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The hard work of feeding the baby: breastfeeding and intensive mothering in contemporary urban China Hanser, Amy; Li, Jialin Dec 18, 2017

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RESEARCH Open AccessThe hard work of feeding the baby:breastfeeding and intensive mothering incontemporary urban ChinaAmy Hanser1* and Jialin Li2* Correspondence:hanser@mail.ubc.ca1University of British Columbia,Vancouver, CanadaFull list of author information isavailable at the end of the articleAbstractDrawing upon the concept of culture as a “tool kit” from which social actors drawpragmatically, this paper explores the relationship between cultural definitions ofgood mothering and breastfeeding among middle-class, urban Chinese women. Weargue that an emerging culture of “intensive mothering” that focuses on infantfeeding is taking shape among privileged urban women. Based upon interviews withnew mothers in urban Shanghai, we describe the intense efforts and commitmentby these women to provide their babies with breast milk, and we consider thecomplexities of their attempts to put mothering ideals into practice. We suggest thatthe linkage between breastfeeding and motherhood represents a “gendered burden”for Chinese women and that infant feeding has become important, early terrain onwhich new mothers grapple with their own and others’ expectations aboutmothering and caring for a child. We show that intensive, demanding forms ofparenting now extend into the earliest years of a child’s life, a period largelyneglected in sociological studies of parenting in China.IntroductionWhen Zhang Fei’s (interviewee 9a) son was born premature, at just 33 weeks ges-tation, breastfeeding was immediately a challenge.1 She used a breast pump tobring in her milk supply while her son was in hospital for the first 10 days of hislife, and then, she continued relying upon her own, pumped breast milk to feedher baby for the next 10 months. Although she returned to work when her sonwas 2-months old, she maintained her milk supply by pumping twice a day in awashroom at work, a practice she described as common at her workplace. Atroughly the same time, she started a MBA program and described having to leavein the middle of the class in order to maintain her pumping schedule. The needto pump every 3 to 4 h meant that for months, she had to carry all of her breastpumping paraphernalia—pump, storage bags, cold packs—with her whenever shewent out. “Doing just about anything in Shanghai involves that amount of time.”she noted. And so, although providing her son with breast milk was certainly lessconvenient for her, her conviction that breast milk is the best food for babiesmeant that she was willing to xinku yi dian, to suffer a little hardship.The Journal ofChinese Sociology© The Author(s). 2017 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalLicense (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, andindicate if changes were made.Hanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 DOI 10.1186/s40711-017-0065-2In this paper, we explore the emergence of “intensive” forms of mothering amongChina’s urban middle-class through the lens of infant feeding practices and breastfeed-ing in particular. Much like discourses about breastfeeding in the Western context,these Chinese mothers are confronted with simultaneously “medical” and “maternalist”(Blum 1999) representations of breast milk and breastfeeding that identify this infantfeeding practice as the superior form of caring for a baby. We document the greatlengths that many women go through in order to supply their infants with their ownbreast milk, efforts that are strongly influenced by cultural representations of mother-ing in contemporary China but that are also very practical negotiations with ideasabout what babies need and what mothers should provide for them.We draw upon Ann Swidler’s concept of a “cultural tool kit” to understand how newmothers take up both new and more traditional cultural discourses about motherhoodand childrearing in China. We find that, while ideas about good motherhood and infantfeeding practices are hardly singular—they are marked by contradictions, divergentopinions, and difficult combinations—the decision to breastfeed (or not) has neverthe-less gained enormous significance for new mothers. Expectations and demands relatedto feeding the baby are intensely negotiated between home and work settings, betweenwomen and their family members, and other caregivers for the baby, and they areshaped by local networks of mothers and more general “mothering” ideas disseminatedthrough books and the Internet. A key material element in these negotiations is thebreast pump, which in many ways has transformed how middle-class Chinese womenaddress expectations about and ambitions to breastfeed their babies.While the specificity of the Chinese context—and food safety concerns related toinfant formula in particular—is important to understanding new emphasis uponbreastfeeding in urban China, our analysis nevertheless argues that the associationsbetween breastfeeding and motherhood represent a very particular “gendered bur-den” for Chinese women and that infant feeding has become important, early ter-rain on which new mothers grapple with their own and others’ expectations aboutmothering and caring for a child.Background: cultures of motherhood and parentingA sociological perspective on motherhood and childrearing enables us to view thepractices that people use to care for their children as socially constructed and notthe product of biological imperatives or individual idiosyncrasies. By the sametoken, the conceptual tools of cultural sociology take us a step further, allowing usto understand how caring for a baby or raising a child is not a consequence of es-sentialized cultural characteristics that have been internalized and programmaticallyexpressed by members of a society. Rather, cultural sociology proposes that socialactors are creative, pragmatic, and even contradictory in how they understand anduse culture in the course of their daily lives.In our analysis, we draw in particular upon American sociologist Ann Swidler’swidely influential conceptualization of “culture in action” (Swidler 1986). In a seminalarticle, Swidler challenged the idea that cultural values straightforwardly shape action,arguing instead that cultural discourses provide people with potential lines of action—-strategies—that they may draw upon selectively in the course of their daily lives. Cul-ture is characterized as a “tool kit,” providing “publicly available meanings [that]Hanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 2 of 20facilitate certain patterns of action, making them readily available, while discouragingothers” (Swidler 1986:283). But culture is complex: as Swidler argues, people “know”more culture than they “use,” and they may “use” culture in contradictory ways (1986,2001). In fact, some scholars suggest that cultural coherence largely lies in the institu-tions and cultural codes that act as “externalized cultural scaffolding” (Lizardo andStrand 2010). While individual actors have “practical skills” that are drawn from thisscaffolding, which facilitates certain patterns of action, the culture they “know” and“use” is neither coherent nor strongly internalized (ibid).Swidler’s conceptual model for understanding the relationship between culture andaction provides a continuum for thinking about how conscious or visible the role ofculture in guiding action might be. She argues, for example, that in stable social con-texts, culture may operate largely through “commonsense,” as cultural strategies areembedded in structural circumstances and therefore largely uncontested (1986:279).But in “unsettled times,” cultural discourses are more likely to take the form of compet-ing ideologies, and action becomes more reflexive as cultural tool kits become bothmore visible and more contested.If culture provides people with “tools” for acting in the social world, then Swidler’smodel suggests that cultural narratives about motherhood will have an impact on howwomen actually care for their children, offering up various parenting practices and waysof judging, and justifying those practices. Ideas about childrearing may be transmittedin many ways: through published statements (books, blogs, magazine articles), negotia-tions among family members, conversations among peers, or through interactions withmedical or other kinds of