Women are taught to cook in a training center in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, on March 2 (XINHUA)
Ma Wenxia has many roles: babysitter, maternal nurse, dietitian and even yoga instructor. But she prefers to be called a yuesao --literally meaning "maternity matron" in Chinese. A typically Chinese tradition, a yuesao is a childcare expert who looks after newborn babies, living with the family usually for a month after the delivery so that the new parents can take better care of their babies.
Unlike the regular nanny, a yuesao provides postnatal care to new moms as well and also teaches parents the right way to feed a baby and set up the nursery. Most importantly, the presence of a yuesao means the mother can get her quota of sleep. A yuesao works between eight to nine hours during daytime and if need be, can be on duty 24/7.
When Ma, now 50, came to Beijing from her hometown in northwest China's Shaanxi Province in 2002, she was in heavy debt. But after 14 years of working, she has not only paid off all the debt, but also become well-known, highly paid and much sought-after by new moms. "This profession has changed my life. I am grateful to it," she said.
Working as a yuesao has become a thriving and highly lucrative profession, especially in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Women are taught to give babies massages in a training center in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, on March 2 (XINHUA)
The demand for yuesaos had been growing steadily in the past but this year it's simply unprecedented. The ballooning rise may be attributed mainly to two factors. The Chinese Government changed its family planning policy last year, and any couple can have a second child. Besides, 2016 is the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese calendar and couples are eager to have "monkey" babies, who are thought to be blessed with intelligence. The two reasons have led to a baby boom and hence, a soaring demand for yuesaos.
In Beijing alone, at least 300,000 newborns are expected this year, compared to an average of 250,000 during the past three years. "According to our survey, 23 percent of the families with newborns need yuesaos," said Xue Haichun, Secretary General of the Beijing Maternal and Child Service Association. "Now, the demand for yuesaos simply exceeds the supply."
The monthly pay for these mother and childcare experts stood at 10,000 yuan ($1,500) on average in Beijing last year, higher than a white-collar worker's salary. It is predicted to jump to 16,800 yuan ($2,520) this year with 3 million new babies expected nationwide.
The trend is seeing an increasing number of women, who were employed in lower-tier cities, traveling to large cities in the hope of striking gold there.
"The number of people who have signed up for yuesao training courses this year is 10 times more than last year," said Wei Yiqing, General Manager of Beijing Minmerry Homemaking, an enterprise providing yuesao training as well as maternal and childcare services.
New blood welcome
"In the past, laid-off middle-aged workers constituted the main yuesao labor force," Wei told ChinAfrica , a monthly magazine published by Beijing Review in English and French. "However, with the popularity of this job, more young women are joining in. The youngest trainee we have is 29."
He Xueji, 32, has just finished training at Beijing Minmerry Homemaking. Though she received a certificate, she is still apprehensive. "I feel they [families] may not hire me because I am young and have little experience," she said.
But Xue is optimistic. "Some families worry that young yuesaos have little experience and cannot work hard enough. However, as science and technology develops, it will be a profession in which experience and hands-on skills will not be enough. Young people could communicate better with young mothers of the post-80s and 90s generations."
More than a nanny
Ma had no professional training when she took care of her first baby in Beijing in 2002. All her skills came from her personal experience as a mother. But now, she has more than 10 certificates from different yuesao training centers, testifying to her various skills to take care of young mothers and their infants.
"With families' living standards continuously rising, the requirement today is for more than a nanny," said Xue.
The courses the yuesao training centers offer include feeding babies, bathing them and giving them massages, tending new mothers, assisting them to regain their figures, and even preparing nutritious home-cooked food for them. A good yuesao must be extremely patient and multi-skilled, according to Xue.
"With the industry developing rapidly, it needs better supervision and many issues require government regulations," Xue said.
Though the required qualifications today are higher in order to provide quality service and yuesaos have been trained, a survey led by Fang Xiuxin, a professor at the Binzhou Medical University in east China's Shandong Province, reported that of the 279 yuesaos surveyed, 76.7 percent had received training for less than two weeks, which, according to Fang, is definitely not enough.
To regulate the market, the government issued a national new standard on February 1.
The Housekeeping Service Specification for Mother and Childcare Service says yuesaos should be in the age group of 18 to 55. They must have an education background of at least junior high school and related professional maternal care skills. It also says working yuesaos should undergo regular training to upgrade their skills.
"The new guideline could regulate the market and put an end to situations like some yuesaos being trained for only a couple of weeks and never undergoing follow-up training," Wei said. "It could also regulate the mushrooming training centers. That is only fair to formal training centers like us. Only the fittest should survive."
However, there is still a gap in how to assess a yuesao's services. Though the guidelines require yuesaos to have related professional skills, currently, the training is conducted mostly by non-governmental training centers. As a result, different kinds of certificates have flooded the market. The certification authorities are also multifarious, making it difficult for hirers to assess their service quality or even identify them.
"The new round of baby boom is providing unprecedented development opportunities for the mother and childcare industry. So we expect stricter regulations to guide the healthy development of this market," Xue said.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
Comments to email@example.com