With the country’s birth rate in a free fall, in recent years the Chinese government has made repeated adjustments to its longstanding family planning policies. The biggest of these came in 2015, when the country formally allowed all couples to have a second child. But the ensuing baby boom proved short lived. This year, policymakers upped the maximum number of children allowed to three — and rolled out major reforms aimed at “optimizing birth policies and promoting long-term balanced population development.”
The new policies have sparked widespread discussion and interest within China, but one group has largely been left out of the debate: single mothers.
Long marginalized in mainstream discourse, many single mothers hope the new, looser family planning policy will result in better protections of their rights and interests. Previous revisions of national family planning policy have all stipulated that the right to start a family belongs to “a husband and wife.” Although some scholars argue that, under China’s Civil Code, “everything which is not explicitly forbidden is allowed,” in reality, many provinces and municipalities regard out-of-wedlock childbirth as a violation of the family planning policy. Single mothers and their children have long been subject to various degrees of punishment; for example, many of them encounter difficulties in obtaining the proper hukou household registration, which is required to enroll in school.
Local governments that have taken tentative steps toward supporting out-of-wedlock childbirth often find themselves the target of public criticism. Take the northeastern Jilin province, for example. In 2002, provincial authorities revised local population and family planning regulations to allow childless women of marriageable age, but who do not want to get married, to give birth to a child through legal assisted reproductive technology. In reality, the policy was not much of a breakthrough. Although the clause appears to affirm the reproductive rights of single women, it nonetheless imposes stringent conditions on them, implying that they may only give birth if they have decided never to marry, and only then through human-assisted reproductive technologies. On top of that, there are questions as to whether reproductive technologies can be lawfully provided to single people in China, making the requirement that such assistance be “legal” an almost insurmountable hurdle.
Yet, if Jilin’s amendment was largely toothless, it nevertheless sparked huge controversy among the public and in academic circles. Women who give birth out of wedlock are widely stigmatized in Chinese culture, in which marriage and childbearing remain inextricably linked. In 2004, there was a massive debate on the popular online forum Tianya over whether Chinese society could ever “accommodate” single mothers. The vast majority of users said no, with only a few scattered voices arguing in their favor.
Since then, a few individuals have braved criticism to push the boundaries of social acceptability. In 2006, a woman who had broken up with her boyfriend and was preparing to give birth alone started a blog to document her experiences. Posting under the name Diguazhu, or “Sweet Potato Pig,” her site quickly attracted widespread attention — much of it negative. Many of the comments argued that single motherhood was bad for the child, as it would deprive them of a father figure and adversely affect their development. Any woman who chooses to have a baby in the absence of a male partner, the comments argued, is selfish.
A decade later, policies and public attitudes had softened somewhat. In 2016, the Chinese government clarified that children born out of wedlock were still eligible for a hukou. The following year, a grassroots advocacy group published a “Survey on the Legal Rights of Single Mothers in China.” Of the survey’s 2,801 respondents, 87% expressed support for single mothers, and 59% described their stance as “very supportive.”
Yet the public’s tolerance for single motherhood may be conditional: In online discussions, even many proponents frame single motherhood as either a collaborative effort between a single woman and a single man, or as something that a single woman enters into on her own, intentionally and with medical assistance. In practice, the circumstances surrounding single motherhood are far more diverse. From the perspective of reproductive rights, single women who give birth to children by married men should be just as deserving of protection as anyone else.
Meanwhile, as policymakers shift from restricting childbirth to promoting it, married parents have gained access to a stronger social safety net, much of which remains off limits for their single or unmarried counterparts. Even in the relatively more liberal southern province of Guangdong, which removed a major procedural obstacle to single mothers applying for maternity benefits as early as 2016, the policy has been plagued by contradictory directives and administrative practices. Some local officials, for example, simply turn away single mothers who try to apply for maternity benefits.
Single mothers in Shanghai face similar challenges. In December 2020, the Shanghai Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau stopped checking whether applicants for maternity benefits met the requirements of current family planning policies. Soon after, single mothers discovered that they could successfully apply for maternity benefits without submitting a marriage certificate. The news was widely covered by Chinese media, but some single mothers have since reported that their applications for benefits were rejected. There is still much uncertainty surrounding single mothers’ legal status and their — or their children’s — eligibility for other forms of social security.
In the case of both Guangdong and Shanghai, single mothers were the beneficiaries, not of new policies explicitly aimed at improving their lives, but of simplified bureaucratic procedures, which opened up opportunities for them to access benefits they had previously been denied. This kind of progress is fragile, however, and far from guaranteed.
Conflicting societal views of single motherhood stem from the tension between China’s shifting population policies and traditional values. The loosening of childbirth restrictions has provided an opening for single mothers, as many of the barriers and penalties they once faced are removed from the books. However, the power of traditional family values remains strong, and policymakers often prefer to dance around the issue of single motherhood, signaling that it is neither permitted nor forbidden.
Policymakers’ silence only exacerbates the stigma surrounding unmarried mothering, influencing the decisions that individuals make regarding marriage and childbirth. Studies have shown that, although cohabitation and unmarried pregnancies are on the rise in China, unmarried pregnancies are still more likely to lead to “shotgun weddings” in China than in the West — and those who don’t get married are very likely to get an abortion instead.
We all pay the price for the persistence of the stigma attached to single motherhood. Though shotgun weddings may be one way for couples to avoid discrimination, rushing unprepared into marriage is hardly the foundation of a successful, happy union. Meanwhile, surveys show that Chinese women — especially urban women — are marrying later. In Shanghai, the average age at which women marry for the first time is now 29, up from 23 in 2005. As many women still prefer to get married before having kids, the delay in the age of first marriages has been accompanied by the delay of parenthood, which runs contrary to the government’s desire to encourage childbirth.
If unmarried mothers are to become a new point of growth for China’s population, we need to deconstruct the institutional and cultural ties between marriage and childbirth in favor of a more pluralistic idea of family — one that recognizes the validity of unmarried mothers’ life choices. Single mothers not only take on the responsibility of raising a child alone, but also currently endure widespread discrimination and prejudice. We must find a way to provide them with the support and services they are entitled to — and mitigate the ongoing social and political stigma they face as a result of their reproductive choices.