Raising a Child in China: Mama Groups

Being a Daddy has given me some perspective on the importance of community. When Hillary Clinton once famously said that “it takes a village” to raise a child, I remember people finding that funny, or even chauvinistic. I wasn’t sure then why, but now I am sure that Hillary was spot on. Anyone with little ones knows that look in their eyes when they spot another little one. The curiosity is just short of longing. Even through the fights over toys and scraps and screaming, the bond that forms so quickly with the so very young is so very, very vital.

I wish I could retreat into the woods and raise my children on a mountainside apart from this world of petty emotions, but that’s something that I want. My sons would mourn their exile.

And my wife would resist, because women know better than anyone the power of a tribe. Several moms together with their children walking the streets are surrounded by a bubble of impenetrability because their undertaking is of the utmost seriousness. Raising the next generation is something that we in our hearts realize is the number one vocation of humankind. Everything depends on doing it right.

But how do we know what is right and what is wrong? Even with all of the millions of words written on the topic, only trial and error work. We are constantly adjusting to a tiny individual as he/she blossoms beyond the point of attachment and into self-awareness. For that it’s nice to have like-minded people around to help decipher, to provide a comparison, and to improve the way one goes about nurturing a little human.

Mama groups

 

Mama Groups

Groups of women chattering while toddlers amble about gives me a warm sense of pleasure. I feel exquisitely male when I walk into a room filled with crying children and soothing moms. It feels right and natural that mothers should band together to raise children while I go about the less important business of making sure the roof stays over everyone’s head.

In my experience, children under the age of 2 need mom around all the time. Dad is cool and should be around as often as is dadly possible, but terror is the absence of mom.

Mama groupIn China mom and dad usually have to work a lot and childcare is given over to the grandparents. That rubs some moms raw. Not all women want to be rid of their children so they can work/play and not all grandparents share the same parenting vision as today’s mothers. Moms who have their own ideas about natural birth vs. c-sections, breastmilk vs. infant formula, plastic toys vs. wooden toys, jungle law vs. supervised playtime etc. must step in between the grandparents and the child in order to make their own visions real. They also need support because a mom alone against the clan in a struggle over “what’s best for Stinky” can quickly turn ugly.

So most moms in China turn to online baby groups (mom-ified chatrooms, basically) for information, support and baby products. A community forms online and spills over into real life as moms get out of the house for a trip to the park with the kids, or arrive en masse at my house to let the kids run wild. These communities are popping up all over the web (and in an informal preschool/Sascha’s office near you) and the key development here is not just the creation of communities, but the establishment of a philosophy of parenting that takes what mom’s in the West have already gone through and applies it to China.

Only the Best

Can you think of a more invasive situation for mothers than the One Child Policy and all that comes with it? I can. The education system here and all that comes with that. I’m not the only one who can see it: every baby group in China is grappling with questions like:

  • Where can I get baby food that won’t kill my child?
  • Where can I give birth in a beautiful, natural, loving environment?
  • Is there anyplace I can send my kid besides state schools?

Which basically translates into, How can I get access to the best possible things for my child? Its not about survival anymore. It’s not about ducking your head down, not getting thrown in re-education camps and getting a job anymore. It’s about them being something more than what we are, giving them the choices that we never had. It’s about the New Chinese Man and Woman, not the old, terrified, shoe-less, obedient peasant.

Mama groups

Chinese middle class moms want everything that American and European middle class moms have and they are banding together to learn the techniques, resist the local thought police and buy all of the best baby products available.

Something Revolutionary

Something I find fascinating is that Chinese do not generally meet up with strangers, in a stranger’s home, and let the kids run wild with each other. That’s actually not that common. Or wasn’t. Child-rearing here took into account the whole “it takes a village” idea in a very concrete way. Clans and extended families banded together and formed the village for the children. Most people in China don’t (didn’t) move around much, so the neighbors might just be family.

Now though, mom groups are forming up based on philosophy. It’s not about where you live anymore, it’s about how you live.

Mama group

Conclusion & Photos

“I don’t want my daughter going to kindergarten with children who grew up drinking formula instead of breast milk, because that is unnatural,” said a member of a local Chengdu babygroup named Weimima. “Parents who make the choice to use formula instead of breastfeed will make other parenting decisions that will not agree with my philosophy.”

This, in my opinion, is the type of grassroots change that can bring about true social revolution. I admit it, all my life I thought (and when it comes to Wall Street, still think) that violent rebellion is a must before any real change can take place. Being a Daddy and walking in on a room of poopie-butts and mommies with one breast out has taught me that soft changes are the core of true change. I guess my job is just to make sure the roof doesn’t leak and body slam any men who dare disrupt playtime.

Mama group

Mama group

Mama group

Mama group

 

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. After living in Chengdu on and off for twelve years, he now lives in Minneapolis.

