Among the middle-class families that participated in this study, the pattern of yan mu ci zu (grandparents feed, mothers teach) has emerged regarding the division of labor in the intergenerational parenting coalition. Specifically, mothers become the manager, taking full charge of all childrearing affairs and assume the responsibilities of sociocultural reproduction. Grandparents become helpers and engage in biophysical care but lack authority in childrearing and family affairs. Fathers concentrate on earning the financial resources to facilitate their children’s development but are largely absent from their children’s everyday life. However, they do participate in decision-making via their connection with the mothers. Therefore, yan mu ci zu not only reflects the principle of labor division in childrearing but also illuminates the power relations between different family members in the parenting coalition. However, young mothers do not have the institutionalized symbolic and moral resources to ensure their leading role and authority in childcare-related affairs. There is much room for negotiation between family members, who strategize to change or maintain the particular pattern of power relations in the family. In this sense, the power relations in the intergenerational parenting coalition are flexible and diversified. The case of Meimei’s family below presents an excellent example.
The intergenerational collaboration in childrearing in Meimei’s family
Meimei was a 4-year-old girl. Since her birth, her grandparents from both sides rotated to help care for her. Meimei’s maternal grandmother first came to help until she was 8 months of age, and then her paternal grandparents took over. After Meimei went to kindergarten at the age of two and a half, her maternal grandparents returned since the paternal grandparents were no longer able to provide childcare due to health conditions. Since they had another daughter who also needed childcare help the old couple had to separate, with each one staying with one daughter’s family and then rotating on a regular basis. They made it clear to their daughters that if they were needed, they would be happy to come, but if not, they would not insist.
At the time of the research, the grandfather was living with Meimei’s family. Every morning, he was the first one to get up. He prepared breakfast for the family and then took Meimei to kindergarten at 8:00 a.m. He then did the grocery shopping, cleaned the apartment, and washed the clothes. At noon, he fixed himself a quick lunch, took a nap, and then started preparing dinner and snacks for Meimei. At about 5:00 p.m. he picked up Meimei from kindergarten. When they got home, he watched her while she was playing and cooked dinner at the same time. On most days, the grandfather would wait for everyone to return home for the family dinner. However, sometimes he and Meimei ate alone because his daughter and son-in-law were home very late. After dinner, if his daughter was home, he would go out for a walk; if not, he would skip the daily exercise.
With the help of the grandparents, Meimei’s mother, Yang, earned her PhD and completed a 2-year postdoc appointment. She then took a teaching position in a small private college although she had other job offers. The couple made this decision collectively after deliberate discussion. Working in a small college did not earn much salary, but it allowed Yang to take care of the family because of its flexible schedule, two 1-month breaks and relatively low demands for research and publications compared to research universities. Yang read extensively on topics related to childrearing, such as Parenting Encyclopedia, A Good Mother Is More Important than a Good Teacher, Capturing Children’s Sensitive Periods, and Effective Parent Training. She also followed childrearing information and discussions on online forums and attended lectures given by education professionals. She stated that she was not very concerned about practical things such as her daughter’s future career; her principle was “learning how to be a good person is the top priority and other things such as learning knowledge comes later.”
At preschool age, Yang focused on nurturing Meimei’s emotional stability and cultivating her communication skills. For instance, when Meimei was fussy and began crying and screaming, Yang would neither cajole nor scold her; instead, she would hold her gently and reason with her when Meimei calmed down. Sometimes Meimei was fussy for quite a while, and Yang had to try very hard to stay patient. When Yang was disciplining Meimei, the grandparents normally kept silent and left them alone. However, Yang’s mother was short-tempered and would “help” discipline the child in ways that Yang did not agree with, such as using mandatory language or intimidating the child. Yang could not help complaining and often asked her to leave.
