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Maternal Emotions and Childrearing in China  

Meng Li

Psychological research on maternal emotions often examines how mothers’ emotional expression or regulation may affect children’s development. This perpetual interest in the benefit and harm of mothers’ emotions reflects popular beliefs that women are inherently emotional and, as the primary caregiver of children, mothers must restrain and regulate their emotions in order to raise well-balanced children. Rather than treating maternal emotions as private, intrapersonal feelings, scholars from various disciplines (e.g., sociology, anthropology, communication, women’s and gender studies, etc.) have recognized that many sociocultural forces contribute to the formation and interpretation of emotions. Emotions are not just a primary means through which humans experience the world but are also an avenue for understanding both the individual and the society. The interaction between the psychological and the social is especially salient in societies undergoing radical social transformations, such as China. In the postsocialist era (1978–present), a mother-responsible, child-centered, and education-oriented childrearing culture has emerged in China, presenting unforeseen challenges to parents. Unlike their parents’ generation who mostly adopted traditional authoritarian styles of childrearing, parents who raise children in the new cultural environment are expected to meet the multifaceted needs of their children while also cultivating intimate bonds with them. Mothers in particular carry the greatest emotional burden of childrearing. To be good mothers, they are told that they must learn how to express their emotions appropriately. Proper expressions of love and intimacy keep the channels of communication open and foster trust between generations. Expressions of negative emotions, conversely, are described by childcare experts as a potential threat to children’s psychological development. But when mothers are confronting a highly competitive education system and an increasingly narrower path for social mobility, negative emotions, such as anger and ambivalence, are inevitable and justified. Mothers from different socioeconomic backgrounds also have different emotional experiences when raising children. While urban middle-class mothers are anxious about food safety, environmental pollution, and their children’s educational achievements, rural–urban migrant mothers feel guilty for leaving their children behind in the countryside to pursue a dependable income. Overall, the Chinese case illustrates how maternal emotions can provide a unique window through which a society’s childrearing culture, intergenerational dynamics, and structural inequalities can be observed.