Showing posts with label children. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children. Show all posts

Monday, May 15, 2017

Who gets an 'Ideal Mother' award?

A door goddess on the Five Concbines' Temple in Tainan.
I like to think that women are seen as good for more than just sex, good looks and motherhood. 

Mother's Day was yesterday, but I am only getting around to writing this now. I don't do a lot on Mother's Day - although I have a grandmother and mother-in-law, it's still hard to do more than maybe offer a quiet tribute of some kind to my own mother, who passed away in 2014.

Anyway, I don't I'm not meaning to make any deep social commentary here, I just wanted to point out a common practice in Taiwan that I've never heard of being done where I'm from.

Perhaps you've heard of the "Ideal Mother Awards" (or "Exemplary Mother Awards", or however you'd translate it).

Basically, every Mother's Day, local communities, including my own, vote on which mothers in their communities are "Exemplary Mothers". There's a little ceremony and an award of some kind, often but not always presented by the neighborhood chief (里長). I can't imagine it's much. You might have your name published in the community newsletter if there is one. I only know about the one in my area because of that newsletter - I tried to read it once for Chinese practice, found it horribly boring, and haven't tried again.

According to the excellent Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan,  this is a 'custom' (a government-created tradition) dating back from the days of Soong Mei-ling  -Chiang Kai-shek's wife -  and has deep ties to state-sponsored women's groups in the ROC on Taiwan. (Autonomous, non-state-sponsored women's groups were not permitted, which is not surprising.) It's directly related to these organizations, and Madame Soong's 'leadership' in women's issues, and their/her vision of what ideal Taiwanese (well, Chinese from her point of view) womanhood should be. You won't be shocked to learn that it involved traditional gender roles, hard work as a homemaker, helpmeet and supporter of the (male) ROC troops in what was perceived to be an ongoing war effort. Basically, calling themselves advocates for women while pushing sexist, traditional gender norms. 

I'm not sure who decides who is an "Exemplary Mother", to be honest, although I know there are a lot more community organizations than I am aware of as a foreigner, even as one who speaks Chinese and gets along more-or-less well with her neighbors (except, ahem, in 2014. You know why). I'd kind of forgotten about it as I no longer read my (again, horribly boring) community newsletter. I was only reminded of the practice again when a student told me that her mother-in-law would receive such an award.

Great! I thought. Here's a chance to ask a few questions about this particular...uh, tradition? Is it even one? 

Ugh, my student seemed to think. It's such a silly old-fashioned thing. I hope nobody ever foists one of those awards on ME. 

I have to admit, I had conceived of the "Exemplary Mother" awards as a sort of patriarchal pat-on-the-back, a carrot of reinforcement of outdated gender norms. Convincing women to think of their "place" as mothers and wives in the family so the whole Confucian train can keep rollin'. Though this is not limited to Asia, in Asia it's often associated with Confucianism, however, we are not innocent in the West, where I suppose it's just associated with being misogynist. Same difference?

And I write that even as someone who strongly dislikes the tendency of foreigners writing about Asia to revert straight to "Confucian!!!" to explain everything, even when that thing can be explained by saying "this is a thing that sucks." But maybe it can be used accurately in this particular case?

Back when I read that article in my community newsletter, I recall at least one-third to one-half of all of the "exemplary mothers" having dual surnames (e.g. Chen Zhuang Mei-ling or what have you), signifying that the mothers in question had taken their husbands' surnames in addition to their own: a practice that is considered by most to be very traditional and old-fashioned, and something of a social signal showing that you, too, are something of a traditionalist.

So, I imagined this whole shebang as a way to reward housewives, perhaps conservative ones, perhaps ones in very traditional family structures who not only upheld those structures, but believed in them and maybe even felt everyone else should too. I certainly imagined them picking mothers who defined themselves by their family, deferred to their husbands, and embodied a certain middle-to-upper-middle-class ROC - can we call it waisheng? - aesthetic, whether they were actually from that community or not (I've long felt that the aesthetic is the thing that seems to count. Whether or not you are actually descended from the KMT diaspora doesn't always make a difference when it comes to this kind of patriarchal elitism. You just have to act like them.)

However, I was pleasantly surprised. A quick rundown of the questions I asked and the answers I got:

So these awards - what do you have to do to get one?

Well, you have to have at least a few kids. Maybe three is enough - a lot of kids anyway, probably more than two. And you have to have sacrificed a lot for your family.

What do you mean by 'sacrificed a lot'? 

Like, spend a lot of time raising your kids, and they should be successful, good students or high-level workers if they are older. Always cooking nutritious food, that sort of thing. And usually you are not rich, I guess they think it's easy to raise kids if you are rich.

So, housewives?

No, sometimes the mothers have careers. You don't have to be a housewife to get this award.

Do they have to be particularly traditional?

No, I mean, I guess if you're divorced you won't get the award. But you don't have to be very traditional. Like I said, you could work or have a career too. Actually if you just do everything you are told you probably won't get it. You have to be a leader in the family.

Anything else? 

You should take care of other family members, like your husband's parents. If you take care of kids and the older generation, that's really good. And you should have a...'harmonious family'.

What about your own parents? 

I don't know, but I think if you take care of your own parents and raise kids, that's actually okay. It doesn't have to be so traditional.

So, are there "Exemplary Father" awards? 

