Note: I’ll never know the pain that the four mothers who brought my four youngest siblings into this world feel. I’ll never know the agony of choosing life, death, or the unknown. I feel wholly inadequate and incapable of sharing their stories, from my place of privilege as a middle class white woman. The accounts of their lives are fictional, but representative of countless accounts of women suffering on the front lines of gender inequality and lack of reproductive freedom in China. The circumstances of the babies’ abandonments and discoveries are true.
Part 1: Yang
Strands of Yang’s pregnancy-thin black hair escaped from the knot on top of her head and stuck to her face with sweat. Every pore in her skin felt open and sensitive and aching. She couldn’t think about the rest of her body. Thinking about it gave the pain power. She forced her thoughts to center on the tickle of her hair against her face. Her eyes and face were sunken and sallow, as though every trace of life she possessed had been siphoned by the child growing inside her. She tried to push herself up from the bloody mat, but collapsed under her own weight. The midwife turned away from her, holding her wailing newborn.
The cry of her child pulled her back to reality. A tiny, screaming earth-siren.
Yang swallowed, her lips dry and cracking. “Please. I want to see him.”
The midwife raised her eyebrows. “Him? You are unlucky, then.”
Dread filled the womb that had held life moments ago. Her hand flew to the jade amulet around her neck. “He’ll kill me,” she whispered.
Yang had tried for years to get pregnant. Rather, her husband Liang had tried for years to impregnate her. Medicine. Folklore. Old village remedies. Prayer. Romantic getaways. Nothing had worked. Her womb was as closed to conception as Liang was to love. She discovered her secret six weeks after he left her for his lover.
She hated that phrase.
She was the one who had to leave.
Perhaps it was foolish to expect him to welcome his swollen wife home. “Come back when you have a son to show me,” he had yelled. “It isn’t mine, anyway. You’re a whoring piece of shit.” And with his arm around the waist of his mistress, he slammed the door in her face. She pressed her hands firmly over her ears as she sobbed in the hallway, trying to block the profanity from infecting her unborn child. Her village’s superstitions raced back with the quickening of life.
In all her childhood imaginings of motherhood she expected and accepted the pain of labor.
Nothing prepared her for the pain of this loneliness.
The baby’s wails climbed. “Best take care of her before she wakes anyone up,” the midwife sighed.
Yang nodded, her eyes glassy. Take care of her. Take care of her. She remembered the times she helped her aunt, the village midwife. The first time she witnessed a baby girl being…taken care of. The baby sounded much like her own, screaming on the other side of her dirty and narrow one room flat. Sometimes in her nightmares she could hear the sound of the baby being dropped into a waiting bucket of water. And the silence that followed a few minutes later, broken only by the sobs of the mother. Yang’s own mother had cried the following day, when she found Yang drowning her favorite old doll in the river.
She made up her mind. The baby would be taken care of. And then she would kill herself.
She tried to rise one more time. From somewhere within her she found the strength to sit up and reach for her baby.
“Let me hold her one time.”
The midwife hesitated. “Are you sure?”
“Let me. Hold her.” It was Yang’s stubborn defiance that had originally ensnared Liang when they were university students. Surviving pregnancy alone had restored some of it.
“If you say so.” The midwife placed the wet baby in her arms. The crying stopped as soon as she pulled her to her chest and kissed the top of her head. Take care of her. Her skin. Eyes. Mouth. Oh, what a pretty little mouth. Yang began to cry. This baby, this helpless, wrinkled baby was hers. The only thing in the world that had ever belonged only to her. She shared her with Jiang in blood but not in spirit.
“I’m keeping her.”
“The pain has addled your brain. You can’t keep her. She isn’t even legal.”
“I’m keeping her.”
“Well it’s no business of mine. But when the family planning officials fine your life away, don’t pull my name into this.” The midwife continued cleaning the room.
“She’s mine. And I’ll take care of her.”
Today is the Walk for Life event in DC. Thousands of people gather to take a stand for life and the unborn. I am pro-life, anti-abortion, whatever you want to call me. I know that not all my readers feel the same. Most of you, even. But I know one thing we can all agree on: a forced choice isn’t a choice at all. Family size mandates aren’t reproductive freedom. Even if your convictions don’t allow you to take a stand against abortion as an evil on its own, consider taking a stand against forced abortion, gendercide, and infanticide in countries like China and India.
Not only that, let’s look close to home.
Take a stand against prejudices and sexism in our own countries that perpetuate the message that girls are somehow less valuable than boys.
Let’s make sure the girls in our life feel strong, brave, and empowered to stand for themselves.
Let’s teach our boys to value and respect girls as equals, not as weaker beings to be coddled or controlled.
Change begins with us, but it doesn’t end with us.