Grand-parenting in Post-COVID Shanghai
By Xin Yuan Wang, on 5 June 2020
“It is like immediately after a bad drought you are now suffering from a flood!”, Yajing remarked half-jokingly, talking about grandmothering a five-year-old.
A few months ago, when mainland China was in deep trouble because of the pandemic, Yajing, like many grandparents nowadays in Europe, couldn’t see her granddaughter Xiaobao. During the lockdown, Yajing regularly posted photos of Xiaobao on her WeChat with lines such as “I wish the pandemic will pass soon so that I could hug Xiaobao again.”
Yajing’s wish did come true – since March, from entertainment to the workplace, many aspects of daily life have been returning to relative normality in mainland China. Xiaobao’s parents went back to work in late March and the job of taking care of Xiaobao came to Yajing “naturally”, as she put it. After two months of total separation, Yajing is now spending every single second taking care of Xiaobao: a drought immediately followed by a flood.
Before COVID-19, Yajing had already taken major responsibility for Xiaobao: in the morning, Yajing picks Xiaobao from her daughter’s home and sends her to nursery. In the afternoon, she picks Xiaobao up from nursery, prepares dinner and reads books with her until 8 pm, when Xiaobao’s parents come to pick up her after work.
“Every day, I desperately look forward to the time when the nursery will open again. I love Xiaobao but the full-time duty of looking after her is just so exhausting. I keep no time to myself at all”, Yajing complained.
Because she has been taking care of Xiaobao, Yajing has had to turn down many social events with her friends and has also cancelled her planned holidays. What is worse is that she started to have difficulties falling asleep because of the stress.
Another research participant, Mr Guo (69), also expressed his bitterness: “Our older people are ‘kidnapped’ by the role of grandparents!”. Mr Guo’s remark may sound radical but it is not totally exaggerated. During my ethnography in Shanghai, I witnessed the common practice of older people taking an active, if not major, role in raising their grandchildren in order to help their children pursue professional goals. The moral judgement of being a good grandparent via the intensive care labour of grandchildren is widely held. Such a social expectation is so strong that older people may even feel forced, or ‘kidnapped’, as Mr Guo put it.
In Shanghai, Yajing and Mr Guo represent the majority of older people who have grandchildren. The phenomenon can be seen nationwide. In 2017, a Shanghai Urban Neighborhood Survey conducted among 5100 households showed that 73.4% of preschool children are looked after by at least one grandparent and 31.7% of young couples do not get involved with the raising of preschool children. Another 2017 survey on the grandparents’ participation in family education in urban China shows that almost 80% of Chinese households see grandparents taking an active role in raising children. Among families with preschool children, the percentage is 77.7%, among those with nursery-aged children it is 72.9%, and among families with primary school children, the percentage is 60.1%. In rural areas, the figure of is higher than 90%.
Yajing expressed her concern with regards to the reopening of the nurseries: “I am afraid the nurseries will be the last to reopen among all the schools, they know that our older people will take care of the kids anyway.” It is curious to see that in many European countries, governments considered reopening the nurseries at a very early stage. It is because many adults can only go back to work when their young children are being taken care of by the nurseries. Such a sharp comparison also throws light on the significant role the grandparents play in the social support system in China.
From the family plan policy to the intergenerational gap, from the traditional filial piety to the devotion to the next generation – there is a lot to look into the issue of grandparenting, which is further highlighted in post-COVID China. For now, let’s just hope the nurseries reopen soon and Yajing can take a breath after the ‘flood’.