Li and Hu were grad school classmates when they started dating back in 2010. After graduation, the two quickly found jobs, bought a house, got married, and settled down in Beijing, making them the envy of their friends and family back home. Both hailed from smaller, less prosperous cities in China’s northeast. Education was their door to social mobility, well-paid jobs, and lives as “New Beijingers.”
The young couple decided early on that they wanted a so-called DINK (“double income, no kids”) lifestyle. When I interviewed them for my research, they expressed a general dislike of children and a deep understanding of the responsibilities and difficulties that come with raising a child. In their small family, the emotional bond between husband and wife is the most important of all. As for kids, they said, they’re not a necessity.
However, as soon as Li and Hu were married, parents, friends, and co-workers alike chastised their dim view of parenthood. “Having a child is the only way to make your life complete,” was a common refrain. “It’s not a real family until you have a child,” others told them. “If you’re not going to have a kid, why even get married in the first place?” After three years of constant peer pressure, the couple’s resolve broke. Li gave birth to their daughter three years ago.
The couple paint a frank picture of their current lives. “We still live as though we were a DINK family,” Li says. “We gave our child to our parents to raise, while our lives remain centered around each other. We had a kid for our parents’ sake. They were hounding us about it constantly. We figured having one would give us some peace and quiet.”
The power of child-rearing culture in China is such that it has forced the relationship between husband and wife to cede ground to the one between parent and child. It is not uncommon to hear of Chinese couples whose marriage has ceased to exist in all but name, but who stay married “for the sake of the child.”
Although the term “DINK” dates from the 1980s, the idea has been slow to catch on in China. The emergence of DINK couples, who have stable incomes and choose not to have children, has given young people more room to make their own choices within the marital system.
However, Chinese couples who choose to remain childless still face tremendous pressure to continue the family line. In traditional Chinese culture, marriage and childbirth are collective activities. One well-known saying from Mencius, the ancient Chinese philosopher, claims that not producing a male heir to the family is the most unfilial thing a couple can do. Today, childbearing is still seen as the principal goal of marriage.
The conflict between tradition and modernity characterizes the lives of many Chinese born after the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979. As this generation grew old enough to marry and have children of their own, their methods and standards for choosing a partner, and the nature of their marital relationships, grew increasingly diverse.
This shift is inseparable from the social changes that occurred in China during the one-child generation’s formative years, as the country rapidly went from an insular, planned socialist state to a globalized market economy. Many of those who grew up before the reform era of the 1980s still tend to frame marriage and procreation as a contribution to the great socialist machine, while today’s youngsters have been raised on a diet of individual choice and respect for emotional fulfilment between husband and wife.
Moreover, a generation of only children received additional help and support from their families, with whom they pursued their life plans amid a period of intense urbanization. The immense strain of competition made buying a house, finding a job, and getting married much more stressful. With no siblings to distract attention away from them, the post-’79 generation came under increased parental pressure to have children, even though such demands were staunchly at odds with what some of them wanted.
Those who choose the DINK lifestyle do so for a variety of reasons. Some hope to avoid the cost of raising children and pursue their own personal development. Others express a desire to rebel against traditional child-rearing culture, concerns about the world their children will inherit, or a belief that only women may decide what to do with their bodies. However, many of these couples ultimately buckle under the pressure of traditional beliefs or peer pressure. Having children is not open to negotiation — you might as well call it “involuntary fertility” — and no sooner is the baby weaned than it is packed off to its grandparents’ house to be raised.
I have dubbed this phenomenon of parents who return to their original, couple-centric lives once their child is born the “sub-DINK” lifestyle. The involuntary fertility of sub-DINKs, and the voluntary infertility of bona fide DINKs, both stem from an individual desire to avoid falling pregnant and giving birth.
However, the sub-DINK approach comes with its own set of challenges and difficulties. Sooner or later, the couple’s parents will age and die, shattering the family’s established relationships. The sub-DINK arrangement also causes problems for the child’s psychological development and estranges parents from their child’s upbringing.
The traditional DINK model is emancipatory because it represents an expansion of individual choice. In two-child policy China, the decision to have kids should be a choice made by an individual or couple, not something borne out of capitulation to pressure. In contrast, the sub-DINK lifestyle is an unfortunate and untenable compromise between traditional Chinese family norms and modern social values: Neither parents nor children benefit from fobbing off a kid they don’t really want to its grandparents. In the end, sub-DINK couples inevitably learn that they can’t have their cake and eat it, too.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Chinese newlyweds pose for wedding photographs near the Bund in Shanghai, July 9, 2014. Wang Chen/Sixth Tone)