How China’s one child policy is affecting my family life in Europe

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My husband was born in 1981 in Beijing. Back in those days, the one-child policy was something new, and especially in the capital where the enforcing of this policy was very strict.

My mother-in-law had to prove to her dānwèi, her work unit, that she in fact had not gotten pregnant when that time of the month came. But as people’s lives go, she really wanted to have another baby, and nature ran it’s course. When she couldn’t provide the evidence of her monthly flow, she was given a choice: keep the baby but lose her job, or keep her job but lose the baby. As she and my father-in-law had met at work, this would mean both of them losing their jobs, thus not being able to provide for the desired family of four. The choice was made quickly and with regret. My husband remained an only child.

It’s almost four decades later, and now we have encountered one of the many side-effects of China’s one child policy.

Should we stay or should we go?

After having lived together in China for six years, my husband and I have decided that it’s time to move to Europe. There are many reasons for this, which I could fill a totally different blog post with. The main reason being that we are a little family of three ourselves now, and we feel the environment in Europe is better suited to raise a child. We’re both looking forward to what for my husband will be a new start, and for me a return back home.

There is just one thing that darkens our upcoming adventure: my father-in-law passed away ten years ago, leaving my mother-in-law widowed. This means that if my husband emigrates, he leaves behind an aging, lonely mother.

The importance of filial piety

I’m sure we will make this work, after all moving to Europe doesn’t mean we won’t be able to see my mother-in-law ever again, and she can visit us for longer stretches of time as well. She’s actually looking forward to seeing another continent for the first time in her life and has already applied for a passport.

But still, as a Chinese man who strongly believes in filial piety, this poses an almost impossible dillema for my husband. As a good son he wants to take good care of his mother, especially as she has to miss the support of a husband. And as the loving husband he is himself, he wants to live in the environment that we feel is best for our family. He says that if he would have had a brother or sister he wouldn’t feel as bad about leaving China, as he would know his mother would be taken care of. But due to my husband being born right when the one-child policy was enforced strictly, this sibling is missing. Thus putting all the burden on my husband alone.

Who would have thought that the one-child policy would be affecting the decisions half-Chinese families make for their future? It’s something I’m sure they didn’t foresee when they implemented the policy back in the 1980’s.

Judith in China


  1. Hi Judith,
    We experience a very similar dilemma. The difference is, that we have never lived together in China. I met my husband in Europe and we only went to visit his family in China. When we were thinking about having a child, which meant for us staying in Europe it became clear for my husband that he needed to choose either his family in Europe or his parents in China. This was very difficult but since he has lived in Europe for over 12 years now he cannot really imagine a live in China anymore. So last year we had our son and we hope that we figure out everything in time e.g. what happens with his parents when they get older. What are you going to do when your mother in law cannot travel anymore?

    1. I think my husband will be travelling to China quite a bit in the years to come. And in the longer run, we’ll have to see if we can get a nurse (baomu) to live with MIL, or visit her several times a week at least.

  2. Very interesting article Judith! I think it’s wise that the three of you start new as you have lived in China for six years, and want to give living in Europe a chance. Is it possible that another relative could care for your MIL, or you could hire a nurse to care for her? It’s interesting how government decisions can be seen as a good thing in the present, but can actually case more harm then good for the future!

    1. Yes, MIL has thought about hiring a nurse (baomu) or even live in an elderly care center in the longer run. Especially the second option sounds good, as she’d be surrounded by people of her own age, and would have more people to talk to. But we’ll have to see how all of this works out in the longer run.

  3. I think about this constantly with how the one child policy affected people so greatly and don’t realize the pressure it has on people who are the only child in their family. Thank you for sharing your POV on this. From my understanding and readings on why most Chinese men are discouraged to marry with foreign girls has to do with the fact that they’re the only son in their family.

    Enjoyed this piece a lot.

    1. Yes, this is only one side-effect of the one-child policy that I happen to experience first-hand, but there is more! I think it’s a very current topic, and valid for many of us probably, not just WWAM but also AFWM couples. Glad to hear that you enjoyed this contribution 🙂

  4. There are many things the government didn’t consider when they made that law. 🙁 gender gap is an even bigger issue, since you know, you need women to survive, since it’s currently near impossible for men to give birth.

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