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Lawmakers are trying to address childcare issues and how to raise the status of stay-at-home parents, while others call for long-term solutions like women-friendly workplaces

By Wu Jin , Chen Weijing Updated Jun.1

A young mother exercises with her child on the lakeside causeway of Zhangze Lake Wetland Reserve, Changzhi, Shanxi Province, March 26

A full day of childcare, cleaning house and cooking three meals is no less challenging than a 9-to-5 office job.  

But as these contributions have long been taken for granted in traditional Chinese households, full-time parents, particularly women, lack financial independence and face social inequality. These issues might deter women from having children, a serious concern for China as it faces a declining birthrate and an aging population.  

In early March, the country’s policymakers addressed these challenges during the two annual political sessions, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).  

Huang Qi, CPPCC delegate and deputy chairman of the All-China Women’s Federation Shanghai, proposed improvements to a divorce provision that makes those who give up careers to care for family eligible for compensation and half their spouse’s assets. The Civil Code provision, ratified on January 1, 2021, extends a Marriage Law amendment from 2001 that grants compensation on condition that the couple’s assets are clearly separate, something Chinese households rarely follow.  

Executing these changes remains difficult, as those seeking divorce often have difficulty proving household contributions beyond money. “Today, courts are reluctant to include such compensation in divorce lawsuits. If they do, the reimbursements are not enough,” Huang said. 

Advocates like Huang are calling for more support policies for full-time caregivers, particularly homemakers, so their contributions to family and society receive the recognition they deserve. 

Far from Enough 
Precedent for the new Civil Code provision was set in a divorce ruling on February 4, 2021 between a housewife surnamed Wang and her ex-husband surnamed Chen, who were married for five years. In addition to halving their assets, the court in southwestern Beijing’s Fangshan District ordered Chen to compensate Wang 50,000 yuan (US$7,845) for her work as a full-time caregiver for the family.  

Average personal consumption in Beijing hit 43,640 yuan (US$6,847) in 2021, slightly less than the compensation granted to Wang.  

Many criticized the ruling given Beijing’s high cost of living. A widely circulated comment on social media called the decision “not very harsh but extremely insulting.” 
In response, Feng Miao, the presiding judge said: “The compensation, which considers the length of their marriage, the actual labor the woman performed, the man’s income and local economic conditions, is calculated in a reasonable way and within the judge’s discretionary power.”  

Feng also said housekeeping cannot be fully evaluated without considering its intangible contributions to other members of the family in terms of free time, school and work opportunities. However, Huang Qi pointed out these are difficult to quantify, and courts often reject evaluations not only because they are not impartial, but also inseparable from the interests of the family unit.  

According to data on China Judgments Online, a court records database, such compensation is rare and far from enough. For example, in 2021, a full-time mother in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province who sought 190,000 yuan (US$29,811) in compensation after ending her three-year marriage was only awarded 15,000 yuan (US$2,354). 

Tough Choices 
Li Ying, director of Yuanzhong Family and Community Service Center, a non-profit in Beijing, said compensation should not be limited to divorce proceedings. For example, those who quit their jobs to care for incapacitated family members should be eligible for compensation without having to legally divorce.  

To address this ambiguity, Wei Zhenling, CPPCC delegate and deputy chief procurator in Liuzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, proposed during the March two sessions to set wage rates for domestic work and childcare that would count toward social insurance.  

Wei said China can explore policies that require breadwinners to give a fixed share of the family income to spouses who give up work to take care of children or elderly family members. Also, stay-at-home spouses would be eligible for tax reductions or exemptions on their individual incomes.  

“I’d rather feel good about myself than have social recognition. I want to stay at home and raise my child, so I don’t regret my choice,” Wang Meng, a 40-year-old mother with a daughter, told NewsChina. Wang, who holds a graduate degree in power system automation from China Agriculture University, said her child’s development is most important and welcomes making full-time parenting a wage-earning profession.  

