SHANGHAI — I’m 28, I have no children and I want to have more than one. I say this as a single child myself.
I lament the absence of the younger sibling I could have had if my parents had not aborted it. But there was no way they wouldn’t have. “Having a second child was like running the red light,” my mother has said, “it was against the law.”
I felt lonely growing up. After the Chinese government announced last week that married couples could now have up to three children, I asked my parents, both born well before the one-child policy and with siblings themselves, if they had wanted more children. My mother said: “Yes. In case we die — no, of course we will die — you would still have a companion.”
I have had the same wish for my future child: I want him or her to have a playmate when my husband and I need to stay out for work, and to have someone to cry to when they fight with us.
When I recently told a colleague, another married woman in her late 20s, that my goal was to have three or four children, she was dumbfounded: “You are a rarity among young Chinese women.”
I suspect I think differently partly because I am married to a foreigner; if I want to bypass the rules, I can leave China. Most young women here are in another boat, and many people’s reactions to the government’s new policy have made me aware of that.
The policy has also reminded all of us that we’re only being spared the former limits and fines on having “extra” children because China’s population is aging and the government is worried about the economic implications. It has reminded us that giving birth is still not our own choice — it hasn’t been for four decades — that our bodies are still not our own, that each of us is only a cog in a giant machine called national development.
Even my parents, upon hearing the news, immediately worried about the pressure people my age would face: Imagine a couple raising three children while caring for four parents? My parents didn’t invest that much in their only daughter just to see her struggling through her middle age with so many financial burdens.
When I asked a friend, the mother of an 8-year-old, about the new three-child policy, she started calculating expenses for her sole son: What she pays for his milk supply, school fees and four extracurricular activities every month already added up to an average office worker’s salary. Then there were his medical fees — plus the mortgage, car loans and so on. “I’m still trying to decide whether to have a second child,” she said, “I want to, but I would have to work very hard to afford it.”
To my grandparents, giving birth to another child was no more than, as the saying goes, “adding another spoonful of water into the congee.” Like with a plant in your backyard: You just watered it once in a while to make sure it stayed alive.
But today, having a child in a first-tier city in China means you have to pay millions of yuan just to afford to live in a district with good schools, and having a son means needing to set up another apartment for when he gets married. My mother has joked: “We used to say ‘duo zi duo fu’ (more children, more fortune); now it is ‘duo zi duo baofu’ (more children, more burden)!”
So, if you ask what effect the newest birth policy will have on most Chinese women, the answer is: probably none. Since the one-child policy was fully lifted in 2016, many young couples still have not had more than one child. Except for the very rich, who can afford however many kids they want, and the very poor, who rely on children to take care of them, the three-child policy won’t make much difference.
Yet on the day it was announced, many people weren’t indifferent: Social media feeds were flooded with mockery and complaints. Yes, even now that we can have three children, even now that we are encouraged to give birth — instead of being forcibly sterilized or made to have an abortion — we are also reminded that giving birth is regulated.
China’s birth controls do deserve some credit. For one thing, they freed Chinese people’s minds from a certain traditional thinking.
One result of the one-child policy was that single daughters who were an only child started receiving more attention and more resources than before, and over time people’s opinions about girls changed. In cities, at least, people no longer seem to favor boys over girls.
Those of us who were born as an only child, and into a decent material life, have been able to think about our individual pursuits — and for us women that has meant not needing to rely on bearing children as a measure of our self-worth.
But there’s a catch. Chinese women used to live to carry on our lineage; now we live to raise an expensive child. Everything in China is commodified today, including our children. Education and housing, such personal matters, are prohibitively costly, leaving young people with few choices.
Compared to many of them, I can claim more agency as a parent and as a woman because I happen to be married to a foreigner and could live overseas. That shouldn’t be a condition for having control over one’s own body.
Yashu Zhang is a writer from Shanghai. Her work has been published in The World, Sixth Tone and JingKids.
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