professionals. Given China’s “unsettled” contemporary con-text, marked by several decades of enormous economic, social, and cultural changes,we might expect that mothering practices are more subject to debate, reflection, andexplicit articulation than was the case a generation ago. In fact, Teresa Kuan’s (2015)new study highlights how China’s “contradictory” economic and social context isreflected in the tensions between, for example, “new norms of good parenting and thehighly competitive environment in which parents raise their children” (2015:8). We re-turn to the question of parenting in China’s unsettled contemporary context below.The power of applying Swidler’s framework to our case of breastfeeding in con-temporary China is, in our opinion, twofold. First, the toolkit model of culturedraws our attention to how people develop lines of action in the face of practicalconstraints and sometimes competing cultural ideas; this allows us to conceptualizeculture as not only simply “talk” or ideas but also as concrete practices and actionsthat must be interpreted by social actors themselves in meaningful ways. Second,Swidler’s culture toolkit framework frees us from seeking out a “true,” unitary, orcoherent cultural story, instead allowing us to recognize the fragmented andcontradictory elements of culture that may be practiced, side by side, in people’slives. Motherhood serves as a prime example of both the practical and complex,even contradictory features of culture in action.Cultures of motherhoodIn North America, a substantial scholarly literature takes up the notion of modernmotherhood as a contested cultural ideology, largely in the “unsettled” context ofHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 3 of 20growing numbers of working mothers. This line of inquiry is exemplified by SharonHays’ (1996) work on the “cultural contradictions of motherhood” in the USA. Hayshas argued that cultural discourses have come to define childrearing in terms of anideal form of “intensive mothering,” which posits that only mothers are the appropriatecaregivers to vulnerable children requiring “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionallyabsorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive” forms of care (1996:8). Hays ar-gues that this represents an enormous, gendered burden placed at the feet of allmothers, but the burden is particularly heavy for working mothers, who experience acontradiction between workplace demands and the requirements of intensive mother-ing. Despite the impossibility of devoting oneself fully to two “greedy institutions,”work, and family (Blair-Loy 2003), the ideology of intensive mothering has neverthelessoffered women a set of demanding but publicly valued parenting practices from whichto draw as they care for their children.Hays’ work has influenced a wide range of scholarship on gender, family, work, and so-cial class among North American sociologists, who have explored how intensive mother-ing is reflected in class-specific parenting practices (Lareau 2011), tied to employerdiscrimination against mothers (Correll and Benard 2007), and implicated in the gendereddivision of labor within the home (Yavorsky, Kamp Dush, and Schoppe-Sullivan 2015).Given that “cultural narratives play a crucial role in the production of gender boundaries”(Lamont and Molnar 2002:177), discourses about motherhood shape not only howwomen care for their children but also what others expect of them, as women and asmothers.In North America, investigations into the cultural construction of motherhood havebeen productively extended in recent years by scholars who examine the ways in whichcontemporary definitions of motherhood have become intertwined with consumerism(Cook 2013). For example, Norah MacKendrick (2014) describes how growing concernsabout the impact of environmental toxins and unseen chemicals on human health havebeen grafted onto ideologies of good motherhood. The result is a particular kind of“gendered burden” for women, who work to safeguard the maternal body during preg-nancy and later attempt to minimize chemical exposure to their children. The culturalimportance of such forms of “precautionary consumption” (MacKendrick 2010) is epit-omized by what Kate Cairns and her co-authors (Cairns, Johnston, and MacKendrick2013) call the “organic child,” an idealized child who is raised (by a mother) on safeand presumably chemical- and pesticide-free foods and other products. In short, theconsumer marketplace provides a key means through which good motherhood is de-fined and realized, through time-consuming, expensive, and knowledge-intensive con-sumption practices.There is also a substantial body of work that examines the ways in which breastfeedinghas been portrayed as a key means for performing (good) motherhood (Blum 1999; Wall2001). Linda Blum (1999), for example, has documented the evolution of both “maternal-ist” and “medical” models of breastfeeding in Western culture. The contemporary mater-nalist representation of breastfeeding celebrates the emotional ties created between achild and a nursing mother; the medical model valorizes the healthful qualities of breastmilk itself. Combined, such discourses have bound breastfeeding to good motherhood,such that “breastfeeding has become the measure of the mother” (Blum 1999:3). Rootedin a longer history of eugenics and nation-building, class and racial divides, and the rise ofHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 4 of 20medical expertise and scientific interventions into infant feeding, both the maternalist andmedical discourses that Blum describes have served to draw moral lines between goodand bad mothering practices, and between good and bad mothers. For white, middle-classwomen in particular, Blum argues, achieving good mothering through breastfeeding canequate with “a racialized class-enhancing project” (1999:63). More recently, both JoanWolf (2011) and Courtney Jung (2015) seek to debunk the enormous importance toinfants—physical, emotional, and intellectual—that is attributed to breastfeeding today.Wolf argues that public and “expert” consensus on the benefits of breastfeeding to babies,despite weak and contradictory evidence, reflects American anxieties about risk andhealth, wedded to cultural ideas about motherhood and femininity. Jung reveals how con-temporary discourses about breastfeeding in North America wed a deeply moralizing nar-rative about motherhood to a highly profitable industry marketing a vast array ofconsumer products. For North American mothers, even breastfeeding represents a prac-tice in which good mothering and consumerism combine (Afflerback, Carter, Anthony,and Grauerholz 2013).Childrearing and motherhood in contemporary ChinaAlthough China represents a very different cultural and institutional context, NorthAmerican forms of intensive parenting may have a counterpart in the enormous invest-ments—financial, time, and emotional—that Chinese parents have made in their (usually)only children’s education and development. Some recent studies have shown how “Chin-ese” models of parenting are being recast in “modern” (and often Westernized) ways(Brainer 2015 and Lan 2014 on Taiwan, Kuan 2015 on mainland China), taking the formof what Lan (2014) calls “glocal entanglements” as parents attempt to integrate newly-introduced and more traditional childrearing practices. In other words, the incorporationof a Westernized new parenting culture, or “skill set” (Faircloth and Murray 2015: 1119),is “filtered through local conceptualizations of kinship and childrearing” (Brainer 2015: 4).In traditional, Confucian thought, the maternal role was viewed as both importantand influential. As Francesca Bray has observed, in China’s late Imperial period (fromroughly 960–1911), motherhood was understood through the “duality” of the “natural”(or physical) and “social” mother, two roles that could be separated and often mappedonto a class hierarchy that valued the educational and moral contributions of the socialmother most highly (Bray 1997:347). During the early decades of Communist Partyrule, women’s domestic roles—including their role in caring for and raising children—-became almost invisible, as both rural and urban women were drawn into socializedproduction (Hershatter 2011). Many women, exhausted by the demands of work andpolitical activity outside of the home, had little extra time to devote to childrearing,and it was not uncommon for small children to be cared for by their grandparents