Most days, Yang got home before 6:00 p.m. and had dinner with Meimei. After that, the mother and daughter played games, sang songs, drew pictures, read books, or visited neighborhoods together. At 9:00 p.m., Yang helped Meimei get ready for bed by brushed her teeth, washed her face, and reading bedtime stories. After Meimei’s first birthday, Yang began to arrange outdoor activities for the family on weekends. The parents took Meimei to parks, museums, swimming pools, organic farms, and so on. The grandparent(s) sometimes joined them for weekend activities as well. Yang had to make considerable efforts to arrange these outings, checking the venue, getting directions, checking the weather and other details in advance, and informing the father about the arrangements.
Yang was concerned about finding a good kindergarten for her daughter from the time Meimei was born. Over the past few years, she had sought out information from Web sites and online forums, as well as from neighbors and friends. When Meimei was about 2 years old, Yang began contacting kindergartens that she was interested in. In 1 year, she became well informed about all the kindergartens in a 5-mi radius of their residence, attended more than ten related presentations organized by the kindergartens, and visited six kindergartens in person. Her top choice was a private school because the principal’s ideas on education resonated with her. She took her husband to the campus visit, and both were quite satisfied with the facilities and the teachers. However, the high expense of 3600 yuan (≈US $549) per month made her hesitate.Footnote 3 Her husband helped her decide by saying, “You won’t be able to get a good education by choosing a cheap one.”
When Meimei tuned 2 years old, Yang signed her up for art, dance, and English classes. Meimei liked to paint, so Yang sent her to a painting class recommended by other mothers. Meimei attended dance classes because Yang liked dancing and found that Meimei had a good sense of rhythm. Yang also sent Meimei to English classes because most of her neighbors’ and friends’ children of Meimei’s age were learning English. Meimei’s father was also enthusiastic about his daughter learning English at an early age, but it was Yang who called English training centers for information and audited three different classes with Meimei. Yang did not expect her daughter to be an artist or a dancer in the future; rather, these classes made good use of her daughter’s time by learning useful skills and cultivating good taste. The total cost of these art and language classes as well as kindergarten added up to over 6000 yuan (≈US $915) per month, which exceeded Yang’s salary.
Fortunately, Meimei’s father made a good salary. After working for consulting companies for over 10 years, he earned more than 200,000 yuan (≈US $30,492) annually, which he attributed to his hard work, including regularly working overtime and taking business trips. During Meimei’s first year of life, he was working on a project in another city and only came back home about every 2 weeks. Yang commented, “At that time, I could not count on him [to take care of the baby]. He had changed the diaper only once or twice and recorded it because he thought it was interesting. But if I asked him to do it [change the diaper] every day, no way!” Meimei’s father later began to resent the fact that his job kept him away from home and found a new job that enabled him to work in Beijing for most of the time, taking only one or two short business trips each month. Although he was able to come back home every day, the father still had little time to spend with Meimei. On the few days that he finished work early, he arrived home at around 8:00 p.m. He would play with Meimei after dinner, doing somersaults or putting her on his neck. “They are just like friends,” Yang commented. The father and the daughter had about half an hour of fun before it was time for Meimei to go to sleep. However, for most of the nights, Meimei was already asleep when her father got home.
Although Yang had some complaints, she was generally satisfied with her husband for being the primary breadwinner of the family and making an effort to be a good father. He did not have much face-to-face interaction with Meimei, but his wife kept him informed about the child, and he would regularly talk to Meimei over the phone when he was away on business trips. When it came to important decisions such as choosing a kindergarten or leisure activities, the father would be involved, sharing his thoughts, providing suggestions, and even making the final decision when the mother was hesitating. In the past year, under the influence of the mother, the father had improved: he tried not to work on weekends and would join the family for outdoor activities or take Meimei to different classes. He even spent several weekends joining other parents to prepare a show that would be performed for all the children in the kindergarten on International Children’s Day.
The division of labor in childrearing
Meimei’s case reveals the common rules of the intergenerational division of labor in childrearing among most of the families in this study. As the managers of the childrearing project, young mothers engage in three main responsibilities.
