1992 / 3月
Jackie Chen /photos courtesy of Huang Lili /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
The modern family, long pronounced as all but dead by the scholars, has recently shown a trend that has left everyone scratching their heads--the traditional Chinese inter-generational network, in the absence of any better social support system, has already become the working woman's most effective weapon in juggling her career and family.
Many working women who employ others to take care of their children feel burdened by the pressure of picking up their children on time after work. Particularly in the busy cities, where the transit situation is a mess, traffic jams or overtime work makes it even more difficult to do as intended.
There is a syndrome displayed by this kind of woman when she gets out of work: she'll anxiously check her watch again and again or else she'll be so nervous she'll get a stomachache. If she gets short notice about working overtime, she'll pick up the phone and--half in guilt, half in apology--say repeatedly, "I'm terribly sorry about the inconvenience but could you care for them a little bit later tonight. . . ."
Counting on Relatives: Yet working mother Hsiung Shu-hua doesn't have this kind of problem. She works at the Legislative Yuan, and she can't help but work overtime sometimes when she's reviewing bills or performing other official duties. When she does, she just picks up the phone and says, "Mama, I'll pick up the baby a little later today"--and it's all taken care of.
So that's it--she gives her child to her mother, who lives in the neighborhood. "It's always easy to make a deal with Mama," she says, "And I have the right to work overtime." She goes so far as describing it as one of the main advantages she had in looking for work.
Chang Hsiou-chih, a planner at an advertising agency, lives with her mother-in-law to make it more convenient to care for her child. The nature of her work means she often must work until 11:00 or 12:00. Except on Saturday and Sunday, it's Grandma who keeps the child company and makes sure he does his homework, eats, washes up and sleeps. "My mother-in-law is a tremendous help," says Chang Hsiou-chih, with gratitude from the bottom of her heart.
Is a neighbor really better than a distant relative? The logic behind the Chinese axiom is being put to question. Many busy working women who are married might not even recognize a neighbor, whereas the distant relative is seemingly coming back in style. And so it is that many big city women are leaving the care of their children to relatives, from mothers and mothers-in-law to aunts and uncles.
A Rising Proportion of Big Families? Take a look at a few statistics:
According to Huang Tzu-chen of the Department of Budgets, Accounting and Statistics, from 1979 until 1985, the percentage of nuclear families in Taiwan (parents living with children under the age of 20) dropped 7 percent against the percentage of extended family households, where parents live with a grown child and his or her spouse or where three generations live under the same roof.
The department found in 1990 that the rate of women aged 15 to 49 who lived with their parents or their husband's parents within five years of being married increased 4.5 percent over 1988. And the younger the woman and the lower her level of education (meaning women with more financial difficulties), the more likely she was to live with one set of parents.
The polling center of the United Daily News asked 800 families in Taiwan how many generations lived under one roof in November of 1990. Forty-nine percent of those polled said that two generations lived together, and 42 percent said three--figures that are remarkably close.
Three Generations in the Same Neighborhood: In the big cities another kind of family arrangement is emerging, and scholars are calling it "three generations in the same neighborhood."
There are a number of variations on the theme. The first is a family that originally lived in an urban district. When the children set up their own household, they intentionally buy a house near the parents. Another is when young people move to the city, get established and then set their parents up in a house nearby. Of course there are examples where better-off parents help their children buy a house. In any case, the original motivation for these arrangements is to make it easy to provide mutual support.
"I had it all planned beforehand," says Hsichih resident Hsiung Shu-hua, laughing. When she went to buy a house after getting married, she specially selected her parent's neighborhood mainly because she hoped her mother would help her with the kids.
Three generations in the same neighborhood has not suddenly burst upon the scene. Along with the changes of urbanization, the structure of households in Taiwan has experienced enormous transformations. The average number of people in a household has declined whereas the number of nuclear families has increased by leaps and bounds. It is worthy to note that these changes to the structure of the family have not rung its death knell. Rather the family is using a variety of methods to adapt to social change.
The Federal Family: Chuang Ying-chang, a member of the Institute of Ethnology of the Academia Sinica, cites as an example "the federal family," wherein several small households are clustered around the parents. The members of these families do not live together but maintain close contact, and they don't economically pool their money but do maintain a high level of cooperation. The parents handle coordination and contact and serve even more as the emotional center of the family. Chuang holds that the "federal family" is well suited to modern life. On the one hand, the authority of the parents is maintained, and on the other, their grown children have financial independence and the freedom to develop their own abilities.
"Three generations in one neighborhood" is in fact just an extension of the "federal family." There is, however, a lack of research and analysis to determine whether the three generations are clustering in the same neighborhood in order to care for the parents in old age or so as to meet the need for child care. Indeed, what proportions of these families are forming for what purposes? Nonetheless, many research findings show that when working women select people to look after their children, the people to whom they largely turn are relatives.
Yi Chin-chun, a researcher at the Academia Sinica for Social Sciences, says that only 14.7 percent of infants under the age of three are given to day-care institutions. Among those given to private individuals, mothers, mothers-in-law and relatives on both sides account for 53 percent, more than half.
Grandmas Care for Them the Most: Giving children to be taken care of by relatives has its good points and shortcomings. San Gee of the Chung-hua Institute for Economic Research has found that caring for children is indeed the most important factor affecting women's participation in the labor force and that it has a far greater impact on nuclear families than in families with these extended relationships. If the parents in these families can provide assistance in caring for these children, it will be easier for married women to engage in paid work.
San Gee's research at the same time points out that if a proper solution to caring for children under the age of six can be worked out, then the number of hours that their mothers work can be increased.
But this kind of academic research is not enough to explain the good points and bad points of three generations living in the same neighborhood.
The major child care problem that "three generations under the same roof" or "three families in the same neighborhood" resolves is the concern of "not being able to rest assured." One aspect is concern about the moral character of baby-sitters. If one has bad luck and happens to hire a bad babysitter, a newborn's health or character could be endangered. Others find baby-sitters too expensive and thus ask family members to help out.
"The greatest advantage of letting your mother take care of your child is still the strong support. Whether it's food or something else, as soon as your mother discovers that there's not enough, she'll immediately supplement it--this is a great help to busy and young working mothers who have no experience," says Hsiung Hsu-hua.
Help in an Emergency: Another advantage of living near one's parents or in-laws is the close contact with other relatives, such as aunts and uncles. Children will delight in this contact and from an early age come to understand the importance of family.
Bookkeeper Chen Shu-ying says that her son, who is not yet two years of age, already understands the complicated distinctions the Chinese use for aunt and uncle--separate designations, for example, for mother's brother, father's older sister, father's older brother or father's younger brother--and never gets them mixed up. The big group of people with whom he can play has helped him learn social and language skills. "Every time I go with him to the market," says his proud mother, "he knows more people than I do!"
Even if they don't care for one's child all day, having family in the neighborhood is also a help to working women in an emergency.
Chen Chin-hua, who works as an editor at magazine, is one example. When she stays up all night writing, her mother-in-law, who lives in the neighborhood, will usually stay with her kids. This method of only "temporarily giving her charge of the children" won't tire out her mother-in-law, who isn't in the best of health, but it does provide support in a pinch. Chen believes it is the best of both worlds.
Help Is Just a Phone Call Away: For a busy working woman, relatives under the same roof or in the neighborhood, in addition to helping to care for children, can also help out with some of the household chores.
Sungshan resident Kao Mei-li, who works at the Ministry of the Interior, greatly reaps the benefits. "Help is just a phone call away," she says, laughing. Because both she and her husband work, there are many odd tasks around the house, such as repairing appliances or paying the utilities or telephone bills that her parents take care of. This is even more the case for Hsiung Shu-hua, whose mother handles the buying of fruits, vegetables and other fresh groceries. "Every day my mother has to buy two bags of food in the market--one for her household and one for ours," she says. "I help her with her household chores so she doesn't have to worry about it when working," says Hsiung's considerate mother.
Of course, not all matters can be perfectly resolved in this manner. If they are not handled well, living in the same neighborhood as one's family can bring with it a lot of problems. Different attitudes about raising children are often one of the main sources of conflict. Chang Pi-yu, who works in broadcasting, points out that sometimes her mother-in-law will "give the child strange medicine or have him wear a strange amulet." At times she'll give the child too much snack food or even instill in him sexist attitudes. Chang doesn't agree with any of this but there's no way to clearly communicate her dissatisfaction.
The Family Comes First: Encouraging three generations to live under one roof is in fact government policy. Ever since Hao Pei-tsun announced the housing policy of the Six-Year National Development Plan at the Council for Economic Planning and Development, the government has been planning to reduce the tax on housing above 1,224 square feet in order to encourage three generations to live together. The policy, however, has been questioned by many sociologists who fear that few families are wealthy enough to afford such spacious housing, fear that the generations will bother each other in poorly designed architectural spaces and fear even more that the problems in the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in Chinese culture, which have not been resolved, will once again come to the fore.
But because Hao publicly promoted the idea of three generations living together, the call of return to the family has once again been sounded and people are discussing how to make creative improvements to this arrangement, such as by having parents live with their married children on the same floor of a building, each using their own doors and living spaces but easily caring for each other.
Even if it may be a major new trend, the sociologists are not yet daring to say for certain. "Perhaps only a select few "can use the methods of "three generation under one roof" or "three generations in the same neighborhood" to solve the problem of living together, says Yi Chin-chun of the Sun Yat-sen Institute for Social Sciences and Philosophy of the Academia Sinica. First of all, a family has to be very well off financially. Liang Chin, who also works in broadcasting, forked out quite a sum for the arrangement. She bought a NT$7 million home in Sungshan so that she could be in the same neighborhood as her mother who was helping her look after her child. Secondly, to help look after a child, the older generation must be in good health. And thirdly, the younger generation of parents must be quite open minded about their children's education. At the very least, these three conditions must be met before "three generations living under one roof or in the same neighborhood will work."
Can We Go Back? Lawyer Yu Mei-nu points out that whether you're living in the same house or the same neighborhood, it is best that everyone come from a standpoint of mutual respect. Otherwise, conflicts within the family will only get worse and finally grow out of control.
This said, women caught in the dilemma of choosing between family or career have come back to where they started, leaving the household only to find tremendous support there. This return--whether or not it's unique to this country--is making people stop and think.
When mothers and daughters live near each other, the grandchild going back and forth becomes everyone's little treasure.
After getting off work, making dinner is everyone's joy when three generations live together.