oreven wet nurses (Chen 2015; Hershatter 2011). Caring for children was neverthelessstill viewed as women’s “natural” role (Evans 2005).The contemporary period has witnessed a dramatic transformation of mothering ideol-ogy, a transformation that has been deeply influenced by these state population policies,especially family planning policies limiting most families to a single child coupled with anational discourse on individual suzhi or “quality.”Mobilized in state rhetoric about popu-lation control and birth planning as well as education, the term suzhi broadly refers toHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 5 of 20both individual and collective qualities valued in contemporary China, and can range fromphysical stature to educational achievement to morality (Kipnis 2006; Jacka 2009). Chil-dren, as the generation to take up China’s modernization project in the future, represent aparticularly intense focus for the cultivation of suzhi, for both individual success and na-tional well-being (Woronov 2008; Woronov 2009). Ensuring their suzhi is “high” is the re-sponsibility of parents, for whom “national agendas and familial hopes converge on theproblem of how to raise well-rounded children” (Kuan 2015:10).A broad effort to limit China’s population in quantitative terms but to improve theChinese people qualitatively, in fact the state’s “quality project,” has been clearly definedas a mother’s responsibility (Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005). Starting in the 1980s,Greenhalgh and Winckler argue, the “good mother” was “defined as one who wouldsacrifice her own interests for her child and use scientific methods to raise a “quality”youngster” (2005:237). Combined with the devaluing of women in the labor market andthe revival of essentialist notions of femininity as well as a burgeoning consumer mar-ket targeting mothers, state, and market have together strongly pushed women towardsparticularly intense forms of mothering and defined childcare and childrearing as pri-marily a woman’s responsibility (Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005; Rofel 1999).Numerous studies have explored intensive parental investment in China’s generationof only children, especially among urbanites. Vanessa Fong (2004) described the enor-mous pressure for educational and future occupational success on urban singletons astheir parents’ “only hope” for comfort and security in old age in the 1990s; Jin and Yang(2015) argue that motherhood has been “reconstructed” within this competitive, educa-tional context. More recently, Teresa Kuan (2015) examines how middle-class mothersstruggle to improve their children’s educational outcomes while reconciling new defini-tions of good parenting with the limitations of an intensely competitive social reality.These urban mothers act upon this uncertainty by trying to create tiaojian for theirchildren—the social, economic, and cultural conditions that allow for success.In more recent years, the intensive demands of motherhood in China have taken whatmight be characterized as an emotional or psychological turn (Evans 2008; Kuan 2015).Part of broader cultural shifts towards individualization and what Yan Yunxiang labels theincreasing “emotional expressivity” of personal life in China (Yan 2003; in relation tomotherhood, see Shen 2015), Kuan (2015) argues that Chinese mothers today are askedto engage in the often contradictory task of raising a child who is both successful inChina’s intensely competitive academic system as well as “psychological healthy, full ofpersonality, and happy” (26). This task requires mothers carefully manage their own frameof mind, making them the primary target of efforts at the modification of “parentalthought and behavior” by Chinese childrearing experts (Kuan 2015:107).All these changes reflect a return to an understanding of motherhood wed to particu-lar notions of femininity that draws upon both traditional and newly introduced under-standings of women, children, and the relation between them. Childrearing andmothering practices also serve as a context in which hierarchical social and moral divi-sions can be made, as suzhi, tiaojian, and mothering practices become new ways tomark urban/rural as well as class divides (Murphy 2004). Much like the racialized andclassed elements of maternalism Blum described in an American context, the culturalconstruction of “good” motherhood in contemporary China is similarly inflected inways that reflect forms of economic, social, and cultural privilege.Hanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 6 of 20Curiously, relatively little attention has been given to parenting and motherhood forvery small children in China, though some studies of pregnancy (Higgins 2015; Lin2011; Zhu 2010), infant feeding (Gottschang 2007; Hanser and Li 2015), and the child-rearing role of grandparents (Binah-Pollak 2014; Goh and Kuczynski 2010) examinehow the care of babies, infants, and toddlers is organized in China. These studies sug-gest that even for pregnant and new mothers, contemporary discourses of motherhoodare in full force: Anna Higgins has shown how the moral divisions between high- andlow-suzhi persons are reflected in both taijiao (fetal education) directed at mothers,who must nurture a healthy, smart baby through pregnancy, and fetal testing, wherethe eugenic elements of population discourse are applied (Higgins 2015). And, if NorthAmerican research is any indication, infant care and the early months and years of par-enthood are particularly intense periods of emotional and cultural investments, con-texts in which ideas about motherhood and good parenting are articulated andpracticed, shaping future parenting practices as well.Breastfeeding in China todayThe practices of breastfeeding and infant feeding in contemporary China exploredbelow require some important elements of contextualization. Generally speaking,breastfeeding rates in China have changed considerably over the past 40 years. One re-view study (Xu et al. 2009) shows that the ever-breastfed rates were over 80% in the1950s and 1960s, followed by a significant decline in the 1970s and 1980s due to thewidespread introduction of breast milk substitutes. In 1992, the WHO-UNICEF-sponsored Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) was rolled out in China with gov-ernment support, the goal being to improve the breastfeeding rate. In recent decades,breastfeeding has been promoted as a national project, although Gottschang (2007)critically shows that the initiation of BFHI has neglected the complex situations thatnew urban mothers confront, and many of them consider infant feeding more an indi-vidual consumer choice than simply a biologically determined role.In the first decade of the twenty-first century, government data suggested that despiteefforts to promote breastfeeding, rates had continued to decline. According to the Na-tional Health Services Survey (NHSS)2 and United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund(UNICEF),3 the 6-month exclusive breastfeeding rate in China in 2008 was only around28% (with rural areas at around 30% and urban areas only 18%), lower than the globalaverage of 40%. This rate was expected to continue to decline (Minter 2015), spurring abody of research in China investigating breastfeeding knowledge among Chinesewomen (Jiang et al. 2012; Tsai et al. 2015), “inappropriate sales promotion” of breastmilk substitutes in or near hospitals (Liu et al. 2014), and the gaps between maternityleave and recommended breastfeeding duration (Mao et al. 2012). Meanwhile, China’sinfant formula market was estimated to have grown from about $1 billion in 2002 to$9 billion in 2013 and was forecast to hit $13 billion by 2015 (Tang 2013).These trends have led to anxiety over the “breastfeeding problem” in China (Thomas2015; Minter 2015; Liu 2015), concerns that have been exacerbated by the 2008 infantformula scandal. In September 2008, the Chinese government initiated a massive recallof domestically produced infant formula as a result of intentional contamination withthe industrial chemical melamine; by the end of the year, it was estimated that at leastHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 7 of 20six infants had died from kidney damage and another 300,000 had been affected(Hanser and Li 2015). In an effort to boost breastfeeding by new mothers, in 2013China’s State Council announced the goal of raising the 6-month exclusive breastfeed-ing rate to at least 50% by 