Rather than pushing China to adopt more progressive views, though, Yang worries, the two-child policy may espouse greater inequalities. “[Women] still suffer from many traditional pressures,” she said.
There are incremental moves by the government to improve the conditions for women in the delivery room. Last fall, the government launched a pilot program offering “pain-free births”—epidurals—in select hospitals, which are currently given to around 10 percent of women who have natural births. The issue received attention after a 26-year-old pregnant woman jumped to her death after being denied a C-section, prompting an outpouring of anger from women on the Chinese internet.
Months later, the China Family Planning Association announced a plan to provide early childhood development programs and maternal health checks online.
But efforts to make motherhood more enticing may not produce the intended fertility boom without corresponding social changes, which women have started to push for on their terms, too.
When she got pregnant with her second child earlier this year, Mao was adamant she didn’t want to have the same birthing experience as with her first baby. Instead, like others in her cohort, she opted for a new-age center for her sitting month, the kind that came with balloons after birth and postpartum activities like poetry readings. When she talks about it, Mao shows a video on her phone of a group of postpartum nurses gathered around her bedside in a brightly lit room.
She said she didn’t experience postpartum depression symptoms the second time around, which she attributes partly to knowing what to expect this time before it happened. She also doesn’t explicitly blame her depressive symptoms the first time on the conditions of her sitting month, or the divergent parenting styles of her in-laws.
But she does say that the pressures she felt to keep with custom and act like a good daughter-in-law pushed her to keep her feelings to herself. Alongside messages of support in the comment section of Mao’s CCTV feature, there are also sentiments suggesting mothers should find their own cures for emotional woes, as Mao tried to do.
Her parents-in-law were upset at first when they heard she didn’t want to spend her second postpartum months in their home. “It’s not proper,” her father-in-law Pei Zhongpin said when I visited Mao’s parents-in-law in Heze. But they also freely admit they were unaware of what Mao was going through, and if they had known, they would have had no idea how to talk about it.
After Mao’s interview came out, Zhao said she was proud of her daughter-in-law, and shared the knitting video with friends, but didn’t usually bring up the part about Mao’s depression. At the time Mao was living with her, Zhao had an inkling that her sudden mood change might be something more serious. But she’d only heard about postpartum depression in extreme forms and didn’t want to mention it out of fear those extremes could manifest.
Yuan also had a better birthing experience the second time around—she already had one healthy son, Kangbao, meaning “healthy baby,” which she thinks helped her through it. Her second son is appropriately named Shunshun, which roughly translates to “everything goes smoothly and well.”
Mao and Yuan don’t see each other much now that they’re not in the knitting group together anymore. Plus, they each have two kids to take care of, which keeps them mostly on their respective sides of town. Neither of them has gone back to work after having their babies, but they both have other things that keep them busy; Mao has started a page online to sell her knitted designs. Yuan volunteers at the Chinese Red Cross during her free time.
They’re happy to have each other to empathize with, though. They send each other WeChat messages, and they stay in touch through social media—which, for now, is a big part of the safety net for moms. They’ve learned that heavy feelings can be blunted if shared and that they’re allowed to talk, if only to each other, about how they want motherhood in China to look. “Most mothers are taking this matter on by themselves,” Mao said. “I hope that our society can pay more attention.”
This work was supported by a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Additional reporting by Jaime Chu.
Correction, Dec. 2, 2019: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misidentified Wang Ziwen as Maog Ziwen.