I found out I was pregnant the day before my first surfing lesson. After staring for a time at the twin red lines on my pregnancy test, I got up and canceled the appointment, secure in the knowledge that my life would never be the same again.
My husband and I had often talked about having kids, but for every point in favor of starting a family, there always seemed to be an equally valid counterpoint. And while my husband is the consummate family man, I’ve never felt any particular inclination toward motherhood. As a feminist and an academic, I’m familiar with the challenges faced by Chinese mothers, including the so-called motherhood penalty and general problems of work-life balance. Only after interviewing almost two dozen professional women about their experiences juggling job and family responsibilities did I begin to feel more sure of my ability to handle the transition.
Branching out, I soon found an online chat group of fellow pregnant Shanghai residents scheduled to give birth in the same hospital and around the same time as me. Their conversations were a fascinating window into modern parenthood. The women in the group, who came from all walks of life, documented everything about their lives, from prenatal care and the physical and mental changes they were undergoing, to baby product recommendations, their relationships with their families, and their everyday lives. It was a first-hand introduction to a phenomenon the sociologist Sharon Hays calls “intensive mothering”: a “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive” approach to motherhood.
Far from being limited to a single chat group, intensive mothering is increasingly prevalent among China’s middle class. For example, according to an Excel spreadsheet kept by one of my friends during her pregnancy, she spent around 80,000 yuan ($11,800) on over 200 products for her unborn baby.
I was shocked by how much the conversations I had with my fellow moms-to-be revolved around consumption — and how frugality seemed to go out the window whenever their children were concerned. Some of the same women who would share tips about their favorite 100 yuan leggings insisted on spending exorbitant sums on imported baby products. At one point, the group passionately debated the relative merits of Norwegian- versus German-brand strollers. After several members eventually settled on the Norwegian brand — at a cool 11,000 yuan apiece — someone asked if there was a more cost-effective option. No one replied.
I was hardly immune to all this. Early on in my pregnancy, in an attempt to be a responsible and prepared mother, I made sure to buy parenting books for both myself and my partner. At various points, we discussed everything from flying to the United States to give birth — guaranteeing our baby a U.S. passport and access to Shanghai’s international school system — to which health insurance I should buy. Months before my scheduled delivery date, I was already trying to figure out which kindergarten and elementary school my child would attend.
Social-media discussions about this phenomenon tend to focus on the supposed “class anxiety” felt by China’s middle-class parents. Supposedly, parents are constantly pressuring themselves and their kids to excel out of fear that their own social gains and class status will not be passed on to the next generation.
I think this explanation misses the point. As a mother-to-be, I’m more concerned with providing my child with a healthy and supportive environment than with material outcomes. Having gone to an elite high school and then one of the best universities in China, I don’t necessarily want that life for my own child. I remember being frustrated with the test-centric education I received: I was always rebellious and never felt as though I fit in at school. I hope my child will have more options for getting an education that he or she will truly enjoy.
Figuring out the baby’s sex is another common topic for many expectant parents, and the women in my moms-to-be chat group frequently swap pseudoscientific tips about it. A round belly or a preference for spicy food augurs a girl, they say, while a sharp belly or a craving for sour food indicates the child will be a boy.
On the surface these old wives’ tales may seem groundless and even ridiculous, but they’re actually an outgrowth of China’s one-child policy. Concerned about the country’s traditional preference for boys, China has for decades outlawed both sex-selective abortions and the sex-screening of fetuses. Although the country instituted the two-child policy in 2016, the regulations pertaining to screening remain in place.
Mommy chat groups also serve as an important outlet for expectant mothers, where they can vent about their families and in-laws. The most frequently discussed topics in the chat group I’m a part of include how much money their mothers-in-law gave them to celebrate their pregnancies, their arguments with their in-laws, and how they intend to split child care duties with their parents and in-laws. Many soon-to-be moms take it for granted that their parents or in-laws will help take care of their kids. Some even frame it as their parents’ responsibility. “I’m not going to take care of the baby for my parents-in-law,” wrote one.
It’s doubtful these women are quite so open about such strained relationships with their in-laws or partners, and that may be part of the problem. Mommy chat groups can be valuable outlets, but I knew going in that their highly gendered nature would reinforce gender norms and domestic roles. Perhaps expectant mothers would be better off buying their partner a parenting book and trying to talk with them about these issues, rather than speaking with a group of strangers.
Parenting can be an expensive and extremely challenging undertaking, and the level of commitment required on some level renders intensive mothering unavoidable. But sometimes the level of obsession on display in mommy chat groups can be overwhelming. We shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees: Growing up with kids and watching them flourish is supposed to be fun. Ironically, a miscarriage scare early on in my pregnancy helped remind me of what really matters: As long as our baby is happy and healthy, everything else is secondary.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A mother walks with her children in Dongguan, Guangdong province, Aug. 7, 2018. An Dong/VCG)