2020. In fact, the latest NHSS report shows that the 6-month exclusive breastfeeding rate in 2013 had risen to 58.5%; especially surprisingwas the growth in breastfeeding rates in urban areas (62%), now higher than rural areas(55.4%).4 Part of this dramatic shift in breastfeeding rates is almost certainly attribut-able to widespread fears about the quality of the nation’s food supply and relatively re-cent cases of adulterated infant formula, even after 2008. But strikingly, few of ourinterviewees characterized this as the sole or even the most important reason forbreastfeeding their babies, and many of them clearly believed that it was possible topurchase safe infant formula, although often through laborious means.If great public and government attention to breastfeeding is associated with droppingrates of breastfeeding and the 2008 infant formula incident, the actual promotion ofbreastfeeding among new mothers appears to be more dependent upon social media.An excellent example is the famous Chinese actress Ma Yili, who has become wellknown for her public support for breastfeeding. On her blog, she shared her personalexperiences breastfeeding her first child for a full 9 months despite physical and logis-tical challenges, and she later lamented not extending the nursing period, characteriz-ing it as “the most valuable experience of a woman.”5 In 2013, Ma was even appointeda Special Advocate for Breastfeeding and Early Child Development in China byUNICEF. Ma Yili is a representative of a broader social media discourse in China thatcelebrates breastfeeding and motherhood, ranging from motherhood websites to per-sonal posts on social media platforms like wechat. Websites like “Breastfeeding Head-quarters” (muru weiyang dabenying, http://www.bnmuru.org/), which claims to be thelargest Chinese-language platform for exchanging information about breastfeedingamong nursing mothers, provide not only very practical support for breastfeedingmothers but also cultural narratives steeped in ideas about good motherhood. Strik-ingly, the “bn” in the website’s web address is drawn from the English words “breast-feeding” and “nurturing,” a clear nod to the maternalist discourse about breastfeedingin North America.MethodologyThe data for this paper is drawn from two sets of interviews carried out with middle-class mothers in the city of Shanghai. The first set of 26 interviews was conducted be-tween May and June of 2013 as part of a larger investigation into the consumption ofinfant formula in contemporary China. Our interviewing began with several profes-sional women, whom we asked to introduce us to other women who had had a childwithin the past 5 years. Although the original goal of the interviews was to understandif and how middle-class mothers purchase infant formula in China, the interviews wereorganized around the simple question of “How have you fed your baby, since the childwas born until now?” The second set of interviews was conducted between September2014 and August 2015 with 25 women and is drawn from a larger project conductedby the second author on pregnancy, infant feeding, and perceptions of risk among bothmiddle-class and rural migrant women in Shanghai. These interviews were organizedaround the themes of how these women navigated their pregnancies, experienced theirHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 8 of 20childbirths, and coped with the early months of feeding their babies, but these womenwere asked the same set of questions about infant feeding as the women in the firstdata set. In the text, interviews from the first data set are noted with an “a” at the end,and interviews from the second set are marked with a “b.”As it turned out, all but one of our interviewees had breastfed their infants, and as aresult, a substantial portion of many interviews was devoted to discussing women’s ex-periences with and rationales for breastfeeding their babies. Most of the mothers hadpurchased infant formula as well, and in fact, all but two of our 51 interviewees hadtransitioned to infant formula or expected to do so in the foreseeable future. Althoughwe focus on breastfeeding in this paper, we address both feeding choices and howwomen thought about the transition to formula. The elaborate consumer strategies forpurchasing infant formula that these women adopted are the subject of another paper(Hanser and Li 2015).All our interviewees ranged in age from 27 to 41, with reported monthly householdincomes ranging from RMB 10,000–40,000, which placed them significantly above theaverage disposable household income in Shanghai of 3700 yuan per month in 2013.6All were permanent Shanghai residents (i.e., hukou holders), though a number of themhad settled in Shanghai through marriage or formal workplace arrangements. Eachinterview lasted between 45 min to more than 1 h. Forty-four of these interviews wererecorded and transcribed, while an additional seven were recorded through note-takingonly. In addition, seven women from the second interview sample were interviewedtwo or more times.English-language summaries of each woman’s breastfeeding experience were createdfrom the Chinese-language interview transcripts, and from these summaries, commonthemes and patterns related to breastfeeding were generated. While the analysis is orga-nized around concepts and themes abstracted from the interview data as a whole andis therefore an “issue-centered analysis” (Weiss 1994), we nevertheless attempted not todismember any woman’s story and the coherence of her experience by dividing up theinterview material into discrete, “coded” segments. The relatively small number of in-terviews made this possible. While our analysis is narrowly focused on relatively afflu-ent urban women, these women’s cultural, social, and economic resources make themideal subjects for investigating the cultural narratives shaping the most valued, moderndefinitions of motherhood in China today, in large part because they are the womenbest positioned to fulfill these demands (cf Blair-Loy 2003). At the same time, the inter-view context itself may result in accounts that de-emphasize conflicts with dominantnorms of good mothering, as interview subjects may make efforts to represent them-selves as “honorable” mothers, “fram[ing] their answers to present themselves in themost admirable light” (Pugh 2013:50). Such a bias would nevertheless highlight the cul-tural construction of “good” mothering in China today.Feeding the baby: intensive new motherhoodBreastfeeding provides a compelling window into women’s early experiences of mother-hood, and of the cultural narratives, they draw upon to both guide their childrearing prac-tices and to make sense of their experiences. In the discussion below, we consider howcultural ideologies about motherhood and childrearing are expressed through practices ofinfant feeding, and breastfeeding in particular. We show how important breastfeeding isHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 9 of 20to many of these mothers’ understandings of how to best care for their children, and wedocument the great lengths many of the women we interviewed went through in order toprovide their babies with their own breast milk. But for many women, breastfeeding ishardly the final or even a straightforward solution to the problem of feeding the baby, andwe also describe how our interviewees negotiated the contradictory demands of breast-feeding and employment, conflicting expectations between themselves and family mem-bers, and the need to transition away from breastfeeding sooner or later. In many ways,feeding the baby serves as a key site—and one of the earliest in a woman’s motheringexperiences—where the intensive demands of contemporary middle-class motherhoodare expressed and performed. Importantly, consumer goods and complex consumer strat-egies for navigating the Chinese marketplace represent a critical element of caring for ababy, and we document as well the ways in which a “protective” or “good” mother is ei-ther the one who can feed her child with her own breast milk (often relying on productslike breast pumps and other equipment) or the savvy consumer who can afford foreign in-fant formula, perceived as the best alternative.Zhui nai, in pursuit of milkWithin the larger context of food safety fears, government promotion of breastfeedingand a popular discourse that celebrates the association between breastfeeding and mod-ern motherhood, feeding a baby—by breast or by bottle, with breast milk or with