03 December 2012

Just Us Two 二人世界

One of the advantages of living in the 21st Century is that we get to choose the way we live our lives. When it comes to love and marriage, some stick to the white picket fence, while others cohabit without ever tying the knot. Still others stay blissfully single for life, free as birds. Same sex couples, ever the scourge of conservative society, can now legally marry in eleven countries and several American states. It is therefore all the more surprising that, in our age of live-and-let-live sexual liberation, one segment of society continues to be stigmatized by a stubborn social prejudice: married couples without children.

No longer the only way to happiness

I am not talking about infertile people who can’t bear children – they get their fair share of pitiful looks from friends along with unsolicited advice on how to raise their sperm count. I am referring to married folks who, for financial, emotional or philosophical reasons, decide to stay child-free. While no one ever questions why we want children, those who choose not to have them are constantly put on the defensive. The procreative presumption is so ingrained in our collective psyche that we are puzzled by, and feel sorry for, couples that go against the grain. We view their lives as incomplete, empty and devoid of meaning. We brand them as Peter Pans who have chosen fun over responsibility, who have gotten their priorities mixed up, and who are bound to regret their decision later in life. Saddled by evolution with the burden of childbirth, women bear the brunt of this social stigma. The notion that “you are not a woman until you are a mother” marginalizes and disempowers childless women. Ironically, the hardest part about being a single woman – the Samantha Joneses of the world – is not so much the lack of a husband to take care of her as it is the lack of a child for her to take care of. No matter how she raves about the single life, the discussion will always end with a question she can’t answer: “But don’t you like children?”

There are even self-help books

The social pressure to procreate, one of the last bastions of acceptable prejudice, can be traced to the traditional agrarian society, where bigger families meant more manpower in the wheat fields or rice paddies. For wealthier folks, more children – in particular more sons – meant a larger share of the family estate. In feudal China, few blessings were more coveted and flaunted than multiple generations living under the same roof. The Chinese character hao, which means good or well, is made up of the pictograms for son and daughter. In the modern world, children remain an important part of the economic equation. Even in the age of 401(k) and MPF, children are still regarded as our most dependable retirement plan and insurance policy. Having multiple kids helps diversify the parenting portfolio and hedge their sector risk, in case one of them gives up business school and majors in theatre. 

"The more the merrier" is a medieval concept

Entrenched social norms notwithstanding, there are signs that the balance is beginning to tip. As our society becomes more affluent and its citizens more individualistic, married couples are increasingly aware of the enormous opportunity cost of having children. The truth is, raising kids involves big sacrifices and irreversible changes to our carefully crafted lives. According to libertarian writer Ayn Rand, parents become “sacrificial animals” who no longer live their own lives for themselves. That’s just a fancy way of saying: “Honey, we haven’t gone to the movies in years.” Indeed, parents put off their personal aspirations, whether it is taking up ballroom dancing or writing a novel, until their children turn 18. Worse, the burden of child-rearing falls disproportionately on women, as they are the default caregivers in most, if not all, cultures. In addition to the physical toll a nine-month pregnancy may take on their bodies, women are expected to slow down their careers or give them up altogether.

Off the bucket list

In cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, the burden on women is mitigated by the availability of affordable domestic help. Migrant workers from the Philippines and Indonesia free mothers from their child-rearing responsibilities and enable them to re-enter the workforce weeks after their pregnancy. Despite this advantage, Hong Kong and Singapore have the lowest fertility rates in the world, according to a study by the U.S. government. In Singapore, for instance, there is less than one birth for every woman, the lowest among the 223 countries surveyed in the study. Money seems to be the biggest factor at play. In much of the developed world, the desire to procreate rises and falls with the economic cycle, making birth rate the ultimate consumer confidence index. For instance, Hong Kong’s fertility rate dipped during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and plunged again during the SARS outbreak in 2003. Likewise, the United States has seen a sharp decline in the number of births per woman since the Great Recession began in 2008. To many would-be parents, making babies is all about dollars and cents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the cost of raising a child in America, excluding the cost of university education, is around US$250,000. Factoring in four years of college tuition, the total cost can easily top half a million.

