Migration, separation and family survival

by Leah Schmalzbauer, Ph.D., Montana State University

Alejandra is from a small town in Mexico, where jobs are few, poverty is prevalent, and migration to the U.S. is common. In 2006, Alejandra's husband lost his job and left her with three children. She has not heard from him since. After his departure, she moved to her parents' house and tried unsuccessfully to find work. A year later Alejandra made what was the most difficult decision of her life. She would go to the United States.

Without papers, Alejandra borrowed $5,000 from an informal lending service that gives high interest loans to fund migrants' journeys north, and hired a coyote, a smuggler, to help her cross the U.S./ Mexico border. After many tears, Alejandra said goodbye to her children and set out for the U.S. on November 1, 2007. She now lives in Montana, where several migrants from her home community have settled. She pieces together money by cleaning homes, but the work is unstable and she is not earning what she had expected. She talks to her children every few days, but she does not know when she will see them again.

Alejandra's story is not atypical. She is like millions of poor women around the world who have migrated in an attempt to secure their families' survival. Whereas poor women used to migrate primarily to reunite with family, they are increasingly migrating in search of wages to support their children. This trend is rooted in an increased supply of poor women in the South who cannot secure living wages. But more importantly it is fueled by the feminization of the low-wage care industry in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East, where there is a high demand for poor women to clean our homes, hospitals, and hotels and to care for our children. Women who cannot afford to be with their own children are migrating en masse to care for the children of others.

As capital and employment opportunities concentrate in the North, and as global inequality grows, poor families in the Global South increasingly have to decide between sinking further into poverty together and sending one or more members north to find work. The result is a growing trend in families who have little choice but to divide their labor across borders. More and more it is mothers who head north.

The reality in which this choice is rooted is difficult to understand from a middle class perspective. How could a mother leave her children? Yet White middle and upper class privilege, and the access it has provided to the nuclear family, has long been out of reach to poor families, especially families of color. Now, as global economic processes penetrate deeper into family life, not only is the nuclear family out of reach, but so too is the nationally-based family. Despite the economic roots of most migration decisions and the problems that migration leaves in its wake, migrant mothers are often blamed for family breakdown and for the struggles of the children who stay behind. When we look at the phenomenon of migrating mothers through the lens of individual choice and responsibility, it is difficult to understand how a mother could leave, and it's easy to cast blame. However, when we place their reality in the context of global inequality and the structural constraints it presents, a much different story emerges.

This is a story of struggle and survival. It is a story of the limited choice that migrant mothers face between dire poverty and the chance of giving their children a better life. Every one of the hundreds of Latina mothers I have met in the course of almost ten years of field work has told me that they migrated out of love. Not migrating would be to fail their children. Despite the distance, they put tremendous energy into mothering from afar.

Staying in touch and long-distance intimacy

Most mothers migrating to the U.S. arrive unsure about when they will see their children again. Family by phone is how most manage their long-distance relationships. During phone calls, which happen weekly if not more often, mothers and children share happenings in their lives and lend each other support. Although separated by thousands of miles, this communication has a major impact. Children of migrants I interviewed in Honduras and El Salvador told me that even though their mothers have been away for a long time, mothers continue to shape them as individuals, passing on important values and life lessons. They told me that their mothers tell them to "work hard" and "never give up." Mothers stress the importance of school and tell them how important it is that they believe in themselves. Children embrace these messages and use them to structure their lives, goals and expectations. Most mothers are committed to maintaining a strong and influential presence in their children's lives regardless of the distance. And so they work hard to nurture intimacy from afar.

"Other Mothers": transnational care networks

While migrant mothers work to maintain connections with their children, they must put their faith in networks of family and kin to care for their children in their absence. Biological parents cannot migrate if they do not have someone with whom to leave their children. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins terms the women who care for children when blood-mothers are absent "other-mothers." In addition to ensuring the health and physical well-being of children, other-mothers play a key role in maintaining family unity and in easing the anxiety or emotional burdens borne by children who are separated from their parents. This role is of vital importance in transnational families.

Alejandra was able to go to the U.S. in search of work because her own mother took in her three children. She told me that knowing her children are safe and well cared for by someone who shares her values lends serenity. Her mom sends a consistent message to Alejandra's children that she left because she loves them and wants to give them a better future. This in turn gives the children some peace in their mother's absence.

