Treaty of Nanking

Hottest job on the mainland: Supermum

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 March, 2012, 12:00am


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Like other working mothers, Shanghai-based Stella Shi has her hands full from the moment she wakes up to cook breakfast for her family to the time she tucks her daughter in bed at night.

But unlike the time she worked for a foreign trade company years ago, the 41-year-old's hectic schedule these days is filled with the more domestic tasks - no less challenging than high finance - of the quintessential stay-at-home mum.

Shi is among a growing number of women in mainland cities who choose to stay at home instead of working day jobs, a trend that was once more common in rural areas.

China's thriving economy and fierce job competition have contributed to the rise of urban, educated stay-at-home mums - one of many gender issues that mainland officials are seeking to address, particularly as the world marks International Women's Day today.

Shi has her work cut out for her. After breakfast, she sends her 11-year-old off to school then spends the rest of the day taking piano lessons, practicing calligraphy, baking cakes, attending psychology classes and doing volunteer work before picking up her daughter from school at 3pm.

In the evenings, Shi serves her family fruit while helping her daughter with homework, making sure the child focuses on her books rather than on television or the internet.

At around 10pm, when she puts her daughter to sleep, Shi 'regains her freedom'.

In a study last year, the Guangdong Women's Federation found that 34.5 per cent of 6,125 families it surveyed across the province had stay-at-home mums, and about the same percentage of mothers said they would follow the growing trend if they could, China News Service reported.

And two years ago, East China Normal University and child-rearing website conducted a study showing that 21 per cent of mothers in first-tier cities across the nation stayed home, while the figure dropped to 13 per cent in second and third-tier cities, the Shanghai Morning Post reported.

The Guangdong survey also found that among all stay-at-home mothers, 90 per cent had bachelor's degrees, while 9 per cent had master's degrees or above.

The reasons for staying at home vary, but many women cite the importance of raising their children full-time.

'I was hesitant about being a full-time mum because I knew that taking care of babies is much more exhausting,' said Shang Aijie , from Beijing. 'But I finally quit [my old] job because my family and children are more important.'

Shang said she made the decision to be a stay-at-home mum after careful consideration. She quit her post as manager of a photography studio in November soon after her second child was born, and said she wanted to take charge of her children's upbringing.

Similarly, Shi, the mum in Shanghai, said she quit the trading firm five years ago because she disagreed with the way her parents-in-law, in their 80s, were raising her daughter.

'Before I resigned, I found I was always in a bad mood due to lots of pressure and long working hours. When I returned home after work every day, seeing that my daughter's behaviour was not up to my standards would make me angrier,' said Shi. 'No, I said, that's not the life I want.'

Some theorists may say quitting a job, for a woman, means losing financial independence and tipping the economic scales towards men. Mainland information officials are striving to raise awareness about such gender inequalities.

Xu Anqi , a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, says decisions that lead to women giving up good careers 'are not what we advocate, because incomes from jobs are a way for women to achieve a balance between themselves and their husbands'.

But Huang Lin , who researches feminism at Capital Normal University in Beijing, said focusing on family life could count as an 'investment' for some.

'Some women calculate which investment is more worthwhile: investing in their jobs by working hard and spending less time at home or investing in their families by quitting their jobs and focusing on raising children. They tend to favour the latter,' said Huang.

The academic said although there were not many statistics about stay-at-home mums, their numbers were no doubt growing along with China's middle class amid a more competitive job market.

Another Beijing mum, Lin Lin , said choosing to stay at home was a nice break after working for 12 years and becoming unsure of where her career was headed.

Lin, who is expecting her second child, said she now found time to enjoy things she never had time for while she was working.

Much of that free time is spent alone. Shi, for example, occasionally attends parties or takes classes - sometimes with fellow stay-at-home mums - but she makes sure to allot time for herself. She enjoys visiting colonial-style homes, museums and antique markets.

Based on her interactions with other stay-at-home mothers, Shi described the set as being generally independent. Many of them have more than one child, are highly educated and had given up well-paying jobs.

The women have formed their own clique, often spending time together or chatting online about child-rearing strategies, leisurely activities and their husbands.

Xu, the researcher at the Shanghai academy, said that, with the exception of a few tycoons' wives, the decision to stay home was becoming easier for more and more women, as pressure and stress from work made it hard to balance work and family.

But Xu says few women will forgo their jobs as their husbands' incomes were often not enough at a time 'when housing prices have skyrocketed and daily expenses keep rising'.

Huang suggested that authorities provide welfare for women who sacrifice their careers for their families.

Xu noted that there were few stay-at-home mothers in cities years ago because jobs were easier to come by, overtime work was rare and competition was slim.

While there is debate about decisions like hers, Shang, the Beijing mum, says she does not regret it.

'A family is another type of career. If the child is raised well and is happy every day, it can also be regarded as a success [for mothers],' she said.