for-mula—represents a situation in which new mothers actively draw upon a range ofcultural narratives about motherhood, health, childrearing, and sacrifice as they carefor their child. It is, in other words, an intensive site for performing motherhood.To some extent, breastfeeding appears to have become an expected practice amongmiddle-class urban mothers in China, and all but one of the 51 mothers in the two sets ofinterviews we conducted had breastfed their babies for some period of time, ranging from1 month to 2 years. These broad numbers, however, fail to convey the depth of commit-ment to and the complex arrangements associated with breastfeeding for many of thesewomen, even for those who breastfed for a relatively short time. Despite—or even becauseof—the challenges associated with breastfeeding, it served both as the context for and as aset of practices through which an ideal of motherhood could be expressed.Many of the women we interviewed encountered significant challenges with breast-feeding, including insufficient milk supply, difficulty getting the baby to latch properly,pain during breastfeeding, or, later, the need to integrate breastfeeding with employ-ment. For example, Li Xiaomei, a 29-year-old mother (interviewee 4a) of an 8-month-old baby described an intense struggle to provide her son with breast milk, a strugglethat ended after 5 months of pain, exhaustion, and stress. Noting that she was a “verystrong advocate of breastfeeding” even before the baby was born, having read books onthe topic and absorbed a lot of technical information, this young woman described how2 weeks after her baby was born, she began to experience breast pain. By 20 days, herbaby was clearly hungry and her breasts no longer seemed to be filling with milk. Whatfollowed was a diagnosis of “narrow milk ducts” at the hospital, secret efforts by hermother-in-law to supplement the baby’s diet with formula, allergic reactions in the babyto the infant formula, and feelings of depression and constant crying on her part. In asurprising twist, critical advice came from a male colleague whose daughter had alsoHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 10 of 20suffered from allergies. He advised her to stop breastfeeding directly and rely insteadon a breast pump, a process that she described as exhausting due to the length of time(an hour per session) she required to pump even a small amount of milk. Still, pumpingboosted her supply, though not enough to keep up with the baby’s growing appetite,and she realized that this strategy would not work for much longer. She described thesituation as leaving her depressed (xintai hen bu. hao), though she told herself at thetime, “if I am able to give my baby a little more breast milk to drink, it is a little bit offeeling” (yi dian ganjue). When she stopped pumping and switched to a special formuladesigned for babies with allergies, at 5 months, she had managed to store an astonish-ing 60,180 ml bags of frozen breast milk, allowing for a gradual transition to formula.While this young woman’s experiences in breastfeeding were particularly difficult, andher level of commitment is particularly deep, elements of her story appeared in manyother women’s accounts. For example, numerous women we interviewed had relied en-tirely upon breast pumps to supply their babies with breast milk, often because they strug-gled to get their newborns to nurse properly, using the pump to zhui nai (literally, to“pursue milk”), to bring in and maintain their milk supply. Zhang Fei (interviewee 9a), de-scribed at the beginning of the paper, had given birth to her baby prematurely, at 33 weeksgestation, and so, she had used a breast pump to bring in her milk supply. She was stillpumping breast milk when her baby was 11 months old, though she was gradually shiftingto infant formula. Wang Ping (interviewee 8a) struggled to nurse her baby after a C-section, despite ample milk supply and the use of a lactation consultant (kai nai shi), rely-ing in the end upon a breast pump for many months. Although many of these physicalchallenges associated with breastfeeding were reported in Gottschang’s (2007) researchamong urban mothers in the 1990s, the reliance upon breast pumps is entirely new (seeBlum 1999 on the rise of the breast pump in the USA).Bei nai zu: breast pumps, breastfeeding, and the workplaceBreast pumps were important tools even for mothers who did not have difficulties nursingtheir babies, and these women relied upon pumps to enable them to continue breastfeedingafter returning to work and/or to create stockpiles of stored milk in order to prolong theperiod of time their babies consumed breast milk. Several women, for example, described“freezers full of breast milk,” and one woman claimed to have half-filled her mother’s freezeras well. Others described expressing milk during the workday, sometimes in the comfort ofa designated space but for others, in washrooms or behind a curtain. Whether to addressnursing difficulties or to extend the period of breastfeeding beyond maternity leave, relianceon a breast pump was a very practical expression of a mother’s obligation to breastfeed herbaby. At the same time, the use of a pump required women select and purchase a pumpand its accessories (foreign pumps, storage bags, and other equipment were overwhelminglyfavored) and master both knowledge and technique on proper storage techniques (includinghow long breast milk could be preserved and at what temperatures). The decision to pumpwas therefore a mixture of daily practice, abstract consumer and technical knowledge, andcultural investments in how to best mother a baby.While for many women, the return to work marked the end of breastfeeding giventhe difficulties (logistic or interpersonal) of pumping at work; for others, the commit-ment to continue breastfeeding was a badge of honor. There is now even a popularHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 11 of 20Internet term for women who pump milk at work, bei nai zu (women who “carry”pumped milk home from work), a label that appeared in the aftermath of the contami-nated formula incident in 2008 but which is as closely associated with motherly com-mitment to breastfeeding as it is with food safety concerns related to infant formula.7For example, Xu Huifang (interviewee 1a), the mother of a 10-month-old baby, de-scribed expressing milk with a hand-pump twice a day while at work, a process that lefther hand numb. Despite being encouraged by her own mother to wean the baby earlyto avoid this discomfort, she was committed (jianchi, jianchi) and confessed that shefelt guilty about her plans to wean her baby at 1 year of age. Mei banfa, she explained,“there is nothing to be done.” Another mother, Wu Fang (interviewee 3a), describedthe work of pumping, transporting, and storing milk as xinku (exhausting, a hardship),but she was adamant that the decision to do so was not difficult. “For a mother, you al-ways want to give your baby the best, and because I feel that breast milk is the best, soI’ve decided to give him the best—breast milk.” Even women who had no intention tocontinue breastfeeding after returning to work recognized the commitment that contin-ued breastfeeding could represent. For example, He Lanying (interviewee 5a), who ex-plained that she had no intention to pump milk at work and who felt formula feedingwas perfectly acceptable, also remarked “I admire [those women] who keep nursingafter returning to work.” noting that breastfeeding is xinku.