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The Encyclopedia of Migrants

Almudena García Manso

Sociologist, Universidad Juan Carlos, Madrid

« My parents were brought up to think that a single, childless woman ages prematurely. » Ingrid Noll, 1997

Migration as a social, multi-transversal phenomenon involves other social phenomena of vital social importance not only for the host societies but for those migrating and their context. Motherhood ranks among these.
When we think about migrants, the collective mentality construes an immigrant woman, mainly of Latin American origin, with scarce economic resources, a young hard-working mother – or possibly future mother – who has a family to keep (BENITEZ, 2015).

To be able to speak about the phenomenon of motherhood in terms of immigrant women, we must first contextualise the point of departure: the home country. A complex task where there is one, in a society that transcends globalisation itself, given that contemporary migratory movements are in a continuous state of flux, particularly on account of the economic and political fluctuations in the potential host countries. Nowadays there is no standard immigrant. Such people no longer simply correspond to those who have left developing countries in search of opportunities. Indeed no such standard ever existed, but capitalist development policies in the middle of the last century sought to imprint the idea of an immigrant as an unskilled worker who answers to a prototype of cheap and exploitable manpower on the collective mentality. We have an example of this in the bonded maquiladora workers on the Mexican-US border. An example that, curiously enough, corresponds perfectly to the migrant woman, given that the maquiladora industry mainly contracts women, as they work harder to be able to give their children a future (MASSO, 2014).
In 2015 the number of women coming from Latin America stood at 62,8691 as opposed to 47,4785 men, a further substantial difference to highlight Latin America as the feminine migration geographical area or “zone”. They are the ones who leave in search of opportunities, albeit not solely for themselves but for their families.
The tradition influencing these countries with mainly Spanish and Portuguese colonial cultures is founded on Catholic values and morals and is highly orthodox as regards the idea of the woman as a mother, a carer, a lover and wife (BIDASECA & VAZQUEZ LAMBA, 2011). This idea has been passed down to us today. Indeed, it can even be said to have been broadened to reiterate the oldest of biopolitical traps, “the so-called maternal instinct”.
Living femininity and masculinity “here and there” is completely different. Culturally, genders are acts of being and performativity shaped by the established culture. A process that makes the social derivatives from these genders, as is the case with respect to motherhood and fatherhood, different in their being and doing in each socio-cultural context.
Motherhood is very present in Latin America. Either as an exploitation of femininity – all women should be mothers – (SAU, 1995) or as an empowering political significance as attested to by the case of the political motherhood of Latin American women, such as the solidarity among women when it comes to fighting against the violence to which they are subjected, such as mothers who came together to fight the problem of systematic violence, who help migrants when they take the “Beast” train, who search for their missing daughters and who unite to protest against the authorities. Mother has a double meaning, biological and community.
We focus our attention on Latin America mainly for demographic purposes; the majority of the immigrant women in Spain come from Latin America. However, it should be noted that there is also considerable feminine immigration from Morocco, Romania and China in terms of the concept/reality of immigrant motherhood.
A migrant mother leaves a family behind. A family that has to be cared for from afar. Children that no longer have her as a real presence in the socialisation and will be looked after by other family members, i.e. fathers, grandfathers, uncles/aunts and occasionally by family friends, but who are seeing how the social idea of the role of the mother as a carer and educator is disappearing, thus creating a situation of social change giving rise to a new role for the woman who is both a mother and an immigrant: the transnational mother.
These women must manage care and affection, as well as their socialisation role, beyond the borders, thinking of how to earn enough “dough” to be able to live here and to send to their family members they’ve left behind. Women that keep their children and offer them what they did not have: a greater economic capacity leading to more opportunities and a better education.
Being a migrant mother involves constructing an alternative to the meaning of motherhood. These mothers have to give up on the idea of being the biological mother who must look after the children and have to think about third parties or even the children looking after themselves and their well-being. This means a clear break with the idea of traditional motherhood, not only on account of the idea of direct care, but also because of the impossibility of “being with the children” in those situations that require more direct attention.
Mothering from a distance has been the subject of scientific and academic literature from two perspectives: a change in family structures and a negative effect on the individuals that experience it, given that such situations provoke feelings of anxiety, loss and loneliness in mothers. Feelings to which can be added the abandonment felt by the children that are left behind.
Socialisation and problems are more intense from a distance. Not knowing how they are and what is happening to their children, as is the case of mothers with whom we work here, is something that eats away at them from within. They alleviate this by communicating over phone or the Internet, but such communication is an exceptional occurrence that neither the woman here nor their families in their home country cannot afford to pay for every day. Once a week or once a month, depending on the budget that remains from the wage that they have to share out between both homes, the one here and the one there.
Managing care by migrant mothers involves dealing with two problems: care management from a distance, which implies a lack of objective, empirical and personal reality, is delegated to third parties that are in charge of the children, and management of emotions, which is sometimes made up for with material incentives or long-term promises.
Transnational homes occasionally get bigger. A lot of women that migrated did so at a childbearing age, were divorced or single mothers, who met new partners in the host country with whom they have had children. These are neither the exception, nor the majority. They are mixed transnational homes where the children are split between one country and another, where care management must be on the same level between the children here and those who are there. A lot of these homes see the family reunited with some coming and others going; which in principle will see transnational motherhood return to its true state. Even though the trauma of leaving home and trying to create a future for children on the other side of the Atlantic may have been successful, it leaves its mark: the relationship between mother and children has to be taken up anew but presentially, which may or may not live up to the expectations of the myth of the maternal instinct, given that motherhood is a cultural construction and having gone through transnational maternity has its consequences.
Motherhood in the host country can mean emotional, cultural and social upset, particularly during pregnancy: the news, the course of the pregnancy and the labour. The latter process is one of the most important. Family solitude and not having anyone else but your partner is a cultural blow. Childbirth in a lot of Latin American countries is a feminine power transfer, in which the midwife and the mother, sisters and sister-in-laws help and protect the mother. They are her advisers, teaching her how to begin to be a mother.
There is a darker side to migrant motherhood, that which is experienced as being uprooted, silenced and torn away. We are referring to forced migration.
This concept refers to those who have left their home country for reasons that mean their departure is forced and, in some cases, sudden rather than voluntary. This could be due to war, religious safety, health or political reasons or because their life was in danger. Many women have left their whole family behind, some of whom do not know whether their children or family members are still alive or how they are. They have no communication with them; they know nothing, because nothing can be known in situations of chaos – as is the case with civil wars – or in forced diaspora situations, such as those involving political refugees, or refugees from natural disasters. What protection do these mothers have, many of whom have been socialised in a woman/mother culture? It is phantom maternity, the maternity of hope.
Phantom motherhood is experienced by many women who are forced to leave their homes, sometimes taken in by the promise of a job and a better future, thus coming to form part of the human trafficking circuit.
Motherhood and immigration involve a host of processes and changes, new types of family, breaks with the patriarchal system – the woman that keeps the home from a distance – cultural adaptations to pregnancy, childbirth and care processes, cultural clashes, uprootedness, anxiety and loneliness, replacement population, transnational motherhood, phantom maternity, etc., among other processes that make the migrant mother twice the adventurer and twice the heroine.