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Covid Baby: Becoming Amma and Appa during a pandemic

I could not have fathomed how lonely it would be to become a parent in these times

It might not come as a surprise to a South Asian person that in the final minutes of my 24-hour labour in the birth suite of the Mater Mothers’ Private Hospital, my husband Raj kept his eyes fixed on the bright red display of the digital wall clock opposite my bed, while simultaneously holding my right leg at an angle to help me push our daughter into the world. 

We were in a foreign land without family, without the familiar sounds of our native tongue, without the smell of thosai or vadai wafting from kitchens, and without all the daily reminders of our Indian culture – a temple here, a sign with Tamil writing there. But by God, was this man determined to hold on to the one thing we did have: the centuries-old tradition of noting the exact moment our daughter arrived into our lives and drew air into her tiny lungs. 

And thus, it came to be that we eventually named our precious bundle of joy, born at 9:24 pm on a Wednesday night, Manjula. In that moment, holding her to my chest – months after the world had first heard of and had been pretty much forced to a standstill by this new disease called Covid-19 – I could not have fathomed just how despairingly lonely it would be to become a parent in these times.


It was hard enough becoming a parent away from our homeland of Singapore and all the comforts that it afforded – familiarity; the helping hands of family and friends; and the various cultural and religious ceremonies a new birth commanded, celebrated by everyone you wanted, or had to invite (because brown families, right?). But to become a parent as both a migrant in another land and during a time of extreme uncertainty and global upheaval was like salt in an already open wound. 

There were many times during my pregnancy when the excitement of two becoming three was overshadowed by the stark realisation that we had absolutely no clue when we would actually be able to introduce our child to our families in person. The Australian borders were decidedly shut, never mind the fact that we didn’t even have access to the vaccine yet. Even with the distraction of obstetrician appointments, comparing prams online, upgrading my car to an SUV so the car seat would fit, and buying all manner of baby clothes, I could not let go of the nagging sadness that it could potentially be years before anyone in our families even met our child.


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This sadness became that much more heart-wrenching when it dawned on us that this timeline to introduce our child to our mothers, who both suffered from dementia, was potentially even shorter. My mother-in-law, during phone calls, would often sadly note that she could not cook for me during my pregnancy. My own mother, not remembering that she was not able to travel, repeatedly asked when she could come to Brisbane to help me when the baby was born. Having to tell her that the borders were shut again and again weighed on me heavily. 

Given that international travel was out of the question, planning the valaikaappu – the ceremony to bless the mother-to-be and her baby for a safe birth – was tricky. Neither of our mothers or other female relatives were around to plan or be present at the ceremony. I was easily irritated when Raj would bring it up; I realised that while, yes, it had been our choice to migrate and live away from family, we had previously always had the option of visiting them or having them come to us. Now, when we needed them to help us partake in these traditions, at a crucial time in our lives, the entire world was indefinitely shut down.

Luckily, we had friends who could step into the roles that my mother and other relatives would have played at the valaikappu. The blessing of being able to have friends gather at our house for such a ceremony – thankfully, restrictions on the number of visitors one could have at home had eased by this time – made us feel less alone and, more importantly, enabled us to root our parenthood in our culture. However, the comfort provided by the valaikappu eventually gave way to the full reality of being new parents in the time of Covid when we brought our daughter home from the hospital on a cold Sunday night in June. 

We had spent the last few days in a cocoon, trying our best to decipher our daughter’s various cries and debating who she looked like more. When we were discharged, it sank in that we would be driving back to a darkened house. Our families would not be there to turn on the lights, ensure the lamps at the altar had been lit, or stand at the gate with a soodam in preparation for the arrival of a new child to the house. To make matters worse, a resurgence in Covid cases in Queensland at the time meant that our friends who had been at the valaikappu could not be there for another milestone in our daughter’s life.

Instead, it fell to Raj to ensure that Manjula’s homecoming was made as auspicious as it could be. While we waited in the car, he sprinted into the house and turned on all the lights; ensured the altar was prepared; and went around the house with a soodam to ward away any lingering negative energy before carefully opening the screen door to let me carry our daughter over the threshold into the house (of course, right foot in first). Despite his efforts, that first night was a mixture of pure disbelief (did we really just bring a baby into our home?) and profound sadness (sorry, there’s no one here but us to welcome you home, kid).  

Over the next few days, we adjusted to life at home as a party of three. Our days were filled with timing Manjula’s feeds, changing diaper after diaper, working out when her wake windows were, and deciding which position was the most effective for burping without it ending in projectile vomit. And then came day 16 – the day she was to be officially named. 

When I was still pregnant, we discussed how we would conduct the naming ceremony in the temple. I recalled attending the naming ceremony of my cousin in Singapore when I was eight. I had been transfixed, carefully watching my atha lay out the banana leaves, trays of sweets, incense, and other prayer paraphernalia required for the ceremony. It was something I wished to replicate for my own child and, more importantly, to surround her with loved ones and friends when we named her. 

Unfortunately, this was not to be. We were in the midst of a snap three-day lockdown, thanks to the Palaszczuk government, and nobody was going anywhere. Again, it was up to Raj to prepare what was necessary for us to do the naming ceremony in our home – with just the three of us. I was exhausted from sleep deprivation and breastfeeding, so I was of very little help to him. When we completed the necessary prayers, ending with us whispering Manjula’s name in her tiny ear, we both broke down, the enormity of what had just happened finally hitting us. When we told Raj’s father the name of his new grandchild, his voice wavered. The devastation of missing out on such a significant ceremony was palpable, especially as he had helped Raj work out how to determine what to name her based on her time of birth. 

And then life carried on. Covid showed no signs of abating, and we had accepted that this was simply our new reality. And, of course, there were silver linings – Raj was working from home indefinitely, and this meant that even after his paternity leave ended, he was able to spend more time with Manjula, and I had an extra pair of hands at home during the day to help when I really needed it. We settled into a routine, and before we knew it, restrictions had eased; the vaccine was rolled out, and the borders were re-opened. 

The experience of becoming a parent during Covid was certainly not easy, but it did teach us to be present and simply enjoy what was in front of us – our daughter. And while there were so many things that were out of our control, what we did have control over was how we held on to our customs and traditions. We often think of our parents and grandparents as being the ones with the knowledge of these cultural traditions, but the reality is that we are now the ones responsible for passing these on to our child – and it is our duty to help her become rooted in her culture. 

It makes me glad that we kept to our traditions, even if it took everything in us to do so. It gives us the opportunity to recount these experiences when Manjula is older, and hopefully, our Covid baby feels a sense of pride in her Tamil roots when she hears them. If she does, that will be – as far as I am concerned – a true parenting triumph.

Editor-at-large: Dilpreet Kaur Taggar

Co-Editor: Yohaan Prem Sharma

Graphic Designer: Jess Harwood

‘Coping with COVID' is a multimedia series funded by the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing. Through this project, we aim to highlight the mental, physical, social and financial recovery of South Asians in Australia post-lockdowns. Follow the hashtag #CopingWithCovid below for more.

About the author

Sangeetha is a proud Tamil woman, educator, wife and mother. She was born and raised in Singapore, but currently lives and works in Brisbane, Australia. Her love of writing began in primary school, when a teacher encouraged to write stories after she had finished her class work. She is dedicated to challenging gender stereotypes, learning more about her cultural heritage, and being mindfully anti-racist. 



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