Journeying through Motherhood while Embracing Chinese Heritage: An Insightful Interview with Chi San Wan

by Stephanie Hannington-Suen

Having always held a deep admiration for Chi San, a mother of two, author, entrepreneur, multidisciplinary creative and now founder of Softer Studio, my journey into motherhood has fuelled my desire to delve deeper into her perspectives. In this interview, we learn Chi San's approach to motherhood and explore how she reestablishes connections with her cultural heritage.



Tell us a bit about Softer Studio and your journey to it.
When I look back and join the dots, I feel like everything that I have done so far in life has led me to Softer Studio. When I birthed Marloe at home, it felt like little seeds were formed and sprinkled here, there, and everywhere. I had no idea what they were exactly, I just knew I had to keep watering these seeds, and they will sprout. I’ve had to be patient, just following my gut whenever it took me down a rabbit hole of learning, even if it made no sense, or didn’t seem related to anything else I was doing at the time. Out of genuine interest for birthwork and wanting to be equipped to support those around me, I trained as a doula in 2019, not really thinking doula work would be for me. When we were in Berlin and I was pregnant with Maggie, I felt compelled to sit the course again online, and loved communing with others that felt the same about birthwork. After having another wonderful homebirth with Maggie, I wanted others to have the opportunity to explore this option, but I wasn’t sure how I would be able to offer that support, with two small humans to look after, so I focused my energy on my growing family first. Fast forward a couple of years, a move back to the UK, more learning and unlearning, working as a volunteer doula for the disadvantaged, and ultimately, making space for softness, slowly slowly I am beginning to see the outlines of Softer Studio and what this initial iteration of it has to offer. I imagined an online platform that can offer support physically and virtually, to those journeying through the highs and lows of matrescence, in the form of birthwork, rituals and ceremonies, and community.  It will forever be a work in progress, and has to be sustainable for me so that I can continue to support others, so I’m sure it will remain a fluid creative practice.



Describe your girls in 5 words. 
Inquisitive. Wild. Emotional. Intuitive. Defiant.

What is your cultural heritage and how do you share this with your children? 
I am British Born Chinese (BBC). My parents are from Hong Kong, so my heritage is Cantonese Chinese. I have always tried to speak to the girls in Cantonese where possible, especially in the presence of their Chinese grandparents. We observe the Lunar Calendar, so we learn about and celebrate traditional Chinese festivals and holidays. We are also lucky enough to sample lots of Chinese food my dad (their gung gung) cooks, since he has retired from his restaurant business. He is a master at dim sum and keeps the girls full to the brim with dumplings. Marloe has even started making them along side him! Sharing food and sharing stories around the table is an important part of a Chinese family, so we always eat together even though Maggie doesn’t ever sit still! I’d like to take them to Hong Kong this year at some point to meet my por por, their great-grandma, and see where their heritage comes from. I haven’t been back for over a decade. 

Tell us about growing up with your heritage in the UK and are there any traditions you’d like to continue with your family?
Growing up with my heritage in the UK meant weekly visits to the Chinese wholesale markets with my parents, to the shops and restaurants in Manchester’s Chinatown. It meant hating Chinese lessons with the rest of the Chinese kids on Sundays - my younger brother and I eventually quit so we will never know how to read or write Cantonese. It meant school summer holidays spent under the hot and humid Hong Kong typhoon season, bitten to death by mosquitoes, and going from sticky, urban jungle outside, to shiny, ice cold air-conditioned insides. It was such a contrast to growing up in the grey North of England. It meant our family’s ‘weekend’ was on Tuesdays because that’s when the Chinese businesses would take a day off. It would be my favourite day as we got to spend the day together as a family. Mum and dad rarely did anything, aside from work, without us by their sides (and even then, we’d be in the kitchen ‘helping’, out front of shop wrapping up takeaways for customers, or upstairs playing or sleeping), so I guess that would be the tradition I continue with my own family. We do everything together. We have chosen an unschooling lifestyle, so we can spend more time together and go with the flow of what life throws at us - adventures big or small!



What does the word mother mean to you?
To love and be loved unconditionally, to learn and unlearn in the same breath, to be able to hold two opposing thoughts and feelings at the same time. It’s the constant dying of the old self, and rebirthing of the new self. 