Child-free nations

Having children is expensive, and no one knows that better than parents in Hong Kong. In an ultra-competitive society where an over-achieving child is the parents’ weapon of choice, victory is defined by which private schools and overseas universities the mini-warriors attend. To keep with up the Wongs, children are put through endless piano lessons, ballet classes and karate practices, all of which can add up to a fortune. One local economist puts the cost of raising a child in Hong Kong at $5 million (around US$645,000). And that doesn’t include the sky-high rent many parents pay just to live in a sought-after school district like Midlevels or Kowloon Tong. Considering that the median family income in the city is just over $20,000, it is little wonder that Hong Kongers think thrice before having a child. 

Over-zealous Hong Kong parents

The crushing financial burden of child-rearing is often accompanied by an emotional one. The spectre of birth defects, autism and other health concerns sends chills down the spine of every prospective parent. Even a fever is enough to send new parents to the emergency room and into a tizzy. Then there are the worries about grades, friends, alcohol and drugs. It’s enough to make married couples question whether they are cut out for the job in the first place. And when the children are finally out in the real world, those Gen-Yers and Gen-Zers seem incapable of holding down a steady job, many of whom continue to live off their parents well into their 20s and 30s. So much for a dependable retirement plan.

Do you trust him for your retirement?

I am constantly struck by the number of married couples I know who have chosen not to have children. These free spirits prefer climbing the corporate ladder and travelling to far-flung corners of the world over adhering to social conventions. We call them “DINKS” (dual-income-no-kids), the demographic that luxury car makers and real estate agents salivate over. They represent a new generation of men and women who enjoy their lifestyle too much to give it up, who realize that having children is not a prerequisite for a full and happy life. They have weighed all the pros and cons and thought long and hard before making the most important decision in their lives, one that warrants respect and not justification.

How do you see them?

Procreation is a matter of choice, and it is an intensely personal one. To every friend or co-worker who badgers you and your spouse for not having children, the appropriate response should be “why did you choose to have children?” It’s about time you turned the tables on those who so chivalrously decide to bring a new life into our complicated world without another thought. It’s about time you put the onus on them to explain whether their procreative motive is based on narcissism, boredom or a chance to make up for their own failures. And while you’re at it, ask to discuss their qualifications to take on the biggest responsibility in the human experience. But you aren’t going to do any of that, because you live and you let live.

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This article previously appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in Manifesto


  1. I salute them for population control! :-)


  2. Well I think it depends if you want to have a biological legacy. I do confess that everytime I meet childless couples (very common in academia) I think they are very selfish people. In Chinese culture you are not even an adult until you get married and have kids. Thus I view my 75 year old childless aunt as sort of the perpetual kid. You tend to be more compassionate when you have kids. On the other hand this helps out the total overpopulation of China at a staggering 1.3 billion people.
    In Capitalistic terms kids are not good and why are we surprised that the free wheeling HK is leading this childless trend. Even when HK people do have kids they do not even raise them and put them in endless school and then after school programs and then oppress their SE asian nannies to raise them. They are the most neglectful parents on the planet. So in general I think it is good for HK people to not have kids.

  3. 養兒一百歲,長憂九十九 I can certainly appreciate why couples chose to be child free. However, once you have kids, it's a life long commitment with no return.


  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oxb4LayC7A


  5. Anonymous,

    As cynical as you comment about Hong Kong parents seems, the indictment is not baseless. Hong Kong parents tend to use their children to vindicate their own lives: what they didn't have in their childhood, they try to give it to their children. That explains all the piano lessons and Spanish classes. To many parents, the measure of success is no longer a big apartment or a luxury car, but fancy kids. The decision to procreate is motivated by the desire to produce smarter, prettier versions of themselves, instead of a genuine love for children. I see that everyone day and it saddens me.


