This study documents the experiences and maternal practices of 17 Central American asylum-seeking mothers who have crossed the US-Mexico border with their children and had resettled in the Boston area since 2014.
The study explores first the difficult contextual conditions in which these mothers preserve and nurture their children before, during and after migration, including conditions of economic inequality and violence. Second, it observes the difficult maternal practices that arise from these conditions, such as maternal sacrifices, decisions to leave some children behind and/or to risk children across borders. Finally, it analyzes the impacts of both contextual conditions and maternal practices on maternal mental health.
There is a global trend of more women migrating with their children fleeing violence and structural inequalities. Studies on the particular difficulties these mothers endure, on the agency they display to preserve themselves and their children, and on the type of assistance they need upon arrival to host destinations are limited.
This project is part of an academic-community engagement between the author and community organizations assisting asylum-seeking mothers. Between July and November of 2018, 17 in-depth interviews were conducted with adult women from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Community organizations provided the referrals. The questionnaire prompted participants’ narratives on their experiences; it also included scales to assess levels of PTSD, depression and anxiety. Interviews were transcribed verbatim. Narratives were analyzed using “thematic narrative analysis” (Riessman, 2008) and content analysis. Nvivo software facilitated the processes.
Contextual Conditions: Mothers faced economic inequality and multiple forms of violence as a continuum across borders. For example, they reported poverty in countries of origin due to gangs’ extortions, conditions of precariousness in the migratory journey; and enforced poverty in the US due to policies and other barriers restricting their access to jobs and resources. Violence was also experienced as a continuum, although it manifested differently across borders. Mothers talked about gender discrimination in their countries, and racial discrimination in the US. Institutional violence and neglect were present across borders.
Mothers’ practices: Mothers incurred into difficult mothering practices. For example, sending children unaccompanied to the US, leaving some of their children behind, and traveling with young children and infants across dangerous roads. Mothers made false promises to children to take them out on the journey, or to keep them animated while crossing borders. Mothers made sacrifices of going without food to provide everything they had to their children.
Impacts on maternal mental health: Several mothers expressed they felt physically and mentally unwell due to extreme circumstances and maternal practices they considered painful. Sixty eight percent presented symptoms of anxiety, 62% of depression, and 25% of PTSD.
Conclusions and Implications
This study advances social justice by highlighting how