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    The Motherless Children of China

    Migration and failed marriages give rise to emotionally neglected single-parent kids.

    The sharp influx in recent years of migrant workers into China’s cities has resulted in a growing number of “left-behind children” in the country’s rural areas, one subcategory of which are the “motherless children” — a term referring to children whose mothers have divorced or separated from their husbands. Although in some cases the parents may still be legally married, the mother is no longer present in the family unit. I first noticed this phenomenon several years ago, in the course of my research into migrant workers and their offspring.

    As the movement of China’s population continues to become more fluid, long-distance marriages are occurring at a greater frequency. Intermarriage has traditionally taken place between people of the same village, township, or county, but we are now seeing an increasing number of marriages across city or provincial borders. This is generally not a problem in cases where both partners have steady jobs and incomes; at most, the partners may face some minor cultural differences. However, for migrant workers these cross-regional marriages are typically quite delicate.

    There are two main reasons contributing to this fragility. First, many migrant workers marry and give birth at a younger age, when neither partner has fully matured psychologically or emotionally. Families in this situation are often hurriedly brought together, often not even legally registered, and are seen as married only by virtue of having held the traditional wedding feasts according to local customs.

    Second, many young mothers stay with the husband’s family following the birth of their child, while the father is forced to look for work away from home to support them. A number of problems may arise when both partners do not live under the same roof. The husband’s family may be quite poor; the wife may have strained relationships with her new in-laws; she may be unfamiliar with the area or the people where she lives; she may be unable to communicate in the local dialect. She may feel that her family is very far away, and lack somebody to speak to and rely on emotionally, which makes it more difficult to maintain a relationship with her husband.


    According to my own observations, wives are more likely to walk out in migrant cross-regional marriages. Women normally move in with their husband’s families and often lack a developed social network in their new environment. Owing to their isolation, many choose to return to their hometowns or find work for themselves in other parts of the country. They can start a new life elsewhere, sometimes even concealing the fact that they have been married. In these cases, children are usually left in the care of their grandparents, while the father continues to work away from home.

    Once their mothers have gone, left-behind children become single-parent children as well. This negatively impacts the environment the child grows up in.

    One possible result is for the child to become emotionally neglected owing to a lack of discipline from their caregivers. Some fathers and grandparents feel guilty about the fact that their child has lost his or her mother and start to pander to the youth’s every whim, or try to fill the void with material possessions. They rarely communicate or interact with their child on a true emotional level, and fail to understand what they really need. In addition, grandparents of an advanced age may be powerless to control and discipline their grandchild. Many of these emotionally neglected children end up with a heightened sense of entitlement, and some common problems afflicting them include skipping school, fighting, or becoming addicted to computer games.

    Another common issue facing these youths is domestic violence. Some fathers, angry at what they perceive as a betrayal from their wives, project their anger onto their offspring in the form of verbal or physical abuse. In such an environment, the child may grow up to be excessively introverted, psychologically depressed, or even detached emotionally from the world around them. Conversely, they may try to emulate the father’s violent behavior, believing brute force to be the best answer for conflicts.

    In treating the issue of left-behind or motherless children, we must work to create favorable conditions for the migration of worker’s families, as well as safeguard the basic rights of migrant workers and their offspring. 

    (A Chinese version of this article first appeared on Groundbreaking.)

    (Header image: A left-behind child sits with his grandfather on farmland in Yuncheng, Shanxi province, May 19, 2013.  Liu Baocheng/VCG)