Yes! We have those on Father's Day. But honestly, people don't pay as much attention to them. And you also have to sacrifice a lot for your family to get that.

Sacrifice how?

Like do a lot for them, raise your children well, and have a lot of kids, spend time with them, and the kids should be model citizens too. Just like with the mothers.

So it's not about earning money for the family. 

No! Anyone can do that. An 'Exemplary Father' has to do more than that.

It seems like the main thing here is rewarding people who have a lot of kids. 

Yup. Well you know our population is low, people are not having a lot of kids these days. So maybe the government wants to encourage that by rewarding the parents who do that even though they are not rich, and who raise their kids well.

Other than being good students or successful adults, what does it mean to be a 'model citizen'? 

Well, like a good person. Maybe you do something for the community.

So it's about more than obeying your parents, or growing up to earn a lot of money? 


What do you think it means to have a 'harmonious family'?

Like, you get along, the neighbors don't think of you as fighting all the time, maybe you seem happy as a family. Not divorced. But also, not arguing all the time.

Do you need to have a son?

Not as far as I know, no. But I guess most people who win this award have at least one son, because they always have many kids.

* * *

Anyway, this is one person's answers, and narrators can be unreliable. I don't know how true her statements are regarding the entire practice. Perhaps in her neighborhood they are more progressive, but you never know, perhaps they are less so, or perhaps her views of what it takes to be an "Exemplary Mother" are not as in line with the committee members' ideas as she thinks they are. There's no way to know (well, there is a way to know, but I'm not an academic with a research budget, so there's no way for me to know).

There are things I could nitpick, though many could be nitpicked in any country: the idea that one needs to have many kids to be an "Exemplary Mother" (or father), the idea that fathers get less attention paid to their awards (though fathers being thought of as less involved with family is an issue hardly unique to Taiwan). I wonder to what extent female obeisance is required to maintain a 'harmonious family', and what behavior at home might be known about but ignored by neighbors. I wonder to what extent wives and mothers might not speak out lest their neighbors think of them as less than 'exemplary' (again, not a problem unique to Taiwan).

The award also only seems to be open to same-sex couples, as we don't yet have marriage equality in Taiwan, and the idea that one can't be an "Exemplary Mother" if one is divorced. It reinforces gender norms and gender identity, and provides a frighteningly pre-fab idea about what 'sacrifice' and 'harmony' mean. I also wonder how often it really happens that a woman who receives such an award really does have a high-powered career on par with her husband's. Perhaps it is possible, but is it common?

I could also nitpick what this means for the kids. Sure, what my student said above is all well and good. It sounds wonderful on paper, but what does it really mean? Does it mean pushing kids to study all day for pointless tests, so they get good grades and thus are "good students"? How narrow is the definition for "model citizens"? I mean, that last one sounds like something Ma Ying-jiu would have been called as a kid, and something Hung Hsiu-chu would blather on about now, and I wouldn't call either of them model citizens. Do they really not define 'successful' as 'high-status and earning a lot of money' or is that just something one says because it sounds like the right sort of sound bite? And is the fact that the winners generally have sons really because they tend to have more than two kids in general, or because sons really are considered more important by the committee that hands these awards out?

I don't know, and I can't know, but I have to admit the whole thing is a lot better than I'd imagined it to be.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Success and Having Children in Taiwan

Go read this now.

Why Women Still Can't Have It All

This is really a USA-based article, but still worth a read, very thorough and very articulate. A lot of it holds for Taiwan, too, but then I also think a lot of women in Taiwan choosing not to have children are doing so not for work related reasons (most jobs, let's face it, are not really worth the sacrifice, and those include a lot of low-to-mid-level Office Lady positions - although I fully recognize that a job that may not be "worth it" to me might well be very much worth it to another woman, so take my words with a Himalayan salt lamp-sized grain of salt).

I touched on this a bit the last time I wrote about the low birth rate in Taiwan - on how the main reasons are a feeling that they can't afford to have children, that they want to enjoy now-possible freedoms and comforts their parents didn't have, and gender-based expectations of who is going to take on more work raising kids is still a huge issue. It's huge in the USA, too, but, err, huger here. If that's a word. I also mentioned that the working world, if you work for a larger or international company, is actually friendlier to women, with guaranteed maternity leave and a culture where grandparents are more likely to provide free childcare (the same does not hold for smaller companies, where women are routinely kept back because of a fear they'll have kids and stop being useful to the company).

I didn't touch on what this article covers - women at the absolute top and their decisions on choosing to have kids...or not to.

In the course of my daily work I'm exposed to a lot of women at the top of their careers. CFOs, heads of departments, Taiwan CEOs, legal counsel, physicians and researchers, general managers. While I'd say it's 50-50 regarding whether those women have children, it's also far more likely that you'll find unmarried women and married women without children in those positions.

I'd say that of these - speaking only from my experience - about half don't have children, and of those about a quarter are unmarried. The unmarried women at the top that I know of seem to have no desire to tie the knot (good for them - marriage is not the be-all and end-all of a woman's life or the most important of her accomplishments): I can't come up with any examples of very successful Taiwanese women who are unmarried but have a desire to be. Far more common is marrying and not having children. One woman, who was at the top but has recently resigned from a very high-level job in finance (it even made the United Daily News), is unmarried with a child. Not notable in and of itself, but worth noting in a reflection on high-ranking women in Taiwan and the family decisions they make, especially as her departure was big enough to be reported on (I've met her - she is a very decisive woman).

