Send for Mother in Law

Living in an Extended Family

I talk all the time to the Chinese teachers in my school about the things that matter to them. They suggested that I should write this article to share something of real importance to their lives.

The question of who takes care of the young is a key issue for every family. Having spent my life working in education I have met all of the joys of getting this critical relationship right and equally the damaging consequences of inadequate or inappropriate care in these formative years. In every school I worked in in the UK, we provided breakfast clubs for those young people in school early because the adult or adults in the house had left early for work and after school provision for those where no adult would return to the house until the early evening.

Underlying this is the modern phenomena whereby it is almost impossible for mothers and fathers with new families to take extended absences from the workplace. The percentage of women in employment in both the UK and China is roughly the same at 72 % in Britain and 62% in China. Young families in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzen face the same financial struggles as their counterparts in London, Birmingham and Manchester. City life is expensive and two steady incomes are needed to keep the family going.

Under new laws introduced in 2019 in some areas of China, either parent is entitled to up to one year of paid leave following the birth of a child. In addition in most large cities either parent is permitted up to ten days of paid leave for child care. This certainly helps, but Chinese employers notoriously have demanding expectations of long work hours for their workers. Mums and Dads need a back up system.

That back up comes in the form of extended family support. Traditionally of course families lived close to each other so support was always available on the doorstep. However over the last few decades more and more young Chinese have moved out of their home towns to where the jobs are, in cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzen. Sooner or later a baby comes along. As soon as the happy event is announced, almost always without being asked, an in-law or a grandparent will arrive in the family home to act as support or an extra carer. Typically this support will be on hand throughout pregnancy and at least until the child completes primary school education. And it’s an almost instinctive act, you don’t need to go through the embarrassment of asking your mother in law or grandfather to ‘try and help us out if you can’.

This is not without sacrifices for the carers. Bonds of community and friendship are very strong in China, the smaller the home town or home village, the stronger those bonds will be. It is quite a wrench for someone in their older years to give up a warm network of friends and habits to come and stay in a strange city. Sacrifices have to be made. And the opposite is true when the family no longer needs support. As 5 to 10 years have gone by the in law or grandparent will have grown accustomed to the comforts of the city. For example, a city like Beijing has central heating in most homes, whereas smaller towns and villages might rely on more traditional forms of heating. When you live in a partially heated home all your life, you don’t notice the cold, but coming back from an apartment kept at a constant temperature, it’s a different matter.

To appreciate the sacrifices made by all in this family arrangement which is so different from the typical nuclear family in Britain, you also need to understand that most city dwellers in China live in apartments, rather than the typical British ‘upstairs, downstairs’ house. The whole extended family may easily be sharing two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. In modern Britain, I think many people value their privacy and ‘personal space’ too much to be able to live like this, even if it did bring benefits of stability and togetherness to family life.

The benefits in China are significant. Bonds are made across generations which bring deep advantages of stability and calm. I happen to live in an area with large public primary and middle schools. In the mornings almost every child walks to school chatting away happily to a carer other than Mum or Dad. In the evenings those same carers will gather in happy throngs around the school gates to walk them home again. There’s always someone there to say, ‘Have a good day in school today’ and ‘How was school today?’, without Mum or Dad having to make a stressful dash home from work.

In my opinion the importance of a child’s hand nestled securely in the wrinkled hand of a grandparent ripples far beyond the school gates. However much a child tries to put anxiety or stress to the back of her or his mind while in class, the effect on learning is corrosive. Although it could be imperfect, the reassuring voice of a caring relative, who after all may have already been through the challenges of the parenting process, might make the difference between coping and chaos.

The majority of women teachers in my school have this form of family support network at home. Not only does it give them the peace of mind to do an excellent job, but it also brings great stability to the school, because the days needed for sick leave are minimal. It also helps to reduce the level of childhood obesity because the extended family relative usually squeezes a visit to the local stores into the day, so that there is fresh food waiting on the table, not supermarket convenience food, which has a minimal market in China, even in the busiest cities.

Of course there are arguments, tears, slammed doors and angry silences. Nothing is perfect. Families make sacrifices to make it work. But if the calmness, confidence and concentration levels of the children from age 5 to 18 in my school are anything to go by, the benefits for young people are enormous. Let’s finish with a popular Chinese saying:

‘家和万事兴’, or ‘jiāhéwànshìxīng’

which means , ‘if the family lives in harmony all affairs will prosper.’