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I am pregnant with a second child here in Beijing, China. In contrast, I am surrounded by a country of people who, if they have had a child at all, have only ever had one. This is the land of the “one child policy” and, since 1979, families have been relegated to this population control method. As a result, I’m constantly amazed by the variety of responses that my second pregnancy receives.
Without a doubt, the most common response is positive. People are congratulatory and often slightly envious. I overheard a woman speaking about me when I attended a wedding this past weekend. I’m sure she assumed I couldn’t understand her—a familiar assumption—but I directly heard her say, “I’d love to have a second child. Look at her over there with a baby at her feet and another on the way. It would be so nice to have two little ones running around. How joyous!” I smiled at her from across the crowd and she smiled back.
Secondly, people are shocked by the size of me. I’m not that big, I think, but a second pregnancy shows its bump more quickly and Chinese women don’t seem to know that. I have been asked several times if I’m pregnant with twins! My mother-in-law even told me that my belly was too large and I must be eating too much, which is ridiculous considering I’m grateful to not be enlarging so quickly in other bodily regions like I did when I was pregnant the first time!
I just laughed at her, reminding her that the abdomen’s muscles are looser during the second pregnancy since they’ve already experienced the stretching. “This makes the belly more prominent, more quickly” I explained. As is her style, she ignored me by brushing the topic aside, but I know she heard my words and won’t question my belly’s “abnormal” size again.
I have also come to expect a look of shock and horror when I pick up Echo in public. She’s only twenty-one months old and wants to be picked up by Mommy regularly, as does any toddler. She’s even learned to say “up” (with a very pronounced and super cute “p”) and so it would be even harder to resist granting her that request even if I wanted to.
Yesterday, while walking to buy fruit, Echo wanted “up, up, up!” when we were about to leave and I scooped her into my arms before grabbing the bag of fruit off the scale. “Be careful!” the fruit seller chirped, worry raising her pitch. “You’ll crush the baby in your stomach!” Then she directed the next comment to Echo, in that typical passive aggressive Chinese way of giving instructions: “Mommy can’t carry you anymore because she has to protect your little brother or sister!” I quickly intervened, “No, no, it’s no problem, the baby in my belly is just fine!” I said, putting a protective hand on Echo’s back and whispering to her in English, “Mommy can hold you, sweetheart, don’t worry.” I assured the woman that I was not crushing the baby and that women hold their children while pregnant all the time in other countries. She just shook her head. I am already long familiar with the “foreigners-are-so-foolhardy” expression on the faces of locals here.
Then there’s the baby carrier. Related to picking Echo up in my arms, I strap Echo against my body when I need my hands free. What a great invention they are! Only recently have I started to occasionally find her a bit heavy against my bump if the straps aren’t well-adjusted, but it still works reasonably well. When she’s in the carrier, those who are aware of my pregnancy such as some neighbours, vendors in my complex, even the guard at our complex’s gate are horrified to see me place Echo’s weight directly on my belly. They’re convinced I’m endangering the life of this baby in here. Of course, I’m not and the baby is fine. No amount of reassurance will stop them from barking at me regularly. Public scolding dressed in the disguise of “advice giving” is also a common feature in China, especially regarding pregnancy or babies.
Lately, I’ve taken to switching the carrier around so she’s on my back, particularly if Guo Jian or my MIL can help me strap her in before I leave. It works just as well and the bonus is a reduction in the “friendly barking.” She seems to like the new arrangement too and often cuddles her head against my shoulder blades or reaches her little hands around my ribcage like she’s holding on during a fun ride. (I like the feeling of being hugged from behind, too!)
I believe all this trepidation goes back to the one-child policy and how it has resulted in some extreme behaviours regarding child health and safety. There are some glaring exceptions—like the fact that car seats are still not mandatory here—but for the most part Chinese children are hovered over by four grandparents and two parents, like royalty. They must be monitored at every moment for fear that anything will happen to them. After all, they are the only branch on this generation’s family tree, which somehow implies they’re all the more breakable!? <sarcasm intended!>
Thus, when women here are pregnant, they often immediately resign from their jobs (not all of them, of course, but many do if they have the means!), they rarely do anything that requires any “strenuous” movement such as cycling or buying “heavy” fruit or even carrying a guitar on their shoulder en route to a concert—oh the horror! “And you’re still performing? You’re so tough and strong! Chinese women don’t have the same physical stamina and constitution that you foreign women have!” Of course, that’s just not true. When your culture supports you barely lifting a finger during your child’s gestation, it’s no wonder that it’s common for Chinese women are reduced to fragile weaklings during their pregnancies.
So, with this second pregnancy well into its sixth month (exactly 29 weeks today), I’m eager to return to Canada at the end of the month—a place in which pregnant women with other children at their feet are not seen as delinquent for their large bellies or tendency to pick up their toddlers.
There is one assumption people here make that seems to push my buttons the most. It’s the notion that two children are far too much work and a mother simply cannot handle two children without “outside help.” My mother-in-law referenced this just last week when she said that she’d have to have Echo much more often when the new baby arrived because there’s no way I can handle two children on my own.
I turned to her, startled. “Do you mean to say that you think that I can only be the mother to one child at a time?” I didn’t wait for her answer. “These kids need each other just as much as they need their mother.” I said firmly. (Maybe too firmly.) “I won’t be sending Echo to you more often unless it’s a special circumstance, otherwise Echo will get jealous of her little brother and miss her Mommy too much!” I reminded her that she’s part of a generation of women who never had the chance to test their abilities to “handle” two children, but that I am from a culture in which women are often the mothers to multiple kids.
“Trust me. It can be done.” I said. “I have the required skills.”
While I greatly appreciate my mother-in-law’s assistance with child care and will certainly continue the arrangement we have in which our daughter (and soon our son) will spend time with her “nainai” almost daily, I resent the implication that I will be incapable of simultaneously mothering two kids. “Ember Transparency: Lesson #1”: If you want me to prove my worth, just openly question my competence!
But, I know her well enough to know that she wasn’t manipulatively trying to generate my maternal bravado; she simply made an erroneous assumption that stems from a generation ignorant of multiple birth families. It’s not her fault.
So, I hereby acknowledge that I probably over-reacted. Passive aggressive wording is irritating at the best of times, but it’s as much her personality as it is “The Chinese Way.” I have no doubt that my MIL means well and I also know there was some truth to what she was saying: two babies will mean more work. That goes without question.
We’re the most sensitive to the things we fear the most. Part of me is anxious, I must admit. I wonder how I’ll adjust to the addition of another set of baby needs. I’m concerned that I’ll be more tired and/or less functional–worse, less patient with Echo–when I’m back to an irregular newborn’s sleep schedule. But, I also know that these fears are normal. What’s more, I am certain I can handle it. I can handle anything. Once you’ve had one, you can have two. I have a manual!
I’ve tried not to take these things personally and can usually can step back for long enough to succeed.
When I can’t, I write a blog about it!
(And then I feel better.)
This post first appeared on Ember Swift’s website on October 9.
Photo courtesy of Ember Swift
Ember Swift is a Canadian songwriter, musician, writer, cyclist, green thumb, cupcake fan and proud mom living in Beijing with her husband, Guo Jian, and their daughter Echo (born January 2012). They are expecting a second child at the end of 2013. Ember writes professionally for several print and online publications (including beijingkids), as well as three blogs through her own site: www.emberswift.com. She is also an internationally touring musician and performs regularly in China with her all-girl local band. She has released 11 independent musical albums over the years but, these days, prefers to be with her family rather than on the road touring. She continues to release her music online and hopes to have completed her memoir project by the end of 2014.