Mothering in a new country is a journey of challenge for migrant women
By Maria Jose Yax-Fraser
In Halifax, many migrant mothers will be celebrating mother’s day twice this year. They celebrated on the second Sunday in May, the official day in Canada, and will celebrate again on the day it is observed in their country of origin.
Mother’s Day is officially celebrated in over one hundred and forty countries around the world in different ways and on different days throughout the year, most commonly in March, April or May.
Marking their calendars a couple of times reflects in a small way the many changes migrant mothers make as they settle and integrate in a new country.
Mothering in a new country places migrant women on a journey of complex negotiations over new cultural meanings where they redefine their philosophies, methods and strategies of raising children.
I use the term cross-cultural mothering to refer to the additional invisible intellectual work migrant women do in adjusting to new context and environments and in supporting their children to develop and negotiate their identifications and to cope with and survive within systems of racial oppression and discrimination.
From decisions around pregnancy, birthing and breastfeeding to making choices about language and discipline methods, migrant mothers are involved in a process that calls for negotiation of the cultural values they bring with them and those largely upheld in mainstream Canadian society.
Some of these values include, respect, collective well being, healthy nutrition, multilingualism. This process became apparent in my experience when I became a mother, which in turn inspired me to learn about the experiences of other migrant mothers living in Halifax.
Between 2002 and 2004 I conducted a study entitled “A Balancing Act: The Cultural Choices and Processes of Cross-cultural Mothering” with migrant mothers from thirteen countries including Bosnia, China, Colombia, Egypt, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, Malaysia, Paraguay, Spain, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and Trinidad.
There are a number of social relationships and social institutions that migrant women learn to navigate in their settlement process, and through which they negotiate cultural beliefs and practices. These may include the home, partners, husbands, children, extended family, work, settlement institutions, schools, recreational environments, socio-economic institutions, and health institutions.
For many migrant women in Halifax, the process of learning and understanding a new culture and re-establishing their own identity runs parallel to learning about parenting and raising children.
How Huwaida, a participant in my study, describes her response to a new environment provides a good example of this process. She describes her first moment of encounter with the new environment as “shocking” and one that created concerns because she was unfamiliar with the ways of raising children in Halifax.
She decided to pick and choose what she found useful from the Haligonian society and do without that which she did not find useful. This picking and choosing did not happen overnight.
This was a process that took her three years and it involved learning about her new social environment and about parenting in her new place of settlement. She says: “step by step, I understood everything”.
The process of negotiating her parenting frameworks and her process of creating new ones gave her a sense of security, and possibly a sense of feeling at “home” in Halifax.
This submission on Cross-cultural mothering is the first of a series of two articles and is dedicated to all migrant mothers around the world and in particular to migrant mothers in Halifax, many of whom I have worked with as a health interpreter, as a settlement worker, as a spiritual guide, and as researcher.
Their lived experiences have been both instructional and inspiring.