The term "leftover woman" is one of the most-discussed topics in China today. It refers to women who are still single by the age of 25 or 27. If this sounds rude to you, you would be amazed at the level to which this term is popularized across Chinese society. And you'd be amazed at how many women have told me that they have married, or are considering marrying, a man they don't love due to marriage pressure from their parents. Each year, this marriage pressure rises to fever pitch over Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year period when millions of Chinese return home to be with their parents.
An open letter to parents worried about their daughter becoming a 'leftover woman'*
Dear fellow parents,
Spring Festival is approaching! You must be so eagerly anticipating your daughter's return home.
What wisdom will you impart during your short time together?
"Hurry, hurry, get married!"
If you're like many parents, you'll hurry her towards marriage. Ideally, to a multi-millionaire. A multi-millionaire who's also a gourmet chef, family doctor and multiple-passport holder. Because if you could get her safely adopted by a husband like that, you could rest knowing she will forever be secure.
I understand. Because I too have daughters, two of them, though mine are still small. Being parents means living with our hearts outside of our bodies. We just want to know our kids are OK. We just want them to be safe and secure.
And for centuries in China, marriage was the sole source of security available to a woman. Security was her lifetime guarantee in return for her lifetime of service to husband and family.
But we are living in times of radical change.
Divorce is now exploding across China
While parents are thinking about how to get their daughters married off, married couples are thinking about whether to get divorced.
Once known for its stable marriages, China now suffers from the 'China-style divorce'; one-third of marriages in Shanghai and Beijing now end in divorce. The main driver of the divorce rate is the generation born after 1980.
The sad fact is, for many, marriage now is a source of great insecurity. For the first time in China's history, a generation of children are growing up as the children of divorce.
Women bear the costs and risks of marriage and parenthood
Consider the implications. For women today, marriage and motherhood can offer significant benefits, but significant costs and risks as well.
In fact, marriage and children are clearly riskier for a woman than for a man. That's because the costs of child care, time, emotional energy, career opportunities and financial security are all mostly borne by her.
The unspoken contract is that her husband will share his income with her and the kids. But as we can see from today's marriage statistics, a woman who marries young has an excellent chance of divorcing young.
Despite the fact that women suffer disproportionately in a divorce, a recent study shows that now nearly 70% of divorces are initiated by women. This tells you how bad their marriages must have been.
As parents we are living in a strange in-between period
So, as parents, we're living in a strange in-between period in Chinese history. We grew up in an old world, a world where it would have been hard to imagine a woman surviving outside of marriage, socially if not financially.
But our daughters live in a new world, a world where they must learn not simply to marry, but to be independent, and if they marry, to have a marriage that succeeds.
After all, what does it mean for a marriage to be a success? Merely managing to stay legally married until one or the other person dies? Or something more?
Parents' pressure to marry just to marry leads directly to insecurity in life
As parents, we now face a conundrum as modern as it is tragic. For the sake of security, many parents pressure their daughters to hurry up and marry just to marry. Out of filial piety, many daughters rush into relationships which result in loveless marriages, extramarital affairs and nasty divorces.
In this way, parents' pressure to marry just to marry leads women into lives of financial, emotional and spiritual insecurity. Which is the precisely the outcome that parents are trying to avoid in pressuring their daughters to marry.
Today's women have essential new dreams
I've heard some parents lament that they feel their daughter's desire to wait to find a good marriage reflects poorly on them as parents. To the contrary! Your daughter's independent spirit is a reflection of the good work you did to help her gain an education.
Now that she can survive on she own, she yearns for all the things that every human being yearns for once her survival needs are met: to be truly loved, to have dreams, to have meaning in life.
Her dreams are as essential to her as the air she breathes and the food she eats. She needs that any marriage she enters to be based on mutual love and partnership.
You should be proud of her, and proud of the job you did in raising this singular young woman.
Your daughter's future security and happiness may depend on the advice you give her
Over Spring Festival, the advice you give your daughter may deeply affect how she goes about gaining the things she needs to nourish her spirit and achieve the security she needs.
So, come Spring Festival, rather than admonishing, "Do you have a boyfriend? Hurry, hurry, get married!"
Maybe the right questions are:
"How are you? What are your dreams in this beautiful New Year? What can we do to support you?"
And, if she does have a boyfriend:
"Will he be good to you? Will he encourage you to find and realize your dreams? Will he be a loving and trustworthy partner? Will he see you as the full person that you are and not just for what you can do for him?"
As parents, our most important job is to prepare our daughters to flourish in this modern new world.
With Spring Festival just around the corner, now is the time to plan what words to impart to your daughter. Take advantage of your brief time together to give her the advice she needs. Her future security and happiness may depend on it.
*This column is republished from the Wall Street Journal China, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.