Three Children in a One-Child World

Parenting in China…oh where do I begin? It’s like we’ve taken an obstacle course that was a challenge to begin with and added flame-throwers, swinging axes and a pit full of venomous snakes. We definitely live in a country that is now designed completely around the one-child policy and children who go to school, starting at 2 years of age, from 8-5 every day. If they are not in school, they are being looked after by their doting grandparents. While I disagree with the one-child policy on principle, that the government doesn’t have a right to tell you how many children you can have, I have developed a one-child-wish of my own. We do see the occasional set of twins, and the occasional family with two children. You can keep both of your children if they are twins, and if both spouses are only children, then they can have two children. They can also pay a fine, equivalent to six times their previous year’s income, in installments over a ten year period, to be able to have a second child (but definitely not more than two). Needless to say, we make quite a splash when we go outside. We hear “san ge” (three + the measure word that precedes the understood “haizi,” or child) murmured all around us, and a lot of people stop us to touch the kids or just to give us a thumbs up (unless, of course, they are older women, then they also need to tell us how underdressed our children are). Brian’s favorite reply to the “san ge” and the thumbs up is “Ni yao yi ge?” (Do you want one?) It’s nice to be able to make one joke in Chinese, even if most of the time we don’t feel like we are joking. And yes, I do know which one I’d give them.


I cannot tell you how much easier it would be to hold one child’s hand while walking down a busy street, or carry one child into and out of a crowded elevator, or go shopping in the market, where a double stroller simply won’t fit. Double strollers don’t really fit anywhere here, except in the street, which is pretty dangerous. The key to not becoming roadkill is to walk in a straight line and never make any sudden moves to the right or the left, and the cars and bikes will pass you within inches (or centimeters, I should say, as I live in a metric country now). We can’t walk on the sidewalks because people park on those whenever the mood strikes them, unfazed by the fact that they are 4 inches above the roadway with no ramp. Even if a sidewalk looks clear at the outset, I have too often found myself at the other end fenced in by cars on all sides and had to retrace my steps to escape. We also can’t fit into the main entrance of our building with the stroller open, so we have to get the kids out and collapse it, which of course, means they will run around like loose balls in a pinball machine, bouncing off walls and people walking by. Hipermart (the place where I buy my non-perishable items) is in the basement of a building only accessible by escalator or stairs, and let me tell you, there is absolutely no way to safely get three children and a stroller (leave out the stroller, even) onto an escalator by yourself. Even with two of us it’s tricky. I begged the cashier at Hipermart to let me take the elevator in the middle of the store that goes up into the mall above the store, but she told me no very firmly. She clearly has no heart. You may ask why I can’t just leave the stroller at home, but there is simply no way the boys would survive more than a few seconds once we stepped into a roadway. Remember what I said about no sudden moves?

Aside being in a one-child-friendly culture, the very worst part of being in China with small children is living in an apartment. Our apartment is big, but not as big as our house was, and there is certainly not the personal space the children had at home in Minnesota. They also have a lot fewer toys (which for the most part wouldn’t be such a problem, except that they now do ALL their playing inside), and they have very few opportunities to play with other children. In Minnesota, we had several playdates every week, and it was easy for me to throw them all in the car to run errands, or put them in the wagon and walk to the park, or just put them out in the backyard to blow off steam. Here, they are stuck inside most of the time, because going outside is such a challenge that I just don’t want to do it as much as I should. At least every other day, it is too cold and windy to stay outside for very long, and every time we go out, we need to don the snowpants, socks, shoes, mittens, hats and coats that shield me from Chinese-grandparent-wrath, even if it isn’t that cold outside. This wouldn’t be so bad, except at least one, if not two, or all three of the kids don’t WANT to go outside. They may be crabby because they’re so claustrophobically trapped in our apartment, but faced with the prospect of many hands touching them and trying to pick them up, and lots of people trying to get them to say something in Chinese to them, they’d rather just stay inside. Worst of all, someone is going to have to ride on Piper’s lap. It is pretty common that they either don’t want to go from the beginning, or one or two of them start crying halfway through the process of getting ready to go outside. I am taking them outside to help them burn off energy and get “fresh” air (the freshness of the air in China is debatable, but it certainly is cold and…invigorating), but it doesn’t seem worth it when they behave even worse when I’m trying to get them there.