Doña Rosa is representative of many grandmothers I have met who serve as other-mothers. She is 75 years old, and lives on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula, Honduras' industrial capital. Three of her children have migrated to the U.S., and she has since raised five of her grandchildren. Doña Rosa also plays the role of community other-mother hosting neighborhood meals weekly for those who have been abandoned by family members in the U.S. She feels that it is her obligation to share the money she receives from her daughters to help those who are less fortunate.

Other-mothers are the oft-invisible pillars of families who are divided by migration. They are also important support structures of global capitalism, protecting poor families from breakdown when economic inequality mandates their separation. Doña Rosa is one of millions unpaid and overlooked stewards of globalization.

Economic strategies

Love, intimacy and care networks cannot flourish without economic support. In many families in the Global South, the remittances that migrants send provide their sole source of income. Western Union offices commonly mark the center of Mexican and Central American towns, symbolizing the centrality of these economic flows to the survival of poor families. Families use remittances to buy food and medicine, to pay school fees, make house repairs, and even to support informal businesses. In the U.S. and other host societies, migrants endure great sacrifices in order to accumulate a surplus to send to their families, working in low-wage jobs with poor working conditions. They also live in cramped, rundown apartments and trailers, and skimp on food and clothing in order to send money back home.

Economic remittances are rooted in women's commitment to mothering. Migrant mothers tell me that it is their primary responsibility to give what they can to their families. They do not expect that their giving will ever be reciprocated, but they believe that sending what they can to their children and sacrificing in order to keep them well is the "right thing to do" and the only way to give their children a better future. Dañiela, a former folklorico dancer from Honduras who now lives in Boston, told me that she has suffered abuse so she could maintain her commitment to her daughter's future.

"I needed money for my daughter..... So I started working in the house of an American woman. It was horrible. She paid me $100/week....And she didn't give me food. It was hell. But my daughter is so important. For her I would have done anything..."

Emotional struggles

Indeed, for mothers who must live far away from their children, every day can be a struggle. Mothers express the greatest distress about trying to maintain connections with children who were very young when they left. Young children have difficulty understanding why their mothers had to leave, and they often do not remember them well. Mothers are also challenged when their children inquire about when they are coming home. Many tell me that they answer these questions untruthfully, with a version of "soon; we will be together soon." Others tell the truth, that it is too expensive or dangerous a journey. The truth-tellers bear the burden of their children's disappointment and sadness.

The homesickness and loneliness that burden migrant mothers are often coupled with anxiety over their children's health and safety. When I first met Paula, a Honduran living in Boston, I immediately sensed her depression. Her husband had lost his job and she feared she would lose hers as well. But what is most difficult, she told me, is to know that her child at home may be suffering. Paula is so worried about her daughter's safety that she told her sister, who is caring for her there, "not to let her go outside, not even to the neighbors." 

Dreams of reunification

Shared dreams of reunification help keep mothers and their children strong and connected. Where the reunion would take place is less important than the reunion itself. Yet reunification of any sort is difficult to achieve. There are political and economic barriers. On the economic and political sides, one has to be documented and have enough money and assets to qualify as a sponsor for family reunification. "Illegal" reunification is a risky option which is only available if a family is able to access sufficient funds to smuggle children across the border. Few have this privilege.

The increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border has made migration a more permanent endeavor than ever before. Migrants who come to the U.S. without papers literally risk life and limb to cross the border. The risk involved in the crossing means they are more likely to settle for long periods of time, if not permanently, and will seldom risk a visit "home." It also means that mothers are unlikely to try to arrange the crossing of their children unless they can secure a legal visa, a proposition that is next to impossible for the migrant poor. This means that dreams of reunification are often just that-dreams. Still, they are the fuel and the hope that keeps mothers and children moving forward.

As globalization penetrates deeper into the daily lives of the poor in the Global South, family separation is becoming a norm. Underlying divided families is a troubling global hierarchy of motherhood. At the top of this hierarchy are mothers who can afford to be with their children. They tend to be White and middle or upper class. On the bottom are poor mothers of color in the Global South. These are mothers who have little choice but to leave their children in order to protect their survival and offer them hope for a better future. They are casualties of globalization whose stories need to be told.