Radical Psychology
Volume Nine, Issue 2

Transforming ‘non-normative’ motherhood: Retrospective accounts of transnational motherhood in serial migration

Ann Phoenix [*]


Mothering has long been a feminist issue. In The Second Sex, for example, Simone de Beauvoir (1949) identified motherhood as one of the main factors in the oppression of women. Three main issues have repeatedly been identified as central to the relevance of mothering to feminism. First, there is a contradiction between the idealisation of the institution of motherhood and the demanding, and isolated, work it often entails in affluent northern countries (Oakley, 1979; Rich, 1976). Motherhood is, therefore, often experienced as both difficult and stressful as well as emotionally fulfilling and joyous (Elliott, Gunaratnam, Hollway, and Phoenix, 2009). Second, responsibility for childcare and upbringing is gender differentiated, so that mothers, and not fathers, continue to do the major work of childcare (Daniel et al, 2005). Mothering is thus a major site for the intensification of gendered inequalities (Craig, 2005) and so for feminist analyses and politics. Third, while parenting is now on the political agenda, mothers are frequently held responsible for their children’s behaviour and development (Gillies, 2007). One consequence of this is that there are strong normative prescriptions about the circumstances into which children should be born and raised. Women are thus stigmatised for having children ‘too early’, ‘too late’, as lone mothers, or in circumstances where they cannot make independent economic provision for their children or are deemed not to nurture the correct educational or emotional outcomes (Chase et al, 2009; Duncan et al, 2010; Visick, 2009). 

The now substantial feminist literature on motherhood indicates that there are many implicit prescriptions that  blame  women for mothering in ways constructed as less than optimal (Jackson and Mannix, 2004). As a result, numerous groups of mothers who are mothering in circumstances constructed as ‘non-normative’, are subject to public censure and can be said to be ’mothering on the margins’.  A Google search produces more than 33,000 results for ‘mothering on the margins’, suggesting that it is a readily-available discursive formation and self definition.  A wide range of ‘margins’ are identified in the literature, including racialisation (e.g. black mothers and mothers from other minoritised ethnic groups); having children who have disabilities; living in poverty; being working class; raising children without living with their fathers; not having custody of children and being subjects of child protection services (Gillies, 2007; O'Reilly, 2006; Romero, 1997). Lorelei Carpenter and Helena Austin (2007) use the metaphor of the ’text and the margin’, where the text may be said to describe constructions of good mothering and the margin is the space beyond the text where mothers are not recognized and so are silenced and, as a result, segregated and isolated.

It is not only that certain categories of mothers are constructed as better suited than others to motherhood; what mothers do with their children is also subject to public scrutiny. As a discipline, psychology has been particularly influential in producing normative prescriptions about the practices that constitute good mothering. In particular, attachment theory constructs mothers and the relationships they forge with their young children as central to identities and mental health (Barrett, 2006).  Although fathers are now more commonly discussed as important to their children’s lives, the work of mothering continues to be constructed as crucial to children’s educational, behavioural and mental health outcomes (Burman, 2008). In psychoanalytic work, children’s identification with their mothers is seen as important to development.  In later life, it is particularly central to mother-daughter relationships (Hollway, 2009). In northern cultures, it is taken for granted that mothers and children should live together and that mothers should devote themselves selflessly to their children. In focusing on motherhood as social and political, rather than private and non-political, feminism has undoubtedly contributed to transformations in both the conditions and constructions of motherhood (Green, 2009). However, feminist work has long pointed out that there is a tension between idealised versions of motherhood and many mothers’ experiences of tedium, stress and hard, repetitive work that is socially undervalued and often anxiety provoking (Barnard, 1975; Oakley, 1974; Oakley, 1979; Phoenix, Woollett, and Lloyd, 1991).

This paper discusses a group of mothers who may be said to be ‘mothering on the margins’, but who do not generally come to public attention; mothers who are separated from their children through transnational migration.  In recent years, such mothers have begun to receive some media and academic attention, but have generally not impinged on public consciousness. Transnational motherhood is, however, a feminist issue in that mothers (but not fathers) separated from their children as a result of migration  are often subject to censure for apparently taking insufficient account of their children’s needs. Yet, mothers in such circumstances frequently work hard to make the best possible economic and emotional contributions to the wellbeing of their children and families. 

