Who takes care of your baby?

One of the questions I’ve been most surprised at since Rosaline’s birth has been, "Who takes care of your baby?" This is a question no new parent is asked in the US – because the answer is obvious. The parents take care of the baby, of course. In fact, it’s something of a right of passage for new mothers and fathers in the US to spend long nights changing diapers, feeding, and comforting our new babies. Not necessarily so in China, I am learning.

As a mother of a newborn, everything in my being is directed toward making sure Rosaline is well cared for, fed, changed, burped, happy, and rested (even when I am not!). Since I’m breastfeeding and since we have a toddler, Rosie has especially been almost solely under my care as JM can’t feed her and spends a lot of time taking care of Leo just now. I truly can’t imagine allowing anyone else but the two of us care for her because she’s so new and let’s face it, I can be a bit of a control freak. But honestly, I’m the mother – I see it as my responsibility, my job, and my role to care for this little bitty baby that I just grew and birthed. Who else would care for her???

In China, it is not a given that newborns are cared for primarily by their mothers or fathers. My ayi watched me change Rosaline’s diaper (we’re using cloth prefolds and pins and things) and said, "Where did you learn to do that?" I looked at her curiously, as she has cared for my son Leo for 1 1/2 years, and said, "Well, I’ve done this a few times." She responded by telling me that Chinese mothers rest for a month after the baby is born and are not the primary caregivers to their newborns. In fact, they also do not get up at night with the newborns either. Some hire "night nurses" or nannies that specialize in newborn care, but most rely on their own parents to care for the child.

I have been asked so many times now who takes care of Rosie, that is has ceased to surprise me. However, it hasn’t ceased to puzzle me. The drive that I have to care for my newborn seems almost primal to me, a natural force stronger and deeper than cultural boundaries – it seems to be at the very core of who I am as a women. And yet, here I am, faced with the idea that here it’s considered better to allow the woman who has just given birth to rest completely and better for someone else to care for her newborn. I wonder if it’s hard for Chinese women to not hold their newborns as much as I’m able to? I wonder if it’s difficult on any level for them to hear someone else respond to the baby’s cries? Or if it’s just normal and I’m the odd one here??

I am tempted to feel some grief for Chinese mothers over this, to be honest. OK, so I’m sometimes jealous at the thought of getting a full night’s rest so soon after having a newborn. But I wouldn’t give up the fact that I myself am getting to know my new baby. I would feel very helpless and depressed, I might imagine, if I weren’t caring for my baby myself.

But here it seems to be the norm, and I think Chinese women see it as an advantage. They can protect their health by resting after the birth and the fact that someone else is bonded and able to care for their baby gives them the freedom to quickly return to work. The individual relationship that they have as the mother to their only child is not as important as the contribution they make to their families as a whole. This norm seems to be acceptable in part because of the emphasis on community rather than the individual so present in Chinese society. Once again I have to struggle with the differences in our cultures and it absolutely challenges my own ideas and presumptions!

I am glad I know how to change my own daughter’s diaper though. And although I’m tired and I’m sure my health would be better with 8 hours of sleep every night, I’m really glad I get to be the one who cares for her – even at 3 am. She will only be a baby for so long, and I could swear she’s already doubled in size since her birth.


1 Response to “Who takes care of your baby?”

  1. 1 mjfalk January 23, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    I can’t help but wonder in the long run how the bonding relationship between mother and child will develop under the differing circumstances. There is much to be said for having the privilege of being what we call here in the US a “stay-home Mom”. Not every woman who is a mother has that option. Also, it’s important to be a happy stay-home Mom, if that is what God seems to be calling you to be. There are so many examples of a wide variety of family arrangements right here in our own country. My own Mother, for example, was a stay-home Mom until I was 8 years old and had two brothers younger than myself. But, our maternal Grandma, Gammy, lived with us, and was very motherly, in many ways. More on this soon.

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January 2010
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