Joyce Tan’s Story: Being childfree from a Chinese perspective

Growing up female and Chinese in Singapore, motherhood is a given, a requirement, an expectation – or worse, a lifetime sentence to slavery. Our society expects us to be “xiao nu ren” (Chinese for “Little Woman”), because Asian men generally are fond of the soft-spoken, sweet natured and docile female stereotype who will stay home, get pregnant and look after his children.

In school, we are taught to cook like Martin Yan, sew like Confucius’ beloved mother, and serve our future husbands like an imperial concubine (with all the graces of a virtuous wife) during Home Economics class.

During recess time, we dreamed up names about our future children and cared for toy babies that would cry when hungry or in need of a new nappy at the playground or canteen.

Moreover, the Chinese way of life is all about traditions, and albeit being a liberated Chinese woman, it is hard to escape tradition. Since young, I have witnessed the births of my cousins’ children. There’s the Chinese pregnancy superstitions or “do’s” and “don’ts” during the 9-months, daily compulsory eating and drinking of nourishing supplements and compulsory confinement after the baby’s birth.

But getting pregnant and becoming a mother did not figure among my fantasies when I started thinking about my future. My fantasies involved my father who was then Asia’s Regional General Manager of an insurance giant and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew. I wanted to be like these men – highly educated, highly successful, powerful, decisive, respected, feared, rich and intelligent. I do not want to be a stay-at-home wife who is dependent on her husband for money, always cleaning up after her children and always caring/worrying for them 24/7.

The truth is, I do not want children (I have always felt this way since 8 years old), go through superstition and confinement, and eventually, become a slave to a man and his children. And pregnancy, as a biological process, grosses and freaks me out. Admitting to not wanting children in Chinese culture is socially taboo. There is the idea that you have to become a mother, and if you don’t, you are not a woman.

I did not join my young friends in picking out names for my so-called dream child(ren), feed and change the diapers of toy babies (in fact, I do not own a doll). At school, I flunked (and consistently ranked last!) Home Economics, aced History, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Literature and became the most reviled girl who’s on her way to becoming a veterinarian, doctor, engineer, lawyer, politician, journalist or businessman. I didn’t care if I was last in the standard for cooking, baking and sewing – all these “Little Woman” stuff did not interest me.

When my headmistress asked my father to explain my poor Home Economics grades, his reply must have stunned her because she went all quiet. “My daughter is good at her studies. I expect her to go on to University and read whatever course interests her.”

“How then, is she supposed to be a dutiful wife and care for her children?”
My father laughed. “She’ll become an independent woman.”

Well, headmistress, guess what? I am 29 and an independent woman. I know myself very well at this point and I cannot imagine waking up one day and suddenly want children. I am also not a slave to a man and his offspring. But I am also aware of all the arguments; they range from “Are you bisexual or queer,” to “Why are you selfish?”.

BUT… isn’t it selfless to not want to bring a so-called beloved child into this world that is already mired with deceit, drugs and danger, just to suffer? Look at all the world leaders and self-proclaim family movers and shakers like the Duggars. They live complicated lives. They do not know the true meaning of love because they are obsessed with building a selfish world for their own benefits and pleasures. When West Virginia Delegate Brian Kurcaba said that while rape is horrible, it’s “beautiful” that a child could be produced, I am sure he is obsessed with gaining the conservative vote so he can keep his Parliamentary seat and job.

When Jim and Michelle Duggar proudly announce they are still trying for yet another child, I am sure they are obsessed with the idea of having an army of little Duggars that would enter politics and preach to the world their conservative Christian mindset. And if you were to ask any parent on the street why they choose to have children, chances are they’ll say “I want…” Haha! Isn’t “I want” selfish compared to “I don’t want…”?

I am perfectly fine with others telling me what I am missing out. I live life the way I want. I am the master of my destiny and nobody, not even a politician, can change that.

But I consider myself successful because I am a resourceful self-starter, a businessman, I am comfortable being hipster me, I have a partner who shares my vision and life ideals of not wanting children (‪#‎childfree‬!), I am a graduate looking forward to doing a Master’s, and I am not or have been pregnant (YAY!).

Would you like to share your story? Send it to: [email protected]

Childfree Chinese women


  1. Hi Joyce,
    Thanks for sharing your story and for giving us a great insight into what it feels like to be childfree within a Chinese context. Being childless in the West is challenging enough, let alone in a traditional society.

    Your story will undoubtedly serve as an inspiration to men and women everywhere, particularly those in traditional societies, where the emphasis on having children is far greater.

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