Transnational motherhood

The research available indicates that mothers separated from their children transnationally face a range of issues relevant to their positioning as mothers.  Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila (2003), for example, point out that "At the beginning of the 21st century, transnational mothers and their families are blazing new terrain, spanning national borders, and improvising strategies for mothering" (p318). While this formulation makes transnational mothers seem rather like fearless pioneers, mothering while simultaneously developing new lifestyles in a new country can be particularly difficult (Lutz, 2008). This is borne out in a study of Filipino/a ‘children of migration’, where Parreñas (2005) found that the mothers had to work hard, often in difficult circumstances away from their children. However, transnational mothers, but not fathers, are disapproved of by both the Philippine government and the wider society, in ways that exacerbate the tensions that many Filipino/a migrant families have to negotiate. The children living in the Philippines while their mothers and/or fathers worked abroad appreciated the material comforts that resulted and understood why their parents were away. Yet, they were often particularly sad about their mothers’ absence. The Philippines are economically dependent on the remittances the mothers send, but politicians and public alike often voice their disapproval of the widespread practice of mothers leaving their children behind when they take up employment in more affluent countries. To some extent, this is to be expected since (with notable exceptions such as in Scandinavian countries) mothers continue to be constructed as predominantly responsible for childcare and for their children’s development (Azar, 2008; Barrett, 2006; Miller, 2005). Children, as well as society, are therefore more likely to hold mothers, rather than fathers, accountable for children’s emotional wellbeing.

It is possible for transnational families to maintain shared imaginaries and narratives of belonging through contact and visits in either direction (Yeoh, Huang, and Lam, 2005) and through ‘virtual intimacies’ (Wilding, 2006). They are thus sometimes  able to maintain the simultaneity of family members’ lives across transnational space through shared activities, routines and institutions (Levitt and Glick-Schiller, 2004). This geographically-separated simultaneity takes effort, resources and organisation to maintain and so is emotionally, cognitively and financially costly (Orellana, Thorne, Chee, and Lam, 2001). Transnational families thus have to negotiate transnational circuits of emotion, material goods and financial support. Wolf (2002) coined the term ‘emotional transnationalism’ to capture the emotional ties that are evoked, despite migration and geographical separation. The work of emotional (and often economic) maintenance across national borders often falls to women (Skrbiš, 2008).

The mothers in ‘global care chains’ (Parreñas, 2001) often have to rely on other women to look after their children and/or other relatives while many do care work for other, more affluent women in the countries to which they have migrated (Lutz, 2008; Yeates, 2005). The work performed by mothers in global care chains serves to maintain emotional links and relationships as well as to support different family members. However, it is managed at enormous cost for many women in that geographical separation can produce a sense of liminality, ambiguity, and indeterminacy of identity; a sense of simultaneously ‘being here and there’ (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila, 2003). Mothers are often morally beholden to the women who look after their children in their countries of origins in that they have to ‘repay the gift of communality’ in economic and other ways (Carling, 2008).

This paper uses a study of serial migration to consider the ways in which two mothers who came to the United Kingdom from the Caribbean, leaving behind children who later joined them, account for themselves as mothers. It considers the contradictions that result when the mothers recognise that the future visions for their children (e.g. in terms of educational goals and careers) that fuelled and justified the process of serial migration are called into question by the ways in which mothering is viewed in current British society and by their own children, particularly their daughters. The paper first briefly describes the study that informs the analyses presented here. It then considers how two mothers who migrated to the UK and then sent for their children, retrospectively construct what they aimed to do and their feelings about it. For both mothers, a key theme was that serial migration was their attempt to do the best they could for their children, but both recognised that it had costly effects in terms of their relationships with their children.