First, differing from the traditional maternal role that concentrated on caretaking, the primary responsibility of the mother involves making plans and decisions for her child’s development, from selecting educational organizations to arranging daily activities. These decisions include choosing a kindergarten, early childhood education programs, and leisure activities; making arrangements for weekends and holidays; and shopping for food, clothes, and toys that are age appropriate for her child. To make better decisions, mothers have to invest enormous time and effort in collecting and analyzing relevant information, surfing the Internet, reading books, talking with other mothers, and consulting experts, as well as taking field trips.
The second role is educating and training the child, which includes two main parts. To better the intellectual development of the child, mothers engage in various activities such as reading to the child, assessing and cultivating the child’s talents, and developing and maintaining relationships with kindergartens and training centers. Furthermore, mothers are also concerned about building good character and habits in their children. Modern childrearing ideas emphasize self-discipline, emotional management, communication skills, and adaptive habits. Training for these characteristics is integrated into the process of daily caretaking. To achieve these goals, mothers not only discipline the child, setting rules and regulating the child’s behavior, but also monitor others who take part in childcare.
The third responsibility is taking care of the child’s daily life. The extent to which mothers are personally caring for the physical needs of the child varies from one family to another and is related to the intensity of the mother’s paid work, health condition of co-caretakers (grandparents in particular), and, most importantly, the mother’s perceptions of whether certain interactions are important to the child’s development. Like Yang, most mothers interviewed bathed their child and put them to bed themselves because they believed these were key activities in building intimate bonds between the mother and the child.
Grandparents are responsible for taking physical care of the child and performing the household chores, such as doing grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning the house, washing the clothes, taking the grandchildren to school, and bringing them back home. In some families, grandparents have extra tasks such as preparing special children’s meals and feeding them, giving them a bath, and putting them to sleep. For instance, before Yangyang turned three, his mother took business trips on a regular basis. Yangyang was thus cared for mainly by his maternal grandmother. Three-year-old Yuanyuan was allowed to choose to co-sleep with her grandparents or her parents each night; whoever Yuanyuan co-slept with was responsible for getting her cleaned up before going to bed and dressed when getting up.
Grandparents also serve as the safety nets in childrearing. The division of labor between the mother and the grandparents is usually defined but not strictly enforced. Most of the time, to accommodate the mother’s schedule, grandparents willingly undertake more tasks than were originally “assigned” to them to ensure that the grandchild is well cared for. For instance, in Meimei’s family, it was usually the mother who played with the child after dinner; however, if the mother got home late, the grandparents would automatically “work” overtime to take care of the child.
Departing from the traditional image of an authoritative figure in the family, the fathers in this study had shifted from rule enforcers to playmates with their children, spending quality time and having fun. Being a playmate indicates an important feature of the “new fathers,” a paternal ideal that has emerged in recent years. Unlike authoritative father figures, “new fathers” are more involved in childrearing and engage in face-to-face interactions and emotional communication with their children (Wang 2014; Lamb 2000). However, among the interviewed families, fathers had limited time to spend with their children. On workdays, only two of the 13 fathers spent more than an hour with their children; the father-child quality time took place mainly on weekends or holidays. Not all fathers were like Meimei’s father who reserved his weekends for the family; quite a few of them gave priority to their work and joined other family members on weekend activities only when they did not have to work overtime.