  6. Tell me about it Jason, I have seen that in many people around me far, far too often.

    I might have been one of them too, as an instrument of competition amongst other parents; but at the same time, I have to say I do feel their care and love for me at the same time, especially my dad.


  7. UPDATE: There is a Danish study this week that childless women are four times more likely to die a premature death than women with children.

  8. Traditionally it is essential to have children (usually mean sons) in order to pass on their inheritance and to preserve their family line. No descendent means the extinction of their clans thus no one's going to worship their ancestors on Qimngming festival. The older generations still carry this mentality.

  9. Jason,

    "Why did you choose to have children?" Good quesion! Surely, there're always good reasons out there. For the sake of self-fulfillment, boredom and what so ever, that may not be the cases and there must have exception. I do believe some folks genuinely love kids and should have thought thoroughly to go for the dice and I do know that raising a child is the toughest job in the world. (Seeing my sis 24 hours stand-by to look after my little niece, I can tell !) SO, GOOD LUCK TO THEM !

    BTW, how valid the Danish study is ? If it is true, then I might have died earlier than my sis. Poor Jean !


  10. I've asked that question before and the common answers were along the lines of
    1. "Huh? Well it's the normal (natural) thing to do after you get married" or
    2. "After a few years of married life it will be inevitable that you and your husband have nothing much to talk about, so having a kid is pretty necessary to keep the marriage going."

    How sad.

    For me, if I do get married one day, I may not have a kid. Yet, I do not agree it's out of selfishness. It's actually the reverse - I know that to afford my current quality of living for me, my future husband and my kid, both me and my future husband will have to keep our full-time jobs. Yet, to stay in my demanding job traveling every other week if not more frequent, it would mean having no time to raise my kid myself. I'd rather not have a kid than to have a maid raise him/her. I don't believe I am the only person who has this rationale for not having a kid.

    1. How sad, indeed, you choose to think so pessimistic. Motherhood and apple pie is part of a woman's life. Yes, your job may be demanding today. But, by the nature of things,it's not going to stay the same way forever - you get promoted along the way, or, sooner or later, a younger person shall take over the every-other-week travelling. Think of the emptiness when one day you have more time in hand you have to return home to face solitude - the husband is preoccupied with his work, and, maybe, by a mistress. No, it's wrong for you to entertain this gloomy thought when you're so young. Like they say: If you don't work hard in your youth sadness and loneliness await you when you're old.

  11. I did not grow up asking myself if I wanted kids or not. It seemed to be a natural process of life and living. Perhaps being Asian and not living in an Asian culture has given a different outlook of things. We have no domestic help nor do we have any family help. Both my husband and I work, so we need a reliable childcare system for pickup at school and during lunch but then this is normal for working parents and can mean a hefty cost on the wallet. He sends them to school, i pick them up. We take turns to stay at home if they are ill.Note that I use the term 'we'. It usually takes two people to make a child, so let bringing them up be a shared task. Kudos to all single parents out there who do it alone. And to all who hesitate, there is no greater joy and challenge (if you are up for it) in life! (BTW, I have 3 precious children)

  12. I don't mind people who want to be childless from choice. I am a woman who wants to do so.

    But the sad reality is, it looks like those who should have children choose not to, and those who should not choose to have A LOT. Look at mainland China and Muslim countries. Their populations are expanding at an alarming rate and getting unsustainable.

    What is worse is that in 20 or 30 years, the whole world will be taken over by these children from the much less civilised world, who know nothing about human rights and treating people with respect. Imagine, the voice of reason will become a minority in Hong Kong (taken over by mainlanders) and Europe ( taken over by misogynistic, violent Muslim fundamentalists).

    When I think of this, I can't help but thinking that the more sensible couples should start having children to save the world from sinking!