Once everyone is clothed, our journey to the outside world begins, and it is a good day if only one child nearly gets squashed between the elevator doors that are a little too eager to close, and an even better day if I can get them all to just stand still instead of careening into the other people in the elevator over and over again (I still haven’t accomplished this yet). Then comes the challenge of getting them to all exit the elevator in a timely manner. (I have finally figured out how to keep one finger on the “door open” button, retain my grip on the stroller AND grab their jacket sleeves to propel them through the elevator doors of which they have a very justified fear.) Then we emerge from the hall of elevators into the main lobby of our building, and Piper is faced with the choice of walking or riding with someone on her lap–somehow this is always a surprise to her. She hates walking because her legs are “sooo tired,” and I cannot stand in the lobby or by the side of the road with her sitting on the ground, crying, refusing to get up, surrounded by Chinese onlookers, so holding a boy in her lap is really the only alternative (and one she hates, but prefers to walking). I place a boy on her lap, and we leave the building with (if it’s a good day) only one child crying (the one seated on Piper’s lap).

Ready to Roll

We can’t go too far from home, because there’s only so long they can last without the fighting starting because there are three of them in a double stroller, but we have a couple of nice parks within half a block to a block of us. They run around for a while, while I run around trying to keep them out of the pee, mucus, spit and dog poop, and once the second child starts crying, we pack up and go home. This is when we have to collapse the stroller to re-enter our building, and usually by this point, they are in no condition to walk cooperatively, but so far I haven’t left one behind.


The effect of being in an entirely different culture, combined with cabin fever and no social outlets, has been very detrimental to their behavior. Those of you who are intimately acquainted with my children’s behavior at home will probably be shocked to learn that they actually cry more now that we are here (yes, it’s actually possible). And of course, Brian and I are under more stress now than we ever were in the whole of their lives to this point (even working on the house with 6-month-old twins was better than this), so we are not exactly well-equipped to cope with the uptick in screaming/crying/whining. We have instituted the crying stair, where all crying that is not the result of an injury must take place. Of course, someone starts to cry, I say, “Crying Stair!” and they suck it up and say, “I’m all better, Mom,” and begin to cry again 2 minutes later, and so on. So now I not only hear more crying, but I hear it starting more often, and have to do something about it that many more times. Also, the crying stair is supposed to be different than time out in that you can get up when you are fit for interaction again, but no one gets it. In fact, when Toby has been silent for a minute, and I say, “You know, Toby, when you stop crying, you can get up,” it starts him all over again.


Needless to say, all of this crying has worn my nerves to the thickness of a sheet of tissue paper. I feel like I have become the worst version of myself as a mother, and it’s just depressing. Every day I start out resolved to do better, and by 10:00 I want to pull my hair out. Even Brian is at his wit’s end, and he has never, ever in his life been impatient with them. I know the kids are not bad kids, they just happen to cry, a lot, and fight sometimes, as is bound to happen when you have two nearly-three-year-olds and a four-year-old (and they really don’t even fight all that much), and aside from the times when there is only one parent present and that parent is very distracted (I won’t name any names), they don’t get into that much trouble. We’ve had a few terrible days in that department, one that resulted in a broken kindle, one that resulted in every single one of my tampons being opened and played with (there are no tampons in China, and I kind of need them) and every single one of my “sanitary napkins” being opened and stuck up around the upstairs. I’m still trying to figure out how to get the adhesive off of a few things, since I can’t read enough Chinese to find something like Goo Gone at the store. The latest incidents were yesterday and today. Yesterday, when I got home from doing the shopping with Piper, the boys were naked, playing in the sink in the bathroom, with an entire roll of toilet paper spread out around the living room, and the crumbs of a single muffin mashed to a pulp and somehow also spread over the entire living room floor, and intermingled were pieces of banana. Today, when I got home from tutoring, Piper had taken the entire contents of a container of gum, maybe 30 pieces, chewed each piece, stuck about 10 of them around her room, and then formed the other 20 into a wad and stuck it back in the gum container. She had also taken an entire box of Bandaids, cut open several of the packages (that each hold 4 Bandaids), and stuck them on various things in her room, and she gave herself a haircut. Not enough that I noticed by looking at her head; I only found out when I found the piece of hair on the windowsill in her room.