What is your approach to motherhood?
I’m honestly just winging it, mostly with gut instinct, I make it up as I go along. As human beings, we’re constantly striving to be better, so naturally once we know better, we try and do better. This means practicing self-compassion, and being flexible of our ideas of how motherhood should look and feel, as it changes with the season of life that we are in. 

What do you recall the most about the postpartums? How did they differ from one another?
I think I was lucky to deep dive into the world of homebirth with my first, which naturally led me to looking into how I wanted my postpartum to look like. I had observed the traditional Chinese Golden Month or Sitting the Month (坐月) when my mother had my younger brother, and it made complete sense to me. I devoured books on preparing for postpartum and instructed friends that they were not to visit within the first 2 weeks, they could after of course, but they shouldn’t expect me to host and they should bring food round or leave with the bins. My partner Alex and I batch-cooked warm and nourishing meals and snacks for the freezer for when we were too tired and I was hangry in the night. We deployed the same enthusiasm planning for postpartum as we did for the birth of Marloe. It truly is a sacred time to look after yourself, and everything and the world can wait. With this knowing, both postpartums were similar in the essence of keeping myself warm, nourished, rested and bonding with baby were the most important wishes of ours as a family. Those weeks were really golden, made up of milky magic. The obvious difference when Maggie arrived was that we had Marloe to look after too! But she participated in the planning of postpartum, whipping up meals and cakes with Alex, bringing me food in bed. Of course Alex spent more time out with Marloe rather than hanging with Maggie and I, but that was to be expected and the prospect of being left alone with a newborn wasn’t so scary with the second! Another huge difference I recall is that Marloe was born in London in 2016, where I had a community of friends and family around for the postpartum period. Maggie was born in Berlin in 2021, just as the lockdowns were easing but precautions were still in place. Giving birth in a foreign country during the pandemic was a wild ride, family was far away and although we had a small network of close friends to support us, I felt like I really missed community — I’m sure many families who had a baby during the pandemic felt this way. 



What are the most significant changes you have experienced in your life since you became a mother?
I think I’ve noted this before, but it’s the unexpected emotions. How your nervous system can be so wrecked, and on edge a lot of the time. Kids really come into this world to hold a mirror up to you, and you just can’t hide from that shit anymore. I’ve also found that since becoming a mother, I’m much better at boundaries. Instinct really does kick in when you are growing life, and you allow space for it. When I was pregnant with Marloe, I really learned to recognise and walk away from toxic energy. 

How do you find balance with work and motherhood?
I don’t! I’ve come to think that balance is a myth sold to us by the wellness cult. I believe that it’s a constant swapping of priorities on any given day, and even if you are an organised freak like me, you have to remain fluid. I’ve learnt to manage my expectations and prioritise rest when my body and mind are giving me signs. I try not to cram too much in. When we first arrived back to the UK, Alex and I focussed on settling the kids into a new rhythm again - we didn’t take on any work and sacrificed financial security to provide the girls with emotional stability, and establish the foundations of home education, whilst not having a home to call ours yet. Now that the girls are more settled in our current situation, though we haven’t a home of our own yet, we have both managed to turn our heads back to our creative projects. Alex has taken on some work, and I have had time and head space to lean into Softer Studio, and let that slowly unfurl. So it’s not a case of chasing the mythical balance for me, it’s all about remembering to breathe in, and to breathe out with the rhythms of being present in life. 

As your children grow up, does it get easier or harder?
I think in equal parts it gets easier and harder. Both of these can exist together. It gets easier because they can communicate with you, but it’s harder because even though they can vocalise their wants and needs, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can reason with them. The expectation of them being able to understand, and therefore self-regulate is absurd. As adults, we find it hard to self-regulate at the best of times, so expecting small humans to do so is contradictory.

In what ways would you say that motherhood has changed you?
I’ve always been a bit of an empath, but motherhood does break you apart and open you up to more emotions. The heart really can expand. It extends to all humans, all the children of the world. Like James Baldwin said — “The children are always ours” and this rings true ever since becoming a mother, and especially living through these times. 

How do you stay grounded?
This varies throughout the seasons and cycles, but as we don’t currently have our own space, I’ve had to lean into some anchors I can always come back to wherever I am — getting enough sleep, meditation, breathwork, movement of some kind, nourishing my body with the right foods, and spending time with community.