BEIJING—At 12:20 p.m. the doors to the waiting room of Fuxing Hospital’s obstetrics ward fly open and 33-year-old father-to-be Mei Yu is standing there clutching a lunch box of steaming porridge and fish.
He’s perspiring slightly — he sped in on his bicycle.
He slips the box through the doors of the delivery room — he’s not allowed inside. A nurse takes the package and passes it to his wife, Zheng Yalin, who is about to give birth to their first child.
It’s a big moment in the life of a Chinese couple — perhaps the biggest moment.
Most couples are allowed only one child under China’s family planning policies.
And yet — even with that restriction — the number of annual births in China is mind-bending: last year more than 18 million babies were born here. This year 18 million more are on the way.
Every two years a cohort of infants roughly equal to the population of Canada crawls on to the world stage.
“I know people in the West don’t like our one-child policy,” smiles Mei Yu, a university-graduated bureaucrat who works for the central government. “But our resources are limited and I understand it: we shouldn’t be thinking about what’s best for us, but what’s best for society.”
The couple met just before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and married in August 2009. Now, in what many believe will be China’s century, they’ve decided to start a family.
Once a potentially hazardous experience for both mother and child, giving birth in China has never been safer.
“Thirty years ago when I gave birth to Yalin we used to say the experience was like passing through death’s gate,” says Tian Aiju, the expectant mother’s own mom, who is pacing beside her son-in-law.
“I’m not worried,” counters Mei Yu. “I have complete faith in this hospital, in its doctors and nurses.”
Fuxing Medical University Hospital prides itself on its obstetrics unit — a sought-after venue for childbirth in the Chinese capital.
At the entrance to the waiting room, a banner announces: “May peace and safety be with mother and child. Mother’s milk is like gold!”
Another greeting promises “dreams will come true” inside these doors and boasts of a hospital that is “comfortable, safe and full of care.”
Nearby, a nurse guards the locked entrance to the waiting room, ensuring only family may enter.
Except for the Chinese signage and the locked entrance, this could be any modern Western hospital.
As with so many categories of human development, China has come a long way in a short time in the science of childbirth.
Not long ago, giving birth in this country was dangerous. As recently as 1996 almost 25 of every 1,000 newborns died in the process.
Today, that figure is down to 8.3, according to government data.
The comparable number for the U.S. is 4 — and for Canada, just 3.
While China might not be on a par with the West yet, this is a huge gain for the country. The Lancet, the British medical journal, recently wrote that “other countries can learn from China’s substantial progress.”
Suddenly Tian Aiju pulls out her phone and calls her expectant daughter, just steps away behind the glass doors of the delivery room.
In keeping with hospital rules, pregnant moms can bring in only three things: a cellphone, the cellphone’s charger and tissue paper.
“Try to eat as much as possible,” Tian implores. “You’ll need strength this afternoon!”
Yalin says she’s not hungry and sends the lunch back almost untouched.
Outside in the waiting room one expectant father is leaning over his iPad, blogging his anxieties to his friends.
At 2:36 p.m. Mei Yu’s phone suddenly pulses. Yalin has sent a text: her cervix has dilated five centimetres, she reports.
Twenty minutes later: 10 centimetres.
At 3:36 p.m. she texts: “I am on the operating table.”
Father-to-be, grandmother-to-be and grandfather-to-be, Zheng Chang’an, start pacing even more.
One hour later, Mei Yu’s phone goes off and he lunges for it, fully expecting to hear his wife’s voice.
Instead, it’s his own mother.
She’s 1,400 kilometres away in Huangmei County, Hubei province, boarding a train. She’ll be there in 11 hours, she says.
Such is childbirth in modern China today: an event wrapped in iPads, cellphones, smooth-running trains and — as always — family.
Still, Mei Yu confides he had a sleepless night.
