common trope in Chinese television is the plight of a new bride who moves in with her husband’s parents and is bullied mercilessly.
I think this trope is tired and sexist – but not for the reasons you might think.
I ask you this: What happens when a daughter’s parents move in with their foreign son-in-law to help with a newborn child?
The answer, I can tell you from first-hand experience – is a culture clash.
In our household, this took place over several baby battlefronts. The first was breast feeding.
In North America, there is a soul-crushing and monolithic pressure for mothers to breastfeed.
On the other hand, in China it is normal to either supplement breast milk with baby formula or opt to use baby formula exclusively.
This was a recipe for high tension when my wife and I came home with our first baby.
You’d think something so natural would be easy, but for many people it is not. The big trick is that there is naturally a period when the mother’s milk is still coming in during which the baby will be hungry and lose weight.
This was considered normal by our Canadian midwife, but child abuse by my in-laws.
My wife and I, under the guidance of our midwife, tried to navigate down the tricky road of breastfeeding.
Our daughter was obviously hungry, but milk was not yet flowing bountifully.
Her parents could not understand why we did not immediately use formula.
My wife’s kindly father took me to lunch and patiently explained that raising a baby is simple. “If she is hungry, you need to feed her.”
Later, my wife, increasingly frustrated with what she perceived as the slow rate of her breastmilk coming in, said, “My friend gave her baby formula while she started breastfeeding, and it worked out great. It’s three months later and the baby is still drinking formula.”
With the aid of a breast pump and yes, some formula, we made it through the first 10 days and our baby is plump and happy, exclusively drinking breastmilk.
The second battlefront has been a war of anxieties about the biggest threat to the baby’s health – wind and cold, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
My in-laws and wife are deathly afraid of our baby getting cold or being exposed to wind. This will apparently lead to horrible, unspecified consequences, which are so obvious my wife and in-laws won’t list them.
As a result, the lining of the baby’s crib, bassinet and baby carriage is lined with thick quilts, and the baby is wrapped in multiple layers and blankets, even when adults outside are wearing t-shirts.
I, on the other hand, am preternaturally worried about SIDS, also known by the terrifying moniker “crib death.” Although this rarely occurs, it happens often enough that our crib and carriage have giant warning labels stating in large letters: “Risk of suffocation, do not place a comforter or quilt under a sleeping baby.”
Although I pointed this out a number of times, compliance only lasts for a few days, until a thin blanket is placed on the crib, and then thicker blanket, and finally a quilt. I remove them, and the dance starts again.
The final battlefront in the baby wars has been taking the child outside for a stroll in her carriage. I was physically blocked from doing this the first time I tried it. It turns out that to some Chinese people, taking a child outside for a stroll within the first 30 or even 100 days of its life is akin to killing it.
I pointed out that our foreign midwife and foreign doctor both said it would be beneficial to the child’s health to go outside.
This was countered by the point that you could ask 100 Chinese doctors and 100 Chinese midwives the same question, and they would absolutely bar the child from going outside in cold or windy weather, or during the first month of life.
Fortunately, spring came before this conflict became too overheated. Putting a quilt in the crib and carriage no longer seemed as important, and anyways, the baby refuses to sleep anywhere but on her mother or father’s chest.
Outdoors is no longer windy or cold, so going outside has stopped being a flashpoint. And the baby, engorged with mother’s milk, has become fat, cheerful and auspicious.
It turns out there can only be one king in any castle, and for the time being, it is not me. However, putting my pride aside and acquiescing to some strange habits is a small price to pay for all the love, extra help and extra hours of sleep we get from having the help of our in-laws.