The striking thing is that you'd expect, if you were so minded, to hear these women say "I would have liked to have had children, but I put my career first", or "I had always intended to have children, but then when I was finally ready it was too late" (something you do hear in the USA - at least in online comments: women who had always thought they'd have kids and then woke up one day and realized they'd never actually done so and it was either too late or almost to that point).

But they don't - most of them will very matter-of-factly tell you, if they are so inclined to tell you anything, that they had never really wanted children, or had decided early on not to have them.

I can't speak for the husbands of these high-powered women I know who do have children; I don't know them. I've been told that they're not that different from the sort of (stereo)typical "allows gendered expectations of child-rearing to continue" man you'd expect, but I don't have that on first-hand knowledge.

That's something - and seems to me to be a strong difference in attitude. A lot less ambivalence, and a lot more decisiveness. I guess if you live in a society where it's more expected that you'll have children (and a son at that! Gah!), you are more likely to be more decisive if you decide not to have them. This may have influenced a decisiveness in my own tone regarding not having children - had I stayed in the USA I might have continued to be a bit more ambivalent, because I would have had the social room to do so.

This leads me to believe that women in Taiwan who reach the top of their fields who don't have children are choosing not to not because being at the top of your field requires so much sacrifice that they forgo this kind of family life, but because they're the sorts of women who wouldn't have wanted children regardless. It's just who they are. I can relate to that - I don't want children, but it's not because of my career. I could realistically have both. It's just who I am (I might write more about that in a future post, or not).

In that way, they may be more like Peggy on Mad Men (bear with me - I've barely seen the show - please do correct me if I'm wrong and Peggy's wanted children all along) than the all-too-common-on-Internet-comment-threads American women who wanted children but wanted a career more, or who had intended to had children but ran out of time while chasing a career. My experience has shown that Taiwanese office culture is not nearly as much like America in the '60s (ie, Mad Men) as a lot of people assume it is, but still, this says something. It says something about the pressures and expectations women face in Taiwan and, as a result, who gets to the top and who doesn't.

In the end, this is true for women in Taiwan, the USA and elsewhere:

We currently live in a world where men make more money for equal work. This means that it's all too common that the parent who stays home or takes a hit to their career is the wife - because, hey, you've gotta earn a good wage for the family.

We also live in a world where, in order to get to the top (at least in the corporate world), you have to basically sacrifice yourself to your company. This is true everywhere. In Taiwan, I feel that many people have to do that anyway, even if they don't get to the top - in the USA you have more of a choice to work reasonable hours (but if you want to be "successful" in the typically expected sense, you'd better make the sacrifice). This means that the parent or parents who take that path will be giving up something - you can't have a real commitment to family and work those hours.

The difference? Women might be more likely to cut back as a result. It's not true that the working men of yore could have a career and a family - he could, but unless he was truly 9-to-5, he probably didn't get to spend as much time with that family as he would have liked. They couldn't have it then, and they certainly can't have it now, with working hours what they are.

So "making it" in the traditional sense, where you have to give up time with your family, isn't going to work if we want a truly equal world.

And we can't change things until we admit that and create a working culture where you can succeed and still have enough control over your schedule to spend real time with your family, and get rid of gender-based expectations of who will do the brunt of the child-rearing and who will take the hit to their career to make that happen.

Then, we need to create a world where a woman who wants children can discuss how it will work with her husband without the lingering expectation that she'll make the sacrifices. She'll be able to enter that discussion knowing that they'll work something out together and he's just as likely to take the hit as she is, and that the hit, importantly, won't be that bad, or that career-damaging.

Then, and only then, will we have equality, or something like it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Link-tacular Wednesday (updated)

Here, enjoy a few links. I intend to write a few posts exploring some of these issues further, but have had a very busy work week - and, as I mentioned in my last post, haven't been feeling on top of things mentally.

But, if you are interested at all in women's issues - especially my current strongest areas of interest: pay inequality, reproductive rights, women in technology and motherhood vs. working, you will find these links all interesting reads.

Motherhood Still A Cause of Pay Inequality - from the New York Times

On Choosing Not To Have Children - from Slate (reader contribution)

Dogs Rain Supreme for Childless Japanese - on Japanese women and couples choosing not to have children (from Jezebel)

Mothers Running Tech Startups - also from Jezebel (based on this NYT article)

BoingBoing's Awesomepants Xeni Jardin Takes on the Idea That Men Invented The Internet - from BoingBoing

Women facing online misogyny - it's  not exceptional, it's frighteningly normal - from Slate (also with links to Jezebel and the original story here from Kotaku)

Female doctor-scientists being paid less than male counterparts (from Jezebel - this story contradicts the one above: it shows a pay disparity even when  accounting for children and time off for family)

A comprehensive list of ways in which fathers are treated - unfairly - differently from mothers and the assumptions behind it all. For instance -  try finding a changing table in a men's room.  

People keep saying that Roe v. Wade won't be overturned, so there's nothing to fear. Those people are wrong. Even if Roe v. Wade is kept in place, there's a lot to fear.            

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Pressure On My Uterus Is Astounding

I hope you enjoy the title!

Sorry for not posting much - at all? - this week. I did an incredible amount of work and pulled off the move to the new apartment, and have had exactly zero free time to do much of anything other than work, pack and then unpack.  Things should start getting back to normal around Christmas, when I hope to get back to my normal blogging volume.

