Today’s mothers grew up during the peak years of China’s economic expansion. Those who were raised in urban areas generally received a decent public education and graduated into a strong, if highly competitive job market. Unsurprisingly, they tend to derive their self-esteem and sense of self-worth, not just from their roles as women or mothers, but from being professionals who take an active part in society, whether through work or other social activities.
Once they give birth, however, these women face an intractable dilemma: On the one hand, Chinese society expects women to conform to a strict, highly intensive mode of parenting; on the other, residual stigmas from the socialist era mean committing to full-time motherhood is looked down upon as a lesser choice. Most Chinese simply don’t view being a housewife as a full-time job.
This deprives mothers of the self-worth they derived from being active, valued members of society. Unable to turn to the state for support, growing numbers of women are seeking refuge with their peers, through “mom groups” dedicated to providing mutual support for working and full-time moms alike.
Although these mom groups often start off as networks for sharing childrearing and educational resources useful in their role as mothers, many of the women I interviewed during my fieldwork found the groups had another benefit: building ties of solidarity between women. In the process, members rediscover the sense of self-worth that comes with active social participation. Some even feel emboldened to defy the vision of motherhood imposed on them by Chinese social norms.
As part of my fieldwork, I spent two years observing a volunteer group led by full-time mothers in the southwestern city of Chengdu. Like many of China’s emerging mom groups, it began as a kind of mutual aid. China’s lack of public childcare resources forces caregivers — in most families, that means women — to shoulder the bulk of childrearing costs. Sharing those burdens with other mothers in similar positions, most often from the same neighborhood, is an increasingly popular solution to this problem.
In addition to the typical educational and daycare activities, however, I noticed that a few of the group’s more active members had created a “Women’s Salon” event at a local community center. Every Wednesday, mothers in the group could gather to watch movies, read books, play board games, and hold discussions regarding subjects of mutual interest — whether women’s health, art, or professional development — in the interests of enriching their lives and bolstering their personal growth, not as mothers, but as women.
In keeping with this theme, the salon’s membership is not limited to mothers. The group has invited unmarried women to join the event, like a kindergarten teacher, an environmental activist, and a young woman who helps them design and promote the group’s charity work.
When Chinese women leave the workforce to take care of their families, they are often severed from their connections with women on different life tracks. But events like the Wednesday Salon offer an opportunity, not only to meet and share experiences with other mothers their own age, but also network with and draw inspiration from women on other paths.
These networks provide mothers and other women with an atmosphere of support and encouragement from their peers and can help women find the motivation to pursue their personal and professional development on their own terms. For instance, after her children were old enough to attend school and no longer needed round-the-clock care, one of my research participants, surnamed Yang, passed the entrance exam for a master’s degree in social work. With the guidance of a professional mentor, she and other like-minded mothers developed a series of public welfare events called the “New Mothers’ Camp.” More recently, she has organized online workshops to dispel new moms’ pre- and post-natal anxieties related to the pandemic. “The growth and experience I’ve accumulated in recent years have led me to undergo a transformation from ‘helped’ to ‘helper,’” Yang told me.
The mutual support and encouragement found in mom groups have even led some mothers to a deeper awareness of just how important — and overlooked — mothers are in contemporary society. Rather than accept the status quo, they have begun pushing for greater recognition for their role from society and public institutions.
During World Breastfeeding Week, for example, mothers in Chengdu have taken an increasingly active part in a public initiative called “The Big Latch On.” The event is designed to raise awareness of the needs of breastfeeding persons and fight stigmas related to breastfeeding in public. In Chengdu, women take part in a “breastfeeding flash mob,” gathering in residential communities, hospitals, shopping malls, and parks to publicly breastfeed for one minute.
Although it may seem minor, the event builds awareness of the issues that women face during their lactation periods, as well as for the need for more family-friendly public spaces. It is also an example of the kind of event that builds solidarity between women and families, even in the face of opposition from the venues where the demonstrations take place.
Not all events organized or featuring participation from mom groups are so contentious. Members take part in all kinds of community events, from supporting parents of autistic children to visiting the elderly. During the pandemic, many members volunteered as building captains or in other capacities during lockdowns.
Contemporary China is a highly competitive society, guided by neoliberal market principles, that imposes increasingly stringent demands on mothers without providing them the social support they need to succeed. Mom groups are not a perfect solution to this problem, not least because their members are generally already privileged. But they represent a new network of mutual childrearing and personal development that is visible proof of how housewives produce value in ways distinct from industrial labour. Technology may well resolve some of the challenges of material production in the future, but support networks, mutual exchanges, and emotional bonds will always be the foundation upon which human society depends. Without mutual support and cooperation in daily life — whether at home, in the neighborhood, or at work — this foundation will surely crumble.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.