“Breast milk is best”: rationales for breastfeedingA range of contemporary discourses contributed to women’s plans, practices, and ratio-nales for breastfeeding. Breastfeeding was valued for many different reasons, including forits nutritional value and immunity-boosting qualities, for food safety reasons, and for itscapacity to promote emotional bonding between mother and baby. There was also a lot ofvariation in terms of which rationales mothers drew upon in justifying their own breast-feeding, how they interpreted those rationales, and how they combined them. Discussionof the “health” benefits of breastfeeding was similar to the “medical” model for breastfeed-ing that Blum (1999) describes in the USA. In concrete terms, this faith in the healthfulqualities of breast milk was sometimes expressed as a vague sense that “breast milk isbest,” though sometimes women had more developed rationales: A number of womensuggested that breast milk is more easily digested, and nutrients more easily absorbedthan formula. Many women spoke as well about better immunity in breastfed babies,often offering anecdotes comparing babies who got sick more easily (formula fed orbreastfed for short times) with more robust babies (breastfed for longer). One mother sug-gested that a woman’s breast milk is tailored to her specific baby’s needs, something that astandardized product like infant formula could never provide. In this last example, a“medical” discourse about the virtues of breast milk begins to blur into a “maternalist”idea about mother-child connection wed to an exclusive, intensive form of mothering thatBlum (1999) also describes. In all these examples, rationales for breastfeeding rest uponcultural notions about what parents, and mothers in particular, owe their children.Of course, for some women, food safety concerns, and in particular, the possibility ofpurchasing contaminated or substandard infant formula in China, provided a strong in-centive to breastfeed for as long as possible, or at least until a safe source of infant for-mula could be secured. Liu Lihua (interviewee 24a), for example, described herHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 12 of 20problem not in terms of whether or not to breastfeed but rather when to wean. Becauseof her concerns about domestic infant formula, she waited to wean her baby until shehad secured what she considered a reliable source of safe, foreign infant formula (seealso Hanser and Li 2015). In some ways, deep and widespread fears about food safetyrepresent a very “Chinese” characteristic (Yan 2012), specific to the contemporaryChinese context and with clear consequences for childrearing, including breastfeeding.Nevertheless, the vast majority of women we interviewed still had or planned to even-tually turn to infant formula to feed their infants.The portrayal of breast milk as the best “food” for a baby was at times complementedby an explicitly maternalist discourse about breastfeeding as emotionally significant. WuFang (interviewee 3a), for example, explained that “I feel that breast milk is not just a kindof food (shiwu), but [breastfeeding] is also a kind of exchange of feeling (qinggan jiaoliu)between me and [my baby].” Zhao Meihui (interviewee 12a) suggested that she breastfedboth her children (she was one of just three women we interviewed with more than onechild) because it was safe, convenient, and hygienic, but she also described how directlynursing a baby helps with “parent-child communication and feeling” (qinzi jiaoliu, qinziganqing) and that breastfed babies are more attached (tie) to their mothers. Such interpre-tations of breastfeeding likely reflect the greater expectations of emotional availabilitydemanded of Chinese mothers today (Kuan 2015; Evans 2008).“Treated like a “cow””: negotiating breastfeeding in the familyIdeas about the importance of breastfeeding, and how women viewed its relationshipto their role as mother, were not considered in isolation. In most cases, infant feedingpractices were strategies constructed in dialog with others: family members (especiallymothers and mothers-in-law, as well as husbands), friends, as well as colleagues, andother peers all influenced women’s decision-making about breastfeeding and how tofeed and care for their babies more generally. Partly, for this reason, decisions aboutwhether to breastfeed, how, why, and for how long, could be openly debated and pro-vided a context in which contested ideas about mothers and babies, and the contra-dictory pressures that women experienced in their lives, might be expressed. In somecases, women struggling with or not wanting to breastfeed were pressured by “theolder generation” (usually mothers and mothers-in-law) to continue breastfeeding.For instance, Jiang Yunzhen (interviewee 2b) described the first month after childbirthas painful because she initiated breastfeeding under the disciplining gaze of her familymembers and especially her mother-in-law. Despite being a strong advocate forbreastfeeding and enjoying an ample milk supply, she still felt as if she was treatedlike a “cow” (nainiu) or “breast milk machine” (chan nai ji) by her mother-in-law,who she described as constantly measuring how much breast milk she had pumped.If the amount seemed to decrease, Jiang Yunzhen would then be asked to eat a specialsoup to boost her supply. This kind of scrutiny was also experienced by Lu Xuhan(interviewee 8b), who also described herself as treated like a “machine” (jiqi) andfound herself agitated (fan zao) by the constant monitoring of her milk productionand the baby’s consumption of it by her mother-in-law, even feeling angry simply atthe sound of her mother-in-law’s voice. While neither of these two young mothersopenly argued with their family members about breastfeeding, the internalizedHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 13 of 20obligation of mothers to breastfeed their babies, coupled with the breast pump tech-nology that make milk “production” visible and measurable, clearly granted familymembers the privilege to monitor a new mother’s milk production and to treat her asprimarily a breast milk provider.Another young mother, Wang Ping (interviewee 8a), described conflicts with hermother-in-law (a strong believer in the immunity effects of breastfeeding), who first pres-sured her to use a pump when the baby struggled to nurse after a C-section birth andthen later proposed the use of a sister-in-law’s frozen breast milk when the interviewee’smilk supply began to dwindle. The interviewee was outraged at this suggestion, thoughshe did not argue directly with her mother-in-law, instead encouraging her husband toput an end to the plan, telling him that she was not some kind of “decommissioned dairycow” (jinzhi de nainiu). Interestingly, her anger at the thought of feeding her baby the“other person’s milk” implies that supplying breast milk is in some ways equated with car-ing for one’s baby and that she might be “replaced” by another person (though ironically,it was a real dairy cow that substituted, in the form of cow’s-milk-based infant formula).Yet, in the same interview, this mother offered a different model for performing themotherly role, which was instead expressed through consumption. Describing the com-plex strategies, she relied upon to secure safe and high-quality infant formula as well asother baby products, she noted, “Being a mother, you are definitely willing to spendmoney to buy the best [for your baby].”8 In this way, diligent purchases of safe formulacould signify motherly commitment as much as breastfeeding did.Sometimes, negotiations over breastfeeding were with other forms of authority, likeyue sao, postpartum doulas or support persons that some families hire to assist in thehome in the first week after childbirth, during the traditional confinement period (zuoyuezi) for a new mother. For example, Li Qiao (interviewee 5b) initially had difficultyproducing sufficient breast milk for her baby. Her yue sao pressured her to supplementwith infant formula, but Li Qiao was committed to exclusive breastfeeding. However,one day after she breastfed her son, she tried to offer him some frozen breast milkgiven to her by a close friend. To her surprise, her son drank it up quickly and satisfy-ingly. “I felt very ashamed (diu lian),” she said, “I think I even had some postpartumdepression (chanhou yiyu) at that time.” Ultimately, she joined the “BreastfeedingHeadquarters” website and obtained what she considered “tremendous support” (hendade zhizhu). During the third interview with her (about 6 months after her childbirth),she proudly explained that she had only supplemented with infant formula in first10 days after birth, and she even claimed that she felt that she had been “rehabilitated”(pingfan 平反) through her ability to successfully feed her baby by breastfeeding.9Similarly, Wang Jing (interviewee 53b) felt judged by her yue sao, in this case, not forinadequate milk supply but for inadequate milk. After birth, Wang Jing’s daughter suf-fered from diarrhea despite being breastfed. Her yue sao suggested switching to infantformula, and when she did, the symptom immediately disappeared. She felt very dis-couraged (shou cuo) because she was committed to breastfeeding and so was unwillingto supplement infant formula. She managed her disappointment through the support ofan online mother’s group where mothers discussed feeding challenges and shared expe-riences with one another. With this support, she decided to