The study

The analyses presented come from interviews with two mothers whose children had been serial migrants. These interviews formed part of an ESRC-funded research ‘Transforming Experiences’ project in which 53 adults (39 women and 14 men) were interviewed  because they were ‘serial migrants’ from the Caribbean. The participants were asked to look back on their childhoods with the aim of understanding the ways in which they re-conceptualise their experiences over time and the impact of their re-conceptualisation on their identities.  All the parents left the Caribbean at a time when their labour was solicited in the UK (Bauer and Thompson, 2006), where they hoped to be able to make a more prosperous life, with better opportunities for their children than were open to them in their countries of birth. Since serial migration was common in Caribbean countries at the time, it was not considered ‘non-normative’ in the countries in which they had been born, or in their social circles.

Changes to immigration laws over the last thirty years mean that migration from the Caribbean is much less common than it was. The experiences reported here were thus different from those in current ‘global care chains’, where Information and Communication Technologies enable more frequent contact and new ways to manage mother-child relations (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila, 2003; Lutz, 2008; Parreñas, 2005). Serial migration and long periods of transnational separation from parents are, however, common across the globe and so these mothers’ experiences can help to illuminate the intentions of transnational mothers, the dilemmas they face and their positioning as women. The impact of serial migration is mostly still poorly understood (Arnold, 2006). There is some north American evidence that many children who have experienced it feel a degree of unhappiness in childhood, sometimes have difficult relationships with their parents and attain poorly in education (Smith, Lalonde, and Johnson, 2004; Vickerman, 2006). The impact on their mothers, however, has been even less investigated. This may be partly because mothers are frequently reluctant to tell their stories about serial migration. Many of the adults who had been left as children in the Caribbean said that their parents were reluctant to talk about this and the few who did were reported to be reluctant to hear their adult children’s viewpoints. This study set out to interview the adult children, rather than the parents but, as the study progressed, attempted to recruit the parental generation. We found, however, that most of the parents did not want to be interviewed, even when their adult children expected that they would. In the absence of time and resources to make a concerted effort to recruit the parental generation, we eventually interviewed only two mothers, neither of whose children were approached to participate in the study.

The theoretical resources on which the study draws include the notion that we 'make ourselves' through our autobiographical narratives (Bruner, 1990) and that memories do not simply re-present past events, but simultaneously construct identities (Lambek and Antze, 1996). What is remembered is, therefore, dependent on how events fit with constructed experiences and life stories. Memory allows us "to creatively refashion ourselves, remembering one thing and not another, changing the stories we tell ourselves (and others) about ourselves", in a dialectical relationship between experience, memory, culture and identity (Lambek and Antze, 1996, p.xvi).  As Polkinghorne (1988) suggests, we ‘refashion’ ourselves through narrative and "revise the plot as new events are added to our lives" (Polkinghorne,1988, p150). Identities that are unsatisfactory can be reworked to provide new, more emotionally acceptable versions and new understandings of difficult stories.  This is particularly important for the mothers in the serial migration study because their separation from their children means that, in Judith Butler’s (2004) terms, they are constructed as having ‘unbearable lives’ because they cannot recognize themselves in the culture’s canonical narratives of what it is to be a mother. This paper addresses the ways in which the two mothers have remade their identities decades after their children have grown up.

Working towards a worthwhile future

Avtar Brah (1996) suggests that diasporas are paradoxical in both being about journey and moving, as well as putting down roots in new countries:

“The word diaspora often invokes the imagery of traumas of separation and dislocation, and this is certainly a very important aspect of the migratory experience. But diasporas are also potentially the sites of hope and new beginnings. They are contested cultural and political terrains where individual and collective memories collide, reassemble and reconfigure.” (p.193)

The two mothers in this study (referred to as Emma and Bertha) demonstrate the paradox of working to put down roots in a new place as well as the hopes that attended their new beginnings and their management of the trauma of separation from their children. Both women had six children, some of whom were born in the Caribbean and some in the UK. Both migrated as part of a family project agreed with their husbands, who also came to the UK. ‘Emma’, left three children behind when she migrated to the UK. She had three more children in the UK and sent for all of her Caribbean children, thus reuniting the family. At some point in their childhoods, her marriage ended. She was interviewed when she was 70 years old and tells a story that makes clear that she had been the parent who had major responsibility for her children.