I had wanted to do a post on a hike we did in Zhonghe (中和) of all places, up to Yuantong Temple (圓桶寺 - not sure I got the wrong "tong" there), but my camera's acting up and I can't seem to upload the photos. I don't have Internet at the new place yet so I can't do it whenever, so if they don't upload now, I can't just do it from home. I'll get that up soon, though.

I also wanted to pass along this link on Taiwan's gender ratio worsening, which I'll write a post about when I have more regular Internet access and time: hopefully in the coming week.

For now, I wanted to  comment a bit on what it's like to be childfree by choice, and how people react to that,  as an expat woman living in Taiwan. It's something I got to thinking about after reading this article on women on American prime time TV and how few of them are child-free (basically one sitcom - How I Met Your Mother) has a child-free by choice woman and deals with the topic with some degree of sensitivity. I agree with the article's redux of that plot line).

Because, you know, back home there was pressure to find a nice boy, get married, buy a house and pop out a few sprogs. It was clearly something my family wanted for me - which is fine, I mean it's something most people do, and happily do by choice, and it is at least true that my marriage has been a fantastic, vital thing in my life. It's something people just kind of figure you'll do, and look askance at you if you verbalize that you don't want to.  For the record, I may be child-free by choice but I have never said that I did not want to marry or did not intend to marry.  I'm actually pretty pro-marriage as long as it's a modern, feminism-friendly marriage of equals rather than being a patriarchal tool of stifling gender roles.

When I say there was "some" pressure, though, I really mean it as "some", not "a lot".  Sure, the media is wedding and baby crazy - something that apparently tends to happen in tough economic times (a friend was telling me about a sociological study to that effect - people are less likely to go it alone and more likely to pair up, less likely to have kids or just have fewer kids, but are more attentive to the idea of procreation as a society - possibly because having a baby when times are tough is subconsciously seen as a status symbol: "Look, we can afford to have a baby even when the economy's in the crapper!"). And yes, one still gets comments that are based in assumptions - that you both want to get married and will do so, that you want kids and will have them. If you openly acknowledge wanting such things, it's fine. If you are faced with such a comment and are honest about not wanting one or both of them, though, it creates a frission of social awkwardness, to the point if you wonder if it's a faux pas to admit you don't want children or don't intend to marry. People are generally too polite to say anything about it, but you just know you're being judged. A tiny bit, maybe, but judged nonetheless.

This isn't true among my friends - all of whom know that I'm not into having kids - but when I lived in DC it was certainly true among colleagues and acquaintances. That's why my friends are my friends. I'm not going to waste time with anyone who'd judge me and find me lacking for personal choices.

It's a different story in Taiwan, though.

For a country with such a low birthrate, I have to wonder why everyone assumes that everyone else wants and will have babies. Clearly, with so few babies being born, plenty of women and couples are choosing not to do so - how can it be assumed that they will, or that they want to? (I realize the answer is "cultural norms and tradition", at least in part, but even those who are affected that much by cultural expectations of bygone days must realize that having the lowest birthrate in the world is clearly a sign that those days are over).      

I'm regularly asked if I'm married and, when I respond in the positive, if I have kids (sometimes I'm asked how many kids I have, as though I must have gotten my babymaking on already!). I don't mind that these are socially acceptable topics in Taiwan: I'm not inhibited about talking about such things. I'm at peace with our decision on kids - in fact, I'd say it's brought me that peace, I didn't have to make peace with it - and not afraid to talk about it confidently.

The reactions I get range from wonderment to polite questioning to outright criticism, although the latter is usually delivered in a friendly "motherly advice" sort of way rather than stone-cold mean-spirited criticism. Occasionally someone has the social acuity to realize that we crazy Westerners generally don't question or openly wonder at others' life choices and will leave it at that or express support.  Occasionally someone genuinely agrees.

Sometimes I get advice: not only am I wrong, apparently, and should definitely have kids, but I'll be told that at least one should be a boy, or the first one should be, and given other specifics like how many I should have and how I should raise them (the consensus seems to be that I should have two, at least one should be a boy, you know because I can control that of course, they should be schooled in a Western style but made to study as hard as Taiwanese kids - ugh! - and be raised bilingually. It's OK if I work and we get a nanny, though, or I could make my mother move here to help raise them. Ha...).

Mostly, though, I get the open wonderment of the "why on Earth wouldn't you want to have kids?" variety - and not just from old folks. From people my age, even! Talk about social pressure - for a society that procreates so little, Taiwan is certainly big on expectations to procreate.

It really is an assumption - I remember one group of students, for men, all engineers, who took me out for dinner at the end of our course. We went around and gave toasts (I'd taught them to do that) and one of them toasted me, knowing I would get married soon, saying he "wished for me to have a happy marriage and have many sons". I am often asked, after saying I don't have kids, when I will have them (not "if"). I am asked how old I am, next: sometimes the reply to my age is along the lines of "it's OK, you still have time, 31 is young" to "oh my god GET ON IT GIRLFRIIIIIIEEEEND those eggs aren't gonna stay good forever!".