I know there are so many things that go into the way the kids are behaving these days, and I feel terrible for them, especially for Piper, because the effects of the stress are the most obvious in her, but I feel like my well of patience has run dry. The thing is, I don’t want to hire a nanny to watch them while I go to work, even though that would probably be better for them at this point than having an exasperated mom. I just have this fixed idea in my mind that I had kids because I wanted to be the one taking care of them, even when I want to kill or sell them, and I am not sure that I could handle living in China if I also blamed it for taking that dream away from me. So I have to figure out how to be a better mom in these circumstances. Living in an apartment means the the kids need more structured activities (so they don’t go out of their mind with boredom) and a lot more supervision than I was accustomed to giving them in the US, and it comes at a time when I just feel too tired to do it, and just as trapped as they do in this house. Lazy moms like me should definitely not live in confined spaces with three children.


Sorry that whole bit has been so negative. It is probably the biggest challenge in our lives right now, and not a day goes by that I don’t go to bed with some big mothering regret. But tomorrow is another day, and maybe it will be better.


I should close with a few positive things. I discovered that the boys fall asleep faster if I sit between them at naptime and read a book (to myself), so it’s a nice treat to look forward to that time that I have to just read a book, when I can’t be up doing anything else, like cleaning up the morning’s disasters. They fall asleep in about 20 minutes, but it is a wonderful 20 minutes, the best of the day. And the kids really love each other, and play together amazingly well sometimes. They have such vivid imaginations, and Piper manages them so nicely (I know she shouldn’t be managing them at all, but I can hear her at it when I’m not in the room with them). She is so good at telling them to use their words, and sometimes at making peace between them, and coaching them through life’s little problems, like hamster bites. (“It’s okay, Toby, just throw it if it bites you.”) They play “Mommy, Daddy and Jano” every day, doctor, Barbies (yes, all of them), and their favorite, “Piston Cup,” where they run around in circles over and over and over upstairs. Also a game that sounds exactly like they are saying “The Naughty Prussian,” but since they don’t know the word “prussian,” I’m pretty sure it has to be something else. It really amazes me how much the boys just accept her dominance, even though she really is only 15 months older than they are (though Brian did point out that she’s almost twice as old as they are, and has waaaay more experience).

Piston Cup, as it is played outside.

Aw, all playing Barbies together.



  1. I think I’d go crazy having to be inside so much. When we get stretches of winter days that are too cold to go outside, I know the house starts to feel like it’s caving in on me.

  2. My heart hurts for the stress you feel. It was so hard just moving to Florida and we rented a house with a yard. It can only get better right?

