Recently, while browsing Chinese social media, I was struck by the popularity of a new buzzword: “widowed parenting.”
Contrary to what you might think, widowed parents are not those whose spouses have died. Instead, the term refers to families in which one parent bears far more responsibility for raising children than the other. In the context of China’s fast-paced, stress-inducing cities like Shanghai, the phrase “widowed parent” is much more likely to be used by exasperated, exhausted mothers, especially when referring to the lack of fatherly involvement in their children’s upbringing and education.
It is not new for Chinese popular culture to target fathers who place the burden of child care too squarely on their partners’ shoulders. A memorable sketch from state broadcaster CCTV’s 2014 Chinese New Year gala featured two actors discussing how children act around their parents. “Whenever they see their mothers, kids are always so talkative,” says one. “It’s always ‘Mom, I’m hungry!’ or ‘Mom, I’m thirsty!’ But whenever they see their dads, the only question they ask is ‘Dad, where’s Mom?’”
Traditional Chinese gender roles cast the husband’s domain as outside the home, where he was meant to work to provide for his family. Women, meanwhile, were confined to the house. As a result, the responsibility of raising children — specifically, the everyday routine of washing, dressing, and feeding them — fell disproportionately on women. Indeed, a father’s absence was often lauded, not condemned, with paternal love likened to a mountain: strong, stable, and protective. Unfortunately, for many young children deprived of such a presence, their relationships to their fathers were like mountains in other ways: unmoving, silent, cold.
Yet we now live in a time when Chinese women are reconsidering their views on family and self-fulfillment. For these women, parenthood is a task to be shared more equitably with the child’s father, and being a good dad is much more dependent on building strong family bonds than merely providing economic security. The acerbic accuracy of the phrase “widowed parenting,” then, has emerged at an opportune time for China’s newly emancipated moms.
Widowed parents call into question an interesting social phenomenon of recent years, namely that mothers are starting to manage the added burden of childhood education. This goes against the grain of traditional thinking, according to which fathers assumed responsibility for their children’s schooling despite their comparative detachment from more mundane affairs. This chimes with the Chinese saying stating that “to raise a child without educating him is the fault of the father” and harks back to a time when the male head of the household bore most of the disgrace should his family fall into ruin.
But nowadays, faced with the added tasks of ferrying children to and from school, supervising their busy schedules, and ensuring they complete all their homework assignments, so-called widowed mothers are biting back at their husbands with the question: If you don’t contribute anything, then why do I need you at all?
I’m in a chat group with several girlfriends from my college days on WeChat, China’s ubiquitous messaging app. At first, most of the messages were fairly innocuous: Some of us had recently started families, and the thread was clogged with baby pictures and lighthearted banter. As we grew older and our kids started school, however, the tone of the messages began to change.
“Every day is such a struggle for me, but my husband just goes around without a care in the world,” said one. “I got my husband to help our kid practice writing her characters from memory, but instead he just read the words out to her while playing on his phone! What kind of example is he setting?” asked another. “I want to sign my daughter up for cram class, but my husband says there’s no point. He says we never had those classes when we were young, and we still tested into college. It’s not like old times anymore!” exclaimed a third. From time to time, someone will even blurt out: “I want a divorce!”
Although the Chinese government has taken steps to ease the study burden on schoolchildren under the moniker of “happy education,” parents still feel that workloads are heavier and educational requirements are higher than before. At present, the immense stress of getting a child through school is generally shouldered much more by mothers than by fathers. Some schools even tacitly prioritize students with full-time stay-at-home moms during the enrollment period.
Why do a disproportionate number of young fathers refuse to play a leading role in their children’s education? While most of the discussion in sociological circles has focused on individual senses of parental and social responsibility, I believe that another significant cause is the fact that the Chinese education system has historically inherently favored women over men.
Over the last four decades, a catalog of statistics and personal experiences have borne out the fact that Chinese girls surpass their male classmates at both elementary and middle school levels. The discrepancy is widest among young children: Walk into practically any first-grade classroom and ask to see test results, and you will find that the top scorers are usually girls. In addition, girls normally score higher on behavioral evaluations and hold class leadership positions.
Most researchers agree that boys tend to develop more slowly in both physiological and psychological terms until they finish high school. In addition, China’s exam-oriented education system favors girls, as they are usually earlier to cultivate traditionally esteemed skills like self-discipline, meticulousness, and obedience to authority. Boys, meanwhile, are more likely to be distractible and resistant to authority. This, in turn, affects their ability to memorize the reams of material imposed on them by schools from an early age. No wonder that leading Chinese educationist Sun Yunxiao wrote in his 2010 book “Save the Boys”: “The exam-oriented system represents the single greatest threat to the development of our boys.”
Gender-based discrepancies in education also inform the attitudes taken nowadays by many parents who have experienced the system for themselves. Today’s schoolchildren face a veritable snowstorm of rote-learning standardized answers and homework assignments. Their mothers, who learned via this method long ago, are often the first to adapt to the reality of the situation — even if they doubt its efficacy. They are therefore usually the ones to manage their children’s academic affairs. Fathers, meanwhile, seem to approach their children’s schoolwork the same way they did their own homework 20 years ago: by staring blankly at the assignment, reacting passively to instructions, or contradicting directions completely.
I remember a disagreement with my own husband, who by and large is a loving, helpful dad more than willing to support our daughter’s education. But once, when I asked him to take our daughter to a half-day parent-child reading class, he took on the look of a man way out of his depth. “It’s just too much. I simply can’t go!” he jabbered, despite the fact that he had to do little more than flip through a few pages and sit tight for a few hours. In the end, I arranged everything myself.
Widowed parenting is ample evidence, if any more were necessary, that China’s education system has failed to keep up with social progress. Today’s urban women do not want to spend an undue amount of time micromanaging their children’s school lives. While fathers, admittedly, must help their kids fulfill their educational aspirations, only by taking the sting out of exam-oriented learning and recognizing our boys’ natural developmental tendencies will we truly get to the heart of the problem.
(Header image: A 6-year-old girl does her homework at a fruit stand while her mother looks on, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, June 4, 2013. Wang Le/VCG)