Thursday, February 28th, 2013
How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband
By Ember Swift
My Chinese mother-in-law replaced my husbandlink words
I sat around a table of couples in my husband’s hometown this spring, all his former classmates and their wives. Each pair had children and shared lots of stories of life with a baby. Our daughter was only five months old at the time. We were just beginning the journey.
What makes our journey unique, however, is our negotiation of roles between Chinese father and Canadian mother, and specifically surrounding gender equity. Gender equity is a hard issue to work out in China generally, but now with a baby, any hope I had for balance is skewed, yet again, by the full-time presence of my mother-in-law as our caregiver. Now we are two women and one man, one with Western ideas (me) and two Chinese people who think I’m extreme. It’s been a wobbly triangle.
When my daughter was born, my mother-in-law left her hometown and moved to Beijing, separated from her husband for the first time in their 35-year marriage. She left behind a prominent career as well as her aged father (my husband’s grandfather) for whom she was the primary caregiver for the past decade. A new generation is that important. Her role is clear. She has to be here.
At first, I was really uncomfortable with this level of sacrifice. The cooking, the cleaning and the childcare were all amazing bonuses that I don’t dare complain about, especially when I see friends back in Canada struggle with daycare or juggling working hours with only occasional help from family, but the hours she put in! The complete devotion to the task of helping us manage our household seemed extreme. At times, this level of generosity made me look over my shoulder waiting for the other shoe to drop. When would I be presented with a bill? How could I ever repay this kindness? Was I being grateful enough? What was the catch?
In that state of paranoia, my husband and I began a phase of fighting about why he wasn’t taking on half of the childcare duties. In my Western eyes, he was falling short of my expectations and wasn’t honouring his role as a father. I was incensed at his laziness when it came to washing diapers, for example, or his prioritizing work-related time away from home rather than coming home to be with his daughter. Or, worse, his apparent expectation that while his mother was in our apartment, she would just wash up every dish he used.
When I would push him to do more for the baby and as a parent, his answer was most commonly: “Get my mother to help you!” To which I’d respond, “She’s not here to help just me; she’s here to help us! Managing this family is your job too!” Our fights seemed to get us nowhere, however. We were clearly two people looking at the same painted wall and each declaring it different colours.
My mother-in-law took me aside one day when he was not at home. Having witnessed yet another argument between us that morning, she expressed to me that “perhaps I didn’t understand this aspect of Chinese culture.” Her role here, she explained, was to replace her son in the equation—to lighten his burden, allowing him to maintain his former life rhythms, while helping me out with parenting and household management.
I felt myself teetering backwards. I am expected to be a mother and caregiver but he is relieved of his fatherly duties by his mother? Why does he get out of the daily tasks of changing her diapers, preparing our daughter’s food, rocking her back to sleep? He is one of two parents, so, in my view, our daughter should be half his responsibility. I didn’t marry my mother-in-law, after all.
My mother-in-law went on to explain that, in the future, the baby will first reach for Mama and then her second choice will be her Nainai (or paternal grandmother), whereas Baba (or Daddy) will naturally fall into the third position. “This is perfectly normal,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. She regularly forgets that she’s speaking to someone whose definitions of “normal” are from the other side of the planet.
Don’t get me wrong, I think my mother-in-law is a wonderful grandmother to my daughter, but my preference is for greater involvement from her daddy so that my daughter understands a strong parental unit. Everyone tells me to 入乡随俗, which is the equivalent Chinese saying to “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” But I argue that as the sole model for the Canadian side of my daughter’s cross-cultural heritage, we need to strike a balance between both cultural parenting practices. She’s half Canadian, after all. Of course, for this approach, I’m the sole advocate.
Around the dinner table this spring in my husband’s hometown, the women really put things in perspective for me. They spoke about how their husbands barely even held their children for the first year. One woman laughed about how her husband would only relieve her for brief bathroom breaks by putting his arms out stiffly in front of him, as though he were about to hold a tray of breakable crystal, and then she’d lay the baby over his arms and return a few minutes later to find him in the same position, terrified of moving.
“Your husband is already so much better than most Chinese men,” they said laughing, “You’re so lucky!”
The truth is that my husband has washed the occasional diaper (in response to my growling), has rocked her to sleep on nights when I’ve had to work or when I’ve needed a break, and scoops her up and plays with her regularly. He just hasn’t adopted daily habits around her schedule like I have. He sees this as the normal difference between mothers and fathers.
Even with acknowledging his occasional efforts to bridge our cultural chasms around parenting, I’ve spent the first year of my daughter’s infancy stuck in the “glass-half-empty” loop. I can’t seem to kick the feeling that the arrangement of having his mother around is somehow unfair. Yet, in the next moment, I’ve felt I should be much more grateful for what has been in the glass at all. I may not have married my mother-in-law, but she is more experienced at childcare than my husband, is a helluva cook, and she sure mops a mean floor. Compared to my friends with young babies back home in Canada, is it fair that I have this free-of-charge, built-in assistance? In this way, I’ve been working through my conflicting emotions for months now.
On a subsequent trip to my husband’s hometown, we dined once again with one of those couples we had met with in the spring. While the men were locked in their own conversation, I vented some of this conflict with the wife. She had this to say:
“Your daughter just needs you more right now. Her grandmother keeps it all in balance by being a type of third parent—it’s the Chinese way! Besides, balance is better than equality, right?” Then she added, eyes sparkling, “But don’t forget that when she’s old, you’ll be changing her diaper. That’s also the Chinese way!”
And there it is—25 years from now, we’ll be presented with the bill for my mother-in-law’s enormous sacrifices. “Oh no,” I answered steadily. “After getting away with not changing very many for his daughter, when the time comes to change my mother-in-law’s diapers, it will most definitely be her son’s job!”
© 2013, Ember Swift. All rights reserved.
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