Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Parents, Pressure and a Preemie Baby

Chinese baby
Chinese parents put on the pressure when a hapa Asian-Australian woman, her Chinese husband and baby live in the parents' extra flat. How can the young couple balance their independence with the parents' need to control?

Under Pressure asks:

We have just had our first child. My Chinese husband is one of 2 children, and is the eldest. Our child is the first grandchild so you can already see the pressure there!

Due to logistical issues we moved into the granny flat of my inlaws 2 months before our baby was born (our new house is still being built, financially it is better to rent out our old house because I was going on maternity leave and I was the higher income earner in our household. and I had poor health leading up to the birth) I was hesitant because I am very independent and was worried that his parents would provide too much input into our childs upbringing but my husband assured me he would not allow them to do that.

Needless to say, baby is here, inlaws are in the granny flat EVERY DAY a FEW TIMES a day and I feel that my husband (who is still working full time) and I do not get the chance to enjoy our own personal time with bub as much when he gets home because they are always ‘popping in’. For example bub is quite unsettled most of the night and most of the day and for some reason she is calmest between 6-8pm. Instead of us being able to enjoy her, the inlaws come in and want to hold/talk to her which of course stimulates her unnecessarily when she is catching up on her much needed sleep and the cycle of course starts again. I have asked them to not stimulate her but they come up every night nonetheless.

They made a big deal about her name, they didnt like what we chose and made it quite clear. When they finally let that go they went on about how we really should have considered a name that is not so hard for Chinese to pronounce! Then now they are going on about why she does not have a chinese middle name (which I asked my husband about when we were pregnant and he made the call that he did not want our baby to have one) All this fuss over her name, completely disregarding our right to name our own child!

They have also orgnaised a traditional chinese party when she is one month old (in a week an a half) and only last night told us that they have invited ‘their’ friends and it is all organised etc. They did not even ask us if we wanted to have one or if the dates were convenient. I am not happy about this because our baby was quite preemie and has only been home a bit over a week and the last thing I want to do is parade her in front of a bunch of gawking guests who will no doubt go on about how small she is and want to touch her just like every one else on the few occassions we have had to take her out of the house to go back to the doctor. Given she is preemie we want to minimise her exposure to people unnecessarily given her fragile immune system until she is at least a bit bigger!

It is driving me nuts and I have spoken to my husband about it but he is too quiet to stand up to them and of course I cant say anything because we are in their home! I understand and respect that they have a culture they want to follow but given I am of mixed heritage myself I find it quite rude that they are not considering the very clear fact that she is NOT 100% Chinese and has both my Asian and Australian culture to consider (which thankfully my parents are not pressuring us to follow!) Given we are living here temporarily for the next few months I do not know how to approach the situation without offending them given my husband is too soft spoken to say anything. I actually find the whole thing ironic given my husband and his sister were not raised traditionally Chinese, in fact they cannot even speak Chinese themselves yet here are his parents pushing 100% Chinese compliance on our baby!


Welcome to the world of Chinese families, where the parents rule.

Chinese have lived for thousands of years with the Confucian value of filial piety — showing respect for family elders and ancestors. The flip side to this is Chinese parents expect to have a lot of control over the lives of their children (and even, in many cases, grandchildren). One Chinese once described it to me like this: “Chinese parents think of their children as furniture” — something they own, something they should be able to “move around” as they please. Consider yourself under new management.

Since you’re living in their Granny Flat, it’s even harder to escape this reality. You’re so close to them and, furthermore, you just gave birth to the newest generation in the family. And, as the eldest members of the family, they want to ensure you’re raising little bub according to Chinese standards — a cause that has unleashed intrusive grandparents into Chinese families the world over. Even though they didn’t do it with your husband or his sister, maybe they see your baby as the opportunity to make up for the past mistakes.

It’s too bad your husband isn’t much help here. Normally, the Chinese husband or wife can mediate when conflict arises, but he must have his reasons (perhaps a childhood of too many lost parental battles?).

Still, Yeye and Nainai (that’s paternal grandpa and grandma, in Chinese) need to be reasonable — they may come first in the Chinese family hierarchy, but your child’s health should come first in any decision, even theirs.

It sounds like you have valid concerns about your baby’s rest, and potential harm from the one-month-old party. While you and your husband may never convince them, a doctor might (though, be prepared — some Chinese mistrust doctors, so one opinion, or sometimes ANY opinion, may not be enough). Start with one doctor, though — hopefully someone that his parents know and trust — and have the doctor write specific advice (or even communicate directly with them, if that seems appropriate) to make it clear that disturbing baby’s evening nap and inviting strangers, and all of their potential pathogens, into your house are harmful to the child.

