Fragility of rural families and its social implications

Cao Xinyu
In rural areas, some women tend to walk away from marriages when their children are very small. The children are tagged "left-behind children."
Cao Xinyu
Fragility of rural families and its social implications
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In rural areas, some women tend to walk away from marriages when their children are very small. They migrate to cities for work, or return to their parents’ homes, or simply vanish without a trace. The children are tagged “left-behind children.”

Sun Xiaolong is one of those children. Now 24, he has never met his mother. All that he has is a faded and stained photo of her. He was told she ran away when he was just two or three months old. No one knew where she went. She just disappeared into thin air.

Growing up, he lost count of the number of times he had hoped things would turn out differently if his mother was around. He felt like he grew up, untended, stumbling all along.

A great number of rural children share the same fate as Sun. Since the 1980s, nearly 300 million rural laborers have swarmed into cities for jobs. This massive exodus propped up urban development, fueled economic growth, but made their marriages vulnerable.

A recent census showed that 30.5 million people divorced in 2015, among whom 16.8 million were from rural regions.

China’s divorce rate has been going up for the past 15 years. It could be higher if those runaway mothers in the country were included. Behind them, there are many families who were torn apart and countless children left motherless.

Sun thought about going south to find his mother. He never knew how it felt like to have one. He was scrawny and shorter than average. He would repeatedly ask where his mother went when he was little. His family would only tell him that it was an adult thing. In his primary years, other kids picked on him, calling him motherless. He either clenched his fists and swallowed his anger or swung them at others. Either way, he always ended up being beaten up.

He didn’t know whom to blame, the mother he never met, his father or himself. He felt like there was always a piece of him missing. That was a feeling no one could understand except those who were abandoned. Sun even felt like he could spot a motherless child almost immediately. A child growing up without a mother, according to him, had some distinctive traits — either quick-tempered or extremely quiet.

Deng Hong, a doctor at Lanzhou University, has centered her research on left-behind children and their living conditions for over a decade. Surprisingly, her findings are somewhat aligned with Sun’s observation. She found that children without mothers tend to be more emotional than those without fathers.

According to Deng, mothers’ caring and their emotional interaction with children can hardly be replaced by their fathers. A mother’s language is more interactional, and a father’s more directional.

Sun recalled he spent his days in middle school pretty much the same way as in primary school, except that he was much closer to the Internet cafe. He used to sneak out of the school to chat online and play games there. The cyberspace was much more lively than his real life and made him less lonely.

Apart from one teacher who occasionally “pestered” him, nobody else cared. Besides, he was never good at school and always got into fights. Before long, the 14-year-old Sun dropped out of school.

Emotional costs

It was a decision supported by his family. They felt he could never make it to college; instead, he could migrate to cities and make money. A college degree was unlikely to bring glory to the family, but buying a car and a house in town would. For the next ten years, Sun bounced from city to city and did all kinds of odd jobs, driving trucks, cooking, working on the assembly line in a shoe factory, to name just a few.

Seeing others successfully trace their relatives by posting online, Sun posted his mother’s photo, just to try his luck. Unexpectedly, he received a call he was waiting for his entire life. On the other side, a woman spoke with a thick accent and claimed to be his mother.

He had tons of questions on the tip of his tongue, but his voice was stuck in his chest. Too many emotions that he had bottled up for over 20 years seemed to collide, tangle, waiting to erupt.

His mother apologized over and over, trying and failing to explain why she couldn’t be a part of his life.

She said it was the disputes with her mother-in-law that drove her away. She said they quarreled over everything, and her mother-in-law prevented her from going back to her parents’ house. Eventually, she had enough. She snuck out and never returned.

Liu Yanwu, associate professor of sociology at Wuhan University, said that though the conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is not a major cause for family breakups, it has a significant impact on family relations. Liu discovered that in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, it’s mostly men who ask for the divorce, while in the central and western regions, women are more likely to end marriages.

He believes that it is partly due to the women’s heightened sense of individualism. When they fall out with their husbands, instead of running back to their parents like they used to, they would take off without telling anyone and start anew.

Most divorced or runaway mothers leave their children to their husbands. Liu believes that by putting individual happiness above that of the family, and in their pursuit of such individualism, they forsake their native responsibility.

As for the children they left behind, what can be done? It is not a question that can be easily answered.

This article is adapted by Cao Xinyu from a January 21 report in China Youth Daily.

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