In Chinese cities, the work of raising a child is a burden that most families must shoulder on their own. Since the collapse of the work unit system in the 1990s, the cost of raising a child has risen, even as public childcare resources have dried up and rapid urbanization has separated families from their extended family and social networks. The sense of community between neighbors faded, and with it, the notion that everyone bore responsibility for looking after “our” kids.
As a result, parents, especially mothers, feel increased pressure, and children are deprived of vital peer and community social interactions. For some, it can feel hopeless. How do you raise a happy, well-adjusted child in an era of “involution” and “chicken blood” parenting?
One answer lies in rebuilding a sense of community in atomized neighborhoods. While conducting fieldwork and interviews with members of a Shanghai mom group, I documented how a group of committed mothers partnered with grassroots government bodies, non-governmental organizations, and businesses to create safer, more engaging communities for their kids. In the process, they spread the burdens of childrearing across the group, allowing members to feel like they were an active presence in their kids’ lives while still having time to pursue their own careers and interests.
The group’s founder, Sun, moved to Shanghai around 12 years ago. (To protect the identities of my research participants, I have given them all pseudonyms.) Sun grew up in the East China countryside; like many Chinese of her generation, her father left the family to find higher-paying work in the city. When Sun decided to have kids of her own, she was determined to be a part of their lives. Yet she also didn’t want to give up her career and devote all her time to her children.
Sun’s dilemma is shared by many educated urban Chinese women who join or found mom groups. Some continue to work full-time after childbirth; others quit their jobs to become full-time mothers or find part-time positions. Having grown up in an era of only children and split families, they believe in the importance of being involved in their kids’ lives and want their children to have relaxed, fun childhoods. For Sun, organizing activities for local kids — in her case, an online reading group — was a way to feel engaged and socially active.
Over time, the reading circle evolved into offline meetups. Core members of the group pooled their skills, organizing classes in painting, baking, and storytelling. This attracted other mothers in the community, who were impressed by the group’s model of mutual teaching and its diverse roster of activities.
Mu, who runs the mom group’s art club, is an art teacher at a private secondary school. She told me she finds teaching art to children in her community more relaxing than her classes. She doesn’t have to worry about discipline, nor does she face pressure to fit lessons within set blocks of time. All she’s expected to do is make art with her child and the children of her neighbors. In other words, she can act like a mother, rather than a teacher.
For parents, grassroots community organizations like mom groups are more sensitive to their specific needs than school-organized or private extracurricular programs. Many working parents in Sun’s community struggle with the “3:30 p.m. dilemma” — the need to find childcare for the hours between the end of the school day and the end of the workday. To address this problem, the mom group holds evening and summer classes, with mothers taking turns to lead neighborhood children in studying, making crafts, and playing games until their parents get off work.
Contemporary Chinese society is highly atomized, but these kinds of mutual parenting arrangements, with their focus on informal play and social interactions, suggest an alternative approach to childrearing. Many members mentioned their desire for their children to grow up in a grounded, real environment, and to learn how to perform tasks within their homes and have a strong sense of community. To this end, in the summer of 2020, the mom group organized a community worker appreciation event. They divided the kids into groups; some were sent to the supermarket to buy mung beans; others went to a nearby community garden to harvest mint leaves. The moms then taught the kids how to make mung bean soup and mint tea — both of which are considered cooling in traditional Chinese medicine — which they then delivered to local security guards, cleaners, and members of the neighborhood committee.
These activities, with their focus on community building, differ from those organized by private training schools or other commercial establishments. By engaging with local businesses and community groups, they also raise local awareness of kids’ needs.
In addition to the lack of public childcare resources and sense of community, Chinese cities suffer from a severe shortage of child-friendly spaces, especially within walking distance of residential communities. To address this issue, Sun’s group has held coffee-making classes at a local Starbucks, visited a small exhibition hall in the neighborhood, and organized maintenance of the community garden. The group identified spaces suitable for children within their neighborhood and worked with the owners or caretakers of those spaces to make them more welcoming to local kids.
Perhaps the most significant impact the mom group had was on the mothers themselves. The group not only introduced women to new parenting allies, but it also empowered them to rethink how they wanted to raise their children. Membership awakened many moms to possibilities for childcare outside the boundaries of the family, alleviated the pressure of raising kids, and expanded the range of childcare resources available to them.
Yet, for all their positive effects, mutual parenting groups are not always sustainable. To start, they are often over-reliant on core members. These are the moms who possess the time and willingness to organize, teach, and fund activities. It is difficult to keep the group going if they move away, or if their needs or the needs of their children change.
Then there is the fact that, even in mutual childcare arrangements, the responsibility of childrearing is still borne primarily by women. This is true not just of mom groups, but also of their supporters among community and subdistrict governments, many of whom are also women. At most, men play a secondary role. Until China has an honest discussion about the unequal expectations placed on female parents, a sustainable childcare model will likely prove elusive.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Children draw in their mothers’ faces during a Mother’s Day activity in Yantai, Shandong province, May 8, 2022. Tang Ke/VCG)