All-China Women's Federation





March 26, 2013  - By Wang Bei - Editor Sun Xi



A birthday celebration at a winter camp for single mothers and their children [china-woman.com]

A birthday celebration at a winter camp for single mothers and their children [china-woman.com]

A happy marriage, a harmonious family, a loving husband, and healthy and intelligent children this is probably the dream of most Chinese women. However, as China's divorce rate continues to rise, many women are finding themselves faced with reality: raising their children as single mothers.

For them, life is a continuous struggle of dealing with the stigma of divorce, figuring out how to raise a happy and healthy child in a single-parent family and recovering from the trauma of a marriage breakdown.

Spiritual and Economic Pressures

During the last Spring Festival, 33 single mothers and their children traveled to Hefei, capital of central China's Anhui Province, to participate in a 12 day parent-child winter camp sponsored by the China Women's Development Foundation and organized by the Tianli Fund under the foundation.

"Celebrating Spring Festival with my parents is what I fear most after getting divorced. I cannot bear their worrying and pitying looks. But if I don't return home for the holidays, my child will miss out on all the love and warmth," said Han, a single mother, her face covered in tears.

Han is from Zhangqiu City in east China's Shandong Province and has been divorced for four years. "He was always jealous and beat me occasionally," she said of her husband. Her loveless marriage life was filled with tears and anger. When her daughter was 12 and her son was 4, she asked for a divorce. "He took my son and I moved out with nothing else but my daughter," she said.

Her post-divorce life was difficult, with many people talking about her divorce behind her back. "I didn't know what they said, but they did talk and I tried not to listen. But all of a sudden I felt like I was inferior to everyone else and I could not hold my head up," Han said.

The first two to three years after getting divorced are extremely hard for these single mothers. The agony of a failed marriage, family misunderstandings and complaints, finger pointing from friends and colleagues and having to deal with people conjecturing about the reasons for the divorce --- all of these place a heavy psychological burden on them.

A survey shows that over half of these divorced single mothers have had suicide experience or at least thought about it. In the rural areas where traditional concepts still prevail, the rate is even higher.

Another seemingly insurmountable problem is financial support. Song Xiaofang's husband divorced her because her son had hereditary epilepsy and showed mild autism symptoms. Her husband completely cut off contact with her and it was her in-laws who asked for a divorce on his behalf. Her own family thought it was shameful to take in a divorced daughter, and they refused to provide help.

Despite her despair, Song eventually decided to go on with life. She took her son, who needs to take medication regularly, to Hefei, and rented a small room of a mere dozen square meters. They live on selling tofu jelly and have barely any savings. Last Spring Festival, after a very simple dinner for the New Year 's Eve, she took her son to KFC. "He loves eating ice cream sundaes. But we don't waste that kind of money usually. Since it's Spring Festival, I took him there for a treat."

While watching her son enjoying his sundae, chocolate all over his face, Song smiled one of her rare genuine smiles.

"In the traditional family value system of the Chinese people, single-parent families are regarded as unfortunate and so are divorced women. The double mental and economic pressure often plunges them into a state of vulnerability," said Wu Hongya, the founder of the Tianli Fund. She was once a single mother as well.

"Understand this group, look at them with no prejudice, and give them more comfort and help --- these are the ways to help them and their children," she added.

A Healthy Parent-Child Relationship

Single mother Song Xiaofang and her son [china-woman.com]

Single mother Song Xiaofang and her son [china-woman.com]

Many of these divorced single mothers were once trying to hold on to their marriage, just for their children. But the reason many of them ultimately chose to get a divorce was also for their children.

And ultimately, it is usually their children who help them pull themselves out of the shadow of divorce and continue with life. "I cannot let my bad mood affect my child. I must pull myself together," said one single mother from east China's Shandong Province.

After the divorce, her mood had been down and she was sad every day. Her daughter, who was entering puberty at the time, was acutely sensitive to her mother's pain.

When her daughter's teacher told her that the girl was not concentrating in class, spent too much time hanging out with her classmates and worse of all, hated school, she was shocked.

