She was supposed to be having an abortion last week: This 39-year-old Chinese woman would lose her hard-earned job at a state-owned company if she had a second child. The date was even marked on her calendar, but she was panicking at the prospect.

Then she spotted rumors online that China was about to abandon its one-child policy after 35 years. It was, she says, "like a life-saving straw." For days, she sat nervously at home watching television, waiting for news.

"When I heard the announcement about the new two-child policy, I cried," she said. "My daughter came in and asked why I was crying, and I told her she was about to have a sister or a brother. She hugged me and cried with me."

Faced with looming workforce shortages and a rapidly aging population, China announced last month that all couples would be allowed to have two children.

Advertisement

The one-child policy had extraordinarily far-reaching effects on Chinese society, and its relaxation marks a historic shift.

The government says 90 million women, half of them in their 40s, will be affected by the change, once the National People's Congress approves a new law next year.

But it has left many women agonizing about choices they made, and the choices ahead of them.

This woman asked not to be identified by name because her story could still land her in trouble at work. A former supervisor had warned her not to become pregnant shortly after hiring her, but she had gone ahead and had a child anyway.

Her current boss, she says, is more tolerant, but state-run companies have strict rules requiring them to fire employees who have a second child.

Even in private companies, many women in China face workplace pressure not to get pregnant, according to women's rights activists, creating potential tensions and tough decisions if they now decide they want a second child.

A poster depicting a mother and child highlighting China's one child policy. Photo / Getty Images
A poster depicting a mother and child highlighting China's one child policy. Photo / Getty Images

"The difficulty for women in employment will increase, and gender discrimination probably will be worse," Wang Pei'an, a spokesman for the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said at a news conference Tuesday, adding that the problem could be addressed through a "joint effort."

The stigma around larger families has been so strong that the 39-year-old woman said she had never even told her college classmates that she had a younger brother.

Advertisement

Gradually, though, after her first daughter was born, she began to envy couples who had two children. Her daughter, too, grew lonely and wanted a sibling.

But the couple decided that they could not disobey the law.

The woman began suspecting that she was pregnant shortly after taking a holiday trip with her husband in southern China last month.

Finally, her husband bought her a pregnancy test. She didn't even want to look at the result.

"I was scared to face it, because I didn't want to make a choice between my child and my job," she said. When it was positive, she said: "It was horrible news, like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky."

And so began the agony of making a decision.

She had grown up in a rural part of China, where boys were considered more important, and girls usually quit their studies after high school. But she had worked hard, gone to college and secured a job she enjoyed at a state-owned company. She was proud, she said, to be an "economically independent woman."

Her husband suggested that she quit her job, offering to help her find another after the baby was born. But she was worried that he could also lose his job if his employer found out. Besides, she was in line for a promotion, and knew it would be hard to find work after a break.

An abortion seemed like her only option.

"I couldn't give it all up for an unborn baby," she said. "I didn't want to be a housewife for the rest of my life."

Gao Yushuang, pictured with her daughter Tang Muti, says she had long wanted to have a second child, but the change in the one-child policy came too late for her. Photo / Washington Post
Gao Yushuang, pictured with her daughter Tang Muti, says she had long wanted to have a second child, but the change in the one-child policy came too late for her. Photo / Washington Post

Gao Yushuang is another 39-year-old mother, with an 8-year-old girl. She had always wanted a second child, an urge so intense that she was ready to break the law. But eventually she decided that her family could not afford a fine of $15,000 to $30,000, on top of the cost of raising a second child. She decided to stick with one.

When she heard on television that the policy was changing, her mother was on the phone even before the anchor had finished speaking.

"She asked: 'What are you waiting for? The policy has changed. You should respond to your country's call.' "

But Gao was not so sure. For her, she said, it felt like the chance had passed.

"If it had happened five years before, everything would have been different," she said. "I would have been more energetic. My parents and in-laws would have been healthier, too. I definitely would have wanted a baby."

Internet searches for pregnancy-related products surged on China's online shopping platforms after the news broke last week, state media reported.

Demographer Lu Jiehua of Peking University warned that many of the women rushing to take advantage of the policy shift would be those born in the 1970s, potentially involving greater health risks for mothers and babies.

For Gao, the balance had shifted. Her parents could become sick at any time, and she thought she lacked the energy to look after and educate another young child, she said.

Then there was the stigma of being an older mother, and a fear that she would spoil the child.

Gao said she didn't go into all of this with her mother. To avoid an argument, she simply said she was too old to have another baby.

The following day, she said, her phone was full of information about the change in government policy.

"It was more stressful than ever," she said. "Everyone was talking about having a second child. It felt like a time bomb. I felt I had betrayed my mother's wishes. I was scared I might regret it one day."

So Gao sat down and wrote her future self a journal, entitled, "Why I don't want a second child."

"If one day my only child leaves me, and I am all alone, I will read the journal, and I will understand why I didn't have a second child, and it will stop me suffering from regret," she said.

"My tears fell when I was writing. The feeling was complicated and bitter."