Sleepovers at Nainai’s Make Me Uneasy—Is it Culture or Me?


It was a moment of weakness.

My mother-in-law (MIL) and I were walking to the post office with my (then) 17-month old daughter in the stroller being pushed in front. My MIL was busy telling me about her long-time friend whose daughter is living in Australia.

“Xuan Xuan lets her mother take their son back to China for two to three months at a time while she stays in Australia to work!” she said, as though it were absolutely normal. “Chinese grandparents are trusted to take good care of their grandchildren.”

Of course, it’s not about trust for me. No matter how much I stress that I am comfortable with my mother-in-law caring for my daughter, and know that she would “饿不着,渴不着” (never go hungry or thirsty) with my in-laws as her provider, the idea of being separated from her by continents and oceans makes me sick to my stomach. More than once, they have offered to keep my daughter in China when I’ve had work-related jobs back in my home country of Canada. I have flatly declined, shuddering. The issue isn’t trust; it’s a mother’s desire for closeness, not to mention my extended family’s desire to see the baby. Oh, and of course it’s cultural.

In my country, and in the West in general, the idea of sending a child away from a mother for an extended period of time—especially when they’re still babies—is absolutely foreign and virtually unheard of. Here in China, however, the older generation—especially those still living in their hometowns—often becomes the principal caregivers while parents return to the cities to work. New parents commonly leave their babies in the permanent care of the grandparents, seeing their children only on major holidays until the children are old enough to attend school.

I have a real problem with this. You see, I want a relationship with my daughter. What’s more, my daughter needs her mommy’s cultural influence just as much as she needs her daddy’s Chinese heritage, which is shared with her through my in-laws. After all, English is the language Mommy speaks with her, not to mention my cultural influence in terms of the foods she eats, the games we play and the words and concepts that I am teaching her by just being myself. In other words, I’m needed!

To ensure my daughter has the foundations of a balanced bi-cultural upbringing, I have already negotiated part-time childcare with my mother-in-law. She even moved to Beijing in time for the birth in order to be with her granddaughter, so I know it quietly irks her to only be in that role for half days. She regularly offers to keep the baby overnight, for example, but I want my daughter at home unless it’s a special circumstance. I know my decisions confound her.

More than once, I’ve heard my mother-in-law erroneously telling people that she gives my daughter full-time care while I work. Perhaps not adopting a full-time caregiver role, let alone not living with us in the same apartment, is tantamount to not being a good, traditional grandmother in the eyes of Chinese culture? I certainly can’t say for sure, but when I hear her say these things, I just smile and pretend not to hear her. After all, why ruin her image?

Besides, I’m so lucky! I am constantly grateful to have a set of in-laws who are so enthusiastically involved in their granddaughter’s life. They have redesigned their world for her! And, I know they would do more if we wanted it—if I weren’t a stubborn foreign daughter-in-law with her own ideas!

So, while we were talking about Xuan Xuan and I was stressing my cultural perspective yet once more, she interrupted me. “Well, what about me taking her back to our hometown for a few weeks while you’re already back in China, then?” She asked, responding to my refusal to be separated by my daughter by an international flight. “Well,” I said, “Maybe that would be easier and I could handle a week or so.”

That was my moment of weakness.

Not seconds after I’d said those words, she had her mobile phone out of her pocket and had dialed my father-in-law who is still in their hometown working. “We can have the baby this summer for a week!” she said, excitedly, and I felt my heart race. “We’ll take her to the beach and introduce her to all our friends!” My mother-in-law was already planning out loud because I had inadvertently given the green light for a week away from my daughter. I could feel the dread lurking.

And now the week we chose has arrived. It’s been three long days and I keep feeling like I’ve lost something important, like my passport or my wallet or my left arm. The daily anxiety (after I’ve awakened from a night of sleep during which I didn’t have to change a diaper) is subtle but ever present. To endure the time, I have a long list of “things to do” and have already tackled a lot of cleaning and home-based projects that would normally be difficult with a toddler around. I keep telling myself that the bonus for me will be a clean house.

Still four days to go.

All I can say is thank goodness for video-based calling. At least I get to see her every day! I can rest easy seeing her smile and knowing she is being spoiled and adored by an amazing extended family. I have to admit it: I know this week is important to them and I’m glad to have given it to them, even if my left arm does keep surprising me that it’s still attached!

 (Reflections from my late summer, 2013)


  1. Hi Ember, thanks for sharing this! I am sure that my in-laws will also suggest to take the children, but I will not allow it until it’s really necessary. A good relationship with my children trumps any relationship her granparents may want with the children. And if I had the choice, I’d rather have the children stay with my parents in Poland. Although this of course can be a great choice for many parents, it idn’t for me.. and while my parents-in-law want to be engaged in their grandchildren’s life, I’d rather prefer that they’d be more distanced because of the pressure I feel when I am at their place. This being said, of course grandparents are important- but parents are even more so! Good luck with the wait, Ember- and it’s just four more days!

  2. I only learned about this recently when a Chinese coworker told us (Americans) about it at lunch. She asked where another woman’s 3-mo baby was, and was horrified when she replied “at daycare.” She explained that in China, the grandparents take care of the kids while parents work. I asked what happens if you don’t in the same town as the grandparents, and she said “Yes, like me. I flew my parents here!” Apparently they stayed for six months after the baby was born, then took him back with them to China. She said she was happy with this arrangement, but her husband wanted the baby back after 4 months, so the grandparents are back in the U.S. now. I was just amused that she thought it was terrible to put a baby in daycare, but fine to ship them to another country! 😉

  3. Your piece is a really good example of a profound difference between majority world countries (of which China is one) and the rest of the world. In majority world countries there are not usually even words for in laws. Once you are married you are a part of that family and therefore your mother in law is your mother. Combine that with the understanding that within families there is very little by the way of boundaries. I.e. Where do I begin and where do you end? So (and I get that many people from western countries would baulk at this) there is actually no difference in the community setting to your daughter being with you or your mother (in law). Assuming that there are healthy and happy family relationships then actually whoever your daughter is with she is Loved and cared for and held. You would be able to share with your mother what is important to you and that would be translated to your daughter. As a child I went to live with my mother’s sister for awhile ( a normal cultural practice) and I still feel like I am around my mother when I spend time with my aunt now. She treated me just like my cousins. Other cousins came to stay with us too. This is the real meaning of it takes a community to raise a child. It is more than a few hours of childcare. It is really learning about each other. And God forbid that something happen to a parent there is someone else who knows their child almost as well as they do who can provide for them just like they would.


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