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Cities under siege: the ins and outs of marriage



Oct 25, 2020, 17:11

Shen Ke, 40, says they are like angels "only when they are asleep ... otherwise they are almost unbearable".

She is talking of her two children, to whose care she has almost totally devoted herself since she quit her job with an internet company in Beijing in 2018. During the peak of the pandemic in the city, students were not allowed to attend school, and Shen feels her workload has doubled.

In the morning she wakes up her daughter, 8, and son, 4, to have breakfast. She then supervises the girl's studies. Now and then the boy runs about shouting, and the sister protests that he's too noisy.

Shen says she has tried various things to keep them quiet or at least leave her in peace for a while, but none seems to work for more than 30 minutes.

"Staying with children all day long can give you a heart attack," she jokes.

After dinner the three take a walk in a nearby park for about an hour, and then she gets them to take a shower. The final chores of the day are arranging the next day's study plan for the girl, and reading the boy a bedtime story.

When the clock strikes 11 she begins her paid work, writing education-related stories for her WeChat account and providing advice online for mothers. She often goes to bed at 5 am or 6 am, she says, and gets up at 9:30.

Life changed drastically after her daughter was born, she says. She and her then boyfriend, to whom she is now married, like adventure, and often went traveling on impulse. For their honeymoon they flew to Lhasa, Tibet autonomous region, and Gannan Tibet autonomous prefecture in Gansu province, two plateau areas.

Big change happened when she was pregnant because she felt more dependent on her husband, she says.

"We spent more time together and quarreled less."

After giving birth to her daughter, she continuously felt upset, anxious and angry, and thought of running away from home, she says, something she now puts down to postpartum depression.

Every time she looks at her children she knew "there is someone closely bonded with me through blood", she says.

"That thought has helped me get through difficult times."

Motherhood has given her more patience and reduced her fears, she says. She used to be afraid of heights and once had to accompany her daughter in a game-to walk across a steel wire that was three-stories high.

She jogs every night and does physical exercise so she can "live longer for my children", she days.

"After all, when my son reaches 18 I will be 54."

She says that an ideal future would be her children growing up happily, her parents and parents-in-law staying healthy, and her marriage remaining stable.

She plans to open an infant school some day, she says.

"In my 70s and 80s I still want to learn new things and to have a passion for life."

Li Tao, 43, says marriage, as with numerous contracts she has signed, should have an expiry date.

"Two young people get together under the influence of hormones, but when the firework of passion fades, pleasure decreases."

Li, who owns an investment consultancy in Hong Kong, a luxury products maintenance company, as well as a dozen factories and stores in Shanghai, says many of her peers do not believe she is married and is a mother, because she works day and night, makes quick decisions and seldom talks about her private life.

At the age of 27 she married a classmate she had known as a teenager. Four years later they had a baby girl. At the time, everything seemed perfect because the business was expanding and she was happy in motherhood, even though from time to time she and her husband disagreed on how their girl should be raised.

They separated and divorced in 2018 after what she says was a bad decision by her husband led to the company-and the family-losing a lot of money. Li says she is still working 300 percent harder than she used to to clear up the mess. She would not encourage young women to marry, she says, because marriage, as the novelist Qian Zhongshu put it, is like a city under siege: those inside want to get out, and those outside want to get in.

"It's not right to join in wedlock just to fertilize at a younger age. Instead you have to convince yourself that you really want to be with this person."

Males often face financial pressures when they seek a spouse, but the expectations on women are more stringent: what is wanted is a good daughter, wife and mother, and at the same time someone who will balance work and family well.

A Chinese saying has it that "A woman without a child is not complete", something Li disagrees with. "Everyone is complete from when they are born until when they die. A woman does not need another person to supplement herself."

However, motherhood gives her a lot of joy, she says.

"When the nurse handed over the infant into my arms it was as though electricity was running through my heart," says Li, speaking of when she gave birth, at the age of 31, to her daughter.

"It was similar when I had my first period: from then on I would never be the same again."

She decided not to go on business trips until the girl turned 3, because she wants to see her every day, she says.

She and her daughter, now a middle school student, are like friends. They chat for about an hour every night and arrange a trip of two or three weeks in summer and winter. She draws a clear line between work and time spent with her daughter.

The divorce has not affected her strongly either, she says.

"Society is advancing and giving more room for individual choice. In the 1960s, those wanting a divorce needed permission from their employer. Now women can even give birth to children out of wedlock."

In fact the word divorcee is old-fashioned, she says.

"There are just two statuses: being single and being married."

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