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Parents at 16

Two former teen parents open up about their struggles with family and responsibility

According to China’s annual data report, in 2015 the birth rate for adolescent girls aged 15–19 was 9.2 percent. This means that about 530,000 girls under 20 became pregnant and gave birth that year.

In 2018, a number of internet celebrities who made videos about being teen mothers appeared on short-video platforms. These accounts were later banned.

Movie still from 2007 movie Juno

We’re not here today to judge whether teen pregnancy is good or bad, because that would massively oversimplify the situation. What is true is that becoming underage parents significantly changes the lives of both teenage boys and girls.

We have two narrators today, who became an adolescent father and mother at ages 16 and 17 respectively. Their stories have also evolved in different directions since then.

Xingchen, male, 26


Meeting her

My name is Xingchen and I’m 26 years old. I live in Haikou and work in the takeout business.

I’ve been a “left-behind child” since I was little. My parents worked in Haikou, and my grandmother stayed at home to watch me. In my second year of junior high, I became afraid to go to school because I fought with other kids, so I dropped out. My parents brought me to Haikou to work. Because I was too small to do any heavy labor, I carried plates in a restaurant.

That was where I met my girlfriend. She was a waitress at the restaurant and I was a runner. We were only 15 at the time. She was a bit plump and fairly shy, but was very cute and laughed easily. Familiarity breeds fondness, so I decided to pursue her.

At the time, I made under 1,000 kuai each month, but I used 500 kuai to buy a giant stuffed panda and went to the entrance of her dorm building to give it to her. She was embarrassed and didn’t want to come downstairs, so I stubbornly waited for her outside for two hours.

By the next day, everyone at the restaurant knew about it and helped us get together. While we were dating, she was warm and thoughtful, and took good care of me. After lacking affection my whole life, I learned from her what love felt like.


Accidental pregnancy

Six months after we started dating, we moved in together. At the time, we were both looking for jobs. We quit the restaurant at around the same time, moved out of the dorms, and rented a place in the city.

One day, when we’d lived together for just under six months, she told me that she hadn’t had her period in two months and might be pregnant. I didn’t take it too seriously at the time—I thought she was just kidding. After another month, her period still hadn’t come. She got very scared and told me to go buy a pregnancy test. We came back and did the test: bad news, she really was pregnant.

Movie still from 2006 Japanese drama Mother at Fourteen

I was shocked. Even though I knew that sexual activity could lead to pregnancy, I didn’t think that we could get pregnant at such a young age. Neither of us knew what to do. We were only 16—could we really raise a child?

Neither of us had found new jobs, and we were living on the money we’d saved from our previous gigs. By then, we didn’t even have enough left to get an abortion.

When my dad found out about this, he was furious. But he wanted us to keep the baby. He told me, “Some people can’t have kids even if they want to, so since your chance is here, you might as well accept it.” He promised us that if we kept the baby, he would take care of the costs of raising the child.

But neither me nor my girlfriend wanted to go through with it. We thought we couldn’t handle the responsibility of raising a child. And because I never had a great relationship with my parents, I was reluctant to listen to my dad’s opinion.

I went out and found a job as an apprentice in a restaurant kitchen, hoping to save up for an abortion as quickly as possible. But by the time my girlfriend was six months pregnant, I still hadn’t saved up the necessary sum. Then, because the fetus had already taken shape, it was very difficult to get the operation.

At that point, my dad went right over and brought my girlfriend back home to wait out her pregnancy under my mom’s care.


Internet addiction

I was 16 at the time, still young and rebellious, and addicted to video games. During my wife’s pregnancy, I used to go gaming at the internet café for a couple hours every day after work. Cross Fire, QQ Xuanwu…I played everything.

As an apprentice I made 1,300 yuan per month. I would give 800 to 1,000 yuan to my wife and spend the rest at the internet café. I figured that, since my mom was taking care of my wife, I’d already fulfilled my responsibility. But my family was very unhappy with my behavior.

