women in China can certainly be stay-at-home moms. But then there is the expectation to take on the bulk of looking after the household.”

Nevertheless, Lake stresses, usually – despite expectations that the wife will then take on full care of the household and children – Chinese grandparents will pitch in to help take care of the children, whether the mothers like it or not.

About the case of Chinese netizen ‘@Doubletrouble’, Lake says: “There are plenty of in-laws in China who would pass judgment on something like this, saying that once you have children, your time is no longer your own and your time must be dedicated to them at all times.”

While there is pressure on both working and stay-at-home moms, there is a growing number of Chinese women who choose to fully dedicate themselves to their family life.

According to China Daily, more than 70% of post-90s young mothers are willing to be a full-time mom. By contrast, mothers from the post-80s would rather stay in the workforce; approximately 46% keep on working after becoming a mother.

 

ONLINE REACTIONS

“If women cannot even have this piece of freedom, then why do we get married at all?”

 

With the number of stay-at-home mothers on the rise in China, so are the challenges that come with being a full-time mother. The story of @DoubleTrouble shows that there are many other full-time mothers who have a similar story.

“Women have to think of themselves, they should not completely dedicate all of themselves to the family,” one woman (@潼潼囡妈咪) writes: “We need our own social space in order to have the capability to support ourselves and our children.”

“Just go!”, one person pleads: “If women cannot even have this piece of freedom, then why do we get married at all?”

Other people also point out that it is not the mom who is selfish: “If a woman becomes a mother, it doesn’t mean she has to give up on everything. There are 8 days in the National Holiday – why can’t she leave for 2 days? Can’t she have a break from working hard all year round? It’s not only her children, what’s wrong with the mother-in-law looking after them? They are the ones who are selfish and take her for a free labor force.”

There are also commenters who say that there is a big difference between being a stay-at-home mother and a ‘house slave’: “Just go and apply to be a nanny somewhere else,” one person suggests: “At least then you’ll have wages and get days off.”

“The one who has no sense of responsibility is not this mother, but her husband,” another woman writes.

“It’s not like she’s leaving for two months,” one commenter said: “If women cannot even enjoy this freedom and support after getting married and having babies, then what’s the point?”

“When I get married,” a male netizen writes: “I want my wife to take time for herself and go outside, I will watch the kids. I don’t want to see her depressed or restless.”

Despite all the support for @DoubleTrouble, and all the other mothers demanding that ‘time off’ should be normal for all stay-at-home moms, there are also some who disagree.

“When the child is 2 years old, they are too young. Wait until they go to school,” some say. Or: “Just take the children and go on a trip together with your husband, the four of you together as a family.”

 

THE “GREAT TRANSFORMATION”

“The grandmother does not have the duty to help out her daughter-in-law, but then she also shouldn’t expect her daughter-in-law to take care of her when she is old and sick.”

 

The recent account of ‘@Doubletrouble’ is not the only complaint from full-time mothers who feel the pressure of taking on the full care of their children and not getting any help nor personal time. An important recurring issue is the changing role of the in-laws, who traditionally lived with their son’s family and usually have an active role in raising their grandchildren.

One woman from Fujian (@林小夕的梦) cries out on Weibo: “I am so tired, I am on the verge of collapse. It’s unbearable being a full-time mother. Don’t ask me about my mother-in-law or why she doesn’t help me out – I’d be better off without her, she doesn’t understand.”

The transformations of Chinese traditional family structures in the modern-day era have not necessarily brought about equal gender divisions in the household.

As pointed out by Harriet Evans in The Gender of Communication (2010), the focus in Chinese society has gradually shifted over the past half-century, as there is “[a] shift away from a collectivist and family-oriented ethics of personal responsibilities to an individualistic ethics of rights and self-development” (981).

This “great transformation”1 manifests itself, amongst others, in the clashes between those younger mothers who seek self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction, and those older generations who still expect them to fulfill the traditional women’s role in the domestic sphere, while they, as grandparents, now also play a much less significant role in the upbringing of their grandchildren – not just because they are detached more from the family in social terms, but also often because there is a bigger spatial distance between families.

“The grandmother does not have the duty to help out her daughter-in-law, but then she shouldn’t expect her daughter-in-law to take care of her either when she is old and sick,” a popular comment said.