  3. I’m sorry its so hard right now, April. I’m well acquainted with what isolation can do to a mother’s soul. Remember, though, you are powerful in this. Order your days like your life depends on it, because for now it does. I have a ton of ideas for you, but only want to offer them if you want them. Message me on facebook. Maybe right now you just need to hear you can do this and it will get easier. Love, Lisa

  4. Mary Bacon · · Reply

    You should be given a “Golden Star” for all your efforts. I wonder if kids could learn how to meditate, make it a game and give them all a ‘secret’ word for themselves to think of (something simple and smoothing, tell them to think of a place they would like to be and keep their eyes shut and keep thinking of that work. You could do the same and use the standard word ‘Ommm’ (not sure of spelling) and just let thoughts go through your head. And another time tell them something to think of, then ask them one a a time to be the one to think of something for everyone to think of. Just a thought that came to me that may help you. You don’t have to tell them what to think of after they get the hang of it, then when everyone is done after 10 to 20 minutes (however long they can last), they can tell you all about it. Give the one that stays the quietest the longest a special treat. I wish I knew of some crafty things for them to do, but I was never an art teacher. Maybe look on line for something. Something physical my sister & I used to do was to take two kitchen chairs and turn upside down, put face to face together with the legs on the outside, then put a big blanket over them, makes a wonderful tent that might keep them busy for a while and give a little privacy, so they may think. Something that my mother used to do in place of a coloring book was to take a cup or glass, turn upside down and put it on a piece of paper, trace around it, then move the cup into different directions and keep tracing around it and make designs with it. Then color it if they wanted to. You can also take your left thumb and turn it towards your wrist and fingers in a curled position, place your hand down and hold it on paper and then trace around it, it comes out looking like a dogs head. Have the kids finish drawing in the ears, eyes and noise, and they could also finish making the whole body if they liked it. I hope this gives your some ideas and good luck, hang in there. How long do you have to stay in China? Again, I’m Betsy’s cousin, and even though I never met you, I feel like I know you. Keep writing, maybe it will help you to keep your sanity, and maybe you could publish a book some day when you get back home and get some extra money.

  5. April, sounds like quite an ordeal! I give you guys so much credit! I can’t imagine… :\ I do have a few ideas if you want them…I have 20 kids now in my pre-k class. It’s been so crazy, when we can’t get outside or get into the big room. I’ve been doing some of these things at home too, cuz its hard for me to get outside with my older ones, with the baby. Maybe try starting a preschool type schedule with them? Have a theme each day of the week, for some indoor dramatic play. You mentioned not having tons of toys…why don’t you try using things around the house. Like you could have a beach day one day, and have them get in their suits or undies 🙂 Then fill up a larger container with water and toys or cups for them to play with. Or the bath tub works if u have one…then when they are done, lay out towels and have them dance around while you blow a blow dryer on them(like the warm sun) A container of sand like a sand box…or if sand is not an option, rice worked well. Put in cups and spoons, toy cars, etc. Then to end the beach day, ahead of time, make some homeade juice popsicles for a fun treat. Everyday, you can do another theme and then repeat beach day or other theme the next week. They will be so excited for it again by the next time. If they do get bored with a theme after a while, rotate in a new one. Other theme ideas…set out a box full of yours and brians clothes,shoes,purses,bags,etc, for dress up play. Grocery store is another easy one. Save boxes and containers for play. Set up like a store and give the kids grocery bags. Set out a calculator for a cash register. Post office…set out stationary, envelopes,mail bag, make a mail box out of a shoe box, stickers for stamps or stamps and ink pads if you have. Music time…play music, make shakers instruments, have a parade, dance with scarves, blow up a bunch of balloons, blow bubbles(mom or dad),garbage can drums, etc. Have an art time each day too. Homeade playdough, marble painting or roll toy car wheels in paint and kids drive all over paper. You can use just about anything for art supplies. Keep all activities on a timer. 10 min is usually a good time. Rotate activities often to reduce bordom. Even do this for free play. Set up three toy stations. Have the kids play at each station for 10 min, then switch to next. Before you know it, 30 min has passed. Make sure they stay put for as long as timer goes. Use sticker charts for behavior and keep to set schedule. Eventually they will fall into a groove and so will you. It will def take some time, planning and patients but you can do it. Your planned indoor activities will become routine. Hope that helps a bit! Let me know if you want more ideas! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: