How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband


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!”


Want to read more of Ember’s cross-cultural parenting adventures? Then check out Why I Don’t Buy Made in China for My Baby and Postpartum in China—Confinement or Luxury?


  1. WOW!!! I cant believe I will also have to go through this very soon. My mother in law has told me she is willing and ready to retire as soon as I get pregnant and EVEN willing to come back to the states to take care of me after I deliver….I think ill start training my husband right about NOW

  2. Bicultural families are so much exciting than monocultural ones. I am Bolivian, my husband and I have lived int the States with his parents for almost 10 years now. They are Americans, to me is not a big deal, since I have witnessed that in my country. But to Americans, is a shock. I assume I will be changing their diapers in the future. Who knows?

  3. I am from India, but live in the US and we have a similar culture like the moon-month. When my MIL was here for about 5 months during my sons birth, I had the same problem (or excellent service, if we can call it like that). First month after delivery, i couldnt take my hands off MY household chores but she would not let me do anything. By the 5 months, the only thing I literally did was to sit down and feed the baby – thats what she asks me to do whenever I ask if I can be of any help!

    “when the time comes to change my mother-in-law’s diapers, it will most definitely be her son’s job” – Assuming Chinese and Indian have a similar philosophy to life, I hope you have just written these without meaning them. For in our culture, a grown male to change the diapers of even his mom, is assumed disgraceful for the lady. I am very well hoping to pay back whatever she did for me as she is doing for her own mother-in-law even today!

  4. Being reasonable is not a Chinese ability. While they often compare to other Chinese, they are never able to compare to Western culture because if they did, they would find that Chinese culture is what holds China back from becoming a first world country. China may one day become a super power, but it will never be a great country, because Chinese culture is unable to be reasonable.

  5. I’m Australian and my girlfriend is Chinese
    been together with my girlfriend of 3 yrs
    We live in Sydney,a year ago we went too china to meet her family so I could ask permission to marry their daughter , & they gave it.4 months ago we got engaged,her mother came to Australia 2 months ago.she took over our house.3 examples of strange behaviour(the mother),I threw some rotting food away that I bought & her mum said I didn’t want her to eat,that I was trying to starve time her mum went to the shop so I closed the front door when she was half a block away,when she came back she told her daughter I locked her out cause I didn’t want her in the house,how she heard the door close when she had walked half a block I’ll never know.& we went out for a couple day(picnic) her mum said we abandoned her & I was stealing her daughter.
    So now her mother has decided to pack her daughter things & move her away & split us up.i said to her mum I sorry for the little misunderstanding we had but we could talk through them & work them out.she looked at me & started swearing in Chinese at me.i said your ruining your daughter life just so you’ll be happy & she said yes.this is not a normal person.
    Any advice.kurt

  6. Thanks everyone for the comments. Kurt, I am sorry this is such a painful time with your relationship. In Chinese culture, you are truly marrying a family unit and not just a person. When the mother (or the mother-in-law, in my case) feels that the partner doesn’t appreciate them or give them authority, they are sometimes quick to take it out on you and/or become a purposeful barrier to the peace in your relationship with your partner. To them, it’s not unreasonable because the relationship is a family one. To us, as Westerners, its invasive and disruptive, not to mention very manipulative. I’ve learned that giving the older generation the feeling that everything they do is appreciated, valued, even admired is the best way to get them to respect my space and individuality. It’s a bit like nursing the ego of a teenager in that you have to praise loudly and repetitively, ignore the temper tantrums and the moodiness, and simply put your smile forward. She doesn’t really want to break you up, but she wants your acknowledgement of her authority. Even just accepting her anger and telling her that you completely understand why she’s upset and asking her how you can make it right will immediately turn her behaviour around, I believe. At least, this is what I have found with my mother-in-law! Personalities are different, but I wish you luck!!

  7. @trojan – an ignorant mind unwilling to become educated and passionate results in behavior, you, which is despicable. Degrading a country founded inconceivable times before the USA and obtuse refusal to recognize China’s, SE Asia’s, unspoken works influence speaks, nor screams actually, of your downfall.

    God bless and Good luck.

  8. Please help: I Love my wife and my son. I am also EXTREMELY involved as a dad. I had to move to china ( in a tiny tiny town) where I am the only foreigner so that my wife can take over the family business but … they don’t trust her or me to take over …. because we have westerner mentality … ( anyways this is an entire other can of worms) … I know my mother in law is trying to replace me as a father and I HATE it. My fatherly authority is a big fat ZERO.

    For instance

    1. when I talk …. she always talks on top of me so my wife pays attention to her. ( she has been doing this for years !)

    2. I told her and my father in law that i did not want my son to go to a particular town while me and my wife were away. ( her dad got beat up really bad by a business associate over a lawsuit and I did not want my son to witness violence or be in the middle of something. I think that is VERY reasonable no ? yet my in-laws took him there spent 3 days there and lied about it. When i confronted them about the lie … i yelled because i was pissed … but my wife still takes the side of her parents saying that lieing to me was justified because they would protect him.

    3. They refuse to feed him what i want to feed him ( all i want is CHIA seeds on top of the rice … not a big deal) of and also they feed him PURE FAT …. just fat nothing else… but obviously my wife says nothing and i look like the bad guy again.

    It’s like if she is competing with me to show ” look my way is better” I know I might have to much of a western mentality but he is MY son ! not hers !

    What Can I do ?

  9. Your mother in-law seems somewhat reasonable. Many Chinese Mother In-laws are not. In their scenario, they would be number 1 to the child and you would be number two. Many want to have a bond closer than the mother. There are many Chinese blogs about this and I have personally experienced this as my wife is Chinese. Her mom wanted to be more than a grandmother and was very forceful. Consider yourself lucky.


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