reduce her daughter’s in-take of formula from two feedings per day to one feeding only, in this way reassertingher authority over feeding decisions and maintaining her commitment to breast milk.Hanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 14 of 20In both these cases, breastfeeding was clearly experienced as a key expression ofmotherly care, but a mother’s success (or failure) could be judged by others, leading topressures to supplement with formula.Conflicts, contradictions, and pragmatic motheringThe majority of mothers we interviewed seemed to readily embrace the idea thatbreastfeeding was an important—if certainly not the only—way to perform goodmotherhood. Nevertheless, tensions and conflicts did appear, as the demands of breast-feeding clashed with workplace demands clashed with women’s other identities, asworkers, as independent individuals, or as sexually active and attractive young women.These conflicts and contradictions sometimes prompted women to draw upon alterna-tive understandings of “good” infant feeding practices that mixed formula with breastmilk or dispensed with the need for a mother’s milk altogether.For example, many women timed weaning to coincide with their return to employment,feeling that pumping at work was inconvenient, embarrassing, or simply unnecessary. In anumber of cases, such women sometimes suggested that the nutritional value of breastmilk declines as a baby grows or that infant formula offers important “micronutrients”not found in breast milk and important to infant health by, say, 6 months of age or so(e.g., interviewee 10a). Even mothers committed to the bei nai zu regimen of workplacepumping found these arrangements challenging. Wu Fang (interviewee 3a), committed tonursing her child for the full, WHO-recommended 2 years, described the embarrassmentof conferring with male superiors before pumping, which she had to perform by going tothe back of the room and drawing a curtain for privacy. Song Dachun (interviewee 6a)attempted to extend her nursing period past her return to work, but she felt pumping atwork was too inconvenient and so tried returning home during her lunch break to nurseher baby, an arrangement she quickly found onerous. Interestingly, this mother was alsodistrustful of the nutritional value of stored breast milk, making pumping at work of ques-tionable worth in her mind. In all these cases, the value of breast milk came up againstthe hard edge of workplace demands.The gender inequality that has made caring for infants such an intensely demanding re-sponsibility for middle-class Chinese women was reflected in the ambivalence somewomen expressed about how breastfeeding affected their bodies. As Li Hou (interviewee42b) noted, “If you are a professional woman, you definitely want to keep your figure…butafter a woman breastfeeds, her breasts shrink and sag.” something that could also affect awoman’s attractiveness to her husband. Similarly, Yun Jiang (interviewee 2b) describedherself as very “conflicted” because as a mother, her daughter’s well-being was importantto her (and therefore, she was strongly committed to breastfeeding her child), but she alsofelt the loss of her “young woman’s figure,” something she strongly associated with “sag-ging” breasts. As with the conflict between intensive mothering and the workplace, thetension between a mother whose body is devoted to her child and a woman whose bodyis pleasing to men was felt keenly by some women we interviewed.Despite these tensions, it was rare for women we interviewed to directly challengethe value of breastfeeding. This may in part be an effect of the interview encounter it-self (Pugh 2013), in which women are likely to present themselves as good motherswho uphold widely held standards. A rare exception was Zheng Ting (interviewee 11a),Hanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 15 of 20who explained that she never really wanted to breastfeed at all, and only began doingso because her milk came in. She suggested that her milk was “not too good” andcaused her baby to suffer from peeling skin and diarrhea, a diagnosis made by the el-ders (laoren) in her family because her diet contained too many things that nursingwomen should traditionally avoid (such as spicy foods and too much “oil, salt, soysauce, and vinegar”). And yet, this woman used a breast pump for 4 months, despitedamaged, bleeding nipples, and her aversion to nursing. Her interview is filled withcontradictions like these: She insisted that she did not want to breastfeed and she wasnot pressured to nurse, and yet, her family was united against her in support of breast-feeding. She explained that she preferred infant formula from the start because “wecannot possibly be like rural people, nursing the child all along, we have to go to work,”but in the next breath, she described herself as “rather lazy,” not eating as healthily asrural people, and even suggested the urban people’s breast milk could have “poison”(du) in it because of their polluted environment. Even with all these contradictions, thiswoman did not reject the idea that mothers had enormous responsibility for theirchild’s well-being, and she described the enormous efforts she made to purchase safe,foreign infant formula for her baby. Her case illustrates the powerful ways in which aparticularly intensive ideological construction of motherhood has wed with class pos-ition and the specific practice of breastfeeding to shape the infant-feeding practices ofeven strongly resistant middle-class mothers.In fact, the commitment to breastfeeding was often succeeded by a parallel and equallyintense commitment to providing babies with safe—foreign—infant formula. Many of thewomen we interviewed believed that it was perfectly fine to feed babies infant formula,and in some cases, they suggested that at a certain age (such as 6 months old), formulamight actually provide nutrients absent in breast milk. In a number of cases, a shift to for-mula followed committed efforts to breastfeed, but also involved a reinterpretation of therelationship between breast milk and being a good mother. For example, Zhou Jie (inter-viewee 47b) did not have sufficient breast milk because she suffered preeclampsia duringpregnancy and delivered a preterm baby. Even though she managed to nurse her baby for3 months, she decided to wean after that. At first, she fed her son with frozen breast milkoffered by one of her best friends, but she soon switched to formula. “I don’t think it(breast milk) is worthwhile (taida de yongchu),” she explained. “I think formula is just asgood based on my son’s growth percentile.” Li Hou (interviewee 42b) had adopted a prag-matic attitude towards breastfeeding from the outset. After a cesarean childbirth, she sup-plemented with infant formula during the nights in order to get sufficient rest. She alsodecided to wean after returning to work. Noting that it was too difficult to maintain herpumping schedule while at work, she argued that real mother’s love is not about what shefeeds the child but rather the kind of upbringing and education she provides (the metricused to evaluate mothers of older children). “Breastfeeding can only prove you have suffi-cient breast milk” she believed.Despite a pragmatic orientation towards using formula or breast milk, these middle-class mothers were nearly uniform in their judgment that foreign infant formula wassuperior and far more trustworthy than domestic products. Even mothers who claimedto be relatively unconcerned about the safety of infant formula in China purchasedimported products. Many women utilized complex arrangements to secure “safeenough” formula for their babies, often relying on friends and relatives to ship or carryHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 16 of 20foreign infant formula purchased abroad or in other cases resorting to carefullyresearched domestic channels. Intensive mothering could be further elaborated throughresearch on and efforts to purchase many other “safe” or foreign products, includingimported diapers, imported baby wipes, foreign-branded toys, and organic or “green”food products (sometimes purchased for the baby only). There was, in effect, a neatdove-tailing of intensive efforts at breastfeeding and the intensive efforts that later de-veloped in securing safe infant formula and other baby products through carefullyplanned consumer strategies (Hanser and Li 2015).ConclusionAbove, we have documented not only the great effort our interview subjects de-voted