The following is an ‘interlude’ that will appear between two chapters of my book, provisionally titled: Guarding Life: A Postcapitalist Politics of Hygiene. The excerpt focuses on the presence of an awkward object in the life of one Chinese Christian migrant worker. The awkward object was the controversial American parenting book ‘Babywise’, which had recently been translated into Chinese and found its way into the hands of ‘Meihua’, a mother raising her illegal second child far from the support of her rural village home. While the book has long been discredited, and linked to dehydration and failure to thrive in young infants, none of this information is easily accessible in China. Names and details have been changed to protect the identities of participants.
In 2009, I returned to Xining for three months of follow-up fieldwork. One of the first things I did on returning to Xining was to call my old friend Meihua and invite her over for lunch. A migrant worker, Meihua had previously regaled me with stories of rural life and mothering, although by that time her son was a teenager. As we spoke on the phone, she (almost in passing) added that she “had also given birth”. It took me several seconds to process what she had just said.
“Did you say you have given birth to a child?” I asked in shock. Meihua is Han Chinese, and with a teenage son back in her home province, she is certainly not legally entitled to more children.
“Shi de” she replies, “It is so.” She laughs at my shock. “I’m almost forty years old!” she continues, round her age up by a good few years. “A little girl, called Yingying. She’s four months old.”
“Well you have to bring her over!” I exclaim.
She comes over the following day, and we greet each other with the ease of old friends. She carries baby Yingying in a frontpack, huffing up the stairs to our borrowed apartment. She hands over a bag of fruit from her husband’s fresh produce shop, and proudly shows off a chubby, cheerful baby dressed in many layers of bright coloured and patterned baby clothes.
After lunch, Meihua launches into Yingying’s remarkable story, where presumed infertility, long-distance marriage, and an unexpected reunion collaborated to produce an unwanted and unexpected pregnancy. Meihua had been devastated, torn between her desire for a termination of the pregnancy and her Christian faith that saw this foetus as God-given and an opportunity for miracles. After praying with a single mother of an illegitimate baby, and consulting with her husband who disapproved of abortion for secular reasons, she had eventually decided to go through with the pregnancy as an act of faith.
Soon after the baby was born, she found she had to give up her main sources of domestic work, since this foreign family had also had a baby. The presence of two in the house was “too noisy” and “too troublesome”, according to Meihua.
“And what of Yingying’s hukou?” I ask, concerned that her illegal birth would mean she could not get a birth certificate or register her on any household registration (hukou).
“Unnh.” Meihua pauses. “We didn’t tell the provincial government.”
If the government of her home province were to find out, her husband’s parents would be liable for steep fines, and would have to go into debt for years. The fine was more than two years of Meihua’s previous full-time earnings – most of which was ‘eaten up’ week by week. Not telling the government of her home province, and hiding out in the western province of Qinghai, was a pretty good strategy – except that it cut her off from her family support networks until the fine could be paid, and she was unable to work like before with a baby to care for.
Second-time round, Meihua’s mothering role was less clear than it had been thirteen years earlier in the countryside. In previous conversations in 2007, she had confidently described her role and the role of her mother-in-law, her father-in-law, and her husband with relative clarity. In her village, she was mostly expected to stay close to her child around the home for the first three years, then hand over day-to-day care to her mother-in-law and return to work in the fields. With her son, there was always someone around to hold him, and he slept close to her, feeding as needed throughout the night. When her son had started school, she had finally weaned him and moved to Xining to seek paid work, as was expected of her. Her income paid for household expenses related to her son back home.
Life is complex, and as Meihua’s story illustrates, can take quite unexpected turns. She now found herself with a child and no mother-in-law, a husband with a produce shop which barely broke even, and school fees and support owing her in-laws back home – more than twenty-four hours train ride away. She had no money or desire to use artificial formula, and was therefore bound to close proximity with Meihua for the time being. Yet needing to be close to Yingying reduced her availability for paid work, thus compounding her difficulties even as she insists on her daughter’s right to be physically close for the first two to three years of life.
Some friends and I hired Meihua to give us Chinese cooking lessons. She would bring Yingying along and borrow my meitai, strap her on her back, and tutor us in everything from choosing vegetables to planning a meal and everything in between. We also discussed my research during these times. Meihua had developed an avid interest in ‘Western’ parenting practices (after years of disapproval). She had been given a book by a foreigner, which advocated a cry-it-out method of baby training and provided a ‘parent-directed’ schedule of feeding and sleeping. It also claimed, she told me, to be ‘the’ Christian way of training babies.
The book was an object of both horror and fascination to Meihua. She was fascinated by the promises of easy babies and more sleep (even whole nights of sleep!), a possibility rarely considered in her social world where childcare is generally acknowledges as hen lei ‘very tiring’. Babies are thought to need near-constant care and attention for at least a year, but a mother is not expected to provide all of it herself. At the same time, Meihua was horrified by the idea that a small baby should have their natural appetites for food, physical closeness, and sleep overwritten by a routine — and that Christians would advocate this as witnessing God’s love for children!
Meihua first showed me the book when I visited the small, concrete fresh produce shop she rented and lived in with her husband and baby Yingying. She pulled it out surreptitiously from where it had been stuffed under her pillow. It turned out to be a translated copy of the controversial baby-training manual On Becoming Babywise by American authors Ezzo and Bucknam (1995). It was an oddly disconcerting juxtaposition of spaces. Meihua and her elderly neighbor discussed the book’s contents in the dark windowless storage room not much wider than the set of iron bunk-beds the family retired on nightly. Yet the book’s contents conjured up for me an image of a large American-style multi-storey suburban house, with a separate nursery littered with the paraphernalia of baby care.
