Before Lee got pregnant again, she and her husband didn’t give China’s one-child policy a second thought. “We didn’t plan anything. I was pregnant, so I gave birth,” she told me. “In a normal family, when you get pregnant you give birth.”
Neither Lee — to protect the privacy of my research participants, I’ve given them all pseudonyms — nor her husband were only children, meaning that at the time, their family would have been restricted to a single child. But because she gave birth to her first child while working in the United States, granting it U.S. citizenship, Lee wasn’t penalized for her second.
Worried about falling birth rates and an aging population, China finally scrapped the one-child policy and replaced it with a universal two-child policy in 2016. The effects of this shift have been uneven, however, as birth rates continue to drop and many parents complain that a second child would be too great a financial burden to bear. A recent survey by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences found that women who have a Shanghai residence permit and choose to have a second child are likely between 30 and 39 years old, and they have a bachelor’s degree, a white-collar job, and an annual family income of at least 200,000 yuan ($28,500).
That is, the typical second-time mother is a member of the city’s upper middle class or higher. Although it’s not always true that higher educational levels correlate with a preference for smaller families, many scholars have found a negative association between educational attainment and fertility rates. So why is it that, in Shanghai, so many well-educated women are willing to have second children?
After conducting 21 interviews with highly educated professional women — in our case, defined as women with a master’s degree or higher — we found that their reproductive choices could be traced to the intersection between state policy interventions and individual choice. In some cases, a second child could even be viewed as a marker of class distinction.
In our interviews, it quickly became apparent that finances play a vital role in these women’s reproductive decisions. Shanghai is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and many of the city’s families don’t dare have a second child because of the financial burdens involved. Possession of a postgraduate education brings greater financial resources, and most of the women I spoke with earned well in excess of 200,000 yuan — some had family incomes as high as 1.7 million yuan. This wealth allowed them to spend tens of thousands of yuan each year on extracurricular classes or other activities that can give both their kids a leg up.
More than just money, the women we interviewed said their degrees had helped them land stable jobs, often in the public sector. Many civil servant, university lecturer, and white-collar clerk positions require at least a master’s degree. “I don’t think a postgraduate degree is a direct cause for me to have a second child,” Liu, a clerk with a research institution, told me. “But of course they are relevant. Having a postgraduate degree leads to a stable job, income, and life.”
This combination of money and stability makes it possible for well-educated women to consider having a second child in Shanghai. In a city where the average Shanghai resident has 30 square meters of living space, eight of our interviewees lived in apartments or houses larger than 170 square meters; one-third owned at least two apartments; and half owned property in a top school district. Like their wealthy counterparts in the West, these women’s fiscal resources also allow them to outsource child care work to nannies: One-quarter of interviewees said they had hired stay-at-home caregivers for their kids.
While their secure financial condition provides the material basis for having a second child, highly educated women’s actual reproductive choices are also heavily influenced by consequences of the one-child policy, which has had a deep influence on both their lives as well as contemporary Chinese family structures.
Most interviewees reported initiating the decision to have a second child themselves. While in many countries, highly educated women struggle to find a work-life balance, Chinese families have access to an important source of additional child care support: their parents.
Sixteen out of the 21 interviewees are only children, or their partners are only children, meaning their parents and in-laws are free to focus on caring for a limited number of grandkids. And thanks to China’s relatively early retirement age — most women retire in their early 50s — grandparents have plenty of time to perform these duties. This intergenerational support helps compensate for the lack of public child care resources, especially for children under the age of 3.
A number of mothers articulated concerns about what would happen to them should their only child pass away. China is home to about 1 million of these so-called shidu families, and this number is growing by about 76,000 every year. The shidu issue has attracted a great deal of attention in the media, where many shidu parents are portrayed as having serious mental and physical problems. Interviewees’ desire to have a second child can therefore also be viewed as a strategy for dealing with some of the risks and uncertainties caused by the one-child policy.
Meanwhile, interviewees with overseas work or study experience, like the above-mentioned Lee, stressed that they saw the multi-child family, rather than the one-child family, as “normal.”
“Most of the families in the United States have more than one child, and so I don’t think that one child per family is a wise arrangement,” Lee said. “Most people didn’t have the chance to have a second child (in China). From my perspective, I always believed that having two or more children is quite normal.”
Others said they wanted a second child because they believe growing up as an only child is lonely and could have a negative impact on their kid’s development. Often products of the one-child policy themselves, their reproductive decisions were based on their own experiences as only children and what they see as the character flaws of the one-child generation, including self-centered attitudes brought on by pampered upbringings.
And then there were those who framed their educational and professional experiences as having given them the skills to be exceptional parents. Shan, a university lecturer with a doctorate, was blunt: “Perhaps highly educated mothers have a wider scope and a deeper understanding of education than non-highly educated mothers,” she said. “They have a better understanding of children’s needs and are not swayed by popular beliefs.”
This distinction between “us” and “them” suggests a class distinction in reproductive choices, and many of the specific above-mentioned reasons our interviewees gave for having a second child are indeed indicative of what in China would be called a middle-class lifestyle.
It’s worth considering the implications of women who choose to have two children in a major city like Shanghai likely being elites. Given the costs of child rearing these days, the two-child family currently promoted by the country looks increasingly like a privilege open only to a select few.
How then can China protect the reproductive rights of the rest of the country? If the state wants to boost the birth rate, it needs to develop a more inclusive public child care support system and provide targeted welfare such as housing allowances and tax breaks for financially insecure women who are willing to have more children.
Beneath all of the reasons that shaped these women’s reproductive choices is the impact of the state’s intervention in the form of its family planning policies. Now, boosting the birth rate while also keeping women productively employed will require a very different kind of intervention — one that can positively ameliorate work-life conflicts and empower women at all levels of society to pursue their ideal family.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Yang Yi for Sixth Tone)