Mothers who look after other people's children: the narratives of rural live-in nannies in urban China 

Year: 2013

Author: Wu, Bin

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

While most research on employed mothers has focused on urban dwellers, this project examines rural women employed in the cities against the inequitable rural-urban divide in China. This paper investigates how wider context and cultural dominant beliefs about motherhood influence interpretations of motherhood from the perspectives of employed rural nannies living in urban China. There are two completing images about motherhood in the Western modern dominant ideology. One is the domestic full time mother, and other is the employed mother who could have it all. The current paper investigating Chinese understandings of motherhood complements and challenges such a western motherhood construct. In China, raising children is traditionally considered as a collective familial responsibility. Moreover, to liberate women from the domesticity was high on the political agenda in Mao's China. After the economic reforms starting from the late 1970s, China has experienced the "marketization' during which saw a rapid urbanisation in the last three decades. These experiences and situations have had impact on the constructs of motherhood and childcare. Twenty live-in nannies in urban Chengdu China were interviewed. They are mothers aged from mid 20s to 40s, who lived in the homes of their employers, away from their families to look after other people's children. The participants regarded their paid work, although away from their children, as aiming to provide the children better education and future, thus fulfilling a mothering obligation. However, there are nuanced differences in this view according to different personal situation and the age of the children. Although some mothers saw paid work as a pathway to pursue autonomy and personal financial independence, these personal pursuits are often placed second to the needs of children and family. Bourdieu's concept of habitus is applied to analyse the data. Applications of habitus originally have been focused on social class. It then has been extended to study culture and gender. There are also debates about institutional versus familial habitus (Akinson, 2011). More recently, Burke and colleagues (Burke, Emmerich and Ingram, 2012) call to bridge the divides and to focus on the complexity of the concept. The current research examines paid work relationship between the nannies and their urban middle class employers in private homes. The data point to the embeddedness and interrelatedness of the private and public, individual and social, institutional and familial. It thus challenges a dichotomous paradigm in conceptualisation.