Exhausted parents in China say the difficulties of juggling work and childcare in an expensive, hyper-competitive society with little help from the state is at the root of the country’s dwindling birth rate.
Beijing reported on Tuesday that the population shrank last year for the first time in more than half a century, exacerbating a demographic crisis that experts have warned could stifle economic growth and put more pressure on public coffers.
Local authorities across China have unveiled a series of measures to encourage procreation, including monthly stipends of several hundred yuan for new parents and one-time “birth bonuses”.
But those who already have children told AFP that balancing a career in China’s corporate world with a desire to give their children the best in life was discouraging many from having multiple children.
“Many families find it very difficult to raise one child and can’t handle it well,” said Wenjing, a parenting blogger in her late 30s who decried “weak” government support.
“With this pandemic, many families have really suffered financially. In these difficult circumstances, many people have decided not to have any more children.
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“I think any policies that will be released now are going to be very immaterial.”
China ended its strict one-child policy in 2016, and then in 2021 allowed couples to have up to three children.
Major cities including Beijing and Shanghai have extended maternity leave to 158 days, while health authorities last year issued guidelines requiring local governments to provide nurseries, albeit for a fee.
But many hurdles remain, as there are no breastfeeding facilities in most workplaces and unmarried women are prohibited from freezing their eggs.
A place in a private kindergarten can cost between 5,000 yuan ($740) and 20,000 yuan per month in Beijing, according to the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Many urban youth also live far from their extended family, interrupting a traditional source of childcare.
– Lower standards –
For Nancy, a young mother from Beijing in her early 30s who works in e-commerce, managing work and childcare is a daunting task.
“I can’t balance it at all,” she told AFP.
“If you want to breastfeed the baby, you basically have to give up work,” she said.
“But because of our situation, we can’t give up our jobs.”
She said social expectations about how children should be raised also play a role, with ambitious parents keen to make sure their children get the very best.
Women are often forced to choose between the ideal of what good parenthood means in modern China and getting a job.
“If you had lower standards, you probably wouldn’t be as tired, but everyone mostly raises their kids in a careful way,” Nancy added.
“If you insist on leaving work at the age of five to take care of your child, you may be assigned less work and be outclassed by your colleagues.”
Legions of parents rely on family support networks — and elderly relatives have played an integral role in raising children.
“The ability of our generation to go to work is mainly through the exploitation of our grandparents, who help us raise our children for a few years,” said Nancy.
– ‘I don’t do any parenting’ –
Ivy Meng, who is in her early 30s, told AFP her young son was “raised mostly by his grandparents” during the pandemic, when schools closed and she and her husband continued to work full-time.
When it came to choosing between work and time with her baby during the week, she chose the former.
“I really don’t do any parenting,” she said.
“I get home very late every night and don’t see my son very often.”
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She told AFP she was one of the lucky ones – many young Chinese women do not have readily available support networks.
“Often, their husbands are unwilling to take on the responsibility of parenting and their fathers or relatives are unwilling to help,” she said.
Experts say more needs to be done to support young parents and reduce the cost of raising children.
For many Chinese, the pressures at the moment are too great.
“No matter how much the government gives me or if it provides a better environment, I wouldn’t choose to have more children,” said Nancy.
“It’s not something that can be solved financially.”