“I was thinking about all kinds of things related to the baby,” he says. “It wasn’t about the hospital. But before, I didn’t have any expectations about whether it would be a boy or a girl. Lately though I’ve been hoping for a boy. And so has Yalin. You know you don’t really need to worry about a girl when she’s little. But once she grows up, there’s so much to worry about.”
Soon, however, those worries are over.
At 5:38 p.m. a doctor bursts through the delivery room doors and shouts, “A boy — 3,480 grams (7.7 pounds)!”
Father and grandparents burst into smiles. In fact Mei Yu cannot stop smiling. He’s like this for 30 minutes until he is finally allowed into the delivery room to see his wife and son.
At bedside, a nurse shows him how to carefully hold the baby — yet to be named — who seems impossibly tiny wrapped in a pink blanket in Mei Yu’s powerful arms.
“Son of Mei Yu,” as he is identified on his birth certificate, coos himself to sleep and soon mother and child are wheeled to maternity room 26, where they’ll rest for about five days before heading home.
The family as a whole will discuss names for the child. But traditionally, it’s the paternal grandfather, Mei Yu’s father, who has the final word.
“He’s beautiful!” Yalin’s mother exclaims, emerging from seeing her grandson. “And,” she adds, “no C-section!”
That’s the way Yalin wanted it. “I think natural child birth is the way to go,” said the graduate of the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. “I think it’s better for the health of the mother and the baby.”
She’s exceptional on this score — as many as 65 per cent of Chinese mothers do have C-sections, according to a recent study. Most women want them.
The reasons are varied, but they include the belief that the procedure ensures quicker and safer delivery, less pain and rules out any chance of an episiotomy — the cutting of the vagina to assist in difficult deliveries.
For Yalin — like all mothers in China — there is a second stage to the ritual of birth. It’s known as zuo yuezi or “sitting the month,” during which new mothers are confined indoors under a strict set of rules meant to restore their health.
It’s an ancient tradition still followed by almost all women in China.
But many younger moms now feel some of those rules — that they not shower or brush their teeth for a month, for example — are outdated and not in the best interests of mother or child.
“Until recently your mother or mother-in-law would say, ‘You shouldn’t brush your teeth. You shouldn’t take a bath. You should wear warm clothes and not go out,’” says 31-year-old Li Fang, a mother and manager of a company providing live-in “nurses” to help mothers through the month.
There are an estimated 4,000 such companies in Beijing today, charging between $1,400 and $1,900 for a 26-day period.
“But I think this isn’t very scientific,” Li Fang continues. “We can’t stay healthy that way. It’s not good for the baby. Mothers need to breastfeed their newborns and they have to stay clean so their babies stay healthy.”
Yalin has decided to sit the month, she explains, and observe some of the dietary traditions, for example, but to maintain her hygiene.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, in the middle of sitting the month, Yalin and Mei Yu were surrounded by family in their apartment on Muxidi Rd., everyone taking turns looking after the new baby — whose name is now Mei Qing.
In a culture that still has a strong bias for boys over girls in birth — gender ratios in China are out of balance compared to other countries — Yalin said gender didn’t matter. But she “understood” how farmers still want boys. They see them as “strong beams” needed to work the land, she said.
In fact, in many places in the Chinese countryside, if you have a girl, the state will allow you a second chance at having a boy. Hence, you can legally have two children.
And because Yalin and Mei Yu are both single children, born under the one-child policy of 1978, they will be allowed, under law, to have two children if they choose. Yalin and Mei Yu are thinking about it.
“Chinese people associate children with happiness,” says Mei Yu. “The more children, the greater the happiness — and a single child might feel a bit lonely too.”
But that decision will come later, as China’s century unfolds.
“China’s century?” wonders Mei Yu. “I’m not really sure I’d call it that. I believe we should think of this as a happy time for everyone — a time when the world is coming together and belongs to all of us.
“I say this in all sincerity,” he adds. “It’s a time when developing countries have the chance to become developed countries. That’s the way I see it.”