Child rearing in family planning-era China is an intergenerational project, one that involves not just parents, but often one or both sets of grandparents as well. Despite the size of these child care support networks, however, many well-off urbanites have started bringing in professional help.
With most families limited to one — or since 2016, two — children, parents and grandparents are willing and able to invest heavily in their family’s future. In well-off families, this can take the form of extracurricular tutoring, expensive real estate in top school districts, or extra help from a nanny.
Unlike their counterparts in many Western countries, however, Chinese nannies are not meant to function as substitutes for maternal care or work solely when there’s no one home to look after the children. Instead, families see them as a supplement, a way to pay for skills or abilities that available family caregivers lack, while also acquiring a buffer between parents and grandparents.
To better understand how members of China’s urban upper-middle class perceive nannies and their role in early childhood care, as well as parents’ child-rearing ideals, our team interviewed couples in the eastern city of Nanjing who were employing nannies to care for their 14-month-old children.
We found that families hire nannies to work as part of a caregiving team, one capable of providing children around-the-clock concentrated, quality care. One 26-year-old mother, who was working a full-time job as a real estate manager, told us that her mother and nanny rotated shifts to ensure her daughter was watched day and night. A 44-year-old father we interviewed explained that his family hired a nanny to prepare balanced meals and clean the house, freeing the child’s grandmother to watch the child.
Many parents we spoke with chose nannies with a distinctive set of qualities that they thought were lacking in the child’s mother or grandmothers. New mothers without the benefits of extended family assistance preferred to hire nannies that were more experienced, for example.
Yet parents’ expectations of nannies often went beyond child care. They wanted employees who could not only guarantee their toddlers’ health and safety, but also help them acquire social skills.
In cases with active child-rearing grandparents, our interview participants tended to prefer young and energetic nannies. Every such family we interviewed expected their nannies to take their children outside to play with other children — a task they assumed the grandparents would be either ill-suited to do or physically incapable of performing.
A 26-year-old mother told us she worried that her daughters’ grandmothers would spoil the girl — which would hamper her socialization — and that they might not be up to the physical burdens of child care.
“I want her (my daughter) to have enough outdoor time, to be around other children her age. Only then will she learn the rules of give-and-take and how to share,” the mom said. “It’s mainly the nanny who takes her out, supporting her if she runs and holding her if she’s tired. Because my daughter is quite heavy, a person as old as her grandmother would not be able to hold her for a long time.”
These stereotypes hint at another important role performed by Chinese nannies: intermediaries and buffers between parents and grandparents. Some families hire nannies as a strategy to avoid intergenerational conflicts. Many of the mothers we interviewed perceived such clashes as inevitable, the result of their hidebound parents and in-laws being unable to accept what the mothers deem “modern” and “scientific” child-rearing methods.
“The older generation’s way of thinking and ours are completely different,” one 29-year-old full-time mother told us. “His grandmother (my mother-in-law) would put food in her mouth, chew it, and then feed it to the child. This is extremely improper and unsanitary.”
Another full-time mother echoed this concern. “I am not ready to deal, and have not yet acquired the skill set to deal with, my relationship with my mother-in-law,” she said. “But now, the addition of a child would likely cause more conflicts between us if we were taking care of it together. That’s why I wanted to hire a nanny from the very beginning, even before my child was born.”
Dependence on grandparents for child care, along with traditional hierarchies that privilege elders and the husband’s family, compromise mothers’ bargaining power as they attempt to implement what they see as “modern” child-rearing practices. By hiring a nanny, they can partially replace this system with an employer-employee hierarchy that implicitly works in their favor.
While nannies watch over the grandparents, grandparents also keep an eye on the hired help. As the nonfamilial caregiver in the equation, nannies are not fully trusted by many parents. Several interview subjects listed this as one advantage of having a grandparent-nanny team, rather than relying on a nanny alone.
The way Chinese families use nannies is indicative of a widespread preference for multiple caregivers over the singular — usually maternal — caregiver model found in many Western households. To those who can afford them, nannies play an important role: helping families realize their intensive, “scientific” child care ideal by securing their children’s health and wellness while promoting their social development.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A mother looks on as her nanny holds her son, in Hefei, Anhui province, March 2, 2019. IC)