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    Torn in Two: Balancing Motherhood and a Career in China

    A 36-year-old mother and career woman describes her struggle in balancing these two roles in China in the new nonfiction book “A Room Facing South” that shares memoirs by 22 women.

    At 10:30 p.m., my workday comes to an end.

    I pull out my phone and open the car-hailing app, only to find 163 people ahead of me in the queue. People hop in a car one by one, marking the end of the day in Houchangcun, where most of Beijing’s tech giants are located. Eventually, with the competition for a normal ride so fierce, I opt for the more expensive “premier ride” on the app. It takes 10 minutes for the car to finally arrive, and the driver apologizes to me for the delay. “It’s okay,” I say. “This intersection is always like this.”

    In less than one year here, I’ve witnessed the 11:00 p.m. rush hour, the 1:00 a.m. anxiousness, and the 5:00 a.m. solitude. At that moment, a WeChat message from my mom pops up on my phone screen. “The child is asleep. The milk is in the microwave, you can drink it when you get home.” I tell her, “I got a cab and I’ll be home in 20 minutes.”

    My life has been quite a balancing act — I’m a 36-year-old with a son under three years old, and both my partner and I work for major IT companies. Our busy lives have led to living with my mom, who helps take care of our son while we are away.

    During my hourlong commute to and from work, I take solace in turning on a podcast. It is one of the few moments in the day when I can have some personal time, other than when I’m asleep.

    The podcast I’m listening to discusses mothers’ jiwa, or “chicken blood”, strategies that pressure children to improve at school. I can’t help but feel anxious that I wouldn’t be able to fully incentivize my son due to my heavy workload. But then I remind myself that it is still three years until my son goes to primary school, and a lot can change in that time. Maybe I won’t even have a job by then, but I hope things work out positively.

    I used to be a very carefree person who didn’t worry much about unemployment. My husband shared a similar outlook on life. At the age of 26, he quit his coding job that he had held for four years and embarked on a solo cycling journey to Nepal to reflect on his life. When we met, he had just moved to Beijing and was enjoying his work at a “small yet supportive” company. In those days, we had a lot of time to watch movies and attend performances together, basking in a peaceful and stable romance.

    However, everything changed when my husband’s company decided to pursue an aggressive growth strategy, denying him the chance to take annual leave for a marathon in Hawaii. This caused him to quit his job, believing that life should never be swallowed up by the dreaded “996” work schedule — from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week. Naturally, I supported his decision wholeheartedly. After all, a free spirit like him can’t tolerate even the slightest confinement. At that time, I had just finished a period of entrepreneurship and returned to a less demanding position in an IT company. At 31 years old, my work was less hectic, although somewhat mundane.

    For quite some time, we were both content with the mentality of having modest expectations from ourselves and our jobs. After we got married, maintaining this attitude toward work seemed slightly challenging to both of us, but, surprisingly, we handled it well, largely because we didn’t burden each other with undue pressure. At the time of our marriage, my husband was 28, and I was 32.

    Six months later, I found out I was pregnant, four years past what is often considered the ideal age for pregnancy. Although unplanned, my husband and I both liked the idea of having “human puppies,” so we embraced the journey into parenthood.

    Everything went smoothly throughout my pregnancy, except for some prolonged morning sickness. The baby developed as expected and I managed to stay mobile and energetic. I even completed some big work projects online during my pregnancy, leading me to believe that I would not fall victim to the so-called “Curse of 35,” the age when white-collar workers tend to be shown the door by their employers. But when I reached my eighth month of pregnancy, my father passed away.

    The timing was such that I barely had a chance to grieve or process my loss before my son was born. In 2017, it felt like I went through the entire cycle of life — from birth and aging to illness and death — and took on the responsibilities of being a true “grown-up.”

    It dawned on me that growing up is not solely about getting married or having children. Rather, it’s the loss of those closest to you that forces you into adulthood. It’s like the pillar of support in my life suddenly collapsed and I had to step into the center role within my family, making all the decisions about myself and my life. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to fully embrace adulthood. I realized that, at the very least, I should cultivate a stronger will to live, and I should be more assertive, positive, and proactive. I set these as my goals once my maternity leave concluded.

