“Why do some women hate having kids?” read a recent viral post on Chinese question-and-answer website Zhihu. The thread has caused a great deal of controversy: A young mother who said that she agreed to bear children only under pressure from her husband, her parents, and her parents-in-law also claimed to have deliberately divested herself of all child care responsibilities.
Other family members now look after the baby, the explanation continued. Not only did the woman refuse to breastfeed her child, but she also made her husband tend to the baby’s needs during the night, while she enjoyed uninterrupted sleep.
The Zhihu user concluded by saying that she had successfully taught her family a hard life lesson: If you want kids, you’d better be prepared to take care of them. Her entire family — and especially her husband — was said to be so exhausted by their newfound responsibilities that they have actively discouraged the woman from having a second child.
For her part, the new mother accused her family of only wanting to reap the social benefits of having a child — namely, having a cute little bundle of joy to play with at home, and to continue the much-vaunted family line, without considering the actual hard work and sacrifice involved in child rearing. Knowing that the child care burden would automatically fall on her shoulders, the mother wasn’t about to let her family have their cake and eat it, too.
The story itself was suspected by many netizens to be fake, with many questioning the woman’s seemingly vindictive attitude toward her child. Indeed, her answer was soon deleted from Zhihu’s website a short while after all the fuss it caused.
Despite the questionable veracity of the story, however, it is still useful for offering us a glimpse of how Chinese women feel about how today’s couples divvy up child care responsibilities. I am not ashamed to say that my immediate reaction, along with that of many of my female friends, was to feel mildly thrilled that this put-upon woman had pulled a fast one on her family. Only later did I begin to doubt the story’s truthfulness and question the ethics of her attitude.
But the initial thrill is still important because it demonstrates that many women in China relate to what the new mother was saying. Many of us feel that the burden of rearing children has always sat disproportionately on our shoulders, and that Chinese men need to involve themselves more in their children’s upbringings.
In addition, the enthusiasm for the story from China’s female audience indicates a rising awareness of gender issues and a desire for more egalitarian gender relations. Pregnancy and child care takes a lot of physical and psychological strength, not to mention the fact that it often hinders our professional careers. It’s no wonder, then, that the division of labor around child care has been a central concern in the struggle for gender equality, and that encouraging men to participate in parenting is regarded as a necessary step to improve the quality of life of women worldwide.
Discussing male involvement in child care is especially meaningful in China, given that the state has recently revised its family planning policies and allowed each couple to have up to two children. This has pushed a number of formerly marginal debates into mainstream discourse. Do Chinese women even want more children? Are their attitudes influenced by how they expect men to behave during child-rearing? Will more Chinese women be forced to sacrifice their careers completely if they choose to have more children?
Scientific research into these questions is still lacking, as the policy itself is still fairly new. But former studies and recent preliminary surveys give us a few hints about what the answers might be.
In fact, demographers and gender scholars in China have been pondering these questions for years, ever since the state first relaxed the policy and allowed couples to have two children as long as both partners were themselves only children. In the July 2014 issue of the Chinese journal The Collection of Women’s Studies, several scholars theorized that the policy could potentially aggravate discrimination against women in the job market.
Regulating employers to ensure gender equality is important, but it is insufficient to tackle the discrimination women suffer in the labor market because so much of the problem still lies in attitudes toward child care. As long as Chinese men choose not to take time off to raise newborn babies, men will always be perceived as more valuable employees than women. This is not merely a view reinforced by traditional cultural beliefs; it is also reinforced by our lawmakers, who refuse to give fathers ample paternity leave.
Back in 2014, up to 20 million couples found themselves entitled to a second child. The recent extension of the two-child policy to all couples means that even more women could face workplace discrimination and pressure to choose family over their careers. A well-known Chinese recruitment website, Zhaopin.com, surveyed over 14,000 working women in 2016 and found that nearly 60 percent of working mothers did not want a second child; 20 percent, in fact, said that they never wanted children at all. Early evidence therefore indicates that the majority of working women are unlikely to take family planning authorities up on the freedom to have second children.
Any solution to this issue must go beyond broad-based policymaking alone. Bringing men back into the fold and depicting both fathers and mothers as equally responsible for taking care of the kids is as good a place as any to start the discussion. Cross-cultural and anthropological research also shows that the more men share child care responsibilities, the more women are able to participate in politics and the economy, in turn elevating their social status.
Other institutional and cultural changes are also necessary. Patriarchal societies are largely dominated by men’s biological schedules and masculine cultures — for example, many of us are likely to receive promotions at work during our early- to mid-30s, a time when women are more likely to consider having children. Even if some men are willing to spend more time at home with their children, they will hesitate to do so as long as workplace culture stigmatizes and demotes men who appear to prioritize their families over their careers.
Mandatory parental leave for both fathers and mothers is key to realizing such an attitudinal shift. Such a policy would first root out discrimination against women in the labor market, additional parental leave would institutionalize the notion that men are expected to involve themselves in their children’s lives and prevent fathers from putting work before family life. Second, it would curtail the exploitative means taken by certain commercial enterprises to restrict parental leave after childbirth.
But employers are unlikely to initiate such changes of their own volition, as it is not in their financial interests to do so. Any institutional change must come from the top down. Moreover, it is essential that it does come, as the happiness of working parents is not predicated on economic development alone. Instead, it hinges on — more than anything else — fair treatment and a strong work-life balance.
Editors: Hu Sumin and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A mother holds her baby at Changchun Railway Station, Jilin province, Feb. 17, 2016. Bai Shi/VCG)