When I met a young mother at a packed Starbucks in a Shanghai mall, she rushed in, harried, late and apologetic — a meeting had run long and her mother had called with an issue about her son.
“It’s too much,” she told me, catching her breath. Though she has a degree in Chinese medicine, she works in sales. Four years ago, after her son was born, her parents, both factory workers from the countryside, moved into her two-bedroom, 325-square-foot apartment; they sleep in her son’s room and help care for him. “Would I have another if I could? Honestly, I can’t imagine having the time or money to have another child,” she said.
Until recently, having another child was only hypothetical to most Chinese parents. But now that the government has relaxed its one-child policy to permit second children if one parent is an only child, her theoretical question is a real one.
Permitting more than one child is surely a step toward freedom, one that will curb the forced abortions and fearful abandonments that have characterized so much of family planning in China for the past 35 years. Still, many Chinese aren’t going to rush to have more children.
Zheng Zhenzhen, a professor at the Institute of Population and Labor Economics in Beijing, told me that less than 2 percent of parents cite the state’s policy as the reason they have only one child. When Zheng and her fellow researchers asked parents of only children who were eligible to have a second, they initially said they wanted two. But when asked about the logistics of having a second child, they changed their response and said they intended to stop at one.
These parents cited the same concerns: the high prices of apartments and child care, as well as their long work hours. “We ask them: ‘How much money would be enough?’ ” said Zheng, who worked with demographers from People’s University, the University of California at Irvine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a study funded by a Chinese agency and the MacArthur Foundation. “And they come up with a number that seems impossible to reach, no matter what their income, poor or rich.”
It’s not just a question of how little the state does to help with child care or housing or elder care — it’s that people have learned in a single generation that having only one child gives them the flexibility to be parents without being overwhelmed by parenthood. Despite China’s warp-speed evolution over the past few decades, the social safety net here is still the extended family: Grandparents care for young children, children care for aging parents, and the state wouldn’t have it any other way.
Like anywhere, some in China value the advantages of the only-child experience, and others hate it. But either way, as Zheng points out, it has become normal in one generation. The impetus for the study of parents’ feelings about how many kids to have, one of the researchers told me, was to try to convince the government that it didn’t need strict rules to limit population. Like in other East Asian countries, China’s fertility rate fell drastically before the policy was introduced: As education, workplace expectations and the cost of living rise, birth rates decline. Even without a one-child policy, Chinese families probably would have shrunk.
As the United States has learned recently, with the news that our population is growing at the slowest rate since the Great Depression, all it takes to reduce our numbers is economic struggle mixed with women’s increasing frustration with juggling domestic duties, work and the rest of their lives. After all, we have only so much to give.
Chinese parents have also learned that an only child, who can benefit from the full measure of its family’s resources, is often better equipped to live up to ever-building expectations. Like first-born children, onlies tend to have higher educational and professional achievement, despite what country they grow up in, whether their parents stay together or not, and whether they’re rich or poor. And a family’s undiluted resources — time, money, attention — are widely understood as the reason for this success.
It was no surprise to hear that harried mother I met tell me that it’s very important that her son go to graduate school, as she did. As University of Texas social psychologist Toni Falbo, who has studied only children in China and beyond, said while teaching a seminar on one-child families: “In America, parents want their kids to be happy. In China, there’s no such concept — they just want their kids to be successful.”
The increased likelihood of success is another reason people don’t want more children, demographer Ma Xiaohong told me when we met in her office at the Beijing Population Research Institute. In Ma’s studies of why Chinese parents have just one child, 60 percent said the state’s policy had nothing to do with their choice. And the 40 percent who said it did ranked the policy as the last reason they stopped at one. Their top concerns, in order, were salary, child care, housing and career. “Everyone here thinks it’s the only way to make a child succeed,” Ma said. “It’s actually seen as selfish and bad parenting to have another child.”
Ma wishes she could have decided to stop at one without the government’s pressure, but she says she probably would have ended up making the same choice. “Sometimes I wanted more than one, oftentimes I didn’t. But I think having only one was a benefit for my family,” she told me. “My son does very well on his tests.”
Certainly, many Chinese parents will choose to have a second child, as expatriates have with greater freedom and increased support abroad — and why shouldn’t they? But plenty will think twice in a nation where onlies have become the rule.
One woman I spoke with represents China’s stunning surge, in a single generation, from third-world emergency to first-world superpower. Her parents split their time between a farm and a factory, while she works in a high-rise. She and her boyfriend talk about what fun it would be to have two children, but she knows that even if she could, she never would. “All the young people I know like myself, we now want the best for our child, all the things we had and more,” she told me. “And for ourselves. I want a totally different life from my parents’. I want to be a professional woman with a career — I’m afraid of being a common wife and mother. That’s not what we work so hard to become.”
Sandler is the author of “One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One.”