    Meanwhile, my husband had secured a position in a major IT company. During my pregnancy, he applied to some prominent tech companies, and while he received an offer, it came with a bittersweet revelation. He said to me with a hint of sadness, “I’m probably going to start a 996 lifestyle.” It was clear to me that this decision represented a significant compromise for a man who had spent his youth living life on his terms. In response, I reassured him, saying, “Take care of your health, and if you need to work overtime, don’t worry about it. With my current job, I should be able to take care of our family.”

    Since then, we’ve witnessed subtle changes in our perspectives as reality slowly molds our intentions. But I believe that these transformations are instinctive and voluntary responses to our inner will to live, driven by our shared mission of raising a little human. In this pursuit, we willingly relinquish parts of ourselves and our freedom.

    During my maternity leave, brimming with the nervous energy of a new mom, I meticulously laid out my schedule for each day, tracking the baby’s feedings and naps. I insisted on giving infant massages after each evening bath, never missing a beat — precisely 10 minutes, no more, no less.

    My overly anxious state did not go unnoticed by my mom, who cautioned, “If you continue like this, I’m afraid that your son will have anxiety, too.” I retorted, “What do you know? Early education is crucial and I can’t afford to take this lightly. I need to give him the best care I can while I’m still able to personally attend to him.”

    Reflecting on it now, I admit I was a bit neurotic at the time, but what I said was not unreasonable. That period was one of the few opportunities I had to spend quality time with my son.

    When I returned to work, I was assigned a new role doing something I wasn’t skilled at. Since I was breastfeeding, I had a much more idle job without a team to lead. My days were filled with storing breastmilk and tending to my baby’s needs, and most of my conversations with coworkers revolved around my son. Even though everyone meant well, I couldn’t help but feel increasingly uncomfortable as my own identity was gradually fading into the background.

    Certainly, I could give up my ego for the sake of my son, but some parts of my identity remain persistent, such as my distinct individuality and an aversion to a settled life. I decided that, once I finished breastfeeding, I would have to get out of there. This internal conflict continued until my son was almost two years old, when — finally — I received an interview invitation from a tech giant.

    During the interview, the interviewer asked me, “Do you already have a child at your age?” I said, “My son is almost two years old.” The interviewer laughed a little and said, “I don’t mean anything negative by asking this, I just think that people who are mothers are more resilient. After experiencing the pain of childbirth, what’s there left to be afraid of?”

    I got the job offer in the end. I couldn’t tell whether it was more because of my well-matched skillset or my “resilience,” but I was happy at that moment. The prospect of a vibrant and unknown future lay ahead, and it excited me. Taking the offer brought a sense of redemption.

    Joining the company while telecommuting, I began my life as part of a big company alongside my fellow coworkers with the exuberance of a new employee. After welcoming each other with stickers and emojis in the company group chat, we plunged straight into all kinds of data. After about a month, I experienced my first flicker of anxiety. I started to feel inadequate, comparing myself to others who seemed more efficient, clearer in their thinking, and able to work longer hours. This anxiety crept in sporadically, and I told myself it was because I simply wasn’t good enough.

    Determined to improve, I kept pushing my limits. Sometimes, I despaired because I didn’t know when I would catch up with my peers, but the engagement in my work also brought happiness. At the time, I resonated more with the identity of a 36-year-old career woman than that of a child’s mother.

    It’s not that I don’t cherish motherhood. I simply refuse to let it define me entirely.

    Soon after, a new project came my way — one that required me to pack my bags and embark on a one-way business trip with no definite return date. Over the course of the trip, which lasted 15 days, I refrained from calling my son, fearing that hearing him cry on the other side of the phone would be too heart-wrenching. The busy schedule consumed me to the point where I almost forgot I had a son.

    When I got home, my mom began to berate me for not contacting her often enough, and I explained to her that, except for bathroom breaks, there was scarcely a moment to pause and make a phone call while I was engrossed in work. I later shared my dilemma with a coworker, who grimly admitted that when she traveled for business, she became a missing person who not only never thought of calling home, but would even ignore calls from family members.

