Mainland Moments: Nanny State

Karen Tye looks at the options in China for those looking for additional help in caring for their child.

My husband can finally have it in writing: Compared to most Aussie mums, I have it quite easy (in some ways) by living in China as we are able to afford a day time nanny during the week to look after our eight-month-old daughter while I go off to work (a much easier job than full-time mummy-hood – might I add).

Despite this extra help in caring for our daughter, I still find I’m never as sprightly as my Chinese colleagues who also have young children. I’m still stuck in the land of midnight feeds and early rises. How have my Chinese counterparts fared? No, they haven’t mastered baby routines a la a Chinese Tizzy Hall or Gina Ford.

Their secret? Leave it all to the grandparents. 

According to statistics from the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission, almost 90 percent of children under three years old are being looked after by a grandparent. There are a variety of circumstances here in Shanghai such as maternal and paternal grandparents who take turns and leave their provincial homes to look after their grandchild in Shanghai, so that it is not uncommon to find all three generations living under the same roof, or the grandkid growing up with grandpa and grandma in a different province while mum and dad work in Shanghai. Whichever way, the endpoint is still the same – many grandparents in China are parenting their child and their child’s child.

Those on the sidelines may jump to the conclusion that the bratty post ‘80s generation kids (80后), products of the one-child policy, are too self-centered to devote their lives to raising their own children. However, there’s more to this situation than meets the eye.

Take Pamela Luo as an example. Both she and her husband live and work in Shanghai, whereas her daughter, Lulu lives 2300 kilometers away in Mianyang, Sichuan Province, with Pamela’s parents.

“It’s really sad but we only spend about four months of a year together,” says Pamela.

“If I had a choice, I would definitely raise Lulu myself and not leave her with my parents.”

Pamela say she has missed out on so much of her daughter’s life already.

“I wasn’t right there with her when she said ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’. I’ve missed out on a lot of her ‘firsts’ like her standing up by herself.”

Pamela cites the soaring costs of raising a child in China as the major reason for not solely raising her daughter. She says raising a child on a one-parent salary in China is too difficult, with the gap between high commodity prices and low incomes continuing to widen. Pamela tells me that she and her husband live in a tiny apartment in Shanghai’s Pudong, and are saving every penny to afford the 60 percent down payment and high interest rate on a bigger apartment in Shanghai so that all five of them (grandparents included) can live under the one roof.

In China, at least a double income is essential to support all three generations of family members, including “four-two-one” families (421家庭) that comprise of four grandparents, two parents and one child, which is becoming more commonplace. Funds are channeled to give the baby of the family the best possible start in life, including English classes, music lessons, you name it.

However, it is also imperative to Chinese people that a child is raised by family, which is why many Chinese grandparents have enlisted themselves to play the role of the parent while the young adults toil at the office to bring home the bacon.

Many of my Chinese friends and colleagues have often given me a sympathetic look when I tell them my daughter is being looked after by a nanny. I explain that my folks (who are still running a business) and in-laws all live in Australia, but I get the feeling that this is not a good enough excuse.

“My dad still works full time and my mum gave up her job to look after Lulu,” Pamela says. “We all agree that a nanny looking after her is not an option.”

In Pamela’s opinion, nannies in China are overpaid. A recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree can only earn around RMB 3000 (A$520) to 5000 (A$865) a month, which increases to around RMB 7000 (A$1210) a month, four to eight years out of university. Many nannies who only have primary school-level education can earn RMB 7000 (A$1210) without tax.

“I would rather save this sum of money and have family raise the baby than let a stranger do it,” says Pamela.

According to Pamela, bad nanny behavior reported in the media, including nannies dosing babies with sleeping pill powder so that they’ll sleep more and cry less, or nannies having sticky fingers, has resulted in an overall distrust of nannies in China.

“And that’s why the grandparents step in to look after the grandchildren,” she says. “A large part of Chinese culture is based on Confucianism, and one of the core beliefs is benevolence and unselfishness. Family elders can’t stand by and watch their own kids go through difficulties – this is the major difference between Chinese and Western parenting.”

Pamela says most Chinese parents would not have their parents raise their babies if given the choice, and the same goes for Chinese grandparents.

“I don’t think this is how they envisioned their retirement years – I mean, who doesn’t know how to relax?” Pamela asks. “My mum has devoted herself to helping me out with Lulu, I’m truly thankful for all she’s done and all that she’s given up,” she says.

But Pamela admits that there are some disadvantages to “grand-parenting”. Her daughter remains closest to Pamela’s mum and listens to almost everything she says.

“Over time, she has learnt to love mummy and daddy as much as grandma.”

There is also the question of discipline. Pamela says that generally speaking, there will also always be some minor disagreements between parents and grandparents as to how to raise the child. Most Chinese parents tend to be stricter and will discipline their children, however, there are many Chinese grandparents that never say ‘no’ to their grandchildren, says Pamela.

While “grand-parenting” has its pros and cons, as with every other child-raising situation, the one advantage that strikes a chord with me, is the amount of mummy-daddy time my Chinese colleagues have. It should be noted that perhaps young Chinese couples don’t experience the same strain on their relationships as Western couples might, creating a more positive environment for the child to grow up in. Pamela and her husband can still go to the movies, go out to dinner, or have a late night and sleep-in on the weekends. As for my husband and I, our first date night post-baby is still elusive, as honestly, we do have some reservations and trust issues with our nanny. Perhaps some (part-time) “grand-parenting” is in order!

Nanny Checklist in China

For parents living in China where “grand-parenting” is not an option, some tips when hiring a nanny:

  • Discuss in detail remuneration, including the 13-month salary, hours, overtime, holidays and raises.
  • Obtain a copy of their identity card.
  • Request documentation that they have been immunized against hepatitis B and tuberculosis.
  • Speak to their previous employers if possible and/or request documentation that they have undergone formal nanny training (many companies specialize in such training and offer short courses – while this doesn’t guarantee the nanny is competent for the job, it’s a starting point).
  • Consider installing a nanny-cam.
  • Communication is key – give specific directions and get a friend/colleague to translate if necessary.
  • Provide your nanny (and yourself) with written information to learn off by heart relating to first aid, what to do in an emergency and which hospital to go to if necessary.

karen tye 2011 thumb*Karen Tye has held reporting and editing positions both in Australia and China and has been a weekly contributor to the Sunday Herald Sun. Previously she has contributed to China’s Global Times and held the position of Shanghai Bureau Chief of Russian news agency Interfax. Originally from Melbourne, Karen was a community pharmacist in Australia before moving to China with her husband. She is currently based in Shanghai where she works as a medical writer for a multinational pharmaceutical company.

You may also like...