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Rocking the cradle for 3 generations

SHE cooks great food. She gives you a shoulder to cry on. She weeps with joy for your every little accomplishment. She tolerates your bad moods. She forgives you unconditionally.

She is the first and also the most important woman in your life - your mother, and Sunday is Mother's Day.

It's time to pick up a gift for mother, send her a bunch of flowers and a cute card, or simply pick up the phone and tell her how much you love her.

Mother's Day is a Western import, but the day is catching on in China.

The image of the Chinese mother is self-sacrifice and dedication to family and children. In Shanghai especially, they're also quite powerful. Mothers rule the roost and are keen on their children's education and success, placing high hopes on them - and often a lot of pressure these days.

Shanghai Daily interviews three generations of Shanghai mothers and daughters who show very different mothering and parenting attitudes, reflecting the changing times.

No-fuss moms

"I didn't fuss that much. I raised my children in a 'free-range' way," says 74-year-old Yu A'mei, who has three sons and two daughters.

"Just look at them - they couldn't be healthier."

"Eat enough, dress warmly and stay away from sickness" - that's what mothers would tell their children during the 1950s. "My only wish was that they could grow up healthy. Nothing more," says Yu.

During that time, China experienced great hardships and almost everyone endured scarcity. Three years of famine (1959-61) and economic problems took their toll.

"Milk powder? Are you kidding?" Yu says with an exaggerated gesture. "We ourselves ate wild herbs growing in the woods. A grain of rice was a piece of gold during those starving times."

Yu breast-fed her first three children but when she had her fourth and fifth child, she had to feed them a thin congee because she herself was undernourished and couldn't produce enough milk.

She prepared a little sorghum and rice, first chewing the grains to soften them (the family couldn't afford enough wood for a fire to boil them properly) and then poured hot water over them in a strainer. Sometimes, if she was lucky, she added a little sugar.

Diapers were made of old bed sheets. "I washed about two big barrels of diapers every day, around 40 diapers," Ye recalls.

In the planned economy at the time, families received limited ration coupons for basics. Many mothers had to buy rice from the black market to feed their children.

"At the time, the price was 0.14 yuan (0.02 US cents) for every 500 grams of rice in the legal market, while it soared to 0.40 yuan in the black market," she says.

To Yu's relief, all of her children grew up healthy. She didn't worry about their studies because all were good students - there was no obsession with academic honors as a route to material success in those days. The government would assign jobs and their future, while not prosperous, was assured.

Still Yu valued good school work.

"Even if you become farmers in the future, you have to be top students," she told them.

As they grew older, the children helped with household chores, including cooking, weaving, making shoes and clothing for the family. As the big family worked together, Yu told them stories from Chinese mythology.

Strict moms

Since the family planning policy was launched in the early 1970s, parents started to pin their hopes and dreams on their only children, pressing them to fulfill their own aspirations.

Only child Jane Zhang, now 26, recalls she was forced to take extra classes after school to learn computer skills, English, painting and gain other "enrichment." Her mother Wang Lu forbade Zhang to read comic books, saying it would hurt her studies. The girl had to hide comics in her drawer and glance at them furtively.

"My mother never found out this secret because each time she opened the door to check on me, the window near my desk would rattle a bit, giving me time to quickly put the comics away," she recalls.

But the mother found other forbidden things - love letters from boys. At that time, puppy love was taboo, an indulgence said to undermine studies, character and lead young people astray. Parents and teachers kept a watchful eye and were quick to stamp out any signs of affection.

"My mother asked me about the letters and I simply told her I had refused the boys," Zhang says. "She said nothing more because she had no evidence."

At that time being a good student was all that parents hoped for their children, and Zhang fulfilled their hopes.

"If you studied hard and came home with high scores, your parents would ignore other things," she says.

But Zhang did upset her mother when she refused to eat or go to bed. "She flew into a rage each time I pushed away the rice bowl," she says.

She was punished by being forced to stand alone in the dark, narrow longtang (lane) where, her mother said, a wolf would come and eat her.

"It was so terrible for such a little girl. When I was standing alone in that little dark lane, I really believed a wolf would come," she says.

Then her dad came to the rescue. In a typical Shanghainese family, the mother is usually pushy and bossy while the father is soft and mild.

"Are you waiting for the wolf?" her dad asked gently, and she nodded tearfully. "Do you want to go back home and have something to eat?" She nodded. "Then let's go back home and say sorry to your mom. What do you say?" The girl surrendered.

"When I grew up and asked my mother if she wasn't afraid I would be kidnapped, she says she didn't think about it because she was so angry that I disobeyed her." Today she admits it was dangerous.

"She was just an inexperienced mother," says Zhang.

Modern moms

Now the pampered single children are parents themselves. Many pamper their children while pushing them to excel - not just in school. Society's expectations are high and parents are judged by their children's success.

Still, there's a more relaxed approach to mothering among many and quite a few mothers seem to grow along with their children.

Jin Canhua, 29, has a three-year-old daughter and has written a blog recording every detail about her child since the day she was born. She gets a lot of positive feedback when she chats with other parents on the Internet about all aspects of child-rearing.

"We talk about which milk powder is best, what to do when the baby is sick and how to choose clothes. All mothers are happy to share," says Jin.

When the baby was only 18 months old, Jin put her in an English-only play class - nothing formal, just games. Each lesson cost 150 yuan.

"Quite expensive, but many parents apply and I don't want my daughter left behind," Jin says.

Jin herself was brought up in a study-first mode. "My parents focused on our school scores, ignoring other things, such as the social skills and EQ development," she says. "I don't want my child to just have high scores. I expect her to be able to integrate herself in groups, know how to make new friends."


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