My first job out of university was with an international development program focused on increasing access to and improving educational resources in impoverished parts of China. In that role, I worked with several outstanding women in their forties and fifties. Equally passionate about education, their jobs, and their families, they showed me that women could be successful both inside and outside the home. I saw in their experiences my own future as both a good mother and an accomplished career woman.
Then I had my first child, and it was an utter disaster. It felt like I was breastfeeding 24 hours a day while caring for a baby that never slept for more than an hour at a time. Within two months, my passion for having it all was subsumed by the needs of full-time motherhood.
Nevertheless, inspired by my colleagues, I resolved to return to work when my son was still just half a year old. Yet those six months as a full-time parent left a deep impression on me, one my own parents had a hard time understanding. For my mother’s generation, going back to work soon after giving birth was almost a matter of course. Although the concept of “housewives” reemerged in China during the early stages of the country’s reform and opening-up period in the early 1980s, the term continued to carry negative connotations well into the 21st century. Full-time motherhood was a role that most women my mother’s age had no interest in. The more I talked to mothers my own age, however, the more I realized something was shifting. Many of them weren’t just open to the idea of becoming housewives; they actively wanted to stay home after childbirth.
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It’s often assumed that attitudes toward motherhood and parenting are a product of social forces unique to each era. In the Mao period, “women hold up half the sky” was the mantra, and women were expected to shoulder equal work both inside and outside the home. The 1980s then saw the rise of a discourse on “virtuous wives and good mothers,” which re-emphasized women’s identity in the domestic sphere. But even though this added responsibility often came at the expense of women’s power in the workplace, most women who came of age in that era still considered work non-optional and saw housewifery as something shameful.
Now, however, Chinese society seems increasingly accepting of full-time, “intensive mothering” practices. More and more women, faced with the choice between work and home, are opting for the latter with pride. As before, this is often attributed to external pressure: in this case, shrinking families and growing competition for educational resources. But after spending two years from 2015 to 2017 recording the stories of three generations of mothers across 12 separate families, I’ve found myself skeptical of this narrative. Today’s mothers aren’t just responding to the shifting times or social changes. Rather, most mothers I interviewed derive their parenting styles from their own personal experiences and persist in these styles despite social and familial pressure to re-enter the workforce.
Take Qian, for instance. A young woman, she ascribed her choice to be a full-time mother to her prolonged separation from her parents growing up. “I want to pour my heart and soul into my child,” she said.
Far from being accepted by her family and the people around her, Qian’s decision to play an active role in her son’s life — controlling what he should eat and drink, or how he plays — has been a source of frequent conflict between herself and her parents, her husband, and their nannies. Her choice to quit her job has likewise caused friction, as her husband’s paycheck is not enough to support the family. Qian is fully aware of the price she has paid, both financially and personally, but she expressed no regret in our interview, as she was determined to mark herself as “a different kind of mother” from her parents.
Turning my attention to Qian’s parents, however, I found a different explanation for the long childhood separation that so scarred their daughter. The elder Qian was born in Shanghai and, as a young woman, was “sent down” to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. While there, she met her eventual husband, and the couple stayed in the countryside after the Cultural Revolution was over. After Qian was born, however, they decided to send her to live with her grandparents in Shanghai. Qian’s mother made that decision, not because she did not want to care for her daughter, but to give the girl access to better schools and a brighter future. Although social forces certainly played a role in their parenting decisions — their family story would be quite different had the Cultural Revolution not broken out — their actual choices were grounded in their personal circumstances and experiences.
Looking at parenting decisions through a more personal lens allows for greater nuance, revealing how factors like class or individual personality can shape parenting styles even within a single family. After all, parenting is never merely a reflection of the mother-child relationship; it is constantly shaped and re-shaped by a family’s traditions, relationships, and resources. And when mothers reject their parents’ decisions, what they’re actually rejecting could well be their parents’ rejection of their own parents.
This dynamic can be seen at work in the Zhao family. All three generations of Zhao women I interviewed expressed dissatisfaction with their upbringings and framed their parenting choices as an attempt to avoid replicating what they saw as their mothers’ mistakes. The oldest Zhao — in my book, I call her Great-grandma Zhao — was a heroic exemplar of Mao’s ideal woman-worker. Rising to a senior rank in China’s public security apparatus — a rarity for a woman — she sacrificed her health and almost her life for the nation. Taking part in China’s socialist construction was her highest calling, and staying home to raise a family would be a source of shame. Indeed, Great-grandma Zhao proudly asserted that, unlike her mother, she had little idea how to run a household, having devoted all her time to serving the country.
Ironically, her daughter— Grandma Zhao — took the opposite view, seeing her mother’s inability to perform housework as a sign of “petty bourgeois” sensibilities. Determined to instill a greater sense of responsibility in her own children — not just her daughter, but also her son — Grandma Zhao insisted they learn how to run a household and made them perform an endless array of chores.
The current generation of Zhao women — Mama Zhao — rebelled against her mother’s stern task mastering, just as Grandma Zhao rejected her own mother’s commitment to women’s abdication of household responsibilities. In particular, Mama Zhao resented her mother’s bad temper for ruining her childhood and repudiated her mother’s demands that she keep busy. Instead, she told me that she places great importance on maintaining a good temper and dreams of quitting her job to become a full-time mother.
Both Qian and Mama Zhao are members of China’s upper-middle class. They share an appreciation for intensive parenting and full-time motherhood. Yet, the sources of their attitudes and the ways in which they frame their roles are quite different. For Qian, her primary motivation is to be more present in her child’s life than her parents were in hers; while Mama Zhao believes that her mother was, if anything, too present.
In the process of interviewing the Zhao family, I gradually developed an appreciation for the similarities between the three generations of women. Although they never mentioned these shared traits explicitly, all three women used similar words and attitudes to describe their mothers. For example, Grandma Zhao described Great-grandma Zhao as “a tough person to mess with.” In turn, Grandma Zhao was described by her daughter as “a forceful personality.” And while Mama Zhao wanted her daughter to have a “good” temper, she also wondered whether she was raising her to be too soft. “I’m worried she’ll have a fragile ego,” she said. And despite the gradual re-embrace of home life that has taken place across the three generations, neither Grandma Zhao nor Mama Zhao could bring themselves to quit their jobs.
This hints at another benefit of looking past era-specific stereotypes when examining the role of mothers. No matter how different the Zhao women see themselves, or how their expectations and hopes have been shaped by the eras in which they grew up, they share a core thread of independence and resilience across generations.
In the course of my research, I never quite found an answer to the question of whether it is possible to foster mutual understanding between different generations of women. And while I’ve gained a greater appreciation for how our preferences are — and aren’t — passed down through generations, I still find myself chafing at my mother’s parenting tips. Yet I know now that her ideas and beliefs are part of my family’s legacy; they’ll find their way to the next generation whether I like it or not. Ultimately, my family’s legacy won’t be determined by my personal feelings, or even by the era my children grow up in, but by what they choose to do with the choices they’re given.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A girl plays with her mother at a park in Qingdao, Shandong province, Sept. 27, 2019. People Visual)