I do feel very much in the minority, and I do feel that more women (or Taiwanese people in general) would come out and openly concur with the choice to be child-free if there were less overall expectations that probably keep their mouths firmly shut. I have a blog post coming up on this, but it does seem to be the case that when people make a life choice back home they're fairly open about it, whereas in Taiwan I've gotten the impression that a lot of people, realizing that their life choices go against expectations - even if they don't go against the "norm", such as not having kids  - decide to say nothing for the sake of social harmony.

Again, for a society with such a low birthrate, it seems to be really short on people, especially women, who are out of the child-free closet and willing to openly embrace their decision not to have kids.

A few other notes on this topic:

First, Taiwan is a rare gem in Asia and, frankly, the world in that there are high-profile Taiwanese women who have eschewed marriage and children (although it is unclear to what extent that was a choice):  the two that come to mind are Chen Chu and Tsai Ying-wen. It has not been said openly that Tsai and Chen can and should be role models for young Taiwanese women (especially Chen among women in southern Taiwan), but it deserves some thought. If anything, Taiwan could use some more female role models who have achieved both great success and have happy marriages and children: the one high profile woman I can think of who is also married is Cher Wang - I don't know if she has kids. I say this because I believe that successful role models should be balanced - to show women that you can marry and have kids and be phenomenally successful, or you can not marry and not have kids and still be successful.

Second, that I know this pressure in Taiwan is not directed at me just because I'm foreign or just because I'm a woman, although I am sure I do get more pressure because I'm female. My Taiwanese female friends, and even some of my Taiwanese male friends, have felt the same pressure. I can confirm this firsthand: I've seen Facebook status updates from friends who I know don't want children, because they've told me so, with replies along the lines of "that'll change when you have babies!" or "oh, such good practice for when you're a  parent". The friend whose feed items got these replies is Taiwanese and male.

Third, rather like back home, it seems to be assumed that because I don't want kids, that I don't like kids. Actually, I do. They can be great fun and I tend to be good with them. They generally like me. I love playing with my little cousins or friends' kids. I teach two girls in a private class once a week and I like them a lot. I just don't want to devote my life to raising them. It's assumed both in Taiwan and back home that I must have massive professional ambitions and that's why I don't want kids. I have some, but I'd say that my main ambition is to have a successful, satisfying and fulfilling life with enough money to be comfortable. I don't need to be a professional phenom even though my career is important to me - I aim for success, but I won't work myself  into an early grave. My main work ambitions are to be phenomenal at what I do and be in high demand, to enjoy it, but not to let it consume me. It's assumed that I am not "feminine" - which is kind of true, but not entirely. It's true that I lack a lot of characteristics typically associated with "femininity", but that doesn't mean I lack all of them (people have wondered how I can be so good at crafty things and DIY and yet not be sufficiently feminine to want babies). Before I married, it was sometimes assumed that choosing to be childfree meant that I was anti-marriage: nothing could be further from the truth. It's assumed that I have that quality so often described as "selfish": it's true that I don't want to make the sacrifices  that would be necessary if I were to have children, such as giving up free time and traveling less, if at all. I wouldn't call that "selfish", though. Feeling that way and having kids anyway, now that you could make a case for. I feel the weight of these assumptions more in Taiwan back home, but they exist in both countries.

Finally, I plan to write an entire other blog post about this - probably the next one I put up - but the main difference between me and a lot of Taiwanese people, especially women when it comes to pressure to procreate is that in many cases they feel the need to actually consider or even give into some of that social pressure. It is not uncommon for a woman to agree to have kids she doesn't really want, or isn't sure she wants, because her mother-in-law or her own family expects it. I've written before about a student in this situation who is preparing to have a kid she has admitted she isn't sure she wants - but her mother-in-law is adamant so she just finds it easier to go ahead and do it. To be fair, she isn't certain she doesn't want kids, either.

I listen to my two families, but I feel no need to actually do what they would prefer. Note: neither side is giving me a problem or anything like that! When I talk about Western in-laws vs. what I observe in Taiwan, I am speaking more generally. I haven't had any problems personally but I do have American friends who have faced such issues.

I know both sets of parents would be delighted if we had kids, but I feel no obligation to pop 'em out. In fact, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of "we're trying for a baby because my parents/in-laws want a grandchild"...yet it does happen.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Some Thoughts on Having Children in Taiwanese Culture

Thought #1 - the preference for male children is going to end within one generation.

I recently had a conversation with someone who is recently married and about to try to start having a baby - and one of the things we talked about caused me to do some thinking.

She said that because she wants to have only one child - although she admits she might change her mind after having that child - that she would prefer it to be a boy.

Oh no, I thought, so this whole 'preference for sons' thing is still alive even in the younger generations? (I realize it's culturally motivated but I don't care - a preference for sons is something I will not condone. You can get rid of a societal preference for male children and not destroy the culture).

She clarified - she wants a boy because her mother-in-law wants a grandson* to carry on the family name and lineage. It's OK if she has a daughter, but the mother-in-law will then pressure her to have a second baby and try for a boy. If she has one baby and it's a boy, she won't get the pressure because the male lineage would have been assured.

[sarcasm] Of course, it is clearly unthinkable that a granddaughter might carry on the family heritage. Everyone knows women can't do that. [/sarcasm].

I want to say that my first thought was uuuuggggghhhhhhh but that I tempered it: in some ways, this is actually a good thing. The person I was talking to - a member of the current parent-aged generation - doesn't personally care if she has a son or daughter. When she has a child of any gender, she won't care if that child has a son or daughter (I didn't ask what she'd think of a child who wanted to children of his or her own).

