u Zhen freaked out when she heard that her daughter-in-law wanted to have a second child. “Don’t expect me to take care of it... I need a rest. It’s time for me to lead the life I want!” she recalled telling her son. Hu, 62, moved from Hebei Province to Beijing four years ago to help her son and daughter-in-law take care of their newborn and did so until her granddaughter was admitted to a nearby kindergarten last year. Her daughter-in-law’s plan for a second child, she said, caught her like thunder on a clear day.
“I have been through nearly four exhausting years caring for the baby. How could they have the heart to give me another one? I should have my own life,” she told NewsChina.
As the cost of child-rearing rises and the Chinese market for professional nannies remains poorly regulated, seniors have become the best choice for many families to take care of babies and toddlers at least until they reach kindergarten age – about three years old in China. To enable their children to concentrate on their career and lighten their burdens, many elderly parents ignore the Chinese tradition of returning to one’s hometown in older age, instead moving to the cities where their children work. According to a 2017 report on internal migrants issued by China’s National Health Commission, the nation was home to nearly 18 million migrant seniors in 2016, 43 percent of whom left home to become childcarers. These are China’s laopiao–with “lao” meaning “senior” and “piao” meaning adrift.
The laopiao trope goes thus: they live in unfamiliar cities with few friends and relatives around. Lonely and homesick, their children seldom comfort them, but instead argue over how to best raise their baby. Many laopiao face mounting anxiety and are eager to escape a depressing, pale existence in which they are little more than an unpaid domestic helper or “free nanny.”
In ancient times, Chinese women who typically stayed at home and did housework were the ones who took care of babies. Though many came out to work in the modern era, the Confucian idea that childcare is the burden of women did not dissolve. Many women who chose to be a stay-at-home mom found they were not respected and even discriminated against by relatives who believed they were getting something for nothing.
The discrimination and rising living costs have led a growing number of modern Chinese women to shun the idea of staying at home, and seniors have become their surrogates.
Hu Zhen said she had volunteered to help with the childcare at the very beginning. A widow whose husband died of cancer several years ago, she felt glad to live with her son and spend time with the family. She also thought it was too risky, and would have put too onerous a burden on her son if her daughter-in-law had chosen to stay at home.
Like Hu, few traditional Chinese seniors would even think of letting the husband care for the child. Zhao Liyan, a 37-year-old mom in Beijing who had a daughter last winter, told NewsChina that their initial plan was to let her husband, who had quit his job and started his own business, take care of the baby, but her parents-in-law strongly opposed the idea, saying they did not trust their son to babysit and they worried that the job would impact his career. Given Zhao’s parents were not well and had to take care of her brother’s baby, the family’s last choice was for the parents-in-law to move there from Harbin, Heilongjiang Province.
Li and Zhao’s family did not ever consider professional nannies. Scared by a string of media exposes about the market being rampant with fake certificate-holders, and stories of nannies abusing babies while their parents were away for work, Li and Zhao labeled the industry “expensive and unreliable.” “A professional full-time nanny costs around 7,000-10,000 yuan (US$1,077-1,539) per month in Beijing, higher than the average monthly wage in the city, but their service is worth far less,” Li claimed.
This is the common view among seniors and young parents. Having little trust in baby-care providers, many families asked seniors to come and monitor nannies, even if they already employ a nanny.
But family trust in elderly parents does not eliminate conflicts. On the contrary, arguments over conflicting parenting styles have flared, particularly given that the younger generation tends to embrace more evidence-based parenting theories, while the elderly adhere to“common knowledge” and traditional wisdom.
“Parenting arguments have run through our daily life, though they haven’t escalated into big quarrels,” Li Tianna, Hu Zhen’s daughter-in-law, told NewsChina. “For example, I believe crawling is of great importance to a baby’s motor development, while my mother-in-law always pushed her to walk. She said her son was able to walk at 10 months old, but you know, all babies are different.”
“Every time we argued, she would say ‘I’ve brought up my son this way. Is there any problem with him?’”
This is a typical remark from parents to their own children. Young mothers’ complaints about outdated and non-evidence-based parenting–such as chewing food in their mouths before feeding it to a baby, scaring them off doing things they believe are bad, making them wear too many clothes – are often heard in communities and flood online bulletin boards. It pushes some families to the brink.
But seniors still remain the best childcare option. “My father seldom accepts my suggestions and I have to turn a blind eye to trifling things to minimize arguments,” said Cao Jinjing, a 32-yearold mom whose parents have migrated from Jiangxi Province to Beijing to help take care of their grandson.
“Every time I argue with my father about parenting, it makes him sad and angry, and then, I feel very sorry for him,” she said.
“Sometimes I think young people are too demanding and critical of us. They say it is good for a baby to learn to feed themselves as early as possible, for example, but they never think how big a mess the baby will make doing so, and how long it will take us to clean it up,” Hu said.
“We seniors also need to rest, and to be cared for by our children,” she added.
Further, many Chinese men, brainwashed by the idea that men should fully focus on their career, are unequipped to ease such conflicts–participating much less in babysitting than other family members, many husbands are ignorant of the parenting and naturally cannot understand the laboriousness of childcare. When NewsChina tried to interview some men on this issue, many either refused or asked the reporter to interview their wives instead.