"If I don't pull myself together, I will end up ruining my daughter," she realized. After adjusting her emotions, she began to have more honest conversations with her daughter. The two exchanged their thoughts and shared how they feel. Her daughter slowly began to understand what her mother was going through and within six months, returned to being the sensible girl she was.

Han, another single mother, also wiped away her tears and went on with her life for the sake of her two children.

"Children are very sensitive. They can sense your mood. If you don't help them in time, the consequences could be disastrous," said Yan Yu, a volunteer and teacher from the University of Science and Technology of China. She has a dozen years of volunteer experience and has found that the top thing single mothers worry about is their children's education.

In fact, most of the children from single-parent families are more observant, thoughtful, and considerate than children from normal families.

At a birthday celebration held at the winter camp, 11-year-old Xiao Ru, who was hosting, suggested that every child hug their own mom to thank her for her love and care.

These children are well aware of the hardships and sacrifices endured in order to bring them up. Many of them promise to study hard in order to be able to repay their mothers some day. Nine-year-old Xiao Yanbiao, who is sensitive and loves literature, wrote in one of his diaries, "A mother's love is the greatest emotion in the world. No matter what, I will forget all my worries and do my best to repay my mother."

Many of his diary entries are about his mother's struggles and how much he values her.

"People always think that childhood experiences are the only thing that shapes who we are as adults. They assume that just because a child is from a single-parent home, he or she will be a troubled teenager and adult," said family education guidance expert Liu Hubing.

He added that without good family education and social education, even children from families with both parents might also be troubled. On the other hand, a single parent with a sense of responsibility and love can give a child good education, patient communication and a healthy environment for their growth.

Learning to Support Each Other

Many single mothers participate in the Walk in the Spring Charity Sale held by the Jiaxing Municipal Women's Federation of east China's Zhejiang Province on March 4, 2012. [china-woman.com]

Many single mothers participate in the Walk in the Spring Charity Sale held by the Jiaxing Municipal Women's Federation of east China's Zhejiang Province on March 4, 2012. [china-woman.com]

In recent years, with the involvement of women's federations and other organizations, single mothers are getting increasing attention and concern.

"In the U.S., there are many organizations or groups helping single mothers. And volunteers or social workers provide psychological counseling or financial help to them as well. In China, obviously what has been done is not enough," Liu said.

In fact, a lot of single mothers have found each other through QQ groups (a Chinese instant messaging service) or through online forums and websites. They have created a support network that works.

"Single mothers need more understanding and communication. If people in their lives cannot understand them, it is only natural that they seek out those who have had similar experiences as them," Wu said.

Han said that she gradually became alienated from her friends and colleagues after her divorce. But instead, she became close to a group of single mothers she met online. "The kind of psychological resonance I felt when I was with them could only be achieved by being around women who had gone through the same experiences as me. I felt so much relief while talking to them."

Later, Han looked up single mother websites and found that the problems that had been bothering her were the same problems that many single mothers faced. They encourage each other by commenting. "I felt like I found a warm home," she said.

Wu had the same experience. After her divorce, she had been focused on work, but had ignored her daughter's education. It was not until her daughter died in 2004 that she discovered, through going through her daughter's personal possessions, that the girl had actually been going through so many struggles and difficulties. "Under the surface of the seemingly strong smiles of single mothers, there is so much confusion and vulnerability," she said.

Aside from these self-help online groups and organizations, society has not provided enough platform or mutual-help organizations for single mothers to communicate.

After the establishment of the Tianli Fund, named after her daughter, Wu organized dozens of activities. "Many people are still prejudiced against divorced single mothers. In fact, this is exactly what single mothers are afraid of. They don't need sympathy. All they need is understanding, respect and kindness."

"But I still believe that as this group is getting more and more social attention, more people will start helping them. And more policies and mechanisms will be introduced so that single mothers can enjoy sound social security and a harmonious social atmosphere. They deserve to be happy too," Wu said.