If adopted, the policy would particularly benefit single-income families facing financial pressure. Li Xiaoqun, a 39-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism living in Beijing, has been a stay-at-home mom for eight years since the birth of her son.  

“I decided to quit my job to raise my son because nannies are really expensive and I want to create a close mother-son bond, which is important to a child’s growth,” she said.  

She also had little support from her parents and in-laws, who traditionally help out with caring for young children. Her parents live in their native Zhejiang Province and are unaccustomed to life in Beijing. Her mother-in-law returned to her home in nearby Hebei Province when Li’s son was a few months old, as living together 24-hours a day was a challenge for everyone.  

Without a second income, Li said money became tight. “I started selling cosmetics on WeChat three years ago, but business wasn’t good because e-commerce is past its peak.”  

A full-time father in Beijing who requested anonymity told NewsChina that while support policies for full-time mothers and fathers would ease family financial burdens, direct government subsidies for children would do more to increase birth rates.  

“When parents quit their jobs, they give up chances for personal development through schooling or career,” Huang Qi said. 

Mothers take in some sun with their children, Jinhua, Zhejiang Province, March 14, 2017

Wang Huisen plays with his daughter at home, July, 26, 2017. He quit his job in 2015 to become a full-time father

Continued Careers 
Beyond financial support, many full-time parents need support systems and ways to reenter the workforce. The full-time father said he plans to work in education in a few years.  

“My child isn’t the only one I am supposed to live for,” Li said. “I need to do something, otherwise I will lose my ability to socialize and my feelings of isolation will do more harm than good to my son.”  

Generally, women in China face greater challenges in reentering the workforce after having children, such as expectations to juggle their career with childcare. Addressing this double-standard, Li said a maternity-friendly workplace with flexible work hours would be much more valuable than compensation or labor policy changes.  

“The three-child policy has already created enough barriers for women to get employed. We don’t need more policies to make people think the best workplaces for women are their homes,” Li told NewsChina.  

Wu Xiaona, a young full-time mother of two in Haikou, capital of South China’s Hainan Province, is now busy studying to take the postgraduate entrance exam for psychology.  

Wu said she began thinking about her career and building her independence after she discovered her husband was cheating while she was expecting their second child.  

“I don’t want to squander my life on family chores, which usually revolve around husband and children. I love books, movies, music and sports, and I am not the kind of woman to spend most of her time serving the family and has a bit left over for square dancing,” Wu told NewsChina.  

“I want to pursue a sustainable career like a counselor, which I can adjust as I get older. Besides, the job provides a flexible schedule, giving me enough time to spend with my family,” she added.  

Cities in China have seen a growing number of young full-time parents over the past few years, according to the White Paper on Chinese Families’ Ways in Rearing Children, released in 2019 by Babytree, an e-commerce platform for new mothers, newborns and young children. Eighty-two percent of respondents were women 24 and under.  

Li said she opened a nursery in her community with other mothers, but they closed it quickly due to a lack of support.  

CPPCC delegate Wei called for more policies to ensure full-time parents, especially mothers, have easier ways to rejoin the workforce. Wei advised the government to set up systems for employers to allow extended leaves of absence for maternity or family obligations. She also suggested tax incentives for enterprises that rehire such employees.  

Wei said the Ministry of Civil Affairs should take the lead and coordinate efforts with organizations such as the All-China Women’s Federation and All-China Federation of Trade Unions to assess eldercare and childcare needs before establishing systems aiming to ensure the interests of caregivers and maintain family stability.  

But opportunities for working mothers in China remain scarce. While on her last job hunt, Li said some recruiters told her they only hired men. “I hope full-time parents, especially mothers, can eventually enjoy equal access to social insurance and female-friendly job opportunities,” she said.  

“Besides, I’m looking forward to reopening the nursery, which is a business idea I had with other full-time mothers to look after the toddlers of our community. In doing so, parents can work without being distracted and we’re paid for our efforts.”