to breastfeeding their babies but also the range of meanings they attributedto those efforts. Breastfeeding could be deeply meaningful—understood as not justfood, but an expression of commitment and feeling to one’s baby, a role worthstruggling for and often relinquished with guilt and regret. Numerous womenspoke of guilt over failing to breastfeed their babies or over weaning their infants,and some described experiences with postpartum depression that were clearlylinked to breastfeeding difficulties. Women often reflected on these experiencesthrough the prism of cultural ideas about mothering and about the significance ofcaring—and feeding—one’s baby to the best of one’s ability.The challenges associated not only with breastfeeding but also formula feeding ledmany women to use language of “enduring” (jianchi) and “hardship” (xinku) to describeboth breastfeeding and motherhood. The physical sacrifice involved in breastfeedingwas part of this, but the logistical and financial burdens of raising a baby with all theappropriate products (safe food, safe diapers, safe formula, etc.) were also understoodin terms of hard work and sacrifice. These burdens were often described as willinglytaken on but bounded by one’s tiaojian, the economic, cultural, and social resourcesone had access to.In fact, despite the enormous efforts, many of our interview subjects made to breast-feed their infants, and despite the links they clearly drew between motherhood andbreastfeeding, they were strikingly reluctant to apply this motherhood “norm” univer-sally or to take a broadly moralizing stance regarding the superiority of breast milk. Al-though women we interviewed who had breastfed their infants, and especially thosewho had overcome great challenges, were uniformly proud of this commitment and ac-complishment, at the same time, they did not equate breastfeeding (or breast milk)with good mothering in any easy or direct way, and they readily recognized the manyvalid reasons a woman might not breastfeed her baby, including personal choice. In thisway, these middle-class Chinese mothers have adopted a very pragmatic orientation to-wards the moral demands of “intensive motherhood,” even as this cultural discourse ex-erts a disciplining force upon them, often through their own families and socialnetworks. These women’s reluctance to judge other mothers’ feeding choices may stemfrom a variety of factors, including a general readiness to acknowledge constraints (eco-nomic, social, political) on individuals in China as well as their own encounters withthe very real challenges and uncertainties of breastfeeding itself. Many women de-scribed feeding choices that fell short of the ideal—their own, or those of others—withthe phrase, Mei banfa: there is no (other) way.Hanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 17 of 20The notion of culture as a “toolkit” that shapes both how people act and how theyunderstand their experiences seems well suited to making sense of the pragmatic orien-tation towards motherhood and breastfeeding adopted by the women we interviewed.As we have sought to show, ideas about motherhood represent part of the cultural tool-kit that women and their family members draw upon as they navigate the early days,weeks, and months of caring for their new babies. Cultural ideas about being a goodmother through breastfeeding may undergird a commitment to breastfeeding despitephysical challenges, may produce feelings of guilt and depression when breastfeedingfails or weaning begins, and may lead family members to advocate for breast milk andbreast pumps or, alternatively, for infant formula. Ideas about mothering, and aboutwhat mothers owe their babies, lead women to see their feeding labor as a sacrifice, butone they willingly accept. At the same time, the ideal of the self-sacrificing,breastfeeding-and-breast-pump-toting mother can run up against the hard edge of un-accommodating workplaces, the vagaries of a women’s milk supply, or a women’s desirefor more physical independence from her baby. Ideas about the importance of breast-feeding are powerful but by no means so “settled” to be accepted as self-evident or eas-ily integrated into modern lives, and women reacted to a mismatch between thecultural ideal and their own circumstances in many different ways, in some cases,adjusting their ideas about what defines good mothering, and in other cases, adaptingtheir lives to better reflect the ideal.At the same time, new ideas about early motherhood, and the importance of breast-feeding, clearly operated as a disciplining force in these women’s lives. For despite thefact that many women commented that “formula is fine,” these very same women oftenseemed to have imposed upon themselves a different set of values that deemed onlybreast milk as acceptable—for as long as possible. And once they moved on frombreastfeeding, a new, intensive task presented itself, that of securing safe infant formula.The expectations about what kind of infant formula was suitable (foreign) and how onewould secure it (only through trusted, secure channels) meant that formula feedingcould be as demanding emotionally, financially, and in terms of time as breastfeeding.However these middle-class women fed their babies, their practices and commitmentsdemonstrate the enormous importance of knowledge, technique, social networks, andeconomic resources as well as the intensive emotional and time commitments modernChinese motherhood can demand.Endnotes1All interview subject names are pseudonyms to protect confidentiality.2http://www.nhfpc.gov.cn/mohwsbwstjxxzx/s8211/201009/49165.shtml3http://data.unicef.org/nutrition/iycf.html4http://www.moh.gov.cn/mohwsbwstjxxzx/s8211/201610/9f109ff40e9346fca76dd82cecf419ce.shtml5http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_474d1a7b0100kvwc.html6Shanghai Statistical Yearbook, http://www.stats-sh.gov.cn/tjnj/nj14.htm?d1=2014tjnj/C1005.htm, 2013年1-4季度城市居民家庭人均收支情况7For example, interviewee 8a, who had pumped instead of directly breastfeeding buttransitioned to formula before returning to work, described herself as a member of “beiHanser and Li The Journal of Chinese Sociology  (2017) 4:18 Page 18 of 20nai zu,” a reference to her commitment to breastfeeding through use of a breast pumpand not the actual practice of pumping at work or the outright avoidance of formula.8This family was actually quite divided on the importance of breastfeeding, a dividethat fell along gendered lines: The interviewee’s mother and mother-in-law were bothstrong advocates, whereas her husband felt that there was no need to suffer the dis-comfort of pumping, and her father expressed concern about the impact of breastfeed-ing on her figure (specifically, the shape of her breasts). The interviewee herself saidshe felt formula was fine, though she persisted in pumping breast milk for her baby forroughly 6 months.9Li Qiao’s use of the term “pingfan” (rehabilitate) is a word with deeply political con-notations in China and refers to the rehabilitation of a person’s public reputation afterhaving been labeled negatively by the Chinese Communist Party, especially during pol-itical campaigns like the Anti-Rightist or 100 Flowers Campaigns or the Cultural Revo-lution. It is a striking term to use in reference to one’s mothering and ability tobreastfeed.AcknowledgementsThe authors would like to like to thank Yue Qian and two anonymous reviewers for their generous feedback on thispaper. All errors remain the authors own responsibility.FundingPortions of this research was supported by a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council ofCanada.Authors’ contributionsThe two authors contributed equally to this paper.Competing interestsThe authors declare that they have no competing interests.Author details1University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. 2University of Illinois, Chicago, USA.Received: 16 March 2017 Accepted: 4 December 2017ReferencesAfflerback, Sara, Shannon K. Carter, Amanda Koontz Anthony, and Liz Grauerholz. 2013. Infant-feeding consumerism inthe age of intensive mothering and risk society. Journal of Consumer Culture 13 (1): 387–405.Binah-Pollak, Avital. 2014. Discourses and practices of child-rearing in China: the bio-power of parenting in Beijing.China Information 28 (1): 27–45.Blair-Loy, Mary. 2003. Competing devotions: career and family among women executives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Blum, Linda. 1999. 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