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Children come second after career for China's mothers

Careers come first for millions of mothers in China, where the mindset since Maoist days has been that a woman's place is in the workforce. The result is a sweet-and-sour mixture of pride and guilt.
Zhang Wenyan shares a tender moment with her son, Li Zeyuan, age 12, at their home in Beijing.
Zhang Wenyan shares a tender moment with her son, Li Zeyuan, age 12, at their home in Beijing.

Each morning at 6 o'clock, Zhang Wenyan gets up, gets ready and leaves her home in southern Beijing for 90 minutes on buses to reach the beauty salon where she works.

At the end of the day she does the same commute in the opposite direction. But on the way back there is more to look forward to than an eight-hour stint providing treatments to women with thinning hair. When she gets home, Zhang, 36, can spend time with her only child, her eight-year-old son, Li Zeyuan. Zhang went back to work when he was two but has felt guilty about doing so.

"During these years I've tried to compensate by providing him with better material conditions and trying to satisfy whatever he needs," she says, speaking in the beauty salon in Beijing's eastern Chaoyangmen district where she works. "Earlier, it was harder for me to be separated from my son because he was just a little kid and totally dependent on others to look after him. Now he is older and more independent it is easier. He can basically take care of himself. For a lot of kids, because their parents take too much care of them, they're a little bit spoilt."

The guilt Zhang feels is shared by working mothers the world over, but there is probably more guilt being felt in China than anywhere else, if only because the number of women involved is so vast.

While Mao Zedong, who led China after the Communist takeover in 1949, is accused of countless high crimes and misdemeanours, with some authors blaming him for the deaths of tens of millions of people during famines and crackdowns, he did have an encouraging attitude towards women in the workplace. It is perhaps partly because of this that there are now an estimated 320 million working mothers in China.

While financial necessity played a part in sending Zhang back to the workplace, it was not the only reason. Women, she says, can "enrich their lives" by having a career, even if, as in her case, it means she has to juggle housework with employment.

"It makes life more colourful. It's a fulfilling job," she says.

Just as Zhang finds that working makes life more interesting, so does Wang Guibo, a 42-year-old migrant worker from China's far north-east Heilongjiang province, who runs a Beijing locksmith store with her husband. The premises are a few hundred metres from Zhang's salon.

The store is a tatty, slightly oily workshop where Wang does everything from making duplicate keys to sending her husband on late-night errands to pick the locks of local residents who have shut themselves out of their homes. Wang sleeps in a bed at the back. But she is happy with her lot: she finds the work interesting, and being self-employed, she and her husband are not beholden to anyone, even if the work is "a 24-hour service, seven days a week" that allows them to rest only when "it is not so busy".

"Working is good and just looking after your offspring is a boring job," she says matter of factly. "This gives me a kind of fulfilment. I think maybe in western countries there is more than one child in the family, two or three or maybe half a dozen. But we have only one child."

That one child is Li Naizhuang, a 13-year-old who lives with his aunt in Heilongjiang. He stays there because that is where the family is registered as residents, meaning he would be excluded from state schools if he came to live in the Chinese capital. The "hukou" registration rules behind this are a regular source of controversy and although in some areas they are being relaxed, for the moment they mean tens of millions of children are left behind by parents who have moved to the big cities to find work, parents who often say they have little choice in the matter.

"In my home province, you cannot find proper work," says Wang. "At least you can make a living here."

She chats regularly with her son through the internet. "It's very easy to stay connected," she says.

The circumstances of China's working mothers are as diverse as the women themselves are numerous.

While Wang Guibo toils into the evening in her workshop, Du Yi has a much easier life.

Originally from the Chinese mainland, she moved to Hong Kong with her husband, a native of the former British colony, and had children there, so the couple was exempt from China's one-child policy. Du, 46, has three children, a 20-year-old daughter, Li Yuchen, and sons aged 11 and eight, Li Yuting and Li Yucheng.