Since the post has gone viral, @DoubleTrouble has not given an update about whether or not she did go on that trip. If not, at least her story has triggered some relevant discussions online.

“I just hope this post will receive enough attention so that women who want to become a full-time mother will realize the difficulties they might face,” one woman writes.

By Manya Koetse

References

Evans, Harriet. 2010. “The Gender of Communication: Changing Expectations of Mothers and Daughters in Urban China.” The China Quarterly (204): 980-1000.

1 Evans (2010) quotes Yan Yuxiang here, author of The Individualization of Chinese Society (London: Berg, 2009).

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bruce Humes

    October 7, 2017 at 9:32 am

    It’s quite revealing that — at least in the Weibo comments cited — all the potential “solutions” are limited to family members.

    There is no mention of hiring a baby-sitter, part-time amah or full-time nanny. How come?

    Obviously, many Chinese households couldn’t afford the latter, but in 1st- and 2nd-tier cities, they can. In Hong Kong and Taiwan, many middle-class families hire part- or full-time nannies to do housework and look after children. Hong Kongers in particular do so, and insist on a Filipina or Indonesian female who is both truly caring about children, and can teach them English to boot!

    Among the Chinese mothers I know in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, however, hiring someone from outside the family to look after one’s children is considered very problematic, and most refuse to do so. Why? Because they are afraid their hires will 1) Steal from them, 2) Mistreat their children if a relative is not present, and/or 3) Kidnap their children and sell them to traffickers.

    Tells you a lot about contemporary Chinese society, doesn’t it?

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China Media

Online Outrage over Gansu Female Medical Workers Required to Shave Their Heads

Heroes of the coronavirus crisis or victims of visual propaganda? A video showing female medical workers having their heads shaved has triggered controversy.

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A Chinese media post praising female nurses for having their heads shaved has sparked outrage on Weibo and WeChat. Are these women heroes of the coronavirus crisis or victims of gendered visual propaganda?

A video showing tearful female medical workers having their head shaved before going to COVID-19 epicenter city Wuhan has sparked outrage on Chinese social media.

The video, originally posted by Gansu Daily (每日甘肃网) on February 15, shows how a group of female nurses is standing in line to have their hair shaved off in preparation of their mission to Hubei to assist during the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

In the short segment that has since gone viral on Weibo and WeChat, some women can be seen crying while having all of their hair shaved off.

According to Gansu Daily and other Chinese media, the fifteen nurses, including one man, are part of a medical aid group that was sent out to Wuhan this weekend. Their hair was reportedly shaved off “in accordance with requirements” to make their work more efficient and reduce the risk of infection.

The original news post praises the women as “the epidemic’s heroes in harm’s way” (“疫情中最美的逆行者”) – a term also used to describe brave firefighters during the 2015 Tianjin explosions (for more background on this term in Chinese, also see Xinhua and Zhihu).

Although the story praises the female medical workers as heroes and was soon reposted and promoted by many other (state) media, it was not just met with positive reactions from Chinese netizens.

On the contrary: it triggered waves of criticism over the medical team’s supervisors requiring the women to shave off their hair, with many deeming the measures unnecessary, humiliating, and sexist.

“Why do they need to shave all of their hair, the men don’t even need to do that?!”, some Weibo commenters wonder.

Many Weibo users wonder how necessary it actually is for the women to go completely bold for medical work purposes, wondering why the male workers do not need to shave their heads and why the women could not just opt for a shorter hairstyle instead – suggesting the media circus surrounding the shaving of the heads is more about visual propaganda than actually being a necessity.

“I am a medical worker myself,” one Weibo user writes: “I consulted an infection control doctor [on this matter] and they said it is not necessary at all to have a bald head. Short hair is convenient enough, and hair has a protective function too to reduce [skin] irritation from the friction of wearing hats and masks. It furthermore also has a function of catching sweat, preventing it from dripping to your eyes. A shaven head does more harm than good.”

“Why do people need to bleed and cry in order for them to become heroes?”, others say: “This is just cruel.”

Adding to the online fury was a photo showing the group of medical workers after their heads were shaved, as the one male nurse in the group not only seemed to wear a better quality face mask, but also appeared to have much more hair left than the female nurses.