8 Responses to “Raising a Child in China: Mama Groups”

  1. Sascha, your photos of the mothers and children are beautiful. I love the way you speak to the issues facing families who desire to raise their in a healthy social, physical and intellectual environment.

    I have one question to ask of you for which I would appreciate an explanation. You begin with Hilary Clinton’s famous quote, that it takes a village to raise a child. Then you are saying that people found it funny or chauvinistic. That is part I don’t understand and for which I would appreciate an explanation. I would like it explained who found it funny or chauvinistic, and what was their rationale for this.

    The Oxford Dictinary defines the word “chauvinistic” as 1)a person displaying aggressive or exaggerated patriotism 2)a person displaying exessive or prejudiced loyalty or support for a particular cause, group, or sex 3)a man displaying a complacent belief in the superiority of the male sex.

    If, as you say, you were not sure why they said this, I would like to know why you think they said it. If you do not know why you think they said it, I have to ask, why did you put this in your article?

    At the time Hillary Clinton made that statement I worked for the Head Start program, a federal program for low income families. We mostly worked with single mothers who were economcially and socially isolated, and we were intensely trying to foster a sense of community among these women and children. Hillary Clinton’s statement, for me, was a wonderful description and affirmation of what we were trying to do. Creating a sense of community is instrumental in breaking the cycle of poverty.

    I would really appreciate an explanation of who you feel described this statement as funny and chauvinistic, and why you think they said this.

    • Hi Marta,

      when I put that in there I think I was actually referring to a view of Hillary Clinton herself, that seemed to be holding sway over the mainstream media and at dinner tables … jokes that basically made Hillary out to be a very un-feminine woman.

      So maybe the feelings that I remember being associated with that statement are actually residual feelings that people once held about Hillary when she first hit the scene. Those views have changed, as I am sure you also noticed, as soon as Bill Clinton receded and people became accustomed to smart, powerful women in office.

      I apologize for misleading anyone – I was just writing down exactly what it felt like when that statement was made. Chauvinistic is a very weird word to choose for that, I must admit, but i think I used it because it denotes a sexual … prejudice or assertion … that was threatening at the time for men in the US.

      • And i hope you also noticed that the whole essay and the philosophy of the women I am writing about is pure “it takes a village” community-based living …

  2. Since Hilary Clinton, is clearly the theme of this article. I’d like to chime in too 😉

    I saw “Hilldawg” at the Shanghai Expo, she is much shorter than expected and kind of walks like a penguin.

    I too fear the room of breast feeding moomies and poopie butts but someday my time will come.

    Some of my colleagues tell me they spend astronomical prices on baby formula from australia or NZ since they don’t trust local. Why don’t they trust natural mommy milk? Why are they spending twice the rent money on expensive formula?

    • it’s not that they don’t trust the milk per se – although that is a factor, as in “how can this be enough, don’t we need DHA-enhanced milk?” – but a lot of times mothers don’t trust themselves.

      They might not believe that they can produce enough milk, or that the milk they produce will not be rich enough to produce the super human needed to survive these days.

      With a bunch of other people involved in the decision making process, it is more than likely that at least 2-3 voices

  3. Thanks for your candid reply, Sascha. Subsequently I will explain what I think Hillary Clinton has to do with all this.

    First I would like to say that it is very clear that your essay beautifully demonstrates the importance of community in child-rearing and in creating vibrant families. The sharing of information that goes on could potentially create better possiblities for purchasing healthy food, locating better birthing options and lead to improved educational oportunities. And, you are obviously extremely involved in the welfare of your children and family. The photos of the children are so beautiful that they don’t need any explanation.

    Hilary Clinton wanted to reform the dysfuntional and costly health care system. (Anyone that is following this issue today is aware of just how badly this is still needed.) For this she was viciously maligned by the medical establishment and other powers that wanted to maintain the status quo. One of the strategies used was to create the image of her as a castrating she-devil, and this strategy worked incredibly well. It very much played on ignorance, but those who made the effort to actually study the issue realized how profound was the need for change. But it was defeated by 1)ignorance, which is the root of predjudice, and 2)laziness -people just not making the effort to study the issue.

    I think there is a parallel between the prejudice against Hillary Clinton and your blossoming parent group. Your group is composed of families who are looking beyond what they are told and what they are sold. They are trusting in their own instincts about what is right for their children and are beginning to share information and to take their education upon themselves. If this had happened on a wider scale when Hillary Clinton was trying to reform health care, maybe there would have been actual change created.

    This world is so filled with pundits and propaganda, and so lacking in real information. But the information is there for those who care to search for it. It was true in Hillary Clinton’s day and it is true today.

    • I agree. The whole point of this essay is to affirm that the quote has value and revolutionary power when actually acted upon. But in my exp, people are just too busy/lazy to really form a community. And when they do jealousy and stuff usually kills a lot of potential.

      People are hard to keep together …

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