Couples who think three is a crowd

A couple enjoys the spring in a rape flower field in Zaozhuang city of Shangdong province. More and more young, educated and high-income Chinese couples are choosing not to have children.

While the family has long remained Chinese society's fundamental building block, couples who opt against parenthood are finding growing acceptance as the country's economic transformation reconstructs society.

While some "double-income-no-kids", or DINK couples, cite freedom from the burden of parenthood, others name motivations such as social concerns, pollution, education costs and food safety.

"Would the child I could bring into this world choose to be born if it could?" asks a 38-year-old man.

The man, Liu Dong, who refuses to provide his real name for privacy reasons, points out children who aren't yet conceived can't express their wishes.

"That's one of the main reasons I don't want kids. I don't want my kid to live a bitter life. But life is bitter."

He and his wife are going against the mainstream belief that the starting point for a happily married life is children. They instead subscribe to the "world of two" philosophy.

In fact, there is a growing number of fertile couples, in which both partners work, who elect not to have children. The term DINK originated in the West in the 1960s. The notion arrived in China in the 1980s, after the opening-up and reform.

Reports show many Chinese DINK couples are young, educated and high-income.

Liu and his wife run a small gift shop in a Beijing hutong. They enjoy carefree lives and travel to Southeast Asia every year to explore the stunning landscapes and exotic cultures.

They don't face much pressure, especially since their parents agree with their DINK lifestyles.

Chinese parents conventionally push their children to marry and have children - to the point some people wed and start families against their personal wishes.

"We're not confident we can provide the best for a baby," Liu says.

"It's not just about money. It's about society. Social conditions matter most, since humans are social animals."

His mother is a retired middle school teacher who conducts after-class programs in Beijing.

She jokes that if Liu and his wife have a child, they shouldn't send the kid to school because the students face too much pressure.

"They're forced to learn a lot of useless information," Liu says.

"They don't finish as the same innocent children they start as. The education process strips away their good qualities."

Liu says he and his wife have watched the kids of his relatives, neighbours and friends grow up glumly because of traditional education and patriarchal family structures.

"Chinese families don't allow much freedom," Liu's wife says. "Elders may believe they have the right to interfere in your life and family. But everyone should be independent."

Liu points out many parents don't have lives outside their children. They give their offspring love and devotion - but perhaps to the point of smothering.

He sometimes wonders what his child would be like if he had one. He has a friend who is a freethinking and educated woman in her 20s.

"I'd hope my kid could be like her," Liu says. "She feels the pain of life but isn't defeated by it. Yet I'm not confident my kid would be like her."

The freedom-loving couple quit their jobs in foreign companies in 2005 to open a small bar. Most of the customers are expats. The couple has learned about the world through speaking with guests from around the globe.

"They think differently from us," Liu's wife says.

"For instance, a 20-year-old Frenchman said he'd return to France to learn how to bake bread. Most Chinese believe people his age should go to university to enjoy a better future."

She believes some Chinese kids are too dependent on their families because they don't have the opportunity to explore the world.

A 2010 Horizon Research Consultancy Group survey found urban and suburban Chinese postponed their expected ages for childbirth by an average of 2.1 years because of such practical concerns as finances and home ownership.

Couples with a total monthly income of 8,000 yuan (S$1,607) in big cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, were likelier to say they'd consider parenthood.

But some DINK couples fear rising living costs. Others want freedom and believe raising children is too wearisome. Some worry about pollution and food safety.

Fu Duoduo simply doesn't like kids.

"I don't want to be around them," says the 30-year-old, who works in a State-owned company in Hunan's provincial capital Changsha.

"And China's environment isn't good. Even if conditions were better, I wouldn't want children."

She and her 32-year-old husband Li Zhao married this year.

They use contraception but have no idea what they'd do if she got pregnant. They're considering tubal and oviduct legation.

Her husband doesn't want kids because his parents always fought when he was a boy.

She wants freedom.

Her parents accept her DINK aspirations. But her mother-in-law really wants a grandchild.

"We won't change our minds," Fu says. "Crying, noisy kids are disruptive and annoying. We always think we're each other's kid. I'm amazed some couples decide to have a second child. They probably feel the same about us not wanting kids."

Fu and Li can wake up naturally on days off work. They don't face economic pressures - aside from investing to provide for retirement, since children usually care for parents in their old age.

"My colleagues and friends think we're unusual," Fu says.

"But we cause no harm. We can even cover for coworkers because our time is freer. We're much better than people who have kids but don't raise them. You have to be who you are and never compromise for anyone."

Singles with DINK aspirations often struggle to find spouses.

Fu and her husband met in a local QQ instant messenger DINK group.

Online DINK sites have flourished in China in recent years. There are groups for singles and couples, local and national forums - you name it.

She'd previously dated a divorced man with a child so she wouldn't have to undergo childbirth and because she couldn't find a man seeking a DINK partnership before meeting her husband.

Her husband couldn't find a girlfriend with DINK ambitions until he met his ex online. He quit his job, sold his property and moved from Beijing to Changsha.

The couple broke up.

Then Li met and married Fu.

"Living DINK means I can control my life and live as I wish," says Li, who runs his own company.

"I can live happily with my love for the rest of my life and pursue the lifestyle I long for, regardless of others' opinions."

He says their life is quite simple. They don't have the conflicts that might arise from raising kids. In many families, for example, raising children creates tension between mothers- and daughters-in-law.

"And some couples become more concerned about the kids than their spouses and neglect their partners' feelings," Li says.

"The sense of loss affects relationships. But we don't have this problem."

His mother sometimes says she wants a grandchild but knows she won't get one. After much discussion, she has come to support her son's decision.

While most women her age are raising grandchildren, she travels often with friends and spends time on online social networks.

"I think my mother's life is much better than other old people's. My choice has made her golden years better."

But some couples who wed with a DINK mindset experience a situation in which one partner changes his or her mind - either independently or because of parental pressure.

If the partners can't compromise, such couples might find their marriages on the rocks. And some couples have babies due to accidental pregnancies.

DINK couples' divorce rates are twice that of those with children, China Marriage and Family Counseling Center deputy director Ming Li explains.

That's because children are traditional families' reinforcing bonds. And it's easier to divide property than kids.

"DINK families are simpler but less stable," Ming says.

"Many have pets they treat like children. I suggest they don't get divorced because they don't have kids and keep the babies from accidental pregnancies."

Li says: "Singles who want to live DINK are very cautious about choosing partners because the decision affects the rest of our lives. We need to communicate a lot to ensure our personalities are compatible. Many people who want to live DINK would rather stay single if they don't find true love."

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Sociology's family and gender studies director Wu Xiaoying says: "Most people think kids are the product of their love and can sustain it. But I believe marriage is a bit fragile in this era. Becoming DINK is only a choice - nothing so special."

She believes people become DINK for various reasons. For example, Chinese marry at a relatively late age because it takes years to finish higher education. The pressure to marry and have children comes when they're still struggling to get promoted.

"Lifestyles were uniform in China's past," Wu says.

"If you were different, you'd be scorned and face social pressure. In today's China, there are not only DINK but also single people. This is because of progress. Everyone can freely choose their lifestyles."