One day around noon, I had gotten off work and gone to the internet café when I got a call from my dad. Hearing the noise in the background, he knew where I had gone. He said, “You’d better get yourself home right this second, cook dinner, and do the laundry!”

I kept playing as I responded, “Let mom do it, I’m not going back.”

My dad was furious. It was raining that day, but he came charging into the internet café with an open umbrella, grabbed me, and gave me a harsh beating. He said, “Take a look at everyone here! You’re not like them. You’re about to be a father!”

I retorted, “They play games, I play games, and we’re the same age. What’s so different about us?”

After that, he beat me whenever I went to the internet café. The more he beat me, the more I went. In the end I figured I might as well not go home. I stayed in the restaurant’s dorms and went gaming as soon as I got off work, sometimes playing all night.


By then, my wife was already seven months pregnant, and she was furious with me. But I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong—I gave her money, and my mother took care of her. Whenever my dad lectured me, “You are her husband, you have to look after her,” my attitude was, “Well, we haven’t gotten our marriage certificate, and we haven’t put together a wedding. Why should I look after her?”


Our child is born

…until one day, my child was born. It was at around noon, and the sun was intense. I was working in the kitchen, where it was unbearably hot. I was dirty and stinky. My dad came hurrying in to find me, saying, “Come quick, your wife is giving birth!”

He left right after telling me. My mind went blank and I stood there, stunned by the news. The manager came over and said, “What are you doing? Your wife is giving birth! Hurry up and get to the hospital!”

I finally snapped out of it and rushed over to the hospital. The whole way, I couldn’t believe it was true.

After getting to the hospital, I stood waiting outside the delivery room, still wearing my cook’s uniform. I was filthy from head to toe.

After an hour, a nurse came out, cradling a tiny body. I hurried over and said that I was the mother’s partner. She took one look at me and said, “Are you really both so young?” Then she gently handed the baby to me.

“It’s a boy,” she said, and then she left.

Looking at the child in my arms, I had no clue what to do. I thought babies were born with their eyes closed, but he suddenly opened his eyes and blinked a couple times. I thought to myself, this is my son! My son was just born and knows how to open his eyes. How incredible!

When they wheeled my wife out, she didn’t want to look at me, because I wasn’t there next to her when she was giving birth. That was the first moment that I felt ashamed of myself.

Back in the hospital room, the husband of the woman in the next bed came over to help out. He looked at us, and said to my mom, “Your son and daughter-in-law are so young, they’re like kids raising kids!” My mom laughed along, “Yes, like kids raising kids.” That made me very uncomfortable.

My mom gave me 100 kuai and told me to go out and get something to eat. I took the money and somehow found myself at the internet café. Since I was feeling a lot of pressure, I wanted to decompress with some gaming. In that world, I didn’t need to face my responsibilities. I didn’t need to face being called a “kid raising a kid.”

But sitting in front of the computer, I felt restless. When I loaded the familiar graphics, I felt like I couldn’t play anymore.

I left the internet café, returned to the hospital ward, and sat by my wife’s side. She ignored me. On my second day of sitting with her, she spoke to me. She said, “When our son is grown up, I will tell him how you treated me when I was pregnant with him. I will tell him not to look after you in your old age.”

Hearing these words, I started to cry. My wife started crying too. I promised my wife I would work hard at the apprenticeship and become a chef as soon as possible.



A father’s responsibility

A month after the baby’s birth, I finally had the courage to explain the whole thing to my girlfriend’s parents. They quietly accepted us, and once we were of age we got our marriage certificate.

Until my son turned 2, my dad paid all the costs of raising him. I also matured in those two years, gradually recognizing my responsibility to my son. I took my restaurant apprenticeship seriously, hoping that I could become a chef someday and provide a better life for my family.

