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Oh, Baby - Death and rebirth in Sichuan

A year after the Sichuan earthquake, mothers still grieve for their lost or severely handicapped children. China permits most to have another child, and this one-year anniversary is also a time of joy and rebirth. Yao Minji reports from Sichuan.

Older women who lost children or whose children got severely disabled in last year's Sichuan earthquake are among the most traumatized by the loss. While still mourning, many are trying to get pregnant again, some suffering miscarriages, everyone suffering anxiety - but they also are giving birth and cradling new life.

"Getting pregnant again is an irresistible but sad choice," says Liu Meng, a mental health worker from Hebei Province who set up Home for Mothers in quake-hit Dujiangyan City on March 8, International Women's Day.

Many women, especially those who are in their late 30s and early 40s, are deeply troubled and torn, both mourning and yearning for another child when they are past their prime child-bearing years.

"These mothers, both young and older, are forced to change roles rapidly in a short period of time: from a mother to a quake victim, and mother who lost a child to a pregnant woman soon to be a mother again," says Liu.

And many are filled with joy at this time as they show off their new babies or anticipate birth, while remembering other children.

About 80 women are part of Home for Mothers, a kind of health and community center that opened in the temporary community of Xinju in Dujiangyan. In the past year, Liu and his team have cared for about 250 women, including 60 who became pregnant.

Some are residents in need of long-term counseling, many drop in and spend the day in the warm and busy environment.

Kuang Xiaohong, 35; Li Daifen, 35; and Yang Daiyu, 39, live in Qipan Village, Xiang'e Town in Dujiangyan City where an estimated 90 percent of buildings were reduced to rubble in the May 12 earthquake.

All three mothers lost their children when the Xiang'e Town Middle School was destroyed in the Wenchuan earthquake last May 12.

Li and Yang just gave birth to their second child °?-°?°? Li, a son, and Yang, a daughter - each sleeping soundly in their mothers' arms. Kuang is due on May 29.

They smile joyfully as mothers do at their babies, but their voices fall as they talk about their lost children, who would now be in 9th and 10th grades had they survived.

"I don't know when and how to tell him about his sister," says Yang, who falls silent. Nobody dares or knows how to break silence.

The devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake claimed 68,712 lives, with another 17,921 listed as missing. About 4.45 million people were injured and more than 7,000 were left disabled. Last Thursday, the provincial government announced that 5,335 students were confirmed dead or missing. Another 546 students were left disabled.

The shocking death toll of children, many of them trapped in collapsed school buildings, has been a major issue. The names Beichuan High School, Juyuan Middle School, Xinjian Elementary School, Xiang'e Town Middle School and others schools are infamous. At Beichuan alone, more than 1,000 students among the total of 3,000 were killed.

Their families were devastated - many had lost their only child. Because of China's one-child policy applicable to most Han Chinese, some had been sterilized (in a reversible procedure of tubal ligation) after giving birth. Many got implanted IUD contraceptives as a matter of course. These can be removed by professionals, making pregnancy possible.

Faced by the emotional calamity, the National Population and Family Planning Commission went to work right away to help many women become pregnant again. Teams of doctors were dispatched to the province, including some from Shanghai.

Sichuan's Family Planning Commission says that so far there are 1,641 pregnant women among all those who are eligible to have a second child and have applied for permission.

If a child was killed or severely handicapped in the earthquake, the family is permitted to have a second child.

The family planning policy provides for exceptions nationwide: It generally permits rural families to have two children and permits ethnic minorities to have more children than Han Chinese.

So far, 252 healthy babies are reported to have been born in the province - the government pays for everything, from pregnancy testing to childbirth.

Many cheer for these new mothers, mothers-to-be and their babies, yet another child is no substitute for a lost child. And many mothers, in their late 30s and early 40s, have suffered miscarriages and complications. They are anxious to get pregnant again, but worried.

Volunteer counselor Liu, 35, specializes in women's woes. He is a crisis intervention professional from Hebei University of Economics and Business and one of the few volunteer counselors who have stayed on since last May.

When he arrived, Liu found most mothers "crying every day, not loud screaming, but in tears all the time."

As a child, Liu himself lived in temporary shelter after an earthquake in his hometown. He has delayed his own plans to have a child because he is caught up in his Sichuan project for grieving and pregnant women.

Dujiangyan, one of the most seriously hit, was the site of Juyuan High School, Xinjian Elementary School and Xiang'e Town Middle School. Official death tolls from each school are in the hundreds and residents say school-age children have almost vanished in some villages near Wenchuan and Yingxiu, the earthquake epicenter, Liu says in explaining his reasons for founding the center.

In China, especially in the countryside, parents typically pin all their hopes on their children. "The loss is particularly devastating for those whose kids are already in middle or high schools, just steps away from adulthood," he says.

The mothers of these children often have difficulties getting pregnant again due to the age, not to mention their sorrow from losing children and the mental anxiety for pregnancy. He has seen many women who suffer one or two miscarriages.

"Even if they give birth to a healthy baby, they will be in their 50s or even 60s as the child grows up. This group needs the most time to recover mentally," says Liu.

The child is key to family relations and the loss of a child can lead either to closer relations as the couple shares its loss - or to estrangement.

Grieving mothers represent the largest group of quake victims who have come to Liu's center for counseling.

More than 100 mothers have come from nearby areas. Some have commuted seven hours all the way from Beichuan to talk about their sorrow.

'If only ... I should have'

Xiang'e Town in Dujiangyan is so named for its beautiful location, facing (xiang in Chinese) the Er'e Mountain. But the geography contributed to the high death toll and damage. More than 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed. Villagers lived in tents and temporary rooms for months.

More than 300 students perished in Xiang'e Middle School, despite heroic rescue efforts by the government and villagers.

Thanks to swift assistance from the government and from Shanghai - paired for assistance with Dujiangyan - almost all villagers moved into new homes before the Chinese Lunar New Year in January. A typical new apartment for three (father, mother and baby, or father and expecting mom) covers more than 100 square meters.

Couples proudly show off their new homes and babies, but it's painful to talk about their lost child.

"If only my daughter had finished Xianghong Elementary School," says 35-year-old Kuang Xiaohong, looking over the pictures of her daughter Wu Yue saved in her cell phone. Yue is the word for a heavenly diamond in ancient times and is often used to describe beauties.

"She was so adorable and beautiful," Qian adds.

She tells Shanghai Daily that village kids used to complete all nine years of compulsive education in Xianghong Elementary School. But her daughter, an eighth-grader last year, was among the first "lucky" students transferred to the larger and better Xiang'e Town Middle School.

A few months later, the earthquake struck and the school collapsed.

Kuang's baby is due on May 29 and she has received intensive and free care since last July, thanks to the project of the National Population and Family Planning Commission. She received a card for medical services, received a pre-pregnancy examination in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, where her IUD contraceptive was removed and a doctor gave medical advice.

Since she got pregnant, Kuang has been receiving monthly checkups in Dujiangyan city, 30 minutes' drive from the village. As the due date approaches, she goes every week.

Doctors will perform a caesarean section for free. Most Chinese women choose to get caesarean sections because it's easier and faster than natural childbirth and it is advised for older women.

Kuang's village alone has more than 20 families who lost children in Xiang'e Town Middle School; eight lost their only child.

The oldest new mother in the village is already 46, but more than half of the women trying to get pregnant have suffered miscarriages.

"Regulations allow us to have two children, but we don't plan to have another baby," says 35-year-old Li Daifen, her voice almost inaudible.

Li's daughter Yang Lixia was Wu Yue's classmate. Li means success and xia means rainbow. In pictures, Yang is beautiful and confident.

"I should have taken her out more when she was ..." says Li.

As Li shows her pictures, Kuang's eyes fill with tears and she takes out her cell phone to look at Wu Yue's pictures again.

Everybody cheers up as Li's 20-day-old son Yang Junhui wakes up from his nap and starts crying, reaching out for mama and her milk.

'I love him so much!'

Yang Deyu gave birth to her daughter Zhou Yangyang only one day after Yang Junhui was born. The 39-year-old mother, now resting at home like Kuang and Li, is not planning for a second child either.

Her son Zhou Qi was one grader higher than Li's and Kuang's daughters in the same school. Qi, the name for a type of jade, is often used to describe handsome young men.

"I love him so much, he was such a caring kid and he would be in high school if ..." says Yang, who senses that her husband was a little disappointed on seeing a daughter, not a son.

"Only a tiny little bit of disappointment, after all, we are villagers, and traditionally we value sons more than daughters," Yang says, half-joking. "Actually, he loves Yangyang very much, just like I do."

Like many villagers, Yang's husband used to work in a nearby mine to support the family. The mine was closed after the earthquake for safety reasons, and Zhou only finds small jobs here and there as day labor.

When the three mothers get together, they can't help talking about their children, both the lost and the newborn, in heavy Sichuan dialects.

'All the babies here call me Mama Jiang'

Twenty-three-year-old Jiang Ling from devastated Beichuan town, seven hours' drive from Dujiangyan, volunteers at the Home for Mothers and she herself has become the "mother of the mothers."

She rose beyond her own grief to help others.

Few outside the home know that Jiang was also a mother who lost her 67-day-old son Chengcheng in the quake. At first, she went to Liu for help after losing 13 family members, including her mother and her son.

"I used to ask all the time, 'Why me, why did I suffer all that pain'?" Jiang says with a bitter smile.

Though she was young, she was weak and had a difficult pregnancy. She worried whether her child would be healthy. The birth was difficult, the caesarean incision didn't heal properly and she needed a second operation that had to be performed without anesthesia.

"They thought I would struggle and scream in pain, but I didn't cry once," says Jiang.

"Although you are older than I am, you won't understand because you are not a mother," she tells me. "Honestly, I felt no pain but only happiness to have seen Chengcheng born healthy."

Only 20 days after the birth, Chengcheng developed a fever and he was rushed back to the hospital. Jiang and her mother took turns caring for the infant round the clock. She felt "crazy with joy" when he recovered 20 days later. The family held a delayed full-month feast for Chengcheng.

Ten days later, the earthquake struck.

"For a whole month after the earthquake, I had the fantasy that Chengcheng was still alive or was just rescued by someone who was bringing him to me," recalls Jiang.

She suffered intense survivor's guilt at being the only person to escape a collapsed building.

"I hated my father and husband who were working day and night to reconstruct roads and restore power in Beichuan," says. "I thought that if only my mom was still alive, she would have cared for me."

She was ready to commit suicide when she had her first phone conversation with Liu, the mothers' counselor. They talked for nearly two hours. Jiang traveled to Dujiangyan to relax and visited Liu last November.

She arrived at a busy time when a large amount of donated clothes had just arrived. Liu asked her to help wash the clothes and arrange donated books.

She stayed on and helped in establishing the Home for Mothers in March.

"Maybe I helped them, but they have helped me even more," says Jiang, as a mother walks over with her five-month-old infant. The baby recognizes Jiang and smiles. "Call her Mama Jiang," mother tells baby.

Jiang takes care of almost all the household and administrative work, from cooking to sorting donations. She has been working on a project, Flowers by Mothers, in which the women learn to make delicate paper flowers for sale. Proceeds benefit the home.

"It's a way for them to receive assistance with pride, which lasts much longer than charity," says Liu.

He considers professional skills a plus, but not a necessity for his team. "The sincerity is the most important," says Liu.

"When a person is hungry, you can use professional skills to comfort her and ease the hollow feeling, but you can also give her some food," says Jiang.

Jiang says she has received "so much food" from mothers whom she has helped by giving them food.

Jiang's father remarried after the Qingming Festival (tomb-sweeping day), but didn't dare tell her for fear she would object. She went home to visit him and her stepmother as soon as she learned of the marriage, and urged them to get wedding pictures taken.

"I should have spent more time and done many more things for my own mom. And I don't want to be regretful ever again," says Jiang.

"The sorrow will never fade, but I have learned to control it and try to create a cheerful mood, which will help with my health," she says. "I hope to recover and get pregnant again."

Home for Mothers

For information and donations, contact Jiang Ling at 1369-6257-722.


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