[Guest Post] Taking Childfree vs. Children Debate to China

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

There’s been a lot of talk this month about Time magazine’s latest “women, you need to freak out about this” article. Last time the spotlight was on attachment parenting and the big challenge/question was: Are You Mom Enough? Goodness. Remember that hysteria? (Or as one of my mama friends likes to say, hysterica.) This year it’s the question is: Does having it all mean having no children? 

But here at MMM, we’ve decided to look at the “to have or not to have” children question from a very different angle. What if your choice was completely stripped away and the law dictated that you could only have one child? Not none, not two, not four, but one.

Here’s what Amanda Roberts, an American teacher and writer living in China, has to say about it.


While America and China are often compared, they might be about to embark on strikingly different paths. The latest Time magazine cover story talks about the decreasing birthrate in America and the struggles facing childfree women and couples. But in China, the talk is all about loosening the one-child policy.

The policy was implemented in 1979 to help curb China’s massive population growth by, as the name suggests, limiting most couples to only one child. The policy has always been controversial and has had significant negative impact on the country and its people, but people rarely speak up and fight back in China so it has remained. With increasing freedom of speech seeping through the internet, though, criticisms of the policy and a call for its end are getting louder. But one of the main concerns about ending the policy is how it could lead to a baby-boom unlike any that have happened before.

Photo by Amanda Roberts

The biggest difference between having children in America and China is choice. In America, women are free to choose how many children they want to have, even if that number is zero. In China, there is no choice. When a woman marries, the culture here dictates that she must have a child, preferably within the first year. But, by laws of the State, she can have no more after that. If a woman in China doesn’t want children, then she can’t get married. In this culture, parents simply won’t allow their children the choice to remain childless. This harsh rule means that there are an increasing number of “left-over women” in China, women who society deems useless (in spite of any personal or financial successes) because they don’t marry and have the sanctioned one child.

The Time magazine piece says that American society is “a culture that equates marriage with motherhood.” This is true, to an extent. I was also raised in a family that just assumed my siblings and I would all grow up, get married, and have kids. But even though all of the “kids” in my family are now at peak childbearing age, for a mix of reasons, wishes, and timing, none of us have kids of our own. While my parents would love nothing more to be grandparents, they aren’t going to disown the lot of us or claim — like many do in China– that we aren’t doing our filial duty if it never happens.

Choosing to be childfree in America is becoming more common. According to the Time magazine piece, one in five women are not having children; only one in 10 women didn’t have children in the 1970s.

In many ways, a low birthrate is natural and a sign of a successful nation. The more successful a country becomes, the lower the birthrate drops. Countries such as America, Canada, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong have all seen lower birthrates in the last fifty years as these countries progressed. That’s one of my main criticisms of the one-child policy here in China: it was completely unnecessary. Had China simply worked on progressing, the birthrate would have dropped off naturally. Having to now lift the policy means there won’t be a gradual increase in the numbers of births. Instead, it will be sudden, which will cause major problems for baby-related fields. For instance, China already has shortages with hospitals, milk formula and schools. Adding over nine million more “new” babies to that equation annually is only going to exacerbate these problems. Had China not instituted the policy, then the baby industry would have grown with the population and would be equipped to deal with these numbers.

But is the answer to allow the one-child policy to continue? Certainly not. Allowing an egregious policy to continue because ending it would cause more problems is not a reason to let the policy endure. The murder of baby girls, the proliferation of a generation of little emperors, the lack of care for the elderly, and China’s uncertain economic future because of labor shortages and lack of innovators are only a few of the failures of the one-child policy. Ending this policy and giving all women the freedom to decide how many children are right for their families is the only way China can hope to have a positive future.

Even though a baby boom would be the first effect of easing the one-child policy, eventually the boom would ware off. It might take another 20 years, but the birthrate will even out. It might happen even sooner than that since China is already rapidly developing. Eventually, the culture requiring women to have a child would ease too. Right now, women must have a child since each family can have only one. For each child, he or she has two parents and four grandparents to care for.

In America, parents with one or no children often worry about being “abandoned” when they become elderly: “Who will take care of me when I’m old?” In fact, the Time article quotes Eleanore Wells, a market researcher in New York City who says “nursing homes are filled with parents.” America has nursing homes, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, social security, and a host of other programs to help care for the elderly when their children can’t or won’t care for them or if they have no children.

In China, “who will take care of me when I’m old” is a real fear. China has very few social services to care for the elderly; elder care falls to family members, not the State. If a woman decides she will not have a child, she not only puts herself at risk, but her parents and grandparents as well. In families where there are more children, though, the care of the elderly can be spread around. A woman will be able to choose not to have children and it won’t devastate the family because she and her siblings and nieces and nephews can all band together to take care of the older generations.

Calling for an end to the one-child policy isn’t an attack on childfree people, and it isn’t a declaration that people must have more than one child. Ending the one-child policy is a call for the freedom of choice whether or not to procreate.

While the U.S. has its problems — denigrating childfree women being one of them — at least America gives women choices. If you choose to be childfree, embrace it! But I would disagree with childfree woman Rachel Agee’s sentiment at the end of the Time article. She laments that she has to defend her right to not have children. I believe she should continue to defend it because many women in the world don’t have that right and they could surely use her voice.

Amanda Roberts is an American teacher and writer living in Hunan, China. You can read more from her at Two Americans in China.

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