I sat around a table with couples from my husband’s hometown this spring. These classmates of his and their wives each had children and lots of stories about life with a baby. Our daughter was five months old at the time, and we were at the beginning of our journey.
What makes our journey unique is how we are negotiating roles between a Chinese father and Canadian mother. That’s a hard issue to work out in China in general, but now that we have a baby, any hope for balance is skewed, yet again, by the full-time presence of my mother-in-law as our caregiver.
It’s been a wobbly triangle.
I especially find myself teetering backwards when my mother-in-law responds to my complaints about my husband’s unequal contributions by stating matter-of-factly that her role is to replace her son in the equation – to lighten his burden, allowing him to maintain his former life rhythms, while also helping me with parenting and household management.
As a Western feminist, I resent the implication that I, as the mother, am expected to be the caregiving parent and homemaker while he, as the father, is replaceable. Why does he get out of the daily tasks of washing diapers, preparing our daughter’s food, and rocking her to sleep? He is one of two parents, so, in my view, our daughter should be half his responsibility.
I didn’t marry my mother-in-law, after all.
The women at the table this spring spoke about how their husbands barely held their children for the first year. One woman laughed about how her husband would only relieve her for brief bathroom breaks by putting his arms out stiffly in front of him, as though he were about to hold a tray of breakable crystal, and then she’d lay the baby over his arms and return a few minutes later to find him in the same position.
“Your husband is already so much better than most Chinese men,” they said, laughing. “You’re so lucky!”
The truth is that my husband has washed the occasional diaper (in response to my growling), has rocked her to sleep on nights when I’ve had to work or when I’ve needed a break, and he scoops her up to play regularly. He just doesn’t do these things on a daily schedule.
Even so, I’ve been stuck in the “glass half-empty” loop, only to wonder in the next moment if I shouldn’t just appreciate what’s in the glass. After all, I may not have married my mother-in-law, but she is more experienced at childcare than my husband, is a helluva cook, and sure mops a mean floor. And it’s not like my husband does nothing. Compared to my Western friends, is it fair that I have this free-of-charge, built-in assistance?
I’ve been working through these conflicting emotions for months now and recently one of my Chinese friends had this to say:
“It can’t be ‘fair’ when you’re the breastfeeding mother. It’s like trying to split the bill in half at a restaurant when one person has had a steak and the other has just had a salad. Your daughter just needs you more right now. But your mother-in-law keeps it all in balance by being a third parent and by ‘grandparenting.’ It’s the Chinese way! Besides, balance is better than equality, right?”
Then she added, eyes sparkling, “But don’t forget that when she’s old, you’ll be changing her diaper!”
“Oh no,” I answered steadily. “That will be her son’s job!”
Illustration by Sun Zheng