His parents may still want to party — it’s auspicious for little bub, they might insist. Internally, they may worry about loss of face among the people they invited. Is there middle ground here? Maybe little bub can make a virtual appearance (via a web video camera) while the party goes on at their home or a restaurant (and not your Granny Flat)? No concession, however, should ever, in any way, put your child’s health at risk.

This might be tough for them, so consider “throwing them a bone” by letting them give her a Chinese name. It doesn’t need to be on her permanent birth certificate — just let it be a Chinese version of her name. I can sympathize with the pronunciation issues. Americans have a hard enough time pronouncing and remembering my English name, Jocelyn Eikenburg (just for the record, roll call on the first day of school was hell), so I’d never expect a Chinese to do anything more than know me as Ailin (艾琳). Your inlaws’ presence means and your husband’s ethnicity means, like it or not, your daughter is still involved Chinese culture at some level, and a Chinese name wouldn’t hurt. They’ll be happy she has a Chinese name, and their Chinese friends will have an easier time remembering it — but you don’t have to call her that. After all, I’d never expect my dad to call me Ailin. 😉

It’s never easy navigating Chinese in-laws — especially if you live under their roof. You might console yourself over a few Pearl S. Buck novels on the matter — such as East Wind: West Wind, The House of Earth Series (The Good Earth, Sons, and A House Divided), or even The Mother — which were written in pre-Communist China days yet still ring true. Buck should be required reading for anyone marrying a Chinese.

If you’re hoping to build better relations with his parents, have a look at my advice for getting closer to your Chinese mother-in-law.

But for now, when times get really tough, remember this — you’ll move out sooner than you think.

Good luck!


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

13 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Parents, Pressure and a Preemie Baby”

  1. Again such great, balanced advice Jocelyn! 🙂

    When my daughter turned nine I remarked to my Chinese father-in-law how sad I was that we were halfway through – in another nine years our work would be done. He laughed at me and said that for a Chinese parent, you are never done!

    To the new mom – it sounds like your in-laws subscribe to that philosophy as well, and now that you’ve produced the next generation their work begins anew! I agree with Jocelyn, do what feels right for you and for your baby. That’s got to be your priority now. And hopefully you can find diplomatic ways, as Jocelyn suggests, to get your point across.

    Best of luck to you! Enjoy your precious new baby. 🙂
    .-= melanie gao´s last blog ..“I have a chicken eye on my foot” =-.

  2. I was also nervous about the 30 day party with my kids, I couldn’t imagine if they were preemies what I would feel like.
    .-= rhiannon´s last blog .. =-.

  3. I think using modern media such as a video-link as Jocelyn suggested might be a good alternative if you’re concerned about your little one’s health. I once went to one of these baby parties in China where the baby wasn’t there; the parents had had some professional pictures taken and they were being projected on the wall while the guests were eating and drinking. A nanny looked after the baby at home. The baby boy wasn’t premature they just didn’t want to take him along. The guests still had a good time despite the baby’s absense.

  4. As the mother of a preemie (born at 31.6 weeks) who just turned 3 (see my latest blog about him), I can not stress enough that company should be kept to a minimum, hand washing should always be observed, and things should be kept as calm as possible. I know that the urge to hold and touch a new baby is very strong, but make sure that those who do observe cleanliness, and are in the best of health. And remember, this is your child,. Ultimately, you call the shots.

    I’m often glad my Chinese in-laws live out of state/country (as much as I love them).
    .-= Juliet´s last blog ..Xander is 3 today! =-.

  5. I can undrestand the husband’s parents – the one month party for baby is a very important custom in China.
    On the other hand, my boyfriend told me that Jewish have a religious custom of circumcision for babies who are 9 days old only. And no matter how important and must-be-done this custom is – if the baby is preemie or weak – this procedure is just postponed to a later date.
    So – I think that the best thing would be to postpone the party, but it seems to be already impossible. That’s too bad ((

    However,in my opinion, showing a baby through a web-cam is not a good idea – in China it would be like a slap into grandparents’ and their guests’ face. By the way, returning to the analogy of circumcision tradition – maybe the things are not so harsh as they seem: if the baby can be in the big and noisy party when he is just 9 days old, maybe a one month old baby also can do it (with the proper precautions, of course).
    .-= Crystal´s last blog ..How To Apologize To Chinese Girl? =-.