Emma narrates a process of having striven to negotiate creative solutions to the separation from her children, working hard to have them with her as soon as possible and revising her initial decision to return to the Caribbean after five years when she became clear that it would be better to bring the children to the UK. Nonetheless, her matter-of-fact clarity about having done the only thing she could do is accompanied by a story of pain at the time and paying the price of being emotionally distant from her children after reunion. In the extracts that follow, (.) indicates a pause and ... that I have shortened the extract by omitting something.

Q:  OK. So I wonder if we could start by you just telling me your story in terms of your experience of serial migration from the Caribbean?

Emma:    My story isn’t a very (laughs) good one.  Um.  (.) I miss my children terribly when I came and, um, especially, um, yes, and the first five years in this country, five, seven years, it was terribly, terrible, you know.  Um.  One from missing them, one, um. It was such a different life style from the happy, free, you know, Jamaica that you leave behind. Um.  (.) You had (.) when you have somewhere rented it was just one room and you have to do everything in it for a start, ah.  And then you had to personally, you want your children with you and sometimes people didn’t want you to live there. So the first thing after you start to save to buy a place and that wasn’t any easy job. /…/ And there’s no way I was going to get them without a house. However, um, was saving like that but then it seems as if it was taking forever. And in the meantime you have to send money back to support them. /…/ So we start to look about for a flat, leaving the house but still saving. And we got a flat /.../ It was two bedroom.  And before the children came we then sub let one room to help us pay the, um, the rent for the flat.  We didn’t have to give a deposit. /.../

Q:   So if you think about Betsy and Lizzie do you have a sense of how they felt about you coming to England and being away from them and then sending for them later?

Emma:    Noo.  Nooo.  (.)  No. You see when you’re busy working and working and working you haven’t (.) I didn’t have time to start think about that.  You know what I’m saying?  But now sometime when you sit back you think you could have maybe do some things differently.

The above extract, from the beginning of Emma’s interview immediately presents what later become clear are key themes for Emma. She asserts that hers is not a good story and explains two reasons for this; missing her children terribly and the different, less carefree lifestyle in Britain, compared with Jamaica. Having oriented the researcher to this context, which arguably defends her against charges that she was an irresponsible or uncaring mother, she presents a third theme, of industriousness and working to make adequate material provision for her children, ‘no way I was going to get them without a house’. In response to a question about how the children felt, she introduces a fourth key theme as an evaluation of her story. She explains that she had been too busy working (in order to make material provision for her children) to have time to think about how they felt, so that it is only sometimes now, when she ‘sits back’ (and presumably has leisure to reflect), that she thinks she could have done things differently. Her use of a three-part-list ‘working and working and working’ serves to emphasise her industriousness as well as how hard things were for her. Emma’s account presents dilemmas for women that are central to feminism. In particular, it raises questions about how best to reconcile material and emotional care for children in a context where a focus on attachment makes separation from young children (including for reasons of daily employment) potentially contentious and blameworthy.

Given that Emma’s second answer presented above is in response to a question about her children, it functions as prolepsis (i.e. mounting a defence in anticipation of criticism) (Billig, 1991). She thus defends herself against potential charges, (not made, but perhaps easily inferred by Emma in a context where serial migration is not part of the normative cultural story), that her life was easier than her children’s or that she knew that they were not happy while they were separated from her. By acknowledging that now (but not then) she can see that she could have done things differently, she also gives recognition to the possibility that she could be blamed for the serial migration, while simultaneously justifying it from her position as a mother.

The overall picture produced in the first few minutes of the interview is one of sadness and a discourse of self-acceptance in that she explains that she had little choice but to do as she did. Emma and Bertha (who is discussed below) are both aware that the geographical move from the Caribbean to the UK, and the historical shift in narratives of parenting from the 1960s and 1970s to the beginning of the 21st century call into question their decisions to migrate before their children did and the length of time they were separated. Popular cultural discourses of attachment theory and close relationships with children are thus likely to form the intertextual backdrop to their accounts, implicitly requiring them to defend themselves against notions that they have not been good mothers. It is striking that they do not lay open their husbands to potential blame, suggesting that they take for granted that mothers are more responsible than fathers for how their children fare.

