Single mothers in China move out of the shadows

Copyright The New York Times
By Howard W. French
April 6, 2008
BEIJING: As a young migrant worker, Lei Gailing sought her fortune in China’s fast-industrializing and freewheeling south. She found a steady factory job but a less stable boyfriend, then became pregnant.
The routine course for most women would have been to marry the man or to arrange an abortion. Lei, who was then 33 and fiercely independent, did neither. Refusing to marry the man but afraid she might never have a child, she chose to become a single mother.
That decision carried implications that Lei never fully anticipated, marking her as something of a social outcast in a country that still strictly controls population growth and makes few concessions to women like her.
Today, at 41, Lei says she has no regrets, even after a life of bitter twists and turns: pretending to be divorced at one point to avoid bringing shame on her son, and ultimately marrying a much older man in an effort to obtain the basic identification documents her boy needed to go to school and receive other social services.
For all this, Lei, who now lives with the older man in Beijing in what she describes as an abusive relationship, said she would do it all over again for her son. “I look at him today, and know it was worthwhile,” she said, tears forming in her eyes. “He is so lovely, I cannot regret it
In a society where until quite recently premarital sex was often punished – both officially and socially – the issue of single motherhood has been slow to enter the public arena. But now, a new awareness of the issue is raising questions about the status of women in China, as well as other rights issues like the hukou, or residency permit, a central tool of population control passed down from the Maoist era that restricts movement by linking people to the towns of their birth.
The Chinese government has long maintained that the Communist Party liberated women – along with the rest of the country – in 1949. But in an era of rapid modernization, China has lacked anything like a broad current of thought about women’s rights.
“When we argue that a woman owns the uterus, and it’s her right to decide whether to deliver the baby or not, people won’t buy it,” said Yuan Xin, director of psychology at the Consulting Center of Nankai University. “If you are a woman, your personal choice is monitored and supervised by a lot of others, and they expect you to do what everyone else does.”
Official statistics on the number of single mothers are unavailable in China. But with premarital sex now commonplace and women’s earning power growing, particularly in the wealthy cities of the east, experts believe their numbers are rising fast, albeit from a small base.
“This is of great significance,” said Li Ling, a professor of arts and sciences at Beijing Language and Culture University. “It’s hard for me to judge other people’s choices, good or bad, but it means a lot that women are making such decisions on their own, as a matter of choice. In Chinese tradition, women don’t have such rights. We are only the bearers of offspring for our husbands’ families.”
In many ways, Xie Jing, 33, a newspaper reporter in Shanghai, is typical of an emerging generation of single mothers who are professionals and whose choices on child-rearing are eased by their financial security.
Xie said that she became pregnant while she was engaged, but that her fiancé’s ambivalence over the unexpected news prompted her to set her own course. When her former fiancé asked her, “What is the point of having a child if we are no longer together?” she had a ready answer: raising the child alone.
“My quality of life isn’t so bad, so I don’t want to lower myself to staying with another person just for the sake of being together,” Xie said. “If that means I have to sacrifice a lot, so be it. But I am in a good situation now with my baby, and I’m not willing to lose it.”
Her son was born two years ago in a partly foreign-owned hospital, where registration of the pregnancy with a neighborhood committee – standard in most of China – was not required. Xie lives with her parents, who are retired and help take care of her boy. To all but her closest friends, she explains that the father is overseas on a three-year assignment. Her son bears Xie’s family name, and the father was told that if he did not accept legal responsibility as a parent, he would be kept at bay until the boy turned 18.
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