In addition to being playmates, fathers also act as backup or supplementary helpers in times of emergency. For example, fathers would attend parent-teacher meetings when mothers were unavailable, take a sick child to the hospital, or discipline the children for difficult issues (usually upon mothers’ persistent requests). These situations only occurred occasionally, in contrast to the everyday routine duties of childcare and discipline performed by mothers and grandparents. When it comes to important decisions regarding children’s education, such as choosing a kindergarten or talent-cultivating program, many fathers get involved by offering their thoughts. That said, mothers discuss the situation with fathers and solicit the father’s opinion. If they disagree with one another, however, it is usually the mother who has the final say.Footnote 4
Largely absent from providing daily care for their children, the father’s main responsibility is to provide financial resources for the expensive child development plans that mothers make. Most of the families that participated in this study were dual wage-earners; both parents worked and made significant financial contributions to the family. However, many families tend to follow the traditional conceptions of gender division of labor in the family in which the man serves as the primary breadwinner. Driven by the high cost of modern childrearing, the role of the father is highlighted by their financial provision for children’s development, which to some extent rationalizes their absence from children’s daily life.Footnote 5
Intergenerational power relations
The case of Meimei’s family also illuminates a particular power relation between the parents and grandparents in the intergenerational parenting coalition, i.e., young mothers dominate while the grandparents are marginalized in decision-making and handling of matters related to childrearing. As the manager of the childrearing project, young mothers are in charge of decision-making, from those related to children’s formal education to the arrangements of the child’s daily life. In addition, mothers enjoy more discursive power. On matters such as providing proper care and training and cultivating the child’s talents, the mother’s opinion shapes how things should be perceived and handled, which is largely attributed to their active learning of popular methods of scientific parenting. As a result, young mothers assume the role of supervising other family members and intervene when the latter handle the child in an inappropriate way. For instance, as illustrated in Meimei’s family, Yang asked her own mother to stay away when the latter was trying to help discipline the child. In other families, it was not unusual for mothers to monitor the behavior of other family members. In Daodao’s family, the mother made a no smoking rule at home for the sake of the child’s health. If the father wanted to smoke, he had to go outside. Two-year-old Jingjing insisted on someone holding him and rocking him to sleep. His mother believed this was a bad habit and felt she had to correct the grandmother who kept doing this. The child cried and screamed for hours when the mother was training him to lie down and go to sleep by himself. Out of sympathy, the grandmother interceded, but the mother criticized her, saying, “Letting him be [without proper training] is to spoil the child.”
Fathers partially participate in decision-making, especially concerning important matters of the child’s development. However, unlike the traditional authoritative paternal role, in the interviewed families, fathers were more of a participant and counselor in the process rather than the primary decision-maker. Fathers have the right to be informed and share their opinion. However, their opinions matter only if they successfully make an impact on their wives’ thoughts and/or feelings. For instance, Meimei was sent to a weekend English class partly because her mother was aware of and took into consideration her husband’s strong wish that their daughter master English at an early age. A few fathers who actively learn about scientific methods of childrearing, such as Xinxin’s father, have more say in the decision-making and are more influential on how the child is raised.
In contrast to young mothers, grandparents generally lack power and voice in the decision-making and discussions on childrearing issues. Most of the time, grandparents do not participate in decisions related to their grandchildren’s formal education. In Meimei’s family, for instance, the mother never consulted with the grandparents while selecting a kindergarten or talent-cultivating programs. In her view, the grandparents were neither interested in nor knowledgeable about these issues. In other families, grandparents may express their opinions, but they are rarely considered. For instance, Grandma Liu objected to her daughter’s idea of sending her granddaughter to talent-cultivating classes because she believed they were too expensive and not worthwhile. Her daughter offered a few reasons, and although she was not convinced, Grandma Liu stopped arguing.
Grandparents normally take full charge of the household chores that they perform, such as choosing what to cook for the family meals. In order to ensure that everyone eats well, many grandparents will attentively solicit suggestions from other family members. Zhizhi’s grandma usually asked her daughter and son-in-law what they wanted to eat the next day. She found it easier if they gave a clear answer.
However, providing proper care for the grandchildren is likely to lead to disagreements between the parents and grandparents. The “old” experiences of the grandparents are different from “new” methods supported by the young mothers. Taking clothing as an example, grandparents often worry that the child is not wearing enough while mothers believe wearing too much is a bigger problem. Young mothers are more likely to win these arguments since they are supported by scientific evidence. Some grandparents gradually learn to ask for opinions from the parents when they take care of the grandchildren. For example, Grandma Luo was thinking of putting fewer clothes on her granddaughter because it was getting warmer. She nevertheless first checked with her daughter, “Should I change to another coat for the child? If you think it’s fine, I will do that; if you believe it is still cold I will not.”