It becomes evident later in the interview that Emma used to send money back to the Caribbean for her children’s support, but that she wrote to her aunt, who was caring for the children (her mother having migrated to the UK before Emma), rather than to the children. Since there was no telephone available then, she had no direct communication with the children and knew little about what was happening to them, including how they were prepared for coming to Britain. With hindsight, she said that she felt it would have been good to have written to the children and that it would be preferable for one parent to stay in the Caribbean with the children while the other came to the United Kingdom to make a life for them. She explains that they are not a close family, suggesting that this explains why it would have been better for one parent to have stayed with the children (presumably herself since she had remained with them when her husband migrated).

Many of the adults who had been serial migrants as children, wished things could have been different and viewed their relationships with their own children and, often, gradual improvements in their relationships with their parents as redeeming the difficulties caused by serial migration. However, while Emma, as a mother, admits that from her current vantage point she sometimes considers that things could have been done differently, she does not examine this possibility very closely.  Indeed, in discussing this, she shifts to the second person, distancing herself from it. One of her key narratives is that ‘It’s done... there is nothing I can do about it'.

Bertha, the other mother interviewed, was 80 years old at the time of interview. She left four children in the Caribbean with her mother and sister and had a further two in the UK.  As did Emma, she emphasised the theme of pain on leaving the children, the hard work she and her husband had to do to provide for them and the difficulty of getting, adequate accommodation for them in a context where racism made it difficult for Caribbeans to get any accommodation.

Bertha:  After coming (.) after that, he [her husband] send for me two years after (.) I find it very, very difficult, also leave the kids then (.) but I want a better life for them so therefore I make up my mind.  I book the fare to bring the first one over, which is elder son but unfortunate he couldn’t come along with me at the time because there was no place really suitable for me and him and the children and so- and my son.  Anyway, after coming over, my mum took care of (.) the four children that left behind (.) along with one sister that I really grew (.) and we sought to work together very hard. It wasn’t very easy. It was really hard.  Leave a nice home, hot country and come over here and have to be living into one small room, I find it really difficult, I cry night and day.  But God also good, he help- you know, he helps me out and we move along, work together and find big … bigger place and send for the first son.  When he came he was 8 year old, (.) he went to school, which was a little difficulty but still, he cry also want to go back home to grandma (.) but we encouraged him that we want better life for him, that’s why we brought him over.  It was very, very hard at that time (.), you couldn’t even get anywhere for yourself much more to have children in the…in the home.  Anyway, we work together and things sort of build up very good and we send for the other three children, together, a few years after.  When (.) um Mark was [7 [slower]] when he came (.) and the other one, uh he was, I don’t quite remember if he was (.) a- 5 a- and the girl, she came when she was 4, those three.  Life begin to get really, really hard, having to looked after 4 children, living in one big room (laughs) (.) but we fight it all really you know, we manage, I work very hard.  /…/  I really work hard, I work from one … actually, one day to the other.  I hardly know when there is a day to rest, also my husband.  /…/But still, God is good, we get this one here and the children then be contented. The children, they wasn’t very settled when they came from Jamaica (.), they always a problem, not with the elder boy but with the three that came together (.) especially my daughter.  I had a hard time (laughs) with her that’s … you know, because she wasn’t really settled, she want to go back to stay with her grandma and I determined that you’re not going back, you are staying here to get a better life which, thank God, she do get a better life.

Bertha‘s response to the first question has striking commonalities with Emma’s. In particular, she highlights her reluctance to leave the children as well as how hard she and her husband worked to find accommodation for them and to be able to bring them to Britain. The back story she creates (not included above for reasons of space) was consistent with Emma’s story in explaining that she had not communicated directly with her children, but wrote to her sister and to a ‘local lady’, asking how they looked. Additional themes for Bertha (in contradistinction from Emma) are how difficult it was for some of the children to settle into living with their parents again and how hard it was to persuade them that they would have a better life in the UK. In relation to her older daughter in particular (who she left when aged six months), Bertha expressed sadness that she only developed a loving relationship with her a few years ago because that daughter was much more attached to Bertha‘s sister. (‘I say “I’m your mother“. She say, “No"'). Bertha’s daughter’s refusal to accept Bertha as her mother provides an indication that children actively construct notions of mothering and motherhood that need not be based on birth mothering. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bertha reported that she had a much better relationship with the daughter born in Britain, who lived with her throughout her childhood.

