Why it’s getting easier to be a single mum in China

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How rule changes and financial independence is helping unmarried women to keep their babies.

Until last year it was not really possible for most unmarried women to become mothers in China – practically speaking. But a social change is under way and it is driving shifts in policy too.

In her flat on the outskirts of Shanghai, Zhang Meili rocks her baby back and forth. As he gurgles away happily, she tells him that she’s going to head out soon to earn money for him.

After his mother goes to work, two-month-old Heng Heng will be looked after by his grandmother – who recently moved to China’s largest city to help her daughter raise her child.

That there is no father in Heng Heng’s life would be frowned upon by many in China, especially in more conservative rural and regional areas. The belief that a child should not be brought into this world without a mother and a father is still widely held here.

In Zhang Meili’s case, she says she was lucky to have moved to Shanghai to run a business because being a single mother in this mega-city is much more accepted.

“I’m grateful for the tolerance of Shanghai,” she says. “I’m from rural Henan, an area which would have a lot of discrimination against me as a single mother.”

She became a single mum after her boyfriend’s family rejected his choice of bride. They considered her position in society to be too modest.

So he broke up with her – even though she was pregnant with his child.

I ask her mother, Mrs Zhao, how she felt when she heard the news that her daughter, who is 25, would keep the baby.

“My feelings? I was heartbroken,” she says. “It’s very hard to raise a kid on your own. And, in our hometown, there would be criticism from neighbours.”

Have her feelings changed now that she’s a grandmother?

“Now I see him, I’m really happy,” she says with a huge smile on her face.

Zhang Meili has options that many unmarried women don’t have because she runs her own small business.

This gives her more independence and control over her life.

Though the little massage shop she runs is still struggling post-Covid, she doesn’t need to clear leave with an employer or battle for social acceptance in a workplace because she has given birth to a son who will be raised without his dad.

Of course, it has not been easy for Zhang Meili to keep her business afloat during such a rocky time economically, with the added challenges of giving birth, plus knowing that – while attitudes are changing – there are still those who will look down on her.

She says that none of her friends backed her decision to keep her child. They thought it would harm her chances of eventually finding a husband, and that it wasn’t right for the child to grow up without a father.

“When I was pregnant, I went to the hospital alone,” she says. “At the time, my shop was struggling to survive and, when I looked around, I did envy the women who went there with their husbands.

“But I chose to become a single mum. I chose to have him, and I needed to get over this.”

Yet it was not only people’s beliefs which made it very hard to become a single parent.

Before 2016, the government effectively prohibited this from happening by stopping officials from issuing birth approval certificates, without seeing proof of marriage for the father and mother.

Another problem had been the requirement for both parents’ ID details to be listed in order for a child to get a hukou – the identity document which all Chinese citizens need to, for example, enrol in school.

When I first came to China two decades ago, I recall unmarried women telling me that they would have no choice but to have an abortion if they became pregnant accidentally because a child could not survive in this country without all the required paperwork.

Even after these rules changed, it remained virtually impossible for most unmarried women to consider having a child until last year because they could not get access to the health insurance needed to pay for the hospital, or to paid maternity leave.

These two things have now supposedly changed but, in practice, an employer must apply on behalf of a staff member for the benefits to kick in – and some companies are still refusing to do it.

A lawyer working on cases in this field told us she had a client whose boss at a large franchise would not facilitate her getting access to paid maternity leave. Only after she sued the company did they agree to do it.

“It really depends on the openness of the company and the awareness of employers regarding the rights of their staff,” the lawyer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “However local policies are actually vague and sometimes companies are operating in a grey zone here.”

Some bosses don’t understand that the regulations have changed, the lawyer added.

Others are not keeping their knowledge up to date because they simply don’t want to. They may consider single parenting to be wrong.

Prof Yang Juhua from Beijing’s Minzu University says that, under Chinese law, all mothers and their children should enjoy the same rights regardless of marital status.

“But, in terms of implementation, it is not smooth,” she says. “Why? Because many people still can’t understand, and are not tolerant towards, single mothers.”

Prof Yang, an expert in demography, says the rules were set up without single mothers in mind.

“China’s regulations are designed for married couples,” she adds. “Marriage is the pre-condition. Single parents are still a new thing here and represent a way of thinking which is very different to our traditional ethical norms”.

One factor driving change for policymakers has been the country’s ageing population.

After decades of the one-child policy, the government would now like young couples to have more babies, but many are not answering the call, for financial reasons. They think they don’t have sufficient funds to raise multiple children.

Under these circumstances, if single women want to have children, those in positions of authority have decided they should be encouraged to.

Visiting a cavernous exhibition centre in the south-eastern city of Hangzhou, we meet Peng Qingqing, among the toys, nappies and mountains of milk formula at a commercial fair focusing on baby products.

Peng Qingqing, who runs an online sales platform, is herself heavily pregnant and unmarried, and, like Zhang Meili, she says that being a businesswoman has made this easier.

“My mum always told me that women should be more independent, confident, and strong,” she tells us. “I don’t want to marry into another family just because of a child”.

The 30-year-old says the time wasn’t right for marriage when she accidentally became pregnant with her much younger boyfriend, but that she wanted to keep her baby.

She says that the shifting status of women in China, especially in terms of their financial independence, has meant that choices can now be made which were not possible just a few years ago.

“Traditionally women relied on men and the family for support. As we earn more, men and women become more equal. Women can even employ people to help them,” she says.

But the vast majority of single women in China are on much lower incomes and remain beholden to the system as it is to support them.

The lawyer who’s been working on cases relating to women’s workplace rights explains that pay during maternity leave is linked to salary. “For grassroots single mothers their incomes are low,” she says. “Without proper, paid, maternity leave they could not survive. It’s a very practical issue.

“These days, the government is encouraging families to have more babies. Some provinces even have financial rewards. But, for single mothers, such support is not available. It’s highly discriminatory.”

Women who give birth outside of marriage can also face other forms of discrimination, she says.

For those in the public service, they may not be able to get political clearance from the Communist Party (certifying that someone is a decent, loyal citizen). The absence of such official approval can mean missing out on promotions or even not getting a government job in the first place.

But Prof Yang says she thinks that, as society becomes more tolerant towards unmarried mothers, such discrimination will gradually disappear.

If the national government, in the future, requires local officials to more strictly enforce regulations allowing single women to become parents this might also help, she says.

As for Zhang Meili, she says this should be a choice for the women themselves.

I ask her what advice she would give others who find themselves in the same situation as her and she replies: “It depends on their personal situation but, if they love kids, they should have them.

“Don’t lose a child because of other people’s voices or because of questions coming at you from the outside.”

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