Five days after my wedding ceremony in China, my Chinese mother-in-law sat down with me to do “the talk.” No, it wasn’t that kind of talk. It was about…well…children.
“You have to have a child, and earlier is better,” she said, flashing me a nervous smile.
“But we can’t,” I pleaded. “I’m the primary earner in our family. John still isn’t in school yet, and we’re just trying to survive right now.”
Apparently, the only survival she had on her mind was of our future children. “People in China will have more than one child. Even if they have to pay the big fine, they’ll do it.”
“Right now isn’t the right time. How are we going to raise it?”
“You have the baby, and I’ll raise it for you until it is three years old.” I groaned inside. Not only was she challenging my reproductive choices, but she also challenged my ideas of how a child should be raised.
I tried to tell her how I was working for myself, how I had terrible health insurance, and, again, how hard things were for John and I. But she didn’t hear any of it. She saw a woman before her, her new daughter-in-law, with a healthy smile and empty uterus.
In the end, she had the last word. “Chinese people must have children — it’s part of the culture.”
Sometimes, I cannot believe I married into this family. That’s not because I regret it. I don’t, because I love my husband with all my heart, and I love his family too. It’s just ironic, on a personal level. Here I am, a girl who never had a strong “maternal instinct” or drive to have children, in a family and culture that sees pregnancy and birth as a prerequisite, instead of an elective.
The hardest was this past summer in China. My Chinese mother-in-law brought it up once again — it was less of an admonition and more a friendly reminder. I think she is beginning to understand the pressure we have. Still, I felt depressed on one level. I imagined that my Chinese mother-in-law thought me especially unfilial. No child yet, from the one daughter-in-law who could, conceivably, have as many as she wanted. My uterus is like prime real estate that I haven’t even bothered to rent out or sell.
We don’t plan on having children right now — at least, not while John’s getting his Ph.D. But when he’s done, my time is up. I’ll have no more reasons why I can’t have a child. In my darkest times, it frightens me.
John has always wanted children. And why shouldn’t he? He is a Chinese. Having ancestors is one of the most important things in a Chinese family — this is why the Chinese love children so much. I wonder why, oh why, did the “love children” gene somehow skip me?
Before John got into a Ph.D. program, there have been times when I lost it with him. It’s not a good idea to get into a conversation about having children if 1) you’re not ready yet and 2) you’re facing uncertainty (i.e. trying to help your husband get into graduate school). But we did. I’ve always regretted those conversations, because they seem to forget the ultimate truth in our relationship — that we love each other deeply.
On the other hand, I find consolation in my Chinese husband. He is truly a singular man in so many ways — so gentle, understanding, and thoughtful. But he also has something a lot of Chinese husbands don’t: he knows how to raise children. How? Through his psychology program. Just this past semester, he has helped families manage and change the problem behavior of their very young children. If we have children, he’s going to be there to make it easier for me, and to help me do the right things as a parent. When I think about that, I’m not so scared anymore about fulfilling my responsibility as a daughter-in-law in a Chinese family…
At least, not until I see another explosively pregnant mom with three children tugging on her pants.
Have you ever gotten “the baby talk” from your Chinese mother-in-law? Are you — or were you — ever worried about this must-do for every wife of a Chinese man? Or, if you’re Chinese, how did your foreign wife take this? I’d love to hear from you.
P.S.: If you’re wondering, “zao sheng guizi” is written 早生贵子, and means “may you have a son soon.”