Bertha’s Christian faith (expressed frequently as ‘thank God‘, ‘God is good‘ etc.) gives her account an optimistic and consoling feel despite the sorrow she expresses at various points about leaving the children, later poor relationships with some and the drudgery involved in providing for them. Nonetheless, five of her six children have done well educationally and so have benefited materially from coming to Britain in the way that she and her husband intended. Emma too expressed pride that most of her children had good jobs and were respectable citizens.

In a Swedish interview study asking parents of four-year-olds about their ideas on child development, Halldén, (1991) found that contemporary parents have contrasting images of children. She used the metaphors ‘child as being’ (which emphasises the need for parents to protect their children and recognise their individuality) and ‘child as project’ (which focuses on what children can become). Halldén suggests that these contrasting ideas result because parents have to deal with conflicting demands of parenthood. Parents formulate an everyday psychology that acts as frames of reference for what they do in relation to their children. According to Halldén (1991), these frames of reference are historically and culturally specific in that they are interpretations of what society demands of its citizens.  For Bertha and Emma, the justification of serial migration in terms of its material benefits is an indication that they viewed their children as educational and economic future ‘projects’. This may be particularly the case since, when separated from their children, they have limited opportunities to focus on Halldén’s ‘child as being, but can continue maternal work and caring by treating their children as future projects.

For both Bertha and Emma, a ‘child as project’ approach had been successful for most of their children in terms of material success, but unsuccessful in terms of their relationships and emotions.

Looking back and evaluating

Despite these shared features of their experiences, Bertha and Emma come to somewhat different overall evaluations of serial migration. For Bertha, it was to be regretted:

Bertha:  I tell you … I would like nobody to leave their children behind anymore you know. It’s really, it’s heartbreaking, it’s really heartbreaking you know, I would never encourage no one to leave their children behind so far (.) without seeing them for one or two day as much more, two or three year.  It’s really tough, it’s … it’s … it’s not easy.  When I see daylight and I look on my children you know, well gradually they take time … time to break into the life (.)… the boys, they was fine, I must be honest, they was fine, really fine.  And then having these two you know, they was fine, they … I can tell you the truth, … sometimes I say I should have fewer boy, the boys, them are fine.  But me, that mishap with my daughter was like a nightmare…as time goes on, things start to get better.
Bertha’s account differentiates between the impact on her sons and daughter, who found it harder to be reconciled to Bertha as her mother.

From the vantage point of several years later, Emma wished she had worked less hard at her employment out of the house and can now imagine what had been unimaginable for her in earlier years: that she might for a period have relied on state support so that she could spend more time with her children than was possible at the time. As discussed above, she also thought that it might be better for one parent to stay with the children in the Caribbean. However, while Bertha does not focus on regret because she takes an optimistic stance, Emma rejects the very possibility of regret for herself, on the grounds that it is futile since there is no point in regretting what cannot be changed.

Q:    Do you think there’s a relationship between the fact that you and Betsy don’t have a good relationship and the fact that you were away from her for a period of time?

Emma:    Could be.  Could be. But you (laugh) can’t do nothing about it, can you?  And..

I:    You say “could be” – what, what might the connection be?

Emma:    I don’t know. You can’t do anything about it.  And you know one thing, I tell you what – it’s, it’s like this, I do what I did the way I did it and it’s done, it’s gone, there is nothing I can do about it – because I know people that left children back home and they don’t get them here until they’re, you know, and they still have a good relationship.  And there’s children, parents that have children here and they never leave them, they don’t have a good relationship… You know, so you can’t keep, ah, I can’t keep looking back coz it, it’s done, it’s gone and there’s nothing I can do about it… I haven’t (.) got a choice now.


Q:    So how do you feel about the decision that you made back then?