The original Gansu Daily post has since been deleted from social media.

On WeChat account Epoch Story (“epochstory2017″/Epoch故事小馆), author Chen Mashu (陈麻薯) posted a critique on February 17th titled “Please Stop Using Female Bodies as Propaganda Tools” (“请停止用女性的身体,作为宣传的工具“).

Recent online Chinese visual propaganda in times of the coronavirus crisis has seen a strong focus on Wuhan medical workers.

This kind of visual propaganda often highlights the idea of “sacrificing,” especially when it comes to women as pretty girls, loving mothers, or good wives.

In the WeChat article, author Chen argues that Chinese state media always uses women’s bodies as a tool for propaganda, and argues that it should not be necessary for women to endure extra hardship or suffering (in this case, sacrifice their hair) in order to make them admirable ‘model workers.’ The fact that they are fighting on the front line should be more than enough reason to praise them, Chen writes.

While these women’s tears were “used to try to impress the audience” and become an example of some “collectivist spirit,” Chen argues, this kind of propaganda backfired because the individual needs and wishes of these women were completely ignored during the process.

Although the original story and visuals may have meant to be empowering in times of coronacrisis, they are actually counterproductive to female empowerment at large.

This is not the first time the role of women in Chinese state media propaganda become a big topic of discussion online.

In 2016, a photo series titled “100.000 soldier-loving girls” (十万恋军女孩) posted by China’s Military Web during the Wuhan flood also caused controversy. In the online media campaign, Chinese state media paid a ‘tribute’ to rescue workers by sharing pictures of girls holding the message “I wish to wash your uniform for you”. It triggered online discussions on the submissive female image propagated by Chinese state media.

At time of writing, various posts about the shaved heads of the Gansu medical workers have been taken offline.

For more COVID-19 related articles, please click here.

By Manya Koetse (@manyapan) and Bobby Fung (@bobbyfungmr), with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Sex & Gender

Girls’ Charity Project Funds Boys Instead: Online Anger over ‘Spring Buds Program’

The ‘Spring Buds’ charity supposedly only focused on helping girls, but it turns out this is not the case.

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A charity fund that was supposedly dedicated to girls’ education in rural China has been found to fund the education of boys, triggering anger online.

The Chinese charity “Spring Buds Program” (春蕾计划), a project meant to advance girls’ education launched by the CCTF (China Children and Teenagers’ Fund 中国儿童少年基金) has come under fire for providing financial aid to schoolboys in China.

The “Spring Buds” project, which falls under the All-China Women’s Federation, has received the China Charity Award in the past for its efforts to promote girls’ education. The program was launched in 1989 to help girls in China’s impoverished rural areas to go to school, improve literacy rates among China’s young girls and women, and empower girls to strengthen their influence in their local communities.

This week, the charity’s focus has come under scrutiny after it became known that of the 1267 students receiving financial aid as part of one of ‘Spring Buds’ scholarship programs, there were 453 male students.

The topic triggered wider online discussions on Chinese social media on gender inequality in China.

Some commenters argued that boys, even in impoverished areas, are generally still better off than girls due to a persisting gender preference for boy children.

Weibo users also pointed out how there are multiple non-gender specific charity programs in China, and that ‘Spring Buds’ is one of the few focused on girls only – arguing that it should thus also really be assisting solely girls.

As the news about ‘Spring Buds’ coincided with this week’s launch of the Global Gender Gap Index report, some Weibo users also wondered why Chinese official media would quote this report and mention Japan’s worsening gender equality, while not mentioning anything about the status quo of gender equality in China.

The CCTF responded to the controversy via their official Weibo account on December 17th, stating that although its program was initially focused solely on girls, this year’s project funding was also allocated to impoverished male students who needed “urgent help.”

The organization further noted that they will be more transparent to charity donors in the future about how their funds are allocated.

Although the hashtag “Anger over Spring Bud Project Subsidizing School Boys” (#春蕾计划资助男生引质疑#) was used on social media by several Chinese media outlets to report the issue, the hashtag page is no longer accessible on Weibo at time of writing.

By Manya Koetse and Miranda Barnes
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Featured image photo by Ray Chan.

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©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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