The 'Becoming' Mother: Transitions to Motherhood in Urban China

Suzanne Kelley Gottschang

PhD Thesis. 1998

This study documents urban Beijing women's lives as they become mothers to enrich our understanding of the processes of gender and identity formation in the context of rapid social and economic change in China. Fieldwork and interviews throughout thirty women's pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum periods between 1994 and 1996, observations of hospital practices related to mothering and infant feeding, analysis of the representations of motherhood in advertisements, educational materials promoting breastfeeding and popular manuals on motherhood provide the main sources of date for this study.

As women in my study moved through different stages on the journey to motherhood, their narratives tell us that being a woman and mother in urban Beijing literally embodies demands that are defined by a number of forces. At the national level mothers contend with the state's project to modernize China through reproductive policies that promote children's needs and development as a resource for China's future and the imperative to reproduce children who can successfully participate in an emerging capitalist society. In addition, a consumer-oriented redefinition of femininity and female sexuality has also created an imperative for women to adorn, reshape and cultivate bodies that are desirable. Finally, women wish to remain in the workforce, with a measure of independence from their families and thus forge an identity that extends beyond that of the traditional ideal of the "good wife and wise mother."

My research also indicates that this time period of material bodily change also brought about by pregnancy occurs in a dynamic relationship with individual women's construction of self-identity. These changes in women's bodies and lives rendered their experiences and decisions into higher relief and thus provide and opportunity to enrich further our understanding of personhood and individuality in this context. This study focuses on practices such as infant feeding to offer a case that evidence of individual conformity to macro-level interests and ideals neglects the reasons, meanings, and strategies that those individuals bring to their actions.