When my son was 2, I was the one to bring him to his first day of preschool. He wore a tiny little backpack with a bottle of water hung in front of his chest, sucking on his thumb. I took a photo of him like that.

That night, I kept looking at the photo and thinking: “He’s going to preschool this year, and will be going to elementary school in three or four years, then junior high, then high school. He may or may not get into college, but all these years are going to cost a lot of money. If I can’t make that much money, is he going to turn out like me?” Because I felt that if I hadn’t met my wife, I might have gone down the wrong path.

So I made up my mind to do the utmost to give my son a good future. By then I was already 18, an adult, and my wife was working, so my dad stopped giving me money. He said, “From now on, you’ll have to rely on yourself.”

Later on, after I had apprenticed for four more years, I became a chef, and the salary was decent. My master said to me, “As a chef, you’ll have no trouble getting by, but if you want to make a fortune, you’ll have to become your own boss.”

With this in mind, I opened my own restaurant last year. But unfortunately, I had to close down due to the pandemic. I have been delivering takeout all year. I make decent money doing this, and my plan is to save up and open another shop of my own next year.

Editor’s note: Xingchen is 26 this year, and his son is 9. Xingchen says he has been able to see more and more of himself in his son. Since he was neglected by his parents as a child, he keeps his son close, hoping to give the boy the love and attention he needs. He also understands the responsibilities of being a parent more and more, and has come to recognize the challenges his wife went through. He carries a guilty conscience and wishes to treat her better.

Li Yun, female, 26

For women, having a child before adulthood causes a lot of physical suffering; they pay a higher price for giving birth. Due to their young age, there is a higher risk for complications during birth. Mothers may experience tearing of their reproductive tract, as well as extensive hemorrhaging and postpartum symptoms. Infants may be underweight and have a lower survival rate or other issues.


Out of love

My name is Li Yun, and I’m from Hunan province. I currently live in Guangdong. I’m 26, and had my first child at 17.

When I was 16, I worked at the same factory as my boyfriend at the time. We met online. He was three years older than me, and spoiled me.

One time, we went to a get-together and drank too much. We were brought to a hotel by the other guests, and there we had sex. After some time, I started feeling sick, so my boyfriend’s mother took me to see the doctor. Once he felt my pulse, the doctor announced that I was pregnant.

I was pretty clueless at the time and had no idea what it meant to have a child, or what having a child would mean for our relationship.

But my boyfriend’s mother was very happy and wanted me to have the child. Thinking back, it seems kind of odd—his mother never made me tell my parents about the pregnancy. Because I was a “left-behind child,” and was never close with my parents, I never told them either.

My boyfriend also wanted me to have the child. He told me that he had heart problems. I felt bad for him, and felt I should sacrifice myself for the sake of our relationship.

My parents only found out when I was six months pregnant. By then, it was too late to get an abortion, so they couldn’t really protest.

This whole time, I was at my boyfriend’s home waiting for delivery. He stopped going to work, saying he would stay at home with me. But every day after dinner he would find some excuse to go out, and we had a lot of fights over this. Whenever I went for a checkup, his mother came with me, and he was never there.


Birth pangs

The day I gave birth, it was very cold out, and my belly hurt from the moment I woke up. Around 7 that night, I felt a bubble burst in my belly, and water rush out. My boyfriend’s mother said that was my water breaking. Because we couldn’t get a car, she had my boyfriend rush me over to the hospital in town on his motorcycle.

At the hospital, the doctor gave me a bed in the ward to rest, saying that I still had some time to wait before delivery. But already I couldn’t handle the pain—it hurt whether I had my legs straight or folded. Toward the end, I was on the verge of collapse. At last, holding my breath, I gave birth.

Because it was a natural birth, and I was fairly young, I experienced some tearing. But the doctor didn’t give me any anesthetic and went right in with a needle to sew me up. He pierced holes in my flesh and pulled a thread through. That was a kind of pain I never wish to experience again in this lifetime.

