Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Family of Three

Recently, Sam and Penny made the hard decision to enroll their two-and-a-half year old daughter, Erica in kindergarten.

By ‘kindergarten’ I mean daycare, but not as it is known in America. Here, a child must be able to tell caregivers she/he has to use the bathroom. That is the only requirement to enrollment. That, and that the parents be able to pay, of course. Other requirements such as pick up and drop off times, medical needs and other considerations are negotiable.  

Why was their decision hard? Parents all over America and all over the world send their kids to daycare all the time. Kids younger than Erica, even. My own Bun, now 9 months old, spent a few weeks in daycare before Darrell and Sammi worked their schedules out so that Bun can stay with either mommy or daddy, instead of being consigned to strangers.

Traditional Chinese culture dictates that a child stays within the family fold until mandated by law to step into the world and start his/her formal education. Grandparents from either side are enlisted, and delight in the care of their charges. Sometimes the grandparents fight over the privilege of that ward. Other times the baby’s parents fight over which of their parents will be accorded this great privilege.

Not so in Sam and Penny’s case. From Erica’s birth in 2010, theirs has been a struggle. Penny is a nurse. Her work schedule consists of 12 hour, rotating shifts. Some days she might be home, and some nights might see her gracing her abode. She usually gets one day off between shift rotations. She might work a series of night shifts only to have to return to the hospital for a mandatory daytime class to keep her certification current. Either way this poor, exhausted young mother has a very demanding professional life.

Sam’s job is not much easier. In order to make ends meet he teaches at 2 different universities. Not only does he have to make sure never to get overlapping schedules but he has to make sure he is able to meet the demands of each institution he is contracted to teach at. On top of his teaching duties at our university, he is responsible for the foreign teachers, with all that that entails: their safely, comfort, and administrative needs, to include registering us (Victor and me) with the city officials every year. Fortunately for Sam, Victor and I are both good foreigners, mostly taking care of ourselves.

If it were only a case of Penny and Sam doing what young parents all over China struggle with, there might not be a blog entry. Their situation is exacerbated by the fact that none of the grandparents live within commuting range of the young couple. They all live about 2 hours away.

Usually that would be no problem. A schedule would be worked out in which this grandmother or that one would come stay with the family, caring for the baby. Of course, the grandfather pitches in. Penny’s side of the family does not have a grandfather to offer up, but there are a few aunts and uncles that can pinch hit when needed.

Sam and Penny have tried every combination of live in help during Erica’s short life. Those solutions proved only short term. Penny’s mother was uncomfortable away from her town, province and home. Sam was just as uncomfortable with his mother in law in the house, not being familiar with the customs of her village and the routine of her life. Sam’s parents have stepped up to bat more than once but both of them have thriving businesses of their own and could not stay away long term. Besides, Penny and her mother in law didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things. The aunts and uncles could only help so much because they had their own lives to live and jobs to work.

Baby Erica ended up being shuttled to one grandparent’s house after the other. Penny ached to hold her child. Sam was… stoic. In the thick of family fights and expected to be the voice of reason, he had little time to indulge in his heart’s yearning for his small girl. At times, forlornly, he would confess: “I miss her…”

I knew things were getting bad for him last year, when out shopping with me. My first question was why he volunteered to take me shopping in the first place: he, an avowed detester of the sport. Not being one to look at gift horse in the mouth, or, more aptly said: to turn down a friend with whom I’ve gotten to while precious little time with, we spent the day together. Being ever conscious of how little free time he has, I rushed through my purchases, sure that he wanted to be home. Imagine my thoughts when he flat out said: “I don’t want to go home. There are too many people there.”

That’s bad. A man who seldom sees the wife he adores, gets to enjoy his baby even less often than he gets to see his wife… and does not want to be home with them?

After two and a half years, both of them were at a breaking point, but for different reasons. What did it for Sam was the night that Penny spent crying for the longing of her child, so often absent. No matter what, he resolved to find a way that his child’s mother would never spend another night in tears. 

He looked into daycare, a state-certified campus close to his home. Not only did he find it satisfactory but the price was actually much less than he thought it would be: about 500Yuan a month, plus the cost of food. There were openings and, after a successful interview, Erica was accepted and enrolled.

Last week was her first week there. Tremulous and trepidant, Sam deposited his future’s legacy into the competent arms of these caregivers. Anxious at her reaction to this new environment he called to her as she toddled into the fray of children: “Daddy has to leave now!” She turned and waved bye-bye, not a tear in her eye.

All day he kept a nervous eye on his phone. Not a single call from the daycare. That evening he picked her up. “Baba!” she shouted, smiling. She rushed to him. Only the strictest standard of decorum kept his eyes dry but there are no edicts about hearts soaring. His flew to the heavens. Walking home together, father and daughter, he listened to her jabber about her first day among new friends.      

At times Sam has confessed that Erica can be a naughty little girl. More specifically she is quite clever. Knowing her time with her parents is limited, she resorts to pity tactics to gain physical closeness. “My leg hurts”, she would say. Some days it would be a stomach ache and other days she would feign sleepiness to get her parents to carry her. In her own way, I’m guessing Erica was expressing missing Mommy and Daddy as much as they missed her. Since she started daycare she has not had any sore legs, stomachs or excess fatigue.

This break from tradition, daycare, is not good only for Baby Erica. A few days into the experiment Penny marveled: “Look at us! We are just a family of 3, making our life our way.” Sam, at peace now that his baby is happy, his wife is content and he gets to bask in his loves, echoes her sentiment. Sure, they have hard times and they have to juggle things around but they’re making it work, and they’re doing it together. That alone takes their relationship to a whole new level.  

Sam and Penny are just one couple who is finding that breaking with tradition is a satisfying option. Chris and Julia, another couple who teach at our school (See The Great Baby Race, posted April last year) have ‘fired’ both Chris’ parents and Julia’s. They have a nanny come in 5 days per week to care for their baby Eddie and do light housekeeping. Julia stopped by recently, telling me of this new development. She and Chris are ecstatic at running their household their way, with no parental interference. I’m guessing that, once Eddie is old enough to use the bathroom on his own, he too will go to daycare.

These daycares are a burgeoning business all over China. As more young couples opt for this relatively modern childcare choice, more and more centers are springing up. But what happens with the grandparents, denied their charges? Or, more specifically: denied their due of caring for their grandchild?

I don’t have enough information to answer that. What I can speculate on is that, with fewer grandparents pandering to their grandchildren, the reign of ‘Little Emperors’ – children with 2 sets of grandparents indulging their every whim is going to be short lived. Those of us who dreaded the thought of teaching those entitled little emperors are actually pretty happy about that.  

By the way: I had the honor of giving Baby Erica and Little Eddie their English names. As they grow into them we find their names suit them very well. Do I have a thing for ‘E’ names, or was it just coincidence?



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