What It Takes to Start a Family in COVID-Era China
I’ve always dreamed of having a child. I don’t remember when or why this yearning came about. Maybe it was an effect of consuming too many fairy tales that ended with “and they lived happily ever after.” Or perhaps it was because almost everyone around me saw getting married and having children as mandatory steps in life, to the point that for the longest time I didn’t recognize that I had a choice.
Regardless, my baby fever escalated a few years ago when my primary school-aged niece stayed over at my home. As I showed her a book on “Harry Potter,” she got so immersed in the world of magic that she called me “mom.” In that moment, I realized just how happy it would make me to hear my own kid call me mom.
I had more complex motives as well. I wanted to know what it would be like to shape a whole new person from scratch, to prepare them for life, and to one day watch them grow up and live independently. Then, there were my parents. They were in their late 30s when I was born — old by Chinese standards — and most of their peers have long had grandkids. They tried to be tactful about it, telling stories about some friend’s grandchild or the adorable toddler they met in the elevator, but as they approached their seventies, I realized that the clock was ticking.
According to Chinese conventional wisdom, the ideal age to have children is surprisingly short; for women, it’s between the ages of 25 and 29. This is far from absolute, but my friends warned me that a pregnant woman over 30 might face more scrutiny from doctors during medical check-ups.
Newly married at 27, I decided that I had two years to travel the world before I needed to worry about childbirth. On January 22, 2020, my husband and I moved into a new apartment in Shanghai. The next day, the central city of Wuhan went into lockdown. Softer shutdowns followed in cities nationwide, including Shanghai, and in March, China closed its borders to most international travel, putting my plans on hold.
In the early days of the pandemic, many people joked that getting stuck at home for months was a perfect time to make babies. I wasn’t so sure. A family friend had to deliver her child alone in the hospital, unaccompanied by her loved ones due to the hospital’s COVID-19 control rules. I feared finding myself in the same situation.
I even began to reconsider my eagerness to have children: Is it responsible to bring a child into an increasingly dangerous world? COVID-19 will not be the last global pandemic. And as countries quarreled over the source of the virus and how to contain it, I realized that humankind wasn’t uniting in the face of a common crisis; instead, it was falling into conflict.
Last year, as my self-imposed pregnancy deadline approached, I still didn’t have a satisfactory answer to any of my questions. But after a second winter of travel restrictions with no end in sight, I decided to start a family anyway.
One factor that did not play a role in my choice was the country’s increasingly pro-natal family planning policy. After the “two-child policy” failed to produce a lasting baby boom, Chinese policymakers and demographers have grown increasingly concerned about the country’s declining fertility. Last year, China increased the birth limit from two to three children per family, and local governments nationwide are rolling out policies designed to make having children more attractive, including extended maternal leave, improved nursery services, and preferential mortgage terms.
But the choice to have a child remains personal, not determined by policy. It takes far more than money and paid leave to convince someone to willingly undergo pregnancy.
I’m lucky: A strong family support network and a relatively flexible working arrangement have given me the courage to try to “have it all.” Even so, no amount of relative privilege exempts you from the experience of carrying a child for nine months. Over the past year, I’ve sometimes wondered whether, if more demographers — who tend to see fertility as a macro-level issue in need of flashy policy solutions — actually understood the sacrifices entailed in carrying a child to term, they might see population policy in a different light.
About 12 million people were born in the Chinese mainland in 2020. Even if we account for twins and triplets, that means over 10 million women had to put their lives on hold for almost a year, in addition to the time they have to spend recovering and caring for their children.
According to the United Nations, the “replacement-level fertility” rate — that is, the total fertility rate needed to maintain population stability — is 2.1, meaning that, on average, women need to have 2.1 children over their lifetimes to sustain population levels. That equates to spending nearly two years of their lives bearing children. No amount of policy support can ameliorate the physical and psychological toll of that experience.
And that’s before considering all the things that can go wrong in the COVID era. I gave birth on March 31, 2022, just as the part of Shanghai I live in prepared to lock down. What followed was a quiet and anxious postpartum period, as my husband and mother-in-law had to ration food to ensure the best nutrition for me and my child. Cut off from the rest of our families, I spent my breastfeeding sessions scrolling through "group-buying” message groups, quarantine policy updates, and rumors about when lockdown would end.
In uncertain times, the choice of whether — and how — to start or expand a family belongs to each individual woman. Rather than debate how many children are needed to keep the economy growing, it might be better to ask how to create better workplace, family, and social environments for all women, not just prospective mothers, so that everyone feels empowered to make the choice that’s best for them.
Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: CSA-Printstock/VCG)