I don’t imagine the hearts of many creatives leap for joy when they see ‘mums’ on a creative brief. It’s tough to steer clear of the usual tropes and stereotypes. Yes, she’s probably time poor, yes she feels a bond with her child, yes she loves watching her kids progress and develop. It’s never been a very rich description of who she is as a woman, how she wants to be spoken to, or all of the things she cares about…aside from her child.
But today it’s all the more reductionist a way of looking at her, because it ignores the changing world in which she exists. There is so much going on around her ‘job title’, and that’s where the insight gold exists.
Many brands have spent significant time, money and energy understanding mum attitudes. What kind of mum does she want to be? How does she raise her children? What’s her parenting philosophy?And how can mums be segmented based on their attitudes. All valid questions, but they’re questions that come with some big assumptions attached: that her attitudes are fixed, and also, more importantly, that her aspirations and her realities work hand in hand.
Of course this is rarely true, and it’s the gap between aspiration and reality that’s the most interesting for brands to explore. Those tensions are playing out and developing in dynamic, changing cultural circumstances around the world.
Parenting today is tough. It’s always been tough, but today every mum finds herself needing not just to be a parent but also to parent. She has to make decisions, macro and micro, on a daily basis, from pregnancy through childhood (and for many, even pre-conception). Few are able to sit back and just follow the ways of their own mothers and grandmothers unquestioningly. And if they do, that, in itself, is a decision.
These are decisions that developed-economy mums have the luxury of making. Asian mums in developing- and emerging-market contexts don’t. In these contexts, urban modernity has come about much more recently. A whole generation of mums is fighting to catch up, now wary of asking their comparatively ill-informed mothers and grandmothers for advice (on anything, let alone child-rearing).
Despite the different contexts, many mums we meet across the world express a common aspiration: to be a 'modern mum'. This means someone who’s clued up and knowledgeable. Someone who knows the new ways of doing things and takes influences from various sources, even from other countries. Someone who has the confidence to stand back and let her children explore the world around them, but who expertly balances this with a close mother-child relationship. They’re friends as well.
This is a difficult order to pull off for any mum, anywhere. And when we consider how this plays out in different cultures around the world, the journey is fascinating.
In many Western contexts, mums have, for generations, focused on building strong, resilient, independent children. Children were disciplined and told ‘no’, and that wasn’t to be questioned because Mum knows best. Routines were planned around the needs of mum, and she put a lot of faith in her child learning the hard way: practical on-the-job learning by failing. Too much mollycoddling would spoil the child.
The modern mum version of the ideal sees her still cherishing the child’s independence, but with some management added to the mix. These women let the children experiment and try alone, but they’re there to pick up the pieces of this very conscious learning experience. Mum is investing time in building genuine closeness. The emergence of attachment parenting—maximum breastfeeding, baby wearing, ‘baby-led routines’—is one manifestation of this, and it has some vocal adherents.
Conversely in Asia, even recent generations of women held their children close (wearing whilst working), they breastfed on demand and they co-slept from newborn to late childhood. They didn’t have the luxury of being parted from the child. The child was celebrated, brought up by the extended family. Constant attention was the norm, and of course that gave everyone a say in the decision-making. Child raising was shared.
In these Asian contexts, to be a modern mum today means letting go, standing back and letting children fall over or be exposed to germs. This means giving them less attention, which goes against everything they know and certainly against the beliefs of the older generation. Is it modern? New? Better? Or is it negligent? This is a truly gigantic leap from their cultural start-point, and they’re undoubtedly the first generation to have even considered the change. They’re trailblazers, and the risks are high.
In the more developed contexts, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, mums may want to adopt modern approaches, they may want to give children more freedom to experience the world on their own terms. But they also need to be able to keep up. They need to get into schools and colleges, and competition is high. In Hong Kong, it’s not uncommon for parents to camp out overnight in order to secure an interview at a kindergarten for a 3-year-old. Opting out of enrichment classes and academic pressure, standing back and letting go are terrifying because the repercussions could be significant.
Additionally there’s the pressure of judgement. From their own mothers, their mothers-in-law, from Aunties, neighbours, peers. A mum who sticks her neck out in her parenting mode takes on her shoulders alone the burden of responsibility for her child’s success or failure. And yes, everyone is watching and judging.
So to go your own way and pursue modern-mum ideals is not for the faint-hearted in Asia. All the more because these are ideals that she may not fully understand or have any direct experience of. She knows she wants to set her child up for the future, and her gut feel is that she needs to be modern in her approach, but she’s unlikely to have the tools, resources or support structures to get there.
No one can be quite sure how all this is going to play out, and how so in different contexts, but it’s likely to be a bumpy ride—a journey filled with tensions, desires, emotion and engagement. Surely a planner’s dream.
Emma Gage is co-managing director of Flamingo Singapore