It's a member of the older generation that cares, and that makes all the difference. It sucks for my acquaintance, who has to deal with that pressure, but the fact is that the older generation is done procreating and their influence can really only stretch into the current generation (maybe - maybe - the next one if they try to pressure their grandchildren, but given the later ages to which couples are delaying parenthood, I suspect most Taiwanese grandparents won't be around to see their great-grandchildren. I'd add that my grandparents' expectations of me never changed my life plan one jot, although I love and respect all of them, but then neither did my parents'...and Taiwan has a different family culture. My reactions to family expectations don't apply).

That means that if this is a trend, and I believe it is even though I'm only illustrating it with one example, that the whole 'preference for sons' thing is going to die out with the next generation and we will hopefully see a more egalitarian, sexism-free take on procreation. I don't mean that all preference will be eradicated, but that preferences will be individual and will include parents who want girls, not just the social mandate to prefer boys. I'm seeing a lot of "we don't mind either way" or "actually, I want a girl" and "my mother wants me to have a son but I don't care personally" in the current generation of parents, and very little "I want a boy who will take care of me in my old age/carry on the family name". This is a good thing.

We then had a great discussion on how one handles parents and in-laws post-marriage, when you become your own family unit. I had little to say because these aren't problems I have (my in-laws thankfully don't do this, and while my parents do, we are close enough that I can tell them to shove off - in those words - without any loss of love, because that's the kind of relationship we have). I shared how I handle pretty much anyone who gets in my space who is not my husband, by at first deflecting and then, if it persists, telling them that really that's a personal issue. If that doesn't work, flat out saying that I'll do as I please and my decisions are not theirs to make, and their opinions are their own but I don't want to hear them. I'll end with an unapologetic "I'm sorry you feel that way" and do as I please anyway, without explaining myself, because why should I have to?

She admired the approach but admitted she couldn't practice it - it's my mother in law! I can't say that!

(Sure you can, maybe more politely but you can. But yes, I do understand that there are cultural issues at play).

Which might all lead to another post on dealing with family in Taiwan once you are married - when I have more time I'd like to expand on that.

*note to my mother-in-law - thank you so much for not being like that!

Thought #2 - I'd really like to see the demise of the assumption that it's best to want kids, but it's not going to.

Heck, it hasn't gone away in the USA. I still have family who pressures me about this. But here...well, this may be TMI but it's a women's issue in Taiwan so I think it's worth sharing. I was visiting my doctor and discussing various options and she said "So you can take this for a year or so, and then when you have a baby..."

"I'm not planning to have a baby."

"Really?! But...why? You really don't want to have a baby?!"

Because for this particular doctor it is kinda, sorta her business when she's dealing with my health, instead of telling her to shove off I said "Yes. I really don't."

In the USA I would have dumped her right away and gotten a new doctor, but this is Taiwan and I can't expect the same attitude here. I did see a different doctor only because it was more convenient to work, and got a similar reaction. I get the feeling that I'd get that reaction no matter who I saw - because I also get it from taxi drivers, new acquaintances, random people, the old ladies in the lane, you name it. I don't tell them my plans mostly, because it's not their business, but I get that shocked expression when I tell them I'm 30, married and yet do not have a child (I'm not sure why - the Taiwanese are marrying later and later and also delaying childbirth, if they have children at all. "DINK" is actually a word here, too). They are shocked when I say I have no immediate plans for a child (something I wouldn't divulge in the USA but the boundaries for personal questions here are different - if I had not been influenced by the culture here I wouldn't even be blogging about this). I don't tell them that I don't have any plans, because that's just not a conversation I want to have with perfect strangers.

I don't see this going away anytime soon. It's a shame - people (especially doctors) really should respect others' decisions to have or not have children. Unlike a preference for sons, however, I think the expectation that having children is the best route, the correct path, is not going to die out within a generation. Too bad.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day, But Where Are the Mothers?

Happy Mother's Day!

Because I always have to go against the norm of posting happy thoughts about various holidays, here's an article that appeared in today's Taipei Times:

More Mothers Unhappy Than Not

This underscores a lot of what I said in my previous post on the issue - not only women and couples feeling it's just too expensive to try and raise kids in today's Taiwan (or world, because really the USA is no better), but also that women still have to deal with sexism and discrimination against women of childbearing age in the workplace - at least if they work for a smaller or local company - and that by and large they are also still expected to take care of more affairs at home, and to top it all off, childcare while they are working is prohibitively expensive for many.

...and that a few thousand kuai isn't going to fix this problem. It's sad to think that more mothers are unhappy than not, and that a vast majority of women in Taiwan don't want to have children (and I say this as someone who doesn't want to have children, so I do understand - but I don't want children for personal reasons, not economic ones).

And the way to fix it is to:

1.) Enact programs to combat discrimination against women of childbearing age and mothers in the workplace;

2.) Provide affordable childcare options for families;

3.) Enact campaigns to raise cultural awareness in terms of encouraging more equal partnerships among mothers and fathers in childrearing (and I do believe that a more involved father who takes an equal partnership in his family life, including cutting back work hours if necessary, will lead to fewer instances of extramarital affairs in this demographic);

4.) Take steps toward encouraging fairer wages (I do feel most Taiwanese white collar workers are underpaid for the time they devote to their jobs) and more reasonable housing prices so that young families can afford to live in the space they need to raise children;

5.) Enact campaigns to limit and lower excessive working hours and a work culture that values time spent at a desk over true productivity, and companies that pile excessive workloads on their employees because they can.

