My mother-in-law is leaning over the crib clucking and clicking her tongue at my gummy-grinned, 4-month-old daughter. It sounds a bit like an African bush language. Almost every Chinese person who meets my daughter does the same.
Since coming to China, I’ve had lots of opportunities for cultural comparisons. Marrying a Chinese man stepped it up a notch, and having just given birth to our daughter in January, I’m witnessing a whole new level of culture clash.
Enter the mother-in-law.
In modern Chinese culture, the in-laws generally move in with the new parents to help with the infant, often staying indefinitely. Mercifully, my mother-in-law, or MIL, chose to rent an apartment in the same complex instead. It’s hardly distinguishable, however, because she spends about twelve hours in our home each day.
But before my story takes on the roar of a battleground, I must pause for my gratitude to wave its white flag.
She is an incredible cook. During my first month postpartum, it was thanks to my MIL that I ate such healthy food and recovered so quickly from childbirth. Since then, she has kept us beautifully fed, and prides herself in her cleaning and organizing skills. She is also wonderful with our daughter and is a doting grandmother. Her presence has allowed me to resume exercising, occasionally go out with friends alone, not to mention write this column.
Inherent in all this, however, is the Chinese philosophy that my generation isn’t equipped to adequately manage a household with a newborn child. As a result, my MIL is in constant education mode, instructing me on the simplest of tasks like wringing out a cloth, changing a diaper, wrapping a blanket, even deciphering the meaning of my daughter’s cries.
To say this is annoying is an understated understatement.
The fact that Westerners get about five solid years of childcare training through teenage babysitting is an impenetrable foreign concept, that I have experience managing two businesses, that I’m in my thirties, or that I might have motherly instincts notwithstanding – none of this registers, because I’m far from my home country, speaking a remedial version of her language. In her mind, I need mothering. Oh, and training.
Here’s a typical day: I open the window for air and she closes it for fear of chill. I dress my daughter for early spring and she marches her back upstairs to dress her for late winter. I put my daughter to sleep in her crib and I come home to find my MIL cradling her for fear that her beautiful, rounded skull will suddenly get flat if left too long on her back.
The examples are endless. I pick my battles.
Claiming disposable diapers are better for her skin, I countered that reusable diapers are our choice for the environment and her future. Now, because “no one else knows how to get them clean enough,” she insists on washing them. I don’t argue.
For car travel, she wanted to hold my daughter on her lap for fear of exposing her to the cold, but I insisted on putting her in the car seat for safety. After assessing the imported seat, she then instructed me on its use. I had to laugh.
Part personality and part culture, my MIL is who she is. As an adult, I know we have to learn to love life because of its diversity of color, conflict and confusion, not despite it.
She just called up that dinner is ready.
I’m so lucky. Raise the white flag.