If the grandparents are able to prove their old experiences are more effective than new methods, they tend to obtain more authority and autonomy in taking care of the grandchildren. For instance, Xuanxuan’s paternal grandma had some training in traditional Chinese medicine. When Xuanxuan got a fever, she used indigenous methods, i.e., using a mixture of white spirit, spring onion, and Chinese medicines to wipe Xuanxuan’s skin that helped bring down the fever. Xuanxuan’s mother was initially suspicious; however, the grandmother’s method worked well and was more effective and economical than taking the child to the hospital. Xuanxuan’s grandmother was later given full charge of Xuanxuan’s care when he got a fever again. However, in general, grandparents have few opportunities to prove themselves since most of these childcare arrangements do not entail quick results.
A sociocultural explanation of the intergenerational power relations in childrearing
The pattern of yan mu ci zu in the division of labor and power relations in the intergenerational parenting coalition can be attributed to sociocultural factors such as changing popular ideas of childrearing, intergenerational social mobility, and the transformation of the family structure. The emergence of modern scientific methods of childrearing, the development of the education industry, and the increasing cost of childrearing all led to a revolution in the ways families raise their children. The old experiences of the grandparents may not fit well in the new conditions of child development in contemporary times and thus become useless at the operational level. In addition, popular discourses of scientific parenting, often drawing on various and sometimes divergent theories of child development and parent skills, foreground its departure from and advantage over the traditional ways of childcare, which further devalued the grandparents’ experiences in childrearing at the symbolic level. Among the interviewed families, young parents often perceived the grandparents’ understanding of raising a child as outdated, defective, or even misleading, as illustrated by a quote from Xinxin’s mother,
When we were little children, our parents did not know much about parenting. After the family ate together, adults went about their own business and we simply played on our own. There was no such concept as family education. My family was living in the countryside then and my parents did not have much education. … Nowadays things are different, and their old experiences from a long time ago are not useful any more.
Some grandparents admitted that they were “out of date.” Grandma Wang, for example, dressed and prepared food for her grandson, but it was her daughter-in-law who decided what the child should wear and eat. Grandma Wang explained, “This [arrangement] is good, because it won’t bring conflicts [between me and my daughter-in-law]. Everything is better and modernized now. We are outdated, and cannot keep up with the new things. We need to take things easy, otherwise it does no good.”
The fact that older people lose their authority in how to raise the grandchildren illuminates the features of what Margaret Mead calls the “prefigurative culture” era. Furthermore, intergenerational social and spatial mobility inverted the relational position of the old people and their adult children in the family. Among the interviewed middle-class families, most of the young parents had achieved upward social mobility through education. Compared with their parents, they were better educated, had more income and higher social status, and were thus regarded as more knowledgeable and capable. They also had more financial, social, and cultural resources that enabled them to make better arrangements for their children. All these gave them more authority and power in childrearing. Among the families investigated, there was only one family in which the parents did not achieve upward mobility compared to the grandparents. The grandfather was a retired high-ranking military officer who received a high pension, and his son and daughter-in-law were university professors. However, the former division commander moved to Beijing in order to take care of his grandson, and the rich social and cultural resources he enjoyed in his hometown were largely compromised because of the move.
In terms of family structure, most grandparents in the 13 families left their own homes and moved into their children’s homes in order to take better care of their grandchildren.Footnote 6 The newly formed intergenerational family is an extension of the nuclear family of the young parents. The distinction between the parents as the masters and the grandparents as guests/helpers is clear. The fact that young mothers are positioned at the power center of the intergenerational parenting coalition is attributed to two factors associated with family dynamics. The young mother serves as the mistress of the family and assumes responsibility for all domestic affairs. In addition, handling the important affairs in child development renders them the de facto power and authority in making decisions and arrangements for their children.Footnote 7