Back in my hospital room, I passed out on the bed. In my stupor, I could faintly hear my boyfriend’s parents calling my mother, saying I might not make it. I was bleeding heavily, but the hospital was too small to get me a blood transfusion in time. Later, a nurse told me that I was totally comatose, and had even started to go stiff—it was lucky that they were able to resuscitate me.

Finally, after staying in the hospital for two days, I was discharged. Astonishingly, my boyfriend’s family still didn’t call a taxi, and again took me and my baby the several kilometers home on a motorcycle.



Breaking out of my cage

After giving birth, I always cared for the baby. As soon as his paycheck came, my boyfriend would go and play cards. Often, he would lose it all within two hours.

Spending every day caring for my baby at home, I felt trapped. I desperately wanted to break out of my cage.

My boyfriend’s parents agreed to help me look after the baby. They also hoped that I could go out and make sure that my boyfriend did his work, so I went with my boyfriend to work in a factory.

From then on, our fights only got worse. He hadn’t change at all—he gambled just as much as before, and when he lost he came to borrow from me. I was at my wits’ end, but no matter how we fought, I could never persuade him.

Soon, a new girl joined the factory. She was quite pretty. At first I didn’t think much of it, but I later noticed that he and that girl seemed awfully close.

One day, while he was taking a shower, I opened up his phone and saw that he had been having very intimate conversations with that girl. So I used his phone to type out a reply: “Hello, I’m his girlfriend and the mother of his child. Please don’t insert yourself in our relationship.”

After he came out of the shower and saw what I had sent, he was furious. He suddenly pushed me onto the bed and started hitting me in the stomach, hard. That was the first time I saw this demonic side to him. It was genuinely terrifying.

Our fighting was so intense that our next-door neighbors heard the commotion. They kicked in our door and pulled him away. I remember one of them slapped him twice right then and there, saying, “No matter what, you can’t hit a woman!”

After that, I left him once and for all, and moved back into my own dorm building. From then on, I never saw him again.

Every time I go back home, I go visit my son. But in general, I have little contact with his family and our child. Because anyone connected to him makes me recall unpleasant memories of our past.

After we split up, I sank into an emotional pit. I was full of self-loathing. I felt that having a child out of wedlock was a kind of sin, that I didn’t deserve to have another relationship.


My guilt toward my child

Later, I heard that he had gotten married and had another child with his new bride. The moment I heard this news, I felt that I had put down a burden—I had finally broken free from this person!

But later, people told me that he and his wife had split up. For my part, I felt a deep regret because our adult mistakes had caused our kid to lose his family. And now he is doing the same thing to his second child.

Sometimes, when I go visit my child, I bring two gifts, and give the extra to the other kid. To me, both of these children are equally unfortunate.

In 2016, I met my current husband. We married after being together for over a year, and we just had a child. This time around, we understood what we were doing, and were well-prepared.

When I’m caring for my younger child, I feel guilty toward my older child. I only see my older son once a year, and spend very little time with him. He is 10 now, and I know he feels resentment toward me. Even though he likes to glue himself to my side whenever I visit, he sometimes doesn’t want to pick up my calls.

But I have no way of undoing all of this.

I used to not regret giving birth to him, but I now feel that my actions were wrong. At the time, I only considered bringing him into this world, but I didn’t fulfill my responsibilities by giving him a complete family. This was unfair to him, and may even affect his future.

Nobody wants to have a child out of wedlock at such a young age. Back then, neither of us understood anything about relationships or responsibilities. All the adults around us only blindly criticized us: They told us we were doing everything wrong, but nobody could tell us what we should have done instead.


This story is published as part of TWOC’s collaboration with Story FM, a renowned storytelling podcast in China. It has been translated from Chinese by TWOC and edited for clarity. The original can be listened to on Story FM’s channel on Himalaya and Apple Podcasts (in Chinese only). 


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