Decision to send infants back to China a difficult choice

Chinese newcomers who send their babies back to China to be raised by family or friends may feel compelled to do so by the loss of their supportive social systems, the high cost of child care in Canada and by family tradition, according to a York University study.

An increasing number of immigrants to North America send infants thousands of miles back to their country of origin to be raised by extended family with plans to have them return several years later to attend school and live with their parents in the adopted country.

"We became interested in studying this phenomenon after social workers in the community reported seeing a number of these kids come back showing signs of behavioural problems and depression," says Yvonne Bohr, professor of psychology in York’s Faculty of Health and lead author of the article.

The exploratory study, the first phase of a long-term project, examined the decision-making process of a group of 12 Chinese immigrant couples in Toronto who were considering separation from their young children.

The parents were torn, yet reported feeling compelled to send their children to China to be raised by family due to a lack of adequate, affordable child care in Canada. Both parents often felt they needed to work in order to establish a career and lifestyle in Canada, which they could not do if one parent had to stay home to care for a child. Parents also expressed a desire to preserve the cultural traditions of their original country, which include the involvement of extended family in child rearing.

From a mental health point of view – albeit a view derived from Western models and embedded in Western values systems – it is believed that multiple, prolonged separations of primary caregivers from their infants or toddlers can potentially translate into a poor prognosis for a child’s later social and emotional development.

"We are biologically programmed to keep offspring in close proximity," Bohr says. "To make a decision to separate from your child can be quite puzzling to those outside the family unit. It is a very difficult decision to make and it’s something that we wanted to understand better."

Although the study was done in the Chinese-Canadian community, parent-child separations are happening in a number of countries that welcome immigrants.

"The level of parental stress that we are beginning to see, the repercussions for children who are starting to come back and the disruptions to their families in the long run bear a lot of costs," Bohr says.

"In the context of policy, we need to examine the kinds of child care resources we offer parents here, and we need to look at our immigration regulations pertaining to extended family reunification. We could probably eliminate a large number of mental health problems for newcomer families and their young children by addressing even just these two areas."

"Satellite Babies in Transnational Families: A Study of Parents’ Decision to Separate From their Infants" was published yesterday in the Infant Mental Health Journal.