“I felt bad in the middle between them [his wife and mother]. I am willing to help more with the childcare, but I don’t know how to comfort them both,” said Li Tianna’s husband, who refused to use his real name for this story.
“Laopiao give all their love to their families, but nobody understands or cares for them. At night, they are wrapped only in loneliness and homesickness,” goes a popular song about laopiao released in 2017. Many laopiao said they felt the song described their situation well, and that they had lost their sense of belonging after migrating.
Gao Zhihui, a 71-year-old woman living in a remote suburban village of Beijing, is familiar with the feeling. “Accustomed to large one-story homes with a yard in the village, I felt terribly boxed in by my son’s cramped [downtown] apartment. It was kind of like being shut in a small cage,” Gao told NewsChina. “Worse, people there were disconnected from each other. When I came out of the building, I found no one to talk with,” she added.
As Gao’s daughter-in-law is self-employed, she has much more freedom than regular employees to arrange her time. Gao later shifted to going downtown to look after her newborn granddaughter when her daughter-in-law had to be off on business, and traveling home after she returned. “It takes around three hours to get to my son’s apartment, but I would rather bear the long journey than live in that apartment all the time,” she said.
It is for similar reasons that Shi Xiaoli, 33, whose husband went to Africa on a long-term contract a few years ago, returned to her hometown of Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province three years ago when she was pregnant with twin boys (her second pregnancy). “As a southerner, my mum couldn’t get used to Beijing. She could accept neither the food nor the climate there, and she couldn’t understand the northern accent,” she said. “She had been down in the dumps in Beijing and often said that she missed her old friends in Shaoxing.”
“It’s no picnic for my mom to help me take care of three sons. I didn’t want her to be constantly unhappy,” she added.
But not everyone can afford to return to their hometown. Most stay in the cities for their jobs, and for the children, and laopiao usually did not want to worry their children – many even concealed their ill-health to their children, since China’s social insurance is not accepted across provinces and laopiao have to be liable for the full cost of medical bills in a new city.
Experts have described such a life as “uprooted,” the hardship of which is amplified when laopiao find no vent to discharge their negative emotions. In an interview with the Guangzhou Daily, psychologist Chen Binhua warned of the rising number of laopiao suffering from depression.
“In fear of making mistakes and being blamed by their children, most laopiao have a great deal of heavy psychological stress and they find no way to ease it,” Chen said. “If laopiao define themselves as a‘nanny’ and focus their life on the child and the family only, loneliness and sense of loss will be strengthened.”
Since ancient times, “to be surrounded by children and grandchildren” has been seen as a bliss for older Chinese people.
However, as this could today mean a lonely and depressed life away from home, and with individualism on the rise in China, some seniors are choosing a different path.
“I am still serving my patients and I get happiness and confidence from my work. Childcare is neither what I’m skilled at nor what I like. I want my own life and personal space,” An Yang, a 68-year-old doctor in Shanghai, told NewsChina. Last year, she refused her daughter’s request to help care for her newborn baby in Beijing, but instead, opened her purse to employ a professional nanny for her.
“I have been a career-oriented woman since young, and my daughter knows it well,” she added.
An Di, An Yang’s sister who was interviewed at the same time, agreed. “My heart doesn’t allow me to babysit. I once suffered severe headaches and insomnia when I helped take care of my grandson for three days when my son and my daughter-in-law were on a short vacation. It would kill me if I had to do the job for a long time,” she said.
The An sisters lead a rich and full life in Shanghai. They often dine with friends and have traveled a great deal both at home and abroad.“I am well and happy now, and have no intention to change my current life style. I believe seniors in good health and a good outlook are more helpful to lighten the younger generation’s burden, since they do not need to worry about their parents while caring for their children,” said An Di.
Hu Zhen also wants to free herself from her current childcare routine after she began a relationship with a man in Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province. Her conflict with her son and daughter-in-law escalated during the summer vacation, as she frequented Qinhuangdao to see her new partner, while her granddaughter would have been left unattended if the couple did not ask for leave from their companies.
“I really have no other choice. Do you know why her partner did not come to Beijing? Because he had to take care of two granddaughters as well. But why is it us that made this sacrifice?” Hu’s daughter-in-law asked.
For the sake of family harmony Hu ultimately agreed to decrease visits to her partner’s city during the summer vacation, but insisted she would not help care for a second baby, if any.
Aside from financial difficulties, the lack of professional childcare providers has become one of the major obstacles to Chinese families’ desire to have a second child, according to a 2017 survey by the All-China Women’s Federation. Many women have told media that what scares them is not the pain of having a baby but the fact that no one can help them with childcare.
Li Tianna told our reporter that she had abandoned her second-baby plan. Cao Jinjing revealed that her parents have never asked her about a second child, though they plan to resettle in the capital. Zhao Liyan’s parents-in-law refused to sell their apartment in Harbin, since they plan to return when their granddaughter starts kindergarten. And, when Gao Zhihui once asked her daughter-in-law whether she wants a second child, her reply: “Will you help me care for the baby?” shut her up.
As the State-run newspaper the People’s Daily said in a May commentary, the laopiao issue does not relate to the lifestyle of seniors only, but also to urbanization, medical care, parenting and even changes to social psychology in the modern era. The solution may lie in more reasonable and sound social institutions, other than merely more family understanding.
Hu Zhen, Li Tianna, Cao Jinjing and An sisters are pseudonyms