Chinese Moms Are Pushed out of Motherhood to Bring Home the Bacon

Marketers Should Talk to Women Beyond Their Role as a Mother

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SHANGHAI ( -- While lacking the hype of other consumer segments, mums in China are an important focus for consumer and retail marketers due to their direct influence on household spending. In mature markets, brands have placed considerable investment in celebrating motherhood as a milestone or personal renaissance -- often presenting motherhood as a stay-home, one-dimensional experience.

In China, the reality of motherhood is markedly differently due to unique social and economic influences. The one-child policy, which from the late 1970s created homes of single children in China's urban areas, has now gone intergenerational as these children become parents. Often doted on right up to marrying age, many Chinese women of the one-child generation find it extremely hard to summon up the selflessness to become full-time mothers.

Waiting to fill the void are four highly enthusiastic grandparents craving direct involvement in raising the child. In this context, grandparents provide a majority of basic care in the early lives of Chinese infants, making grand-parenting commonplace amongst urban families.
Jerry Clode
Jerry Clode
While the one-child policy has created the social basis for less involved mothering, economic competition has provided the logic.

As middle class families strive to keep up with the economic success of others in society, career-focused mothers are an essential part of the family's material progress. The excess labor created by the older generation, often sharing the same house, provides the opportunity for Chinese women to resume their careers at full steam after childbirth.

For many families in first and second tier cities, childbirth is planned and co-coordinated with the mother's career opportunities. Planning is possible due to the reality that only one child will be born, meaning motherhood tends to be pigeonholed rather than becoming the overriding role for Chinese women.

The pragmatic way that motherhood is viewed in China was highlighted by the popularity of professional wet nurses in the aftermath of the tainted milk crisis last year. From this perspective, Chinese mothers are often pushed out of motherhood in the early years of the child's life so they can pursue what is considered to be the wider interest of the family.

The expectation of being a super-woman is nothing new to Chinese mothers. Recent Communist folklore is full of examples of female heroines who de-emphasized motherhood in pursuit of wider revolutionary causes.

Modern superwomen are also prominent in contemporary popular culture. Yang Lan, a celebrity and mother, hosts a TV show and e-zine called "Her Village" that focuses on helping professional Chinese women deal with the multiple expectations they face. For Chinese mothers, the combined roles of professional woman, family manager, dutiful wife, and mother impose a considerable emotional and psychological burden.

For marketers, this reality provides many opportunities. Unlike other markets where childbirth often places women in a unique consumer segment, women in China do not necessarily see motherhood as a definitive marker for attitude and behavior.

Due to the less involved nature of motherhood, Chinese mums tend to maintain, and even increase, discretionary spending on personal items such as beauty, socializing, and luxury products. This is partially considered a reward (both personal and from the family), for providing a child, a huge relief for shrinking Chinese families.

Local brand Li Ning has been quick to acknowledge the prolonged "young womanhood" created by local realities of child rearing. The brand's female casual clothing line "Your Inner Shine" carries the age-blurring tagline, "Enjoy the youthfulness of dance irrespective of your age."

A major challenge is how to present motherhood in a way that resonates with China's modern mothers. In consumer branding, this probably requires thinking carefully about talking to women beyond their role as a mother. Brands that can identify touchpoints around what it means to deal with everything else and still be a mum stand a stronger chance of connecting.

In advertising and retail spaces, one-dimensional portrayals of mother and child risk irritating rather than acknowledging the true role of Chinese mothers. The key lies in talking to a new kind of Chinese mum who is both materially empowered and emotionally constrained by the realities of rapid economic and social change.

Jerry Clode is regional qualitative director at Blackbox Research in Singapore. Before that, he was a senior research consultant at Anovax Marketing and Research Consultants, based in Shanghai.

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