Each weekday Du gets up at about 6am and spends time with her sons - her daughter is away at college - before the two boys head off to school. Li Yuting goes by bus, Li Yucheng by an immaculate chauffeur-driven black Buick Regal with soft tan leather seats. His school, in a leafy part of Chaoyangmen district, is described by parents as one of the best in Asia. The Buick Regal is waiting outside the gates each afternoon, often with Du in the back seat.

"I am not very concerned about school equality - that's something the government should take care of," she says. "But we've tried to give them the concept of equality and good-heartedness. My children don't have any airs. When the disaster happened in Sichuan [the 8.0-magnitude earthquake in May 2008] they donated a lot of money to help the victims."

Du gets to work at about 10am and no longer tends to put in a full day. She manages an insurance company set up with her husband, who is again living in Hong Kong, and says the business largely runs itself. Of the company, she says, "I would rather let it go. I spend less and less time on company affairs and more time looking after my children."

The success of the company has given Du something many other working mothers might envy.

Not only does she employ a driver, but also a maid, so she does not have to mix housework at the family apartment, which lies in an exclusive gated compound called Seasons Park, with her job.

A recent report about China's working mothers from the marketing company Ogilvy & Mather indicated about a fifth of them worried about being "detached from society" after their children were born. It is a concern Du has as well, and partly explains why she has continued to work despite her slightly detached attitude to the company.

"I think it's very important you keep a close touch with society," she says. "Once you stay at home to be a full-time housewife, you're kept from the outside world and you lose track of society."

But many of the working mothers in China, who compromise on family life so they can provide for their children, are wondering whether the tradeoff is worth it.

For many years Shu Ai, 38, worked in Shenzhen, not far from Hong Kong. She says the six years she spent in the southern boomtown while her son, Feng Yuhu, was in Beijing meant she "missed a lot of time" with the little boy, now 12. Shu's husband, Feng Zhigang, still lives in Shenzhen, where he has an IT firm.

"I felt very guilty because I thought a real mother would stay more with him," says Shu, who has since moved to the capital. "When I came back to Beijing, I brought him branded clothes, expensive toys. He said, 'Mum, I don't want branded clothes. I can take old clothes'. That made me cry. He just wanted me to stay with him. This time in the past, you can't take it back. But I have to work. This is life. I have to support this family. You always have to be the supporter of your kids, to try your best."

She works seven days a week running classes in a nursery and does not take holidays, attempting through her work to promote more progressive methods of education. Although her son stays in a boarding school during the week, something that "saves me a lot of time", Shu says with guilt that she is often too busy at weekends to spend much time with him.

She is happy with how young Feng is turning out. "If I don't have time to eat, he puts something in my bag and says, 'Mum, you have got to eat something'. He does his homework, because I don't have time to sit and check him. What he's done without help from his family is very good. It's more than I expect."

By spending less time mothering their offspring, China's women are making inroads into fields traditionally dominated by men.

Qian Lili has bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering and works full time as a power plant designer in Beijing. The 39-year-old also has a lively eight-year-old daughter, Shen Ruyi. Her husband works for the same employer.

"Women are equal to men where I work," she says. "The difficulty was that when you graduated, the government assigned a job, so we got posts in this factory. We didn't decide ourselves."

While she might have lacked freedom early in her career, Qian is now happy where she is.

Financial necessity does loom large in her decision to work full time - medical and education costs are high, she says - but like many other working mothers, she insists money is not the only reason.

"The work gives new experiences and you meet different people and do different things. It gives you a very rich life. It means something," she says. "I like my design work. I build something from scratch, from nothing. It gives you a sense of achievement, even if the processes are a little bit hard."

Qian belongs in a category the Ogilvy & Mather report described as "go-getter mums", who "look to prove themselves within what remains a male-dominated working environment". The report said 29 per cent of China's working mothers fit this description, while 35 per cent are "easygoing mums" and 36 per cent are "dedicated mums", who place the child "at the centre of all their endeavours".

The report says the categories are blurred and most women occupy a grey area between them, working hard both in their jobs and at motherhood.

It is all "just a question of managing your time," says Qian, who gets up early every morning to make her daughter breakfast before heading off to design power plants.

Updated: January 15, 2011 04:00 AM



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