Emma:    Well I make it whether it was right or wrong. I made it .hh and, um, (.) I made it (.) and as I said I keep repeating, it’s behind now. I can’t say I wish I hadn’t made it.  I did what I have to, had to do whether it be wrong or right I wouldn’t and I don’t know… But I’m proud of the fact that we left them there and (.) we, as I say, say five years would go back to them. We feel that was the wrong thing to do and we change it and we worked towards it and we got them here when they was still young… and have the opportunity to do things instead of going back to them and don’t know where a job coming from to give them their next. 

There was a great feeling of sadness from Emma’s interview. Her acceptance that she had little choice about what to do with regard to her children protected her from believing that her efforts and sacrifices might have been less worthwhile than she had supposed they would be. Unlike Bertha, her marriage had ended, one of her children had died and she was estranged from another. However, once she retired from paid employment, she had put her energies into community service in ways that allowed her to resist normative constructions of what Butler (2004) calls a ‘culturally legible’, worthwhile or ‘liveable life’,  which requires mothers to have close attachments with children and grandchildren. From her point of view, her community contributions and the fact that her children were all employed and  ‘good parents’ also allowed her to produce the kind of redemptive narrative common from midlife onwards (McAdams, 2006).

As a mother in a serial migration relationship, Emma kept her vision fixed on the future and avoided dwelling on the pain she experienced in the present in order to work towards providing a home in the UK for her children. In Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila’s (2003) terms, she appeared to have been ‘neither here, nor there’ in that her account suggests that while away from her children, she barely allowed herself to experience the present in order to be able to provide a better future for her children. This seems to be a psychosocially defensive strategy in that Emma seems to be both enduring painful circumstances and protecting herself from them for reasons that can be viewed as deferred gratification. Bertha, who also reported a strong future vision for her children, seemed less defensive about evaluating her experience of serial migration as having deeply problematic consequences for some of her children. She used the extreme case formulation ‘heartbreaking’ in her retrospective evaluation.  It is not surprising then that Emma, unlike Bertha, was somewhat impatient with questions that appeared to try to make her reflect on the possibility that she may have made mistakes in engaging in the process of serial migration.

In conclusion

It might be argued that Bertha and Emma’s mothering was a reflection of the historical period in which their children were young, rather than their transnational status. Indeed, the women serial migrants in the study frequently said that they themselves would not leave their children in order to migrate and drew attention to intergenerational differences between their own and their mothers’ mothering. This can, however, only be part of the story in that many also considered that they had been mothered differently from the ways in which their British-born siblings had been mothered. As a mother, Bertha also explains that she got on much better with the daughter who was born in the UK and from whom she was never separated, than with the children who were serial migrants, particularly her daughter.

Both mothers produced full accounts of their families’ serial migration suggesting that, as Catherine Riessman (2002; 2008) argues, narratives are most likely to be developed when there is a rupture of canonical expectations. That is, when lives develop in ways that run counter to what would be expected in the culture. Emma’s experience as a mother is consistent with Helma Lutz’s finding (personal communication) that Surinamese mothers who went to the Netherlands as serial migrant mothers were only able to do so because they refused to anticipate that it would be painful for them and for their children. They had to be ‘hard’ in order to leave at all. When interviewed, however, they had been living for decades in the Netherlands and seen how views of childrearing had changed as well as the difficulties they faced in their relationships with their children. As a result, the stories they told Lutz in their research interviews identified serial migration as an emotionally difficult, complex and contradictory process (Lutz, 1995). These findings fit with those in the ‘Transforming Experience’ study where time and later experiences served to transform understanding of experience for the children involved as well as for Emma and Bertha, the two mothers interviewed. It could be argued that Emma and Bertha’s decisions fit with notions of feminist mothering in seeking to do the best they could for their children through their and their husbands’ employment. This in itself, however, put them in contradictory positions as mothers in that they not only had lengthy periods of separation from their children, but were employed for long hours away from home when the children joined them. Both mothers were aware that this potentially subjected them to censure as mothers (unlike their husbands who, as fathers, were central to decisions about serial migration). Both women’s accounts foreground pain and difficulty on leaving their children. However, while Bertha regrets the serial migration because the negative effects lasted for decades (until only five years ago according to her account), she also constructs an optimistic worldview by drawing on her Christian faith. In contrast, a psychosocial reading suggests that Emma’s defences against regretting the serial migration entail a fatalistic worldview which refuses to acknowledge the difficulties of the past, or her part in it, on the grounds that the past cannot be changed and she had ‘had to do’ what she had done.