  13. You comments astounded me, I don’t even know that married couples without children are a stigmatized group…

    Married folks who, for financial or emotional or philosophical or even religious reasons, decide to stay child-free, should have every right to remain that way. I have never felt that others consider me not a woman until I am a mother, though they probably consider me not being womanly or lady-like enough in other ways. Liking children and willing to brave the responsibility to bear them and raise them well as good people are two totally different matters! Personally I always fear the responsibility of giving birth to someone and raising him / her who falls short of being a person of honour and integrity.

    I would say children are our least reliable retirement plan. Maybe they will keep you company in your old days if you are lucky, but you probably worry more about them and their families and future than you worry about your own. There’s the Chinese saying 長憂九十九, right? Talking about diversification of risk, I do remember though, that my dad was so displeased at first when my older brother wanted to read psychology at the University, and my mom would probably have killed me had I read fine arts or philosophy (unless you are talking about PPE at Oxford) or theology or astrophysics… I am rebel enough already to have escaped from medical school.

    As for giving up their entire lives for the kids, this is happening to everyone of my friends who have children, especially newborn kids. Though some have remained in part-time employment, guess they are too conscious of the financial burden of raising a child to give up their career altogether. Your estimate of raising a kid is far, far too conservative, to be honest.

    As for the To-Do-List-Before-I-Die, I would want to add write a book! Maybe not a novel, but one more on one’s experience and beliefs and philosophy and consciousness…. Well, let’s see if that day will ever dawn on my life, even though I am not even rearing a child yet.

    [To be cont'd]


  14. One may say married women in Hong Kong have the luxury of having their children being looked after by the migrant workers, but, no offence, do you really want to entrust your child to their care? I have seen most becoming de facto mothers to the children, they are closer to the migrant workers than to their own mom, is that a healthy relationship? Have you ever watched Decalogue VII by Krzystof Kieslowski though that is a story about the grandmother “stealing” the relationship with the child, which is still better still than one between the migrant workers and the children, but is this what our society is coming to? We have witnessed cases of the migrant workers mistreating the children too, though they are far and few, but would you really dare?

    As for the “uses” of the children, don’t you realise we are the best tool for competition nowadays, even more so than showing off a powerful husband heading the HSBC? I have been through that myself, to live up to the expectations of my parents and the measure of my filial piety is gauged by my score at school and how multi-talented I am (which probably accounted for the fact that I am totally non-talented). Would my mom have been happier had I been a doctor and not a lawyer? The only reason I had wanted to be a doctor at one stage when I was young was to research and develop ways of treating terminal disease like cancer and AIDS and whatever else. Looking back with hindsight now, I understand what they hope for, maybe to fulfil what they never had or were able to do, projecting onto me to fulfil their dream of what a “perfect” girl would be, but it still isn’t a nice feeling though I am long past my days when I can be an instrument for them to show off. I wonder whether, sub-consciously, they still harbor this mentality, but maybe they want to show me off in other ways now. Well, some questions are better left un-asked.

    No one should be required to justify themselves or answer for it to anyone else had they thought through everything clearly and made an important decision. This is to do with their own lives and lives whom they are bringing to this world, and all should be respected. To me, the most important thing is: we have to be responsible for the life we are bringing into the world. He is a life, this is not just inventing another machine.


  15. If I'll get married someday, I'll choose to have kids and be a full time mom. It's sad to grow old without someone to be in your side to take care of you on your last years in life.

  16. Having no kid after many years of marriage troubles me. Pressure, whether I cooked it up myself or not, is huge and it probably is beyond the appreciation of my hubby and his family. While what I have in mind does not really match the title of your article, a sense of relief sprouted when I was reading through your article. The demands, physically and psychologically, on women from getting pregnant and becoming a mother probably are beyond most men's imagination. It is easy for bystanders to say "Just take the plunge!". If it were as easy as jumping down a flight of stairs, I guess we probably would have a population of more than 8M! It certainly is tough for a woman who wants to have kids but (still) has not to face her own story that leads to the no kid situation.

    Thank you, Jason. Someone out there does understand it is not easy to be a woman!