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    The Ups and Downs of ‘Intensive Motherhood’ in Shanghai

    Extreme parenting is increasingly the norm for the city’s anxious, status-conscious middle class.

    Early last year, when I was still pregnant, I wrote: “As long as our baby is happy and healthy, everything else is secondary.” Of course, interpretations of what constitutes “happy and healthy” differ.

    In China, most parents continue working after they have kids. Because public kindergartens only enroll children over 3 years old, infants and toddlers are usually taken care of by their grandparents. My in-laws live far away, however, and given the likelihood of conflict between my mother and I were we to live together, “grandparenting” is not an option for us. That doesn’t bother me: At least one study has shown that more time spent in day care after 18 months of age is associated with higher cognitive outcomes, and I tend to think it’d be better for our baby if she could socialize with other children, anyway.

    But that means finding a nursery. Scrolling through Qian Fan, a child education forum for Shanghai parents with a reputation for being a bit extreme in their approach to childrearing, I realized that some of the most popular kindergartens in the city give priority to applicants who first attend so-called adult-accompanied infant courses at the school.

    Originally a form of early childhood education that grew out of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, these courses first appeared in China in the late 1990s. Today, dedicated early childhood education centers can be found in major cities across the country, some of them independent, others affiliated with public or private kindergartens and nurseries. Unlike in the West, however, where early child learning programs typically focus on encouraging children to play independently under the guidance of teachers, their Chinese counterparts often require parents to participate, ostensibly in the hopes of cultivating a healthy parent-child relationship.

    One kindergarten I looked into informed me that at least one family member must attend a six-month infant education program to even have a chance to interview for a place at the school. Even then, there was no guarantee of enrollment. The hour-and-a-half course met three days a week, and cost about 40,000 yuan ($5,600) total, or a little less than seven months of salary for the average Shanghai resident.

    My husband and I both have full-time jobs, so that was out of the question. Instead we applied for the adult-accompanied program at another top kindergarten in the city. Talking with other applicant-parents, I learned that, rather than post details for how to apply for an interview online, the kindergarten usually posted them outside the school gate — and only for three days shortly after the Lunar New Year vacation.

    In previous years, some parents would check the gate every day for fear of missing the announcement. According to a post on Qian Fan, in 2017, a parent tore the notice off the wall an hour after it was posted, hoping other parents would miss their chance to sign up. It’s a process that has a way of spotlighting the selfishness and fiercely competitive side of parents desperate to get their children a good education, reaffirm their own social status, and pass that status onto the next generation.

    Since there are far more applicants than spaces, the admissions process is competitive. It prioritizes families with members who’ve won international or national awards or who’ve made significant, officially recognized contributions to the city of Shanghai — even as it declines to disclose how these achievements are weighted. The application form also asks parents to write down their “family educational philosophy” and list the occupations and educational levels of the child’s grandparents, as well as any awards they may have won, just for good measure.

    All this stressed out my husband and me. We are not sure if our baby — or we, for that matter — would be comfortable socializing with Shanghai’s haut monde. But there was no point dropping out before the admission interview.

    Not everyone had the same concerns. “K” is one of the parents I got to know during the applications process. Despite living 15 kilometers from the kindergarten, he was willing to make the drive multiple times a week just so his kid could attend its adult-accompanied infant education program. For their admission interview, he and his wife brought a large suitcase packed full of award certificates. The teachers were visibly shocked. The couple had applied to adult-accompanied programs organized by two different kindergartens and planned to attend both if their child was admitted. Four days a week was a major time commitment, and the fees steep. But Shanghai has no shortage of rich and anxious parents.

    More than 20 years ago, sociologist Sharon Hays termed this type of “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive” parenting “intensive.” Wednesday Martin documented it in her controversial 2015 anthropological study of Manhattan motherhood, and earlier this year, London School of Economics scholar Meng Bingchun found that compared with their working-class counterparts, Shanghai’s middle-class mothers are more anxious, even neurotic. She posited this anxiety is related to a fear of downward social mobility and the loss of what mothers imagined as “the good life.”

    When I shared my worries about schooling with another mother in my community, she told me that she herself had been anxious about where to send her son for elementary school. After mulling it over for some time, she gave up on private school and instead chose to send him to the nearest public school. She is critical of narrow definitions of success that equate it with going to an elite school and having a decent job, and wants to tailor his education according to his personality and potential. Yet even she still spends excessive mental work on parenting.

    Private school or public school, sending your kid abroad for college or having them dare the gaokao college entrance exam — middle-class Chinese parents have more choices than ever when it comes to educating their kids. But more choices can lead to more anxiety. Parents increasingly believe they need to plan their children’s lives from birth, while children find every choice already made for them. And ultimately, so many of the decisions we make are really just about reproducing the existing social structure.

    The kindergarten still hasn’t informed us when it will release its admissions results, but my husband and I have already agreed we’ll take turns going with our daughter if she gets in. Sometimes it feels hypocritical to be so negative about the educational system when I’m up to my neck in it. But in this anxious city, full of uncertainties, I feel the same pressure as everyone else to drift with the tide. I just hope looking out for the health and happiness of my daughter won’t come at too great a cost to my own.

    Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: A mother holds her daughter during a poetry reading in Binzhou, Shandong province, May 11, 2020. Fu Kun/People Visual)