Opinions

Lean in, and lean on Grandma

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, a writing program for students in Hong Kong, and a columnist for the South China Morning Post.

“Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg has been spending time with the wrong people. If she wants to make progress in her efforts to help more women reach the top of the business world, she should stop talking to young women — and start talking to grandmothers.

All that’s needed is a simple cultural shift, and China can show them how it’s done. There, 51 percent of positions in senior management are held by women, and about 19 percent of its chief executives are women. In the United States, just 20 percent of senior managers and 4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives are women. The explanation for China’s striking numbers is not the effect of some persuasive TED talk, best-selling book or even better access to affordable child care. Instead, it’s because, in China, the grandparents lean in.

According to the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission, 90 percent of young children in the city are being looked after by a grandparent. In China, it is not uncommon for maternal and paternal grandparents to split duties or travel long distances to help care for their grandchildren. The unofficial motto of these grandparents? Have passport, will babysit.

That’s because the fundamental value of Chinese culture is the community of the family. But rooted in communist history is the notion that men and women are equal and both should work, says Lisa Moore of the Women’s Foundation in Hong Kong. This, coupled with the country’s one-child policy, means that Chinese parents place enormous importance on the success of their children, boy or girl. Chinese grandparents are much more likely than their counterparts in the West to make large sacrifices to provide significant care for their child’s child.

My own experience illustrates what a difference this can make.

I became pregnant just after graduating from law school. I had moved to Hong Kong, quit law and founded an education start-up. To say that it was not a great time for me to have a child would be putting it lightly, and my mother instinctively understood this when I called her to drop the bomb. There was a deafening silence on the phone, followed by: “I’m coming to help.”

My mother was in her 50s and had her own successful business teaching math in the San Francisco area. She also had my dad, who gets, at most, 10 days of vacation a year. As their only child, I knew that she would help me, but I never imagined “help” to mean her giving up her life, leaving my dad behind in California and moving to Hong Kong to care for my three children for the past six years — so I can focus on my career.

It’s a little weird leaving my kids with my mom every day. My children sometimes spend weeks without me and don’t miss me. When there’s an issue at school, the teacher calls my mom directly. I frequently give my mom parenting suggestions. “You need to be a tougher mom, Mom,” I say awkwardly.

Managing young kids is not easy when you’re in your 30s, and it’s sure as heck not easy when you’re in your 60s. My mother has had to relearn how to parent. Today, she goes to after-school activities, play dates and birthday parties while juggling Google calendars, monitoring online homework and scouring YouTube for videos on rockets. She takes my kids to the pediatrician, then takes them with her when she goes to see her orthopedist. This summer, my oldest son is spending eight weeks with her in the United States; no doubt she’s had to listen to “Gangnam Style” in the car a thousand times.

Not everyone approves of the hands-on grandmother approach, including the other grandmother in the family. Whenever she visits, my mother-in-law urges my mom to stop the madness. “This is it. These are your golden years,” she says while my mom chases after my 3-year-old with a toothbrush. “Why are you squandering them? Don’t you want to do something for yourself?”

I can see where my mother-in-law is coming from. There have been days when I walk through the door after work and see my mom with her hands covered in baby vomit. I think, “My God. That should be me.” There have also been days when my husband is less than thrilled to be living with his mother-in-law.

But then there are the moments of joy, of sheer unadulterated happiness, when I call the house from my office and hear my mom humming a song, my kids gleefully singing along in the background. Many hands make light work, and despite a full-time working household, my kids always have someone at home who loves them unconditionally.

As working moms, we don’t lean back and scale down our professional goals because we fundamentally lack ambition. Likewise, I didn’t advance in my career because I asserted myself on every conference call or couldn’t keep my hand down in meetings. I simply had someone at home who put her hand up. Someone I trust. Someone who knows it takes a village to keep a mother working. Someone I call Mom.

 
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