    My intense workload meant that my husband took on the role of our son’s primary caregiver. Throughout the day, my mom and a nanny took care of our son’s daily routine, and over the course of almost a year, my demands on them eased from following a precise schedule to a simple request of “just keep the kid alive.” My husband would leave work at 8 p.m. every day in order to spend more time with our son. In prominent IT companies like his, employees are still working at full steam at 8 p.m., so to this day I refrain from asking him what kind of pressure he was under when leaving the office at that hour.

    Only on my occasional breaks could we take our son to an early childhood class as a family, and those moments were the happiest for all of us. It was during these times that our son could see both his parents together, and my mom could relax at home and enjoy her soap operas.

    On one rare occasion, my husband referred to our son as an “IT orphan,” and in that moment, I realized that he was silently growing up and I had missed his “terrible twos” period. He has developed some anxiety and started to trust me less than before.

    When I’m home, he goes to great lengths to make sure I still love him, such as dropping toys or being deliberately picky about his food, all while surreptitiously watching my reactions out of the corner of his eye.

    He becomes vigilant when I change clothes in the morning, always asking, “Are you going to work?” My answer is usually affirmative, upon which his face crumples, on the verge of tears.

    The next 10 minutes are like a tug of war, but eventually we discovered a unique way to connect. He sits on the balcony, knowing he can see me pass by downstairs. So now before I leave the house, he takes one of his favorite snacks and sits on the balcony waiting for me, and when I walk by, he excitedly yells “Mommy!” and I respond by calling out his name from the bottom of the stairs.

    I’ve given this job too much importance. While I lacked opportunities in the first half of my life, working in a big corporation makes me feel I’m just a screw in the robust system. The company’s rapid growth has equipped me with some professional skills, ensuring I don’t fall behind in this fast-paced world, and it has given me a sense of accomplishment.

    Yet, at 36, I ponder the possibilities of maintaining the apparent stability of my life. Sometimes it seems like I have a lot of choices, but in the end, I often find that I’m constrained to a single path.

    I understand that every decision in life requires trade-offs, but I can’t help but wonder about the intangible aspects we sacrifice for rapid growth, those that cannot be measured by data, metrics, or objectives and key results. Just like how, within this company, I’ve transformed into a grown-up who maintains a calm face even when feeling shattered inside.

    Whenever I see a woman of my age on the corporate campus, I feel the urge to approach her and ask about her secrets to balancing work, family, and a personal life. But after I calm down, I realize that this question is too personal. Though we share similar environments, our individual backgrounds and challenges are so different that it is almost impossible to replicate other people’s experiences in our own lives.

    As I navigate this phase in my life, I’m uncertain whether this experience is merely a fleeting awkward stage or the beginning of a larger destiny. I have no way to judge now. All I can do is experience and feel, and even if the journey feels painful and overwhelming, it is part of the life experience that belongs to me and my family.

    As the interviewer predicted, I did possess an extraordinary stress tolerance to keep switching roles between work and family. But the immense stress and anxiety took a toll on my health and cost me 10 pounds in a week. I was told by my doctor that I needed immediate surgery to rule out cancer.

    During the second week after surgery, I finally found a moment to rest, settling into a hotel room alone for the day — free from any family or parental duties. On that day, I immersed myself in putting together a 2,000-piece Lego kit.

    Throughout those hours, I shed my identities as a wife, daughter, and mother, even setting aside my professional role as part of a tech giant. I was solely myself — calm, focused, and serene for the entire day.

    Thankfully, the final biopsy came back benign, allowing me to return to work. On the morning of my return, memories from my twenties resurfaced. Back then, I also worked at an IT company and my work was far less demanding than it is today, but there were already few coworkers over the age of 35 around me. At that time, I wondered where they had all gone, and naively thought they hadn’t worked hard enough to keep up with the times.

    Now with the passage of time, I hold the answer to that question. These people have taken on a lot of responsibilities which made them look less cool, but they persistently strive to navigate life’s challenges, juggling family, work, and their own self-worth with full throttle.

    (Written by Viola, which is the author’s pseudonym.)

    This article is an excerpt from the book “A Room Facing South,” published by Shanghai Translation Publishing House and China30s in 2023. It is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Carrie Davies; editors: Elise Mak and Xue Ni.

    (Header image: Mari_C/VCG)