Why fewer women in Asia are choosing motherhood

On this Mother’s Day, Taiwanese American writer JiaYing Grygiel looks at the long hours, cost of living, and desire for freedom making parenthood unrealistic for many in Asia

Cecilia Chen is 34, got married five years ago—and has no plans to have kids. “I think my life now is great,” says Chen, a teacher in Taiwan. “I go where I want. Work makes me happy. And I have lots of things I want to do.”

Friends tell her that babies are exhausting—hello, sleep deprivation—and that couples end up fighting. Chen doesn’t want any of that. Plus, she likes having her own space and freedom to travel. “Most Taiwanese girls my age, if they don’t have kids yet, all have the same reasons as me: they’re afraid they won’t have their own time,” Chen says. “And they don’t want to stay home and take care of kids. They want to go out and work.”

Taiwan’s birth rate has plummeted over the past 70 years. This year, Taiwan’s total fertility rate (the average number of births per woman in her lifetime) is 1.11, the lowest in the world. Joining Taiwan at rock bottom are South Korea (1.12) and Singapore (1.17). Hong Kong, Macau and Japan aren’t far behind, according to freshly updated numbers from the CIA. All well below the 2.1 birth rate needed to maintain a stable population.

(The highest fertility rates in the world are in Africa—6.64 children per woman in Niger! The United States falls closer to the middle of the pack, at 1.84.)

Why are fewer and fewer women in East Asia having babies?

What these countries have in common is a huge amount of economic development within a very short time frame, says Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. His research focuses on low fertility in East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Between the ’50s and the ’90s, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea underwent rapid industrialization. They were hailed as the “Four Asian Tigers;” everything was about turbocharged economies, cultural expectations notwithstanding.

Take South Korea, for example. It looks like one of the most advanced places on Earth, Gietel-Basten says, but in terms of traditional gender roles, it’s like nothing’s changed at all. “The last 40, 50 years have been oriented toward economic growth. All of these things about supporting families and parents-to-be came very late,” Gietel-Basten says. “Things have changed so quickly in such a short period of time that other institutions have not caught up.”

Where are the babies?

A group of Asian teenage girls, dressed in school uniforms, walk on a sidewalk in New Taipei City.

Students from an all-girls high school in uniform after school in the Shulin District of New Taipei City in Taiwan.

JiaYing Grygiel

When you see a young woman pushing a carriage in Taiwan, more often than not, the “baby” inside is a small fluffy white dog.

“These days, Taipei doesn’t have kids anymore,” my aunt told me as we were hurrying to the bus stop in the capital city. It was my first visit in 14 years, and rush hour was noticeably changed. The usual swarms of people on their way to work, yes, but minus kids in navy and white uniforms on their way to school.

In 1951, the average Taiwanese woman gave birth to seven children. My mom grew up in Taiwan in the 1950s, the third of six kids. She remembers classmates with siblings in the double digits.

Another aunt, a career middle school teacher, remembers teaching classes of 56. Eight students across, seven deep. These days, middle school class sizes have dwindled to the 20s. Declining enrollment has led universities to shut down entirely, particularly in Taiwan and South Korea.

Across East Asia, steeply falling fertility rates are a reflection of societal shifts. Young people, if they get married at all, are marrying and starting families later. Work-life balance is non-existent. Childcare is expensive. The cost of housing is astronomical because everyone wants to squeeze into the same metropolitan areas.

On my recent visit, I hired a taxi driver for a day of sightseeing around the northern tip of Taiwan. His only child, a son, has a serious girlfriend, but no plans to get married. They can’t afford an apartment, much less a child. Case in point: the driver’s wages for the entire day was $121, minus the fees for the booking platform, parking, gas, etc.

In Taiwan, salaries are low, and you can expect crazy long working hours. Most families have two working parents, and children spend correspondingly crazy long hours at school and buxiban (cram schools). Let’s not even get started on the pressure of getting your kids into the best schools.

“People are making a perfectly rational decision about childbearing under the circumstances,” Gietel-Basten says. “It’s just not very practical.”

Support for young families

Sonya Sin Chang moved to Taiwan from Seattle with her small children in February. In her two months in Taiwan, she’s noticed lots of amenities geared toward young families. It’s a culture that welcomes children, even if few women are willing to have them.

“Most people here are very kind towards children,” Chang says. “When I’m on the MRT [subway] with my almost-3-year-old, older adults often chat with or wave at her.”

In Taipei, every neighborhood has a free staffed parent-child play center for kids 6 and under. They’re like smaller versions of the children’s museum back in Seattle, Chang says, and they are truly wonderful. Chang was surprised to find that almost all restaurants are kid-friendly, complete with high chairs and cute table settings. She’s found breastfeeding rooms in subway stations, malls and government buildings, as well as family restrooms with toddler-sized toilets.

Support also comes in the form of cold, hard cash. Like its neighbors Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan, Taiwan offers a range of financial incentives to encourage women to have more babies. Government interventions, which began in 2008, include lump sum payments, six-month parental leave at 60 percent salary, national childcare, housing subsidies, even allowances for fertility treatment.

“Now there is this big push onward investing in family policy and supporting family services. Unfortunately, the government can’t do everything. At some point companies might say, we’re not going to insist people work 60, 70 hours a week. And they can have their life outside work.”

How effective have these policies been?

“Nothing has worked,” Gietel-Basten says. “Because they’re not addressing the fundamental underlying issues in society.”

“Now there is this big push onward investing in family policy and supporting family services,” he adds. “Unfortunately, the government can’t do everything. At some point companies might say, we’re not going to insist people work 60, 70 hours a week. And they can have their life outside work.”

Generational gap

Seismic economic and cultural shifts are rocking East Asia. What took a century or more in European countries is happening in East Asia within one or two generations. Gietel-Basten points to the enormous gap between generations in South Korea, a disconnect magnified when it’s people in that older generation who are the ones writing policy. “Seventy-year-old men are making decisions about what is right about 20-year-old women,” he says.

My grandmother, Nainai, was born at a time when girls didn’t go to school. She never learned to write her name, her feet were broken and folded into tiny pointed nubs. The next generation, sons and daughters alike, sported college degrees and sneakers. Other traditions are proving harder to shake. One of my family’s darkest secrets is a divorce more than 30 years ago; it’s so taboo I hope my younger cousins aren’t reading this because they still don’t know.

“In the West, marriage and family are more loosely linked together. You don’t have to be married to have kids,” Gietel-Basten says. “You can test out relationships. You can see if it’s the right person. You can move in together. There’s a bit more flexibility in the system.

“However, in our part of the world [East Asia], you’ve got to go all in. If you married the wrong person, then you’re fucked as a woman. You’re completely fucked,” he says. “Whatever plans you’ve got for your life, your career is poof! Up in smoke.”

Nainai lived in a home with dirt floors, a donkey ride away from the nearest well. Imagine saying to her generation, “I want to have kids, but I don’t want to get married.” That’s a pretty radical attitude shift.

Either society loosens up its rules for women, or women continue to reject motherhood. 

“It’s your choice,” Gietel-Basten says. “You might as well compromise a little.”

Published on May 9, 2024

Words by JiaYing Grygiel

JiaYing Grygiel is a photographer and writer who covers food, travel and parenting. She earned degrees in magazine journalism and photography from Syracuse University, then promptly moved to Seattle because you don't have to shovel the rain.