You want to raise the birthrate? That is how you do it.

Not that I think the birthrate needs to be raised - if anything Taiwan needs fewer people, not more.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Low Birthrate in Taiwan

Yeah, I know I've been faffing about recently with talks of caramels and pineapple cakes, but it was a busy week, I didn't get nearly enough sleep until the weekend and I had a headache that just wouldn't quit. So anyway.

I think the main reason why I've been putting off writing this post is because, honestly, a lot of the reasons why Taiwan has such a low birth rate are, as I see it, similar to why the marriage rate is declining. It's hard to talk about it without sounding a little repetitive. I do think, however, that there are some really obvious factors that the government, in its zeal to promote having children, is forgetting.

I should start out by saying that as far as I'm concerned, the declining birth rate is a good thing for Taiwan (as it would be for the world if it were a global phenomenon) - at least in the long run. Yes, in the next few decades it presents a problem as fewer and fewer young workers are around to support the elderly, but I feel like that's a jagged little pill we simply have to swallow to lower the population across the board, and not in a bat shit crazy Chinese "you can only have one baby!" way. The Earth can't handle many more people, we can't feed many more people, the skies can't handle the emissions from the power usage and transportation for many more people...if anything we need fewer people. In total. Globally. Taiwan is in an especially sensitive situation as it is truly running out of arable land, settleable land and resources (including clean water and the ability to develop new land in an ecologically safe way). The government is so guns-blazing pro-baby that it's not accounting for these issues, or for the fact that more children now means even more children to support them later, and eventually Taiwan is simply going to run out of space. The entire world is. (In other words, David Reid said it well).

All that aside, I thought I'd take a look at some of the reasons why the Taiwanese are not having babies - it's not because they're worried about the environment or overcrowding (although these are things that as citizens, they should be thinking about).

Aside from reasons that could also apply to the low marriage rate, there is one glaringly obvious point that needs to be made: most Taiwanese don't think they have enough money to comfortably raise a child or multiple children.

This is a developed-world phenomenon, not just a Taiwanese one, but it seems to be more pronounced in Taiwan, despite the fact that in terms of purchasing power and living standards, Taiwan now outranks Japan.

I'm not sure where to draw the line on how much this is an assertion driven by a culture that values humility and savings vs. how much it really is not financially feasible to have a lot of children, or any children, if you are Taiwanese.

In some cases, I think it really is an issue of thinking you don't have enough money when really, you'd make do just fine if you were to have a kid. Some sacrifices would be necessary, sure, but you wouldn't grow bankrupt. You see this a lot in the USA: we'll have a kid when we have a house big enough for a nursery, and can afford day care, and we're at good points in our careers and in a position to start a college fund.

It is absolutely true that if you really want to have a child, but you want to wait until conditions are "perfect", you never will. If you truly want it, you wait until you can reasonably pay for things like food, clothing, care and medical bills but not until you can afford a fancy crib in a dedicated nursery.

Of course, if you don't want a child, no amount of being ready will push you towards it, and that's fine too.

There is also the fact, though, that square footage in which to raise a kid is an expensive proposition in Taipei - I can see why a Taipei family would put off having children or have fewer children because they simply can't afford an apartment big enough to house them. My husband and I make a pretty good wage and yet I'd balk at the amount of money we'd have to pump into a mortgage if we were ever to buy property in Taipei, and that's for a modest one-bedroom.

On the other hand, it's much cheaper to have a baby in Taiwan than in the USA. Taiwan actually has a healthcare system that basically works, unlike the broken, unaffordable mess we have back home - prenatal, delivery, post-natal and pediatric care are all covered, though you'll have to pay more for electives (such as specialized birthing centers and 'mothers' hotels' in which to take your month of traditional maternity rest). Day care/kindy/nannies are cheaper than the US, but not exactly cheap. Baby-sitting is unheard of, but often you still pay little or nothing for the equivalent: having your in-laws watch your kids, which is far more common here.

Furthermore, the least economically advantaged people in Taiwan still seem to be having babies - rather like in the USA, it's the middle-to-upper classes who seem to be slowing down (no, I don't have any stats to back that up, just my own subjective observations) it may be more a case of "we don't have enough money to raise a child without making significant sacrifices" rather than "we simply don't have enough money to raise a child".

Which, hey, I'm not criticizing. You hear a lot of criticism of that view, with the assumption that you should be happy to sacrifice certain things to have a child. I'm not willing to sacrifice travel, and a relatively free lifestyle to have a child - at least not right now - so those folks'll get no judgment from me!

Yes, people with far less money had children just a few generations ago, but let's look at some of the differences that made that possible:

1.) Daughters were married off, not educated, and the expense of school and university for girls was not an issue;
2.) Property was not nearly as expensive and settlements not as densely packed;
3.) It wasn't considered a "given" that your kids would attend university or would need to get into the best high school;
4.) An agricultural-turning-to-industrial society still meant plenty of people in the countryside with space to raise their children;
5.) Kids simply had less than parents today feel are necessary: from learning English to computers to cram school;
6.) If you couldn't afford all your kids you'd often give your daughters away to be raised by others (seriously, that's what they did - "you can't have kids? Need a farm hand? I can't feed her - here ya go!") - my neighbor Old Fang complains bitterly about how this was done to her - "they didn't care about me because I was a girl. They just threw me away, gave me to someone else like I was nothing".
7.) Mothers generally did not work and if they did, they lived with the husband's family who would raise the children;
8.) If both spouses worked and didn't live near in-laws, the children would go live with their parents (this is still fairly common).

