EssaysSex & Gender

Immigrant Mothers as Agents of Change

In a recent interview with the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung, Elisabeth Badinter bemoans new trends in motherhood emerging in France. The French feminist observes that growing numbers of French mothers — though they are still a minority, she is quick to add — are becoming preoccupied with childrearing practices: they are overprotective, sacrifice too much for the (perhaps largely imagined) good of their offspring, lose themselves in motherhood. Immediately, I thought this sounded a lot like a description of Matka Polka, the archetypal Polish mother — that is until I read the next sentence, in which Badinter concludes that French mothers are becoming more like the German ones.

When faced with a description of something profoundly familiar that is presented as inherent to a culture or a place different from our own, we can pause and reflect on how similar some national discourses really are, despite their exclusive labels. We may even find some consolation in this revelation, think: Phew, it’s not just us.

Both in my research and in my own life I wonder if these moments when we discuss different cultural definitions of stereotypical motherhood happen often enough to really change the popular way of thinking about motherhood in national terms. The same goes for the differences in performing motherhood across cultures and nations — like American mothers in France, or Jewish mothers in the US, Polish mothers in Germany. Reading or hearing about them, we may compare them to our own practices, try to see them in a different light, but is it enough to influence our behaviors and values in a meaningful way?

It makes you wonder when, where, and how dominant discourses on motherhood can truly be challenged. Why would they need to be challenged? And who could challenge them?

When I started asking myself these questions, I thought of people who on a daily basis engage with discourses on motherhood and mothering practices other than those into which they have been socialized. I thought of immigrant mothers. As they literally step out of the dominant national ideals of motherhood (by physically leaving their country of origin) into other national ideals of motherhood, immigrant mothers are in a unique position to question both ideals. Immigrant mothers could thus be considered ideal agents of change.

Immigrant mothers as agents of change

Now, the word immigrant is never neutral. It is context specific and can designate various meanings, but it is always about power, about class, about exclusion. Immigrants’ class position is often difficult to define, as it changes not only over time, but also across space (between the sending and receiving countries, between the city and the countryside). For immigrants, class is fluid. Its fluidity can manifest in various ways, through emancipation or through what one could call class degradation. Although class ambiguity as well as class diversity among immigrants seems rather obvious in the world around us, it tends to be overlooked. Politicians and media alike often refer to immigrants as if they were miraculously homogenous groups, distinguished solely by nationalized or ethnicized categories. It is therefore still necessary to stress that not all immigrants belong to the same class. Some of them may not even be considered immigrants at all, but expats or internationals. Me, for instance: I’ve been living in Berlin for nearly nine years, but I would never call myself an immigrant. Instead, I think of myself as a Berliner, JFK style. Ich bin Wahlberlinerin — a Berliner by choice.

I focus on immigrant mothers here and in my current research project, but this should not imply that only biological mothers can perform the everyday practices of childrearing. I would prefer to include people who have close emotional relationships with the children they take care of and who regularly drop-off and pick-up at kindergartens and schools, do playtimes, feed, bathe, dress, help with homework, take kids to doctor’s appointments, after-school sports activities, shopping for shoes, etc. These practices can, of course, be performed by more than one person, regardless of their biological relation to the child and regardless of their gender. The word “mother” seems unnecessarily exclusive. A better word, proposed by bell hooks in her groundbreaking article “Revolutionary Parenting” published in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, would be “childrearer.” The fact remains, however, that in most cases that I encounter in my research and private observations, these childrearers are indeed mothers.

In the TRANSFORmIG project at Humboldt University we investigate how immigrants develop competences to operate within new societies and cultures, and study whether these newly acquired intercultural skills and attitudes transfer between individuals in various geographical locations. Specifically, we look at Poles living in Germany and the UK. Among Polish immigrants — and, as substantial literature on gender and migration demonstrates, also among other immigrants — it is actually mothers who perform childrearing practices on a regular basis, thus engaging with their environments in the receiving countries in very specific and crucial ways. Furthermore, when immigrant mothers share their observations, experiences, and new skills with significant others back home, it is mostly other women, often mothers, to whom they talk and display their childrearing practices. Women thus are particularly instrumental in maintaining transnational networks and transmitting cultural capital. Despite the obvious limitations, I will then continue to use the word “mother,” but with the understanding that childrearing practices can (and should) be performed by non-mothers alike.

