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    Second Child: Then a Secret, Now a Burden — A Tale of Two Rural Wives

    China’s one-child policy has been lifted, and younger couples are feeling parental pressure to have a second child.

    The Gao family lives in a small village southwest of Fuzhou in Fujian province, eastern China. Although the family’s younger generations have left for Fujian’s cities, they make it a point to return to visit old Mr. and Mrs. Gao on important days throughout the year, such as birthdays and holidays. One such holiday — Chinese New Year — is rapidly approaching, and the household is buzzing with activity.

    Unfortunately, old Mrs. Gao is not in the cheeriest of moods today. The wife of the Gao’s youngest son has decided not to show up and has made no attempt to conceal her reason: “They’re just going to nag me to have another baby. I’d rather not show up and instead enjoy some peace and quiet.” Mrs. Gao seems agitated as she putters around the house.

    Residents of Fujian’s rural regions have long upheld the Chinese idiom, “Bear many a son and continue the family line,” making enforcement of the one child policy difficult in the area. On Oct. 30, 2015, the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China passed a new policy allowing couples to have two children, effectively abolishing the one-child policy that had been in place since the late 1970s.

    The eldest son of the Gao family was born in the 1950s, and the youngest in the 1970s. Although 2015 is probably too late for the eldest son and his wife to have a second child, there’s still hope for the son born in the 1970s, provided he and his wife act quickly. The family have thus been placing a large amount of pressure on the youngest couple to have another child.


    The wife of the eldest son has never been able to comprehend why her sister-in-law refuses to have another baby. When she was still able to conceive, she and her husband did everything they could to have a second child, even though what they ended up doing brought them shame for the rest of their lives.

    The eldest Gao son was a good student growing up, and his test scores always placed him in the top percentile of the country. He and his wife both graduated from professional school — the first people from their village to do so — and became middle school teachers in the nearby town. This was a big deal, as it meant that they had managed to trade a future of farm labor for a comfortable position working for the government. However, as government workers, their lives fell under a microscope, meaning that the couple had to observe the one-child policy, as opposed to other inhabitants of the rural regions.

    In 1985, the couple gave birth to a baby girl. They loved their daughter, but the attitude in the area was dominantly patriarchal, and having a female child meant that the couple wouldn’t carry on the family line. To this day, they can still recall the sneers on the elders’ faces. Even though Gao’s wife was one of the few women in the village with a professional degree, she held no status in the family without a son. Eventually, the couple made the agonizing decision to send their 3-month-old baby to be raised by their extended family in their rural home. Then, they announced to their friends and neighbors that their daughter had died.

    The following year, the wife became pregnant with a second child. Although the couple had told everyone that their daughter had died, it was still important for them to be careful lest someone discover their secret. In order to hide her pregnancy from her colleagues, the wife tried every means possible, including waistbands, extra layers of clothing, and sick days. Fortunately, it was already winter holiday at her school when the pregnancy became apparent. To everyone’s delight, a son was born in January 1987.

    Unfortunately, gossip spreads like wildfire in the countryside, and it wasn’t long before the neighbors worked out what had happened. The couple decided to lay low, gave up their posts in town, and volunteered to teach in a rural primary school. This was a crippling setback for them. Previously they had been recognized by their superiors and were both in line for senior employment titles, but the visibility of these posts meant that the couple would almost certainly be found out and prosecuted. They no longer dared to ask for promotions for fear of losing their jobs. 

    When the couple’s daughter, Gao Xiao, reached school age, they finally brought her back to the town to attend primary school. But the secret remained difficult to keep. One time the family was surprised at home by guests who had come over unannounced. The little girl had to quickly hide upstairs and remain silent until the visitors had gone. Additionally, since Xiao was only one year older than her brother, they both ended up in the same class and had to pretend to be cousins. Xiao was always a good student. She would eventually attend college and then graduate school, but the “special treatment” of her childhood has made her insecure as an adult, and resentful toward her parents.

    However, the couple have never regretted their decision. They share with previous generations the belief that producing a male heir is their primary duty as parents, and to this end any suffering they or their daughter must endure is justifiable. And after all that the elder couple have sacrificed, they cannot comprehend the decision of the youngest Gao’s wife not to have a second child.

    The youngest Gao couple both work in town. The husband works for the government and takes home a modest but stable income. The wife is an impressive woman, having recently risen to a management position at a company that has just transitioned from the public to private sector. Her income is higher than her husband’s. The couple owns a condo, which measures more than 140 square meters, as well as a car. They have a son currently attending senior middle school. 

    Since the two-child policy was passed, the young husband has been eager to try for a second. His wife was born in the late 1970s and is still within the child-bearing age range. The entire family has been trying to persuade her, but to everyone’s dismay, she is adamant about not having a second child. “We both work,” she explains. “Both of our parents are in their eighties. Who’s going to raise the kid? If I take maternity leave, the company will just replace me. How are we going to support our family with only my husband’s salary? Besides, who can guarantee that I’m going to have a girl? What if I have another son? We would have to buy another house before he could get married. Why should I stress myself out like that? Having a second child is easier said than done. They’re not the ones having to raise the kid.”

    And the family calls her selfish.

    It’s Chinese New Year and the two children of the eldest Gao couple have returned home with their own children. The eldest Gao wife believes that everything she has sacrificed in her life is worth it. The younger wife, on the other hand, has saved up enough money for her son to go to college, and is planning for next year’s family trip. She browses through the family albums of their travels, sees the smile of her son, and knows that their life is the happier one. 

    (A Chinese version of this article first appeared on The Paper, a sister publication of Sixth Tone.)

    (Header image: A woman carries her child on her back as she passes by a family planning slogan in Guizhou province, May 1, 2014. Yang Yi/Sixth Tone)