One morning in March this year, I was woken up by a message on Wechat from an old school girlfriend ‘L’ in China. It was a crowdfunding appeal for her mother. It read:
Dear kind-hearted friends: My mother was made redundant as a factory worker more than two decades ago. My whole family, my school fees and living cost for us three, have depended on my father’s modest income as a grinder in a factory. He works from 8am to 8pm with only one day off a week. Now, as an adult, having my own family and children, I am supposed to take good care of them. However, since I am only a casual contractor in my workplace, my monthly salary is merely 2000 yuan (£223), with which I need to cover the cost of two children. My eldest is six years old and the younger child is only one. My parents-in-law have separated and my mother-in-law has been living with us and relies on my husband’s salary. My mother has lived all her life in the local factory where she grew up and worked until her redundancy. She is a positive and simple woman, who had been taking care of my children to reduce my burden until her recent diagnosis of a malignant cancer…
She carries on to state that her mother’s basic health insurance as a redundant worker cannot fully cover the expensive medical costs and their family savings can hardly afford the follow-up treatment, which will cost 50,000 yuan (£5,595) extra. L cries out in the end of her appeal: “No matter how hard it is, I will try every possible way to save my mother! ... My biggest wish is that my mother could finish her treatment and wait for my father to retire in two years’ time, so they could keep each other company. Please help!”
It made me cry after reading it, not only because the tone of voice in the end reminded me the lovely and determined school girl I knew, but also as a Chinese only-daughter myself, I feel for her. As an only child, her responsibilities in this situation are heavy. Meanwhile, she has to face the double hurt of displaying her pain and embarrassment to public scrutiny. Since jia chou bu ke wai yang (family shame must not be spread abroad) has been guiding principle in Chinese life, no one would chose this course of action unless they were in a destitute situation. On the other hand, as exemplified in the ancient 24 Stories about Filial Piety, a contemporary filial daughter whose emotional ties with her mother are intensified under the One-Child Policy should and would do likewise. Moreover, the circumstance L describes precisely summarised many contemporary issues Chinese women face: the gendered process of redundancy, women’s naturalised primary responsibility for domestic life that reinforces the entrenched gender pay gap, as well as the malfunctioning public welfare system that lays extra caring burdens on women.
As the only daughter born into a redundant worker’s family, L’s life trajectory resembles many who follow a conventional path: she finished three years’ of college, married and answered the state’s call under the Two-Child Policy. Ironically, a photo she shared online earlier this year showing her husband and their two children, one boy and one girl, shopping together led her friend to comment: “you have become a ren sheng yin jia (life winner)!” Being er nü shuang quan (having a complete set of sons and daughters), L managed to keep her youthful looks and good figure whilst working in a non-career job in a state institution with a modest but stable income, her display of her happy and complete family life fits into the gendered imagery of a mei man jia ting (happy and complete family). Many aspire to this, reinforced by family pressure and the state’s portrayal of this model as ideal. However, the lived experiences of young mothers with two children is more complex.
An article ‘Having Two Children is not as easy as 1+1=2’ [source in Chinese], on a popular Wechat forum targeting Chinese mothers, reveals the widely felt hesitation and anxiety among young mothers. It ends with a simple but precise summary: “More and more people realise having the second child is not as simple as 1+1=2. It requires money, resources and all family members’ cooperation,” which partially explains why the Chinese birth rate fell the second year after the Two-Child Policy was implemented. It highlights the burdens laid on these women, which are not only gendered but also classed. Some jokily commented: “Isn’t having a second child is another way to show off one’s family wealth?” Another says: “I have three children to look after, baby one, baby two and the father of my babies.” Most agree that the quality of life suffers both for the mother and first child if the family does not have enough resources to cope.
These responses to this article resonate with my research findings relating to middle-class urban women who have benefited from unprecedented familial educational investment under the One-Child Policy and are believed to be in a privileged social position. Managing domestic life and paid work is never easy even for established middle-class mothers. Yuhan and her husband both work as lecturers. Her husband left childcare completely to Yuhan, who complains:
He basically is not involved at all. In our family, it is typical san ou shi jiao yu (widowed education). This popular Chinese term basically means only mothers are present while kids are growing up! Dad is like dead! [laugh] Partly because he is busy at work, as he is constantly focusing on his research design, publication, cooperating with enterprises for funding, supervision, building his team in order to raise his research profile. Working overnight is normal, so he basically does nothing with the kids. My mom is my main helper. From the beginning, it is forever my mom and me, occasionally my dad joins as well. I can count on my fingers the times we went out with my husband as a family.
The gendered outcome is evident in Yuhan’s case. Yuhan and her husband started as lecturers in the same discipline. The criteria for career progression applies equally to both. However, due to her family responsibilities, she has fallen far behind her husband: ‘he is already an Associate Professor …I am still just a ‘xiao’ (little, inexperienced) lecturer… I am not happy about the status quo’. The childcare arrangements Yuhan describes have been repeatedly confirmed by other married mothers I interviewed. Despite some claims that Chinese fathers have become more affectionate and involved, the deep-seated gender practice nan zhu wai, nü zhu nei (men earn money, women take care of the home) remains influential in family arrangements. With women’s success primarily measured by their marital bliss, many seem to ‘willingly’ take up the double burdens of becoming working mothers whose career progression is an up-hill struggle and further consolidates the male-centred gender regime at home and at work.
Under the Two-Child Policy, the decision of whether to have the second child is handed over from the state to the family, which arguably leaves some women more vulnerable in intimate family negotiations. L says she was ‘ban tui ban jiu’ (semi-pushed and semi-willing) to have a second child, and Yuhan explains that it was an accident; reasons that recurred throughout my interviews. This raises important but often neglected questions on women’s reproductive autonomy in contemporary China, including available contraceptive measures. Women’s capability to enjoy a fulfilled life under the Two-Child Policy is more like the dream that everyone is encouraged to have but only a few have the privileges to enjoy.
Kailing Xie is a PhD researcher at Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. She was recently awarded the 2017 Early Career Researcher Prize by the British Association for Chinese Studies for her article ‘Premarital abortion, what is the harm? The Responsibilisation of women’s pregnancy among China’s ‘privileged’ daughters’. She adopts a feminist approach to understanding how gender affects the lives of China’s urban privileged only-daughters, and has been invited to speak about Chinese women and the two-child policy at the Southbank Centre, London and WOW Women of the World Festival 2018. She tweets @joykailingxie. Image credit: A mother, grandmother and child ('classic childrearing team') reproduced with kind permission of the photographer and Kailing Xie.