By talking about immigrant mothers as agents of change, I hope to bring attention to the individual agency of people who are often reduced wholesale to victim groups. Over and over again, immigrant mothers are presented in popular discourses in Europe as disadvantaged, isolated, victims of the patriarchal societies they come from (but, unsurprisingly, not of the patriarchal societies of the receiving countries.)

I want to reclaim the idea of human agency from neoliberal newspeak. The neoliberal rhetoric we are by now so used to hearing from European politicians reduces individual agency to market-related self-determination and, consequently, as Wendy Brown poignantly notes, reduces social problems to individual problems with market solutions. This, however, is only one of the possible uses of the phrase — a cynical and corrupt one — and should not obscure the fact that, yes, human beings are capable of producing change through deeds, big and small. And that’s a good thing.

Small things and potential for change

National discourses continue to impact our lives and everyday practices in ways that are discriminatory and limiting. Not only do they often exclude people of other nations and minorities, but they also tend to be highly normative and tailored to the (upper) middle classes. Increasingly, national discourses go hand in hand with neoliberal discourses. Privileging the dominant nation and classes (not necessarily dominant in numbers, but in political, social, and cultural importance) leads to a further deepening of social inequalities, both within individual states and between them. Stepping outside one’s familiar territory, behaviors, institutions, and norms — which is what happens through migration — may actually help people reassess and rethink their practices and the discourses that impact them.

In The Politics of Small Things, Jeffrey Goldfarb claims that “when people freely meet and talk to each other as equals, reveal their differences, display their distinctions, and develop a capacity to act together, they create power.” He focuses, in an Arendtian fashion, on “acting and speaking in each other’s presence” (discussing, for example, how in communist Poland people would meet at a kitchen table and talk with each other as though they lived in a free country). The concept of the politics of small things has been immensely inspiring and useful in my thinking about mothering practices and the potential for change they entail. What I would add, however, is that change can and does occur even when the act of speech is not involved; social change can also happen through display and observation.

All the everyday practices in which immigrant mothers engage — playground visits, subway rides, grocery store shopping, preschool pick-ups — can potentially lead them to rethink the ways in which they do certain things. Immigrant mothers cannot but reflect on the small things they see and hear and on the conversations and other exchanges they participate in. Faced with diversity, they may revise some of their earlier conceptions of motherhood and mothering practices.

It is not only immigrant mothers, however, who thus are affected by the power of small things. Through displaying their motherhood, immigrant mothers show others (immigrants and non-immigrants alike) how differently certain practices related to childrearing can be performed, how feelings related to childrearing can also be expressed. Their various audiences are not passive consumers of display, but they actively engage in creating new meanings of and for motherhood.

The potential for change that resides in everyday practices reaches even further than the places in which these practices are performed, affecting people beyond the neighborhood playground. Immigrants function transnationally, they’re transmigrants. Affordable communication and transportation allow for more regular contact with families and friends back home. Immigrants talk to their significant others about their experiences in their new countries, cities, and neighborhoods, and during their visits home they display the knowledge and practices they have acquired through migration.

The politics of small things, as Goldfarb insists in his eponymous book, is “a potential component of everyday life.” The challenge is to identify the practices that carry that potential. Or, rather, not to overlook the potential in small things that tend to be too easily dismissed as unimportant. This, admittedly, is not exactly an easy task. It is a challenge I welcome as I embark on my new research project on immigrant mothers as agents of change, a project that finds inspiration in and celebrates the power of small things.

Agata Lisiak

  • Very interesting article. I am intrigued by the fact that the concept of the politics of small things can illuminate an important part of the immigrant experience, specifically the immigrant as an agent for change. I am also struck by how what you say about dominant ideas concerning the family surely applies to other domains as well. In a perverse way, those who worry about the impact of immigrants on the purity of their dominant culture, probably are right. What dismays them, heartens me, even on a day that reaction is so clearly present in the recent elections in Europe, and in the ongoing cultural war in the U.S. I am particularly interested in how, through what means, the immigrant is an agent for change. I look forward to your research, and am thinking of putting together a few ideas on the topic myself. Yes your right, it is not just a matter of speaking, but speaking may be of special importance. Perhaps I will put together a PS Commons post.

  • Cristina Costa

    Very interesting post. Thank you so much for sharing. I was wondering if you would be interested in writing a blogpost on this topic for our website/blog Social Theory Applied (in case you find it a good outlet for dissemination of your work.
    I have shared it through our Facebook page

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