Where would one put a cot in here? I wondered, noting the simple storage system Meihua and her husband used for their belongings: tying clothing and objects up in plastic bags and shoving them in gaps between the bunk-beds and the wall, under the bed, and in alcoves in the darkened room. How could you leave baby alone to sleep? You couldn’t leave the baby alone on the bunk-bed to put itself to sleep, even at four months Yingying could roll off on to the floor in a fit of crying. Where would you encourage Yingying to play “independently”? I thought, looking around me at the cramped living and working space where the small family lived. Yingying was bouncing happily in the arms of the elderly neighbour, who came around every day after dropping her grandson at school to “help out” – meaning sit on a stool and hold the baby while Meihua and her husband served customers and chatted to her. I wondered who the foreigner was who had gifted this book to Meihua: clearly they had never visited Meihua here at home. And even more worryingly, clearly had little idea of the recent research showing that sustained, unattended crying actually hinders the brain development of small babies.
The trajectories of this controversial little book and that of Meihua’s migrant family crossed for a brief moment, providing a flash of light that allowed me to glimpse the spatiality of different modes of child-raising and ways of mothering. Holding this book in the presence of her elderly neighbour (a grandmother of seven, who had been involved in raising them all) it also became clear that her space of mothering was not what would be typical in China either. She had no mother or mother-in-law present to take on the traditional role of raising Yingying as she returned to work, and her husband could not provide for her to stay at home for a few months since the produce shop was barely breaking even. Thus she was bound to a certain conflicting spatial relationship with her child in a way many other caregivers were not. Like the “at home” mother imagined by Babywise author Gary Ezzo, Meihua perhaps had now found herself in a situation where reducing the demands of her child (rather than merely getting relief from them) was extremely attractive.
The promise held out by Babywise fascinated Meihua. It painted a picture of a world of simple order where babies were predictable and mothers rested and independent. But it hid under her pillow, as something potentially contraband or dangerous to her mothering ideals, impossible to implement yet attractive all the same. As we spent time discussing the contents of this book, Meihua’s own non-negotiables of mothering and child-raising came to the fore. The awkward engagement of horror and fascination in Babywise allowed her to experiment with different ways of achieving some of its fascinating promises of independence without the horror of neglect.
Meihua experimented with a number of strategies for managing without family support. While she believed the Babywise methods to be quite wrong and even cruel, she was nevertheless inspired to experiment with less-cruel methods. Firstly, she began putting Yingying down in a borrowed bassinet for her naps, gently rocking and feeding her until she slept, but not carrying her around constantly as she had with her now-teenage son. Through experimentation, Meihua discovered it was not so much she believed babies needed to be in constant physical contact, but that babies needed to be comforted physically if tired or upset and crying.
A second area of experimentation occurred when Yingying began to show an interest in solids. According to Meihua and her elderly neighbour, babies should be fed whenever they are hungry, and whatever they show interest in. This mostly involved feeding Yingying pre-masticated mantou (steamed bread rolls) from around her fourth month, but also involved other foods such as fruit, rice porridge, cooked vegetable dishes (none of these cooked especially for the baby, but shared with adults) as well as sugary “teething rusks”,[i] milk-balls, lollies and sugary drinks. After around one month of eating solids, Yingying became severely constipated, and Meihua began to doubt the wisdom of her feeding strategy.
While not wanting to go the Babywise route of preparing or buying special baby foods and feeding them according to a certain routine (which in her mind was “very troublesome” and could lead to problems with eating disorders later on), she did start to think about experimenting with different ways of feeding. She came across me one day during this time while I was sitting outdoors with a mutual friend who happened to be a doctor. Meihua approached us and mentioned Yingying’s constipation to this doctor. The doctor, an aid worker from Europe, never even asked if Yingying was on solids, or what type of solids she was eating. She advised Meihua to drink more water and breastfeed Yingying more frequently. When later Meihua and I discussed this, and I wondered aloud whether the doctor didn’t realise Yingying was eating adult-type solid food including snacks, and whether she would have advised Meihua more specifically if she had.
The particular juxtaposition of Yingying’s constipation, the incomplete advice of the doctor, the Babywise feeding routine, and her elderly neighbour’s strong beliefs prompted Meihua to rethink what she believed about feeding infants. After some discussion, we concluded that the feeding practices of her elderly neighbour and herself had developed during a time where access to processed and sugary foods was incredibly limited. After establishing this, the belief that babies should completely “decide” their own diet became a negotiable, although she still strongly believed they should be allowed to eat whenever they liked and as much or as little as they liked of the food available.
In the end, under the scornful eye of her neighbour, Meihua refused to provide Yingying with sugary snacks, replacing them with homemade dishes which she was free to consume as she chose. The constipation eventually cleared up, and Meihua’s experimentation with infant feeding led to further changes in her practice of infant health-keeping.
[i] Sugary biscuits cut in the same shape as the expensive Heinz teething rusks.
In my book, this excerpt is followed by a chapter titled ‘Guarding Life: Rethinking Hygiene for a Better World’, where hygiene and parenting practices are considered in China, Australia and New Zealand.