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May 12, 2011

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Babies bring hope to Sichuan moms

TENS of thousands of families were devastated after an earthquake jolted southwestern China three years ago today.

Facing lost loved ones, survivors picked themselves up and found the courage to continue. Many women who lost a child in the quake found that having another child has given them hope for the future.

Xie Hongying says she felt ecstatic when she heard her baby girl say "mom" for the first time.

"It felt like she put an end to all the doom and gloom I had been feeling while also giving me the courage to face the future," says Xie, 33, one of thousands of parents who lost a child in the quake that left 80,000 people dead or missing.

Xie's seven-year-old daughter and her husband were killed in the disaster on May 12, 2008, and she once wished that she had died with them. She remarried six months after the quake.

In Sichuan Province, a total of 3,761 women conceived again and 2,864 babies had been born by the end of March. The government allowed parents who lost their only child or had a child who became disabled in the disaster to have a second baby, according to the Sichuan Provincial Population and Family Planning Commission.

"It's fair to say newborn babies play a pivotal role in helping bereaved parents regain their confidence in life," says Zhang Bo, deputy director of the commission.

Population and family planning authorities at different levels in Sichuan began providing free reproductive health services, including counseling, health checks and delivery services soon after the quake.

However, hundreds of women in Sichuan who qualified and were willing to have a second baby still failed to conceive due to both physical and psychological difficulties, Zhang says.

Nonetheless, mothers with newborns say it's difficult to make ends meet as prices keep rising and they have to repay loans for new homes they had purchased to replace old ones destroyed in the quake.

Xie says her daughter has changed her outlook and given her a new purpose in life, but that she still feels sad when thoughts of her dead daughter enter her mind.

"When I look at my baby girl, I can't help but feel that my dead daughter has come back. They both have big eyes and long, upturned eyelashes," she says, weeping.

Xie's second husband lost his wife and son, who was also seven years old, in the quake. The man was a close friend of Xie's deceased husband.

Xie says some might think six months is too quick to remarry, but she defends her decision.

"I was grief-stricken at that time, so I just hoped to marry someone to support me psychologically and to have another baby as soon as possible," she says. "We knew each other well and shared a similar tragedy, so I chose him. Under that circumstances, love didn't matter much.

"Like most of our friends who remarried after the quake, we didn't hold a wedding ceremony," she continues, while touching the two rings on her left hand, one from each husband.

Now Xie's family has moved into a 106-square-meter apartment in Yongchang County, which replaced Beichuan County.

Yongchang, which means eternal prosperity, is 23 kilometers from the old town.

However, not every bereaved mother has been as fortunate as Xie.

Wang Qinghua, a 42-year-old resident in the area, says she has been dreaming about having a baby every day since her only son died in the quake.

"I tried in-vitro fertilization twice, but it didn't work. I don't know why. What should I do?" Wang says, her voice betraying deep anxiety.

She says she spends all her leisure time with bereaved mothers who have also failed to conceive again.

"Every time I see a couple carrying their baby, I feel sad. I simply don't have any motivation to move on," she says.

Wang Yongxing, head of Beichuan's population and family planning service center, says that since the quake, 881 women had conceived again and 705 babies had been born.

Nevertheless, more than 200 women who qualified and were willing to produce a second baby haven't become pregnant. About 30 to 40 percent of them may be unable to conceive again, he says.

"We invited fertility specialists from across the country to provide free fertility tests, counseling and medical treatment to the women who had difficulties conceiving," says Liu Juhong, an official with the county's population and family planning bureau.

Those women were provided with two free test-tube conception procedures, but the success rate was only about 30 percent, Liu says.

"This week we invited a group of renowned experts to consult with bereaved mothers who are above the age of 40 and have failed to conceive," Wang says.

Soon after the quake the provincial population and family planning authority set up an expert panel composed of 58 professionals in gynecology, pediatrics, Chinese medicine and psychology to assist in the reproductive program.

Zhang says most of the women having difficulties conceiving are above the age of 35.

"Besides physical factors, some women failed to conceive due to mental stress because they still feel deep sorrow after losing their child. We will enhance psychological counseling for them," Zhang says.

Wang suggests the government and social groups provide financial aid to bereaved parents who can no longer have a baby, as Chinese people traditionally expect their children to support them when they become old.

Although she identifies herself as an optimist, Xie says she still feels the heavy pressures of raising her new baby.

"Prices have surged since I had my first daughter in 2001. Now, I spend about 1,000 yuan (US$154) every month to buy her food," says Xie, who works as a temporary employee in the Beichuan County government.

Still, she says she feels happy with a second chance to raise a child. "For the rest of my life, I will pour all my efforts into tending my family and locking the sad past in the innermost part of my heart," Xie says.


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