  6. It might be hard to believe but you can negotiate or bargain with Chinese parents to a certain degree. I have two Chinese names, one assigned by my grandmother and another by my own parents (which is the official and commonly used one). Strategize like what others said, emphasize the kid is a little sick, have several “expert” opinions, have thick skin and don’t mind what your in-laws or their friends say.

    I’ve met a lot of mixed Chinese families, some with non-Chinese husbands and some with non-Chinese wives. It’s tough now but be happy your child is getting exposure to the warmth of family members beyond the parents. It’s going to help a lot in her/his sense of belonging whether in China or elsewhere. However, the mother will always have the final say in these matters. A lot of in-laws are aware of this.

  7. As a mom, I have a lot to say on this topic! While compromise is good, I do think it is important to set boundaries when it comes to your kids and your life. Chinese grandparents can be VERY overbearing and since the Chinese cultural traditions are so strong, especially when compared to a rather more flexible Western culture, it is easy for the foreign partner to end up being the one making the majority of the compromises.

    The thing too is that as a new mother it is really important that you have time to bond with your baby and become comfortable as a family. It is normal to sort of want a bit of a babymoon, time alone with the new baby just getting accustomed to the new shape of your family. It is normal for you not to want your in-laws over at the house every day, to want some space.

    Which isn’t to say not to do the baby party or to shut out the grandparents, but that it is ok to say no to them. It is ok to say, no you can’t come over today, we need our space. It is ok to compromise on the baby party — have the party, have the baby make an appearance (not allowing the baby to be passed around), and then take the baby home while your husband continues on with the party. I’ve got two kids in China and while I don’t have parents in law I have relatives and meddling neighbors, friends, etc. and I know that it is important to set your boundaries and make it clear that you make the decisions for your children. The previous poster is right, your in-laws do know that you’re the mother, so don’t feel intimidated into giving in all the time. Coming off as insecure or unsure will send a message to your mother in law that you need help, that you can’t do it on your own, and they’ll take you guys not saying anything as an invitation to be more and more involved. So make sure that you guys set the rules and make the decisions.

    I know one couple whose marriage ended after their son was born because of the in-laws and the husband’s inability to stand up to them. Your in-laws don’t sound so bad, but your baby is still small and you really don’t want resentment to build, and especially build up against your husband for not standing with you. A good relationship with the grandparents is a great thing for your child to have, and you don’t want that relationship to become strained because you resent their meddling.
    .-= Jessica´s last blog ..Father, Son and a Big Music Festival (with mom too) =-.

  8. If you are living in their house, they certainly are more in a position to control (think of the old English phrase about paying fiddlers and calling tunes). For the long-term, you need to move out if you wish to have more independence.

    re: 1 month party

    See if you can get your in-laws to change/compromise on the date. I suggest working on them for 1 month after what was your EDD – then BB will be older and stronger.

    Agree w/ Jessica re: “limited viewing”. Also see if you and ye-ye and nai-nai can be very strict about the need for hand-washing and ask people who want to approach the BB to wear surgical masks? Many people in HK now-a-days will wear one if the have sniffles of mild coughs, so as not to infect others.

    re: Chinese name – also agree w/ the suggestion to let your in-laws call her by a Chinese name, which can be her “nick-name”? A lot of kids in western cultures have special names that their family call them: “bunny”, “birdy”, etc.

  9. Hi, I’m Michelle, I’m half-Chinese/half-English and married to a Chinese man. We are expecting our first baby, a little girl, in august.

    I’m currently in the UK to give birth and am terrified of going back to China after she’s born purely because his mother is there (his parents are divorced). We do not get along, she hates me and has many times told my husband to divorce me, even though I have done nothing but try and be the respectful wife/daughter-in-law! But he’s still got this delusion that we can all live together, even though I’ve finally said that we cannot live with her (I’m not cutting her out of his life, simply stating that she has to live in a separate building so I can be in charge of my own home)… (I have considered leaving him for mine and my daughters safety simply because of his mother).

    Hubby is really excited about the baby, and will be coming to the UK for her birth. I understand that Chinese grandparents tend to be over-involved in their children’s/grand children’s lives. But I’m sorry we had this baby for us, not so I could just hand her over to his mother (which she expected and could get rid of me then as he had produced a child

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