Neither Emma nor Bertha managed to maintain shared imaginaries, ‘simultaneity’ and narratives of belonging with their families while separated (c.f. Levitt and Glick-Schiller, 2004), although they did negotiate ‘transnational circuits’ of emotion, material goods and financial support (Yeoh et al, 2005) which were economically and emotionally costly for them (Orellana et al, 2001). For both, future visions for their children were central to the decisions that they and their husbands made to take the opportunity to migrate and then to send for their children once they could afford to do so. The process of serial migration was made possible because, in Gunilla Halldén’s (1991) terms, they viewed their children as 'projects', educationally and economically. From their accounts, they struggled to develop shared imaginaries, simultaneity and narratives of belonging once they were reunited with their children, particularly their daughters. It is arguable that, once reunited, they could not view their ‘child[ren] as ‘being’ in that facing their children’s misery may well have been unbearably painful for them. For both, the children’s experiences and reactions meant that they were ‘mothering on the margins‘, not just because they were separated for some years from some of their children, but because they were then marginalised by some of their children as a result of the painful emotions evoked for the children in leaving carers to whom they were deeply attached in order to rejoin mothers who were strangers to them. The notion that children can marginalise their mothers is not generally addressed in the literature and challenges a unidirectional conceptualisation that mothers ‘harm’ their children if secure attachment is not established; that is the literature does not theorise the possibility of children hurting their mothers by remaining distant from, and resistant to, them. A transactional approach helps to illuminate the ways in which mothering is a relational process in which both parties (mothers and children) are agents who produce effects and are themselves affected as they act on the world. The contradictions Bertha and Emma faced, and their recognition that they were potentially subject to blame for having been transnational mothers, illustrate the ways in which motherhood (but not fatherhood) is overdetermined by requirements for emotional provision and physical co-presence, while economic provision is downplayed. This makes transnational motherhood a feminist issue in that it penalises women for making what they consider to be the best arrangements for their families, constructing mothers, but not fathers, as responsible for putting co-residence with their children above what they view as the children’s long-term best interests. Yet, as the mothers discussed above illustrate, mothers have to face circumstances where conceptualisations of ‘child as being’ conflict with those of ‘child as project’ (Halldén, 1991) and mothers, across the globe, frequently make difficult assessments of how best to manage the process of migrating in order to forge better lives while providing care for their children. Bertha and Emma’s narratives retrospectively find ways of reconciling these conflicting interests (Ryan and Webster, 2008).

The analyses presented so far demonstrate the long-lasting impact of the mothers’ experiences as serial migrants on their feelings about themselves.  


I would like to thank all those who took part in the ‘Transforming Experiences’ study for giving so generously of their time and narratives. It is a truism to say that the paper would not have been possible without them. However, their reflexivity has greatly enriched my understanding of the issues discussed here. Thanks also to Elaine Bauer, Leandra Box, Stephanie Davis and Pat Petrie for their work on the project and to the project advisory group and the ESRC-funded Making of Modern Motherhoods research team who discussed interview transcripts and analytic ideas with us. None of this work would have been conducted without the generosity of the ESRC and the panel who considered the project worthy of funding. Grateful thanks to them and to the two anonymous referees and the editors of the special issue who made time to give full and constructive comments. 


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Biographical Note

Ann Phoenix is Professor and Co-Director at Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. Her research focuses on psychosocial identities. She currently co-directs the Childhood Wellbeing Research Centre funded by the Department for Education and is writing up findings from an ESRC Professorial fellowship: ‘Transforming experiences: Re-conceptualising identities and ‘non-normative’ childhoods’. She is the Principal Investigator on an ESRC National Centre for Research Methods node (October 2011 to 2014).