The perfect family

Women in contempary Indonesia

Gita Nasution

PHOTO: Flicker

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

12 April 2019

What is a perfect family? Gita Nasution looks at perceptions of family and motherhood in contemporary Indonesia.

In Indonesia, like many other countries in Asia, family is one core element of people’s life. Family inspires many people to navigate their individual aspirations and collective family goals, even as it has inspired the government to run the country. For example, Soeharto, the leader of New Order government (1966–1998), used family metaphors to run the state. He acted as Bapak Bangsa(Father of the Nation) and the first lady, Tien Suharto, was known as Ibu Negara (Mother of the State). The jargon Keluarga Kecil Bahagia Sejahtera (Small Family, Happy and Wealthy) was one of Indonesia’s sayings during the New Order period to control its growing population. It emphasised the modern Indonesian family that is nuclear (small) and consists of parents and two children, each of a different gender.

To date, contemporary Indonesian society has aspired to the middle-class ideal of the small, happy, healthy and wealthy family. Many people believed that a family is deemed lengkap(complete) when parents have a boy and a girl.

This perfect picture of a family is portrayed in the ‘Happy Family’ sticker displayed on many cars. In urban areas in Indonesia today, especially in the capital of Jakarta, many people prioritise their family and children in life. Men and women work to earn a living for their family, to live up to the life standards they aspire to. Their children are the main reason for their hard work. Ensuring a better future for their children is the parents’ core motivation.

For the middle class and upper class in Jakarta, giving the best to their children is a must. They want to ensure their children live comfortably now and in the future by providing the best of everything – the best toys, the best clothing, the best health care, the best education and the best experiences in life, such as world travel. These are among the best things that parents can provide, for they aspire to have the best child in the world: a perfect child.

My fieldwork in Jakarta in 2015 provided me with a window on a perfect life for some middle-class and upper-class Indonesians. Many of the women had built careers in a society where women are often expected to be at home and focus on their family.

For some such mothers, attaining a good career is a way to show children that women can make a difference in the world beyond the home. These women obtained tertiary degrees and built careers in respectable companies/ institutions, securing high positions like their male contemporaries. For these women, their career achievement is something to celebrate, rather than be disparaged. They inspire many other women and girls to reach their dreams, and some men and boys to respect other women the way they respect their mother. They also believe that successful mothers should not neglect their families. These women wanted to prioritise family needs and ensure their children are well looked after. While many Indonesians worry that women with careers will neglect their responsibility as the main caretaker of the family, these women did not share those beliefs. However, with pride, many middle-class ‘working women’ (locally known as wanita bekerja) display a new picture of a ‘good mother’. It is a representation of modern, successful career women who is able to realise her individual aspiration and also produce a successful family: a healthy and happy family with smart children.

This ‘new’ opportunity for women to actively build their own capacity and establish roles outside the house is in fact creating an image of women’s double burden. While women are actively building careers outside and managing the family inside the house, it is perpetuating the dual role of women in the family. The New Order government used the propaganda of peran ganda wanita(women’s double role) as propaganda to acknowledge women’s role inside and outside the household. However, women’s role outside the house requires women’s own understanding that their main priority is their family and that their ‘non-domestic role’ is done to support their husbands in society and/or to ensure the creation of good future generations for Indonesia. During the New Order regime, perfect examples of the bearers of peran ganda wanita were the wives of Indonesian civil servants – the middle class.

More on this: The perfect place

Two decades after the demise of New Order, and even though peran ganda wanita is no longer part of the government’s propaganda, the same value remains in the society, both within the civil servant community and beyond. In many areas in Indonesia, the high living cost in the city has in fact pushed many families to earn dual incomes and for this reason, women are no longer building careers for personal aspirations, but rather to afford to maintain urban family lifestyles. Caught in their dual role, women aspire to create a ‘perfect family’. For this purpose, the middle-class women in Jakarta require what they call a ‘support system’. Such systems comprise a set of domestic workers who clean the house, prepare delicious healthy food, do the laundry, attend to children at home, drop off/pick up children at school and so on. Households have at least a butler, a cook, a nanny (locally known as baby sitter) and a driver to support the family. Another type of support system (which is rarer nowadays) consists of grandparents or extended family members who are available to help, mainly for child rearing. In many families, the support system includes both domestic workers and senior family members to supervise the workers.

With such support and the array of workers and family members, women who work outside their house have become exemplary managers both in the office and at home. Middle-class women these days gain status not simply from their career but, more importantly, from their ability to provide care, especially when they can publicly show they can maintain a high quality of care and education for their children.

In regard to the status gained through quality of family/child care, another group of Indonesian middle-class women choose to be ‘full-time mothers’, which reflects their sole dedication to their children and family. This group tends to believe that mothers (rather than fathers) should stay at home instead of working outside the house. They are exempted from women’s dual role as they rely on their highly successful family business or respectable career-spouses to earn the income needed to run the family. These ‘full-time mothers’ believe they are the most responsible person in the family to look after the children. By being at home, they can make sure children’s needs are met and they can attain and maintain the best quality of care for their children. They believe their family is more important than a career, so they stop building their careers to concentrate on raising their children. For this group of women, children’s education is best managed by parents rather than a ‘support system’. These women are proud of their status of staying at home and raising their children themselves.

However, for these women, the manual work of child caring remains the responsibility of hired domestic workers. They see quasi-professional baby sitters as suitable to support their aspired parenting style and realise a high quality of care for their children. These baby sitters are modern domestic workers, specially tasked to nurture children. An emerging caring occupation in urban Indonesia, baby sitters are mostly young educated women with a junior high school background, equipped with several months of care experience from working in an agency. Some are also certified child carers.

