Chinese New Year Survival Guide
By Shwu Huey and Stephanie
It’s the first day of Chinese New Year. You and your brood are at your great grand-aunt-in-law’s for the customary open house. The mood is festive, the house is heaving with relatives, and “Cai Shen Dao” is blaring at maximum volume, on loop. The toddler is dashing around on a sugar high from half a container of pineapple tarts (and countless pieces of White Rabbit candy). The baby is giving Cai Shen a run for his money, except he isn’t singing. From the corner of your eye, you spy an old uncle of yours trying to bribe the toddler with a piece of bak-kwa in exchange for a hug and a kiss. Your husband is rewarding himself for yesterday’s epic 4-hour turned 8-hour-festive-season-traffic drive with some peanuts and Tiger Beer, chatting casually with his cousins in the safe confines of his oblivious-bubble. The baby, still crying, has progressed to tearing off your cheongsam, while you frantically scour the house for a quiet corner to nurse him, and - if the stars align - get him to nap.
Just as you thought you had escaped from the madding crowd, a shrill voice screeches from halfway across the hall: “STILL breastfeeding ah? No wonder so skinny! Must give cereal, fill up the stomach, can sleep better at night! How old already, how come still wearing diapers? Aiyoooo, how to nap now? So noisy, let him play lah! Come, I carry! Sure want me one! Kiss auntie, baby come and kiss auntie!”
Think this could be you? It’s tough, but here are some tips to weather the festive season!
Do your best to maintain your children’s routine. Plan in advance how much and how you will deviate from it, bearing in mind that adequate rest is critical for your children (and yourself!) to manage their behaviour in social situations that will likely be very stressful for both of you. If your children are young enough to sleep in a carrier or a woven wrap, bring their favourite one along.
Keep to no more than two events in one day. Decide which gatherings are non-negotiable and send regrets to the rest, citing schedule clashes. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how understanding people can be when you have young children. Try to not accept last-minute house visits. You want to minimise the number of transitions your child will have to deal with, as well as the logistical stress of hurrying them around. Give yourself and your kids time to enjoy the company wherever you are, rather than constantly watching the clock.
BE UPFRONT ABOUT YOUR EXPECTATIONS
Whether you’re fending off forced hugs and kisses, screen time from well-intentioned relatives, or junk food from inconsiderate ones, the best defense is a good offense. But not in an offending way! Be matter of fact and say nicely but firmly, “we don’t do XXX, but we can do XXX” instead of “I don’t want him to XXX”. Simply making it known that you have boundaries for your child will make people more mindful of their words and actions. And you’ll appear more reasonable if you really need to physically stop someone from flouting your stated restrictions.
Consider exposing “key players” (e.g. grandparents, cousins whom you meet often) to your expectations as a parent and boundaries for your children beforehand. Winning over sympathetic parties and having Grandma or Fourth Lao-Yi over your side will ensure you have advocates when nosey distant relatives question your parenting decisions.
For each event you plan to attend, aim to be among the first to arrive. This will give your children the chance to warm up in a calmer and less overstimulating environment. It will also give you the opportunity to chat individually with groups of people as they appear. You can subtly drop hints about your parenting approach, rather than be on the defensive when the hordes surge towards you, all demanding to carry the baby. This also makes the exchange of red packets smooth and systematic, instead of a disorganised free-for-all. In some situations, arriving early also means you can excuse yourself early too - because, you know, the kids are tired.
PREPARE YOUR KIDS
In the few days leading up to the New Year, remind your children that “on the first day of Lunar New Year we will go to great-grandma’s house and meet grandma, grandpa, first, second and third uncle/auntie, etc”. If your family is big on the “bai nian” rituals like exchanging greetings with mandarin oranges, rehearse these rituals with the kids (make it fun!) and show them iconic items like red packets - “this is the special bag for you to put your red packets in”. Older children will enjoy learning about the symbols and traditions surrounding the festivities.
FILL THEIR TANK
It’s easy for children to feel neglected when you’re preoccupied with the festivities. This is when they might start acting out to get your attention, leading to a downward spiral of lashing out, melting down and overall stress. Make certain to spend some playful alone time with each of them, preferably early on (arriving early helps and so does minimal scheduling - see above) so they know they’ve not been forgotten. Technology is a great help when our bandwidth is limited - set an alarm or reminder on your phone to set aside quality one-on-one time with your children, to make sure this doesn’t slip through the cracks.
BE PREPARED If you’re breastfeeding, consider whether your outfit will be suitable for nursing. If the typical new year foods are off-limits for your child, make sure you bring acceptable substitutes. Preferably their favourites, so they don't envy the others snacking away. Do you plan to stay out late, cutting close to or beyond bedtime? Consider bringing their pyjamas and toothbrush to get them ready for bed before heading home, well in advance of any predicted meltdowns. If you foresee fussing, wearing your baby is a great way to calm and soothe them, and get them out of playing pass-the-parcel.
If you’re among the scores of locals headed to clan gatherings up north, you may be dreading the season even more. The same principles will help smooth things over.
Talk to your kids about what they can expect, how long the trip will be, what they can look forward to, who they might meet. Preserve their schedules - time the car journeys to coincide with nap times for a more peaceful ride. Pack adequately - a change of clothes, in-car entertainment and snacks, and contingency plan for toileting will all help ensure a smoother trip. Fill their tank by making a holiday out of it - frequent stops at places of interest help remind everyone to enjoy the journey.
LET IT GO
Put things in perspective - the CNY madness lasts just two days out of every year, or a week tops. So yes, the TV might be irradiating your screen-free kids, or a piece of processed junk might sneak past security, but take a long-term view - you can always “re-set” back in the comfort of your home.
If a meltdown strikes, take it in your stride. Move your child to somewhere private to let them work through their feelings without interference. If nosey parkers breathe down your neck, breathe deeper. Accept that everyone will have their own opinion and way of doing things. Take the opportunity to educate, with kindness and patience, but if you're too exhausted, it’s okay to just shrug it off. Tell yourself you won't have to deal with it for another year. If things get really overwhelming, grab your kids and retreat to a quiet corner to regain your composure.
Festive seasons always turn up the pressure, and CNY with all its superstitions and taboos might be one of the most stressful. But remember the significance of the celebration - sharing your little family with the extended one, preserving family traditions, and enjoying the feeling of togetherness. Hold on to your zen and positivity and next year, other parents might come asking you for your CNY survival tips!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shwu Huey’s former job as a Communications Specialist would put her in good stead when she became a mum, or so she had hoped. Her job remained the same but her role (and waistline) drastically changed. At first, motherhood was a journey of perpetual guilt trips, self-doubt and chaos, filled with much crying and late-night chocolate binges. Only when she realised the need to mother with kindness, respect, and loving connection did she become a happier mum to happier kids. When she is not busy un-learning and re-learning the art of parenting, she takes a breather to watch TED talks, sew toy unicorns, and practise ignoring pesky chocolate bars who have learnt her name (she is mostly unsuccessful at the last).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie is the co-founder of Treebubs, an outdoor Mandarin playgroup that nurtures young children’s inborn fascination with nature into a love for Chinese culture and language. Trained in Psychology and Linguistics at the University of Western Australia and University College London, she worked in Singapore’s foreign service before becoming a mother and co-founding Batch.sg. Stephanie now works from home while unschooling her two young children, who often accompany her to business meetings. Her work has appeared in Encounters and Wine & Dine Magazine.