The government's financial bonuses for having children is aimed at this issue: I believe the bonus is NT $20,000 (which is in the hundreds, not thousands, US, but is not a shabby amount either). Many women's rights groups don't care for that initiative, however: "We're not vending machines into which you throw some coins in return for a baby" said one activist. "What women really want is a high-quality public day care system."

Which brings me to other points that are similar to the reasons why Taiwanese women are marrying in such low numbers.

When you marry in Taiwan, there are a whole heap of gender expectations pushed on you - if not from your husband than from society and especially in-laws, although it's considered acceptable for your husband to have those expectations, too. You do find yourself in the position that many married women in the USA had to deal with decades ago: working either because you wanted to or needed to, but not expected to be a breadwinner, and yet still expected to keep the house clean and the kids, if you had them yet, reared. Taiwanese women do have mothers and mothers-in-law to help with those things, but that's not always a good solution (I adore my in-laws but this is a sentiment that not many people seem to share with me in Taiwan). It means having to deal with your in-laws ideas about child-rearing, their expectations of your home and who should clean it, and if you don't care for them, having to live in the same apartment or neighborhood.

Is it any wonder that Taiwanese women, faced with the choices of "let mom-in-law watch the kids" (assuming she doesn't like her mother-in-law, which is quite sadly common here), "or take on most of the child-rearing because my husband isn't going to help, while either working or taking a hit to my career", would choose to have no children, or as few as possible?

I've heard that the average salary in Taiwan is NT$30,000 per month, but let's say this is a more middle-class couple and they each make NT $60,000/month (for which you have to be at least in middle management in this country and work punishing hours that are really out of proportion for what amounts to $2000 US). A good kindy/day care or nanny is going to cost NT $20,000-$30,000/month, which is 25% of the couple's combined pay. That is, honestly, way too much - whether in Taiwan or in the USA where the percentages are similar.

So I see where women are coming from when they say that they want good public day care. Either they're faced with a quarter of their income gone (assuming each spouse makes $60K, which is twice the average) or with one of them taking a hit to their career...and let's be honest, that's usually the wife, not the husband. How is that in any way fair - in America or Taiwan? Can you blame a couple for not wanting to deal with that?

Speaking of work and having children -

Taiwan has a more mother-friendly working world, at least in larger companies - there is mandated maternity leave (no such thing in the USA), taking a month off (坐月子) is common and expected, stronger family ties make it possible for most families with babies to have someone care for their child - usually but not always a mother-in-law - while the mothers go back to work, and in terms of purchasing power parity, getting a day nanny or sending your kid to nursery school is more affordable here than in the USA.

On the other hand, in smaller companies it is fairly common for prospective female job candidates to be grilled about - or not hired because - you may be taking time off to have children. Horribly long hours at work - hours that no Westerner would ever find acceptable - make it harder to spend time with children, and if you work in Taipei and your family lives somewhere else in Taiwan, you may be faced with having your child live with his/her grandparents until (s)he is ready to start school at age 7: something not every parent wants. Under those circumstances, would you really be keen to have children?

I still think it comes down to three things:

1.) the expense of living space and child care (if family watching kids is not an option) is too high for most couples: I can't count how many of my students have said that they don't take high speed rail because tickets for them and their children are too high, and how lucky I am that we can still take it as we're only paying for two. Or how many have said that they only have one child because they can't afford kindy or a larger apartment in which to raise two...or who have said that they have made so many sacrifices to raise one or two kids that another one is out of the question.

2.) Women sick of the gendered expectations heaped on them as wives and mothers - we've come a long way in terms of gender equality in Taiwan, but it's still the wife who is expected to bear the burden of household duties and child-rearing. It's the wife who is expected to quit her job if necessary, the wife who is expected to take hits to her career, and generally the wife who shoulders all of the burden. She has more support (family nearby) and more legal back-up (mandated maternity leave, a month-of-rest culture) but more expectations, too. I'm lucky to have a great husband who would do his share if we were to have a child and who is great at helping around the house - he's almost certainly better at housework than I am! Not many Taiwanese women can say the same, though.

3.) Taiwanese people, happy at their newfound, just-in-our-parents-lifetime prosperity, are enjoying life as citizens of a developed country and don't want to go back to the financial sacrifices necessary as a developing one: sacrifices that they'd have to make for children. This is similar to the USA, although we've been developed and "prosperous" for longer: now that all these young Taiwanese can afford to shop at Shinkong Mitsukoshi, go to spas and take four-day trips to Bali, Guam or Hong Kong, they don't want to give it up to pay for day care and school fees. I can honestly say that while I don't shop at Mitsukoshi and I get my massages at local 按摩 shops, that traveling is a heap of fun and I don't blame anyone for hesitating about giving it up. Many Taiwanese still remember how hard their parents worked to send them to college, and how their grandparents lived in drafty brick houses and either farmed or worked in factories. Do you blame them for wanting to enjoy a better life for awhile?