They live in the household to provide maximum care service for the child, quite different from the concept of a babysitter in the Western countries, but similar to an au pair. The term baby sitter is borrowed from English but written in two words in Indonesia. Baby sitters apply ‘modern’ child care methods introduced by recruiting agencies, and are believed to be skilful and experienced in dealing with and caring for children. Their presence shows how intimate care work is becoming increasingly professionalised in middle-class Indonesia.

The baby sitter, as a trained carer, is also often considered to be able to manage children’s educational activities. As middle-class parents send their children to the best school they can afford (for example, they prefer private or international schools, which primarily teach – if not use – English in their classes), the baby sitter is able to balance middle-class children’s education and lifestyle. Middle-class parents also provide after-school activities for children, from sports to arts, in addition to academic remedial courses, as they believe these activities will equate their children’s academic and non-academic skills. They aspire for their children to be competitive in the long-run, and that with English and an international education, their children should be able to compete in a global market. The baby sitters are trained to understand such demands and lifestyle, and their work is designed to facilitate the middle-class image of a ‘perfect family’. In addition, schools, as the main providers of formal education, do not guarantee they can produce siap jadi (or ‘ready-made’) children, especially in their early years. For example, one of my fieldwork respondents complained about the slow progress her five-year-old boy had made after one year at kindergarten. She was disappointed that her son still could not read anything at that time, as reading is one of the requirements to enter many primary schools in Indonesia. She then sent her son to a remedial reading course (both Indonesian and English) and moved him to another private school to try to fulfil her aspiration. She also hired a trained baby sitter who can teach reading at home to escalate her son’s reading comprehension.

Based on my fieldwork researching the emergence of the baby sitter in Jakarta, I found the combination of parents (mostly the mother), the baby sitter and school were all important in ‘creating a perfect child’. Of course, combining these three elements is challenging and expensive. At times, middle-class desires for perfection in their children comes along with disappointment. Costly school fees and expenses for an entire ‘support system’ do not always guarantee satisfaction. Parents are commonly disappointed with their baby sitter, who often in fact is not a professional worker. They have to retrain baby sitters over and over again, which takes up a lot of the busy women’s time. One extreme example came from my informant, Malia, a successful career woman with two young children. Malia hired a baby sitter to look after her children, as she could not give up her career. However, when she found out her first child had an anxiety problem, she felt she had not been a good mother, as she had left her children with the baby sitter. Apparently, the baby sitter was not patient enough to attend to a child and had abused Malia’s eldest child. Malia also found out that the baby sitter did not cook proper food for her child but bought food from street sellers. Malia was more than angry to find this out. She was also very sad. She regretted not quitting her job, and risking her child’s safety. She was holding back tears when she said to me, ‘I am not a good mother’.

When I returned to Canberra after fieldwork, I told one of my colleagues about Malia’s story. He responded by asking a reflective question: ‘What is a good mother?’. The question shocked me. I never heard the women I spoke with in Indonesia pose such a question. It made me wonder whether Malia or other middle‑class women in Indonesia had subscribed to an exclusive idea of a ‘good mother’ once promoted by the state. I remembered I found in the field that some other women with relatively low income did not think about being a ‘good mother’. They focused on working outside the house to earn income for their family. For them, the idea of ‘good mother’, high quality of care or perfect family never existed because their priority was to survive. Lower-income women do not have the so-called ‘support system’, so they count on different sources to look after their children, such as neighbours, relatives or their older children. Many times they do not have the option of leaving the child at home, so they take them to work in traditional markets, shops or at their employer’s house (if they are domestic workers). Can we say these women are not good mothers? Are their families not perfect?

‘What is a good mother?’. The question shocked me. I never heard the women I spoke with in Indonesia pose such a question. It made me wonder whether Malia or other middle‑class women in Indonesia had subscribed to an exclusive idea of a ‘good mother’ once promoted by the state.

By reflecting on Malia’s experience, and comparing her story to the extreme experiences of women who struggle to survive, I pondered that Indonesian women face different choices. The idea of the ‘good mother’, who is expected to cultivate perfection in her children and her family, is far from the rosy single image of the nuclear family displayed on car windows. Malia was in fact an ideal figure of a successful career woman who managed her work and family very well. She had a good ‘support system’, a supposedly trained baby sitter and several domestic workers to help look after her children and household. She had carried the double burden that many Indonesian women endure. She was in a position to aspire to create a perfect child in a perfect family. On the other hand, the other women who have to work to survive are doing their best to ensure their children have food to eat or can go to school. They might not have many material comforts, but the effort they make reflects a pure and perfect approach to parent–children relationships and bonding.

The contested concept of a good mother or a perfect family raises important questions. Why do Indonesian middle-class women aspire to be good mothers and have a perfect child? Why do they aspire to create a perfect family? I argue that being a good mother who is able to provide perfect care for children is a status symbol for many middle-class women. Moreover, in Indonesia, such status was cultivated by New Order government propaganda, and this view persists as the norm in Indonesian society today.

In contemporary Indonesia, women are still seen as the main carer in the family, regardless of how educated or successful they are in the society. Malia’s case is an example of the risk that can result from the dual burden that women have to bear when trying to live up to societal demands for them to produce a perfect future generation. Ironically, patriarchal norms continue to inform the myths of perfection that shape educated Indonesia. More than a myth, this idea of a perfect family is a middle-class fantasy.

This is a piece from paradigm_shift: Perfection, a collection of essays from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific on the concept of perfection, and how it shapes lives and ideas in Asia and the Pacific. You can read the essays for free here.

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