Ottawa·First Person

Chinese mothers of new babies grapple with parenthood in a pandemic

When the pandemic hit, Yuanyuan Zhou and Min Hu were caught half a world away from their families in China — and the support they were hoping for during their first year of motherhood.

Separated from their own mothers, 2 women reflect on their year with a newborn

Yuanyuan Zhou says it's been challenging juggling her studies with caring for her her baby Vincent, all without the help from her family that she'd been hoping for. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

The pandemic has hit new moms in Ottawa's Chinese community especially hard, as many find themselves half a world away from their own mothers and the help they might've contributed.

In China, support from grandparents is the norm, said Hongyan Han, an early childhood development worker who provides resources for mothers speaking Mandarin and Cantonese at the Somerset West Community Health Centre. 

According to cultural practice, babies and mothers stay in the home for at least a month after birth "to make sure the new moms can recover well and to make sure the baby can develop," she said. 

Grandparents often come visit Canada to care for the family and do cooking and cleaning, while mothers are treated "like a queen," Han said.

But with borders closed and year-long restrictions in place, mothers of newborns are left feeling isolated.

CBC asked two moms in the Chinese community to share their experiences. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Separated from family abroad, new mothers tackle parenthood during the pandemic

1 year ago
Duration 1:10
Yuanyuan Zhou, who gave birth to her second child last summer, was separated from her family in China when the pandemic hit, and has had to go without much of the support she would normally rely on.

This First Person column is the experience of Yuanyuan Zhou, who gave birth to her second child last June. Originally from Shandong, China, she studies early childhood education at Algonquin College. For more information about CBC's First Person series, please see the FAQ

My original plan for my pregnancy was to give birth in Ottawa, then take the baby back to China to spend time with the family. My seven-year-old son Damello (in Chinese, his name is Yuntao Bai) is staying with my parents there. 

When the pandemic came, it was really hard for us. My husband had just arrived in Canada in February and couldn't work. Because I was pregnant, I couldn't either. We spent as little as possible.

When I gave birth at the hospital, it was hard for me to understand things, especially expressing what I needed. I prepared some key words for communicating with the doctor, but it was still hard. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, my husband had to wait outside the hospital. Everything I faced by myself.

Yuanyuan Zhou's son was born in Ottawa in June 2020. She also has a seven-year-old son staying with her parents in Shandong, China. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Now I'm taking classes during the day and it is busy, as I often have to stop to change diapers or feed the baby. 

My 7-year-old now plays happily in China, and I am glad my parents are taking good care of him. We video chat twice a day. Every day he asks us when we are coming back to look after him. 

After 9 months, my husband got a work permit. He is still learning English. He got a job at a Chinese restaurant.

I thought I would be depressed, but I have no time to have that feeling.

Every plan was destroyed because of COVID-19.- Yuanyuan Zhou

The good news is because we have to stay home, I have the whole day to spend with the baby and watch him grow up. He gives me hope. Every day I see him and I say, I must be healthy and have the power to take care of him because I am his mom. 

When my seven-year-old son says to me, 'I miss you,' it also gives me power. My biggest wish is to go back to China and see him. Then, after my studies, I'd like to get a job in Canada and the family to be together here. 

Yuanyuan Zhou's story is part of a CBC Radio holiday special about people living in Canada with deep roots beyond our borders. It's called The Same Boat, and it airs May 24 at noon on CBC Radio One. 

For the first month of her daughter Chloe's life, Min Hui didn't leave her home in Stittsville. Now they occasionally venture out to a nearby park. (Submitted by Min Hui)

This First Person column is the experience of Min Hui. Originally from Shaanxi, China, she gave birth to a baby in Ottawa last July.

My husband and I moved to Canada in 2018 and I learned I was pregnant in late 2019, before the pandemic. When COVID-19 started, the biggest thing I cared about was the baby's safety and making sure she was healthy.

Then came the day she was born. It was scary, having my first baby in another country. 

Without my parents — especially my mom — beside me, things were tough. My husband was there, and the doctors and nurses were caring, but still it was hard.

I was hoping my mom would come for one year to help us. We applied for a visitor visa for her at the end of 2019, and now it's 2021. We finally got the visa at the beginning of April. 

Meanwhile, I had to take time off school because I can't look after a nine-month-old baby and go to school at the same time. I was planning to graduate from Algonquin College this May, but that is postponed.

Min Hui says she struggles with the lack of interaction during this time, since she can't go to stores. (Submitted by Min Hui)

Not being able to go anywhere makes me feel anxious and upset. I need to interact with people, maybe just the cashier at the supermarket, but I cannot. 

At the beginning of the pandemic the government told us you don't need to wear a mask, and Asians were the only ones who did. That made me afraid of being attacked, but I didn't want my baby to get the coronavirus because I wasn't wearing a mask, so I still did it.

When I interact with people outside now, I will not get very close to them. I don't want them to see my Asian face. I have never been attacked, and everyone I interact with has been friendly with me, but it still makes me nervous.

Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Send us an email.

With files from Jennifer Chen

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