Culture

Why more women in China are choosing to be single moms

Sep 24, 2019

Surrounded by pink paper cutouts of wiggling sperm, the young, soft-spoken woman in the video boldly declares, “I am a sperm seeker. If you are the one, please contact me.”

Alan, the 28-year-old Beijing artist who made the video, always knew she wanted a baby.

But after four unsuccessful attempts to find a partner online, she realized she didn’t need a man. All she needed was sperm.

“Why do I have to get married before I can have a baby?” she says.

Alan in her video seeking a sperm donor.
Alan in her video seeking a sperm donor. / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Alan’s question is echoed by a small but growing number of women in China who are choosing to become single mothers.

Their decision reflects the newfound confidence of many well-educated and financially independent women, who are rejecting traditional notions of what makes a family and taking control of their reproductive rights.

But their journeys are also filled with hurdles, the result of a conservative society that still hasn’t caught up with them. This stigma is why many women we spoke to, including Alan, requested using pseudonyms instead of their real names.

“Why do I have to get married before I can have a baby?”

Alan, 28

One challenge is a regulation that states only married couples can access reproductive assistance, such as sperm banks and IVF treatments.

As a result, many unmarried women have to take multiple trips to countries such as the United States and Thailand to purchase sperm, extract their eggs, and then implant an embryo.

But Alan says she couldn’t afford the procedure, so she resorted to asking online for a volunteer. She hopes the ad can spur public discussion on the issue.

“What one person goes through is a private matter,” she says, “but if a million people are going through the same thing, then it’s not a private matter anymore. And if nobody talks about it, nothing will change.”

“If nobody talks about it, nothing will change,” says Alan.
“If nobody talks about it, nothing will change,” says Alan. / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

For a long time, the government made it difficult for single mothers to register their kids in the country’s national ID system known as 户口 hukou, which gives them access to schools, health insurance, and other social benefits.

But in recent years, as China’s birth rate has dropped, the government is encouraging more people to give birth.

In 2016, it lifted the decades-old one-child policy, thus allowing people to have two children. It also set clear guidelines for how children of single parents could be registered in the hukou system.

However, single parents are still not eligible for some of the benefits enjoyed by married couples, such as maternity insurance.

On top of that, social prejudices remain.

Social prejudices remain against single mothers in China.
Social prejudices remain against single mothers in China. / Photo: Hanley Chu

Several mothers and activists we spoke to said they believe if a single mom goes public with her story, she risks getting trolled online or even getting fired from her job if she works for the government or at a state-owned company.

Still, some are eager to speak out, partly because they want to normalize the issue.

“I think it is my right to have a child. I don’t need a man’s approval.”

Xiaogunzhu, 38

“I think it is my right to have a child,” says 38-year-old Xiaogunzhu, who asked to go by a pseudonym. “I don’t need a man’s approval.”

Part of the desire to raise children alone stems from growing disillusionment with the institution of marriage.

While marriage rates have been falling for five consecutive years, divorce rates have been edging up, according to data from China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs.

The marriage rate fell from 9.6 per 1,000 people in 2014 to 7.3 per 1,000 in 2018, while divorce rates went up from 2.7 per 1,000 people to 3.2 in that same period.

“When I look at her generation, a lot of people get married, and then divorce very quickly,” says Xiaogunzhu’s 66-year-old mother.

(Read more: Why Chinese millennials are saying no to marriage)

Many single mothers believe marriage does not guarantee the husband will be a good father, an opinion reflected in the phrase “widowed parenting” (丧偶式育儿), which describes families where the father is so absent in child care that the mother might as well be widowed.

Chris, 43, with her child in Shanghai. Despite the odds, more women in China are choosing to become single moms.
Chris, 43, with her child in Shanghai. Despite the odds, more women in China are choosing to become single moms. / Photo: Beimeng Fu

Chris, 43, found out she was pregnant a day after breaking up with her boyfriend. She chose to go ahead with the pregnancy anyway, an unconventional choice in a society where most women either seek an abortion or marry the father in cases of accidental pregnancies.

“I can accept raising a kid alone, but I can’t accept forming a family with someone I don’t love.”

Chris, 43

“I can accept raising a kid alone,” Chris says, “but I can’t accept forming a family with someone I don’t love.”

Chris says she’ll be open with her child about their family’s circumstances.
Chris says she’ll be open with her child about their family’s circumstances. / Photo: Beimeng Fu

She says she’s ready to fend off questions from friends and strangers about her family, including questions about why the child doesn’t have a father.

“I think I’ll just be honest with my child,” she says. “As he gets older and understands more things, I’ll slowly explain it to him.”

This is also the approach that Alan wants to take with her future child.

Since putting up the ad in January, she’s received dozens of messages from men.

Most were just curious about what she was doing, Alan says, but she’s also met with a few potential donors whom she thought might be suitable.

But after chatting with them, Alan says none of them felt right.

Recently, though, Alan told us she did find someone—and she is now pregnant with his child.

Alan recently told us that she is pregnant.
Alan recently told us that she is pregnant. / Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The baby’s father is a longtime friend who helped her make the sperm-seeking ad. They are also now dating.

“I’m finally pregnant,” she texted us last week. “I’m very happy that my wish came true. I feel very calm. I felt like this was just one of the only things I needed to do, and this is it.”

She added that the pregnancy hasn’t changed her stance on marriage.

“We are not against marriage,” she wrote, “but at the moment, we don’t know if we will get married or if we do, when.”

“We have a consensus that any choice we make will be motivated by our own selves, so there is no way we will get married just because of the baby.”

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Credit

Producer and Host: Venus Wu

Videographers: Beimeng Fu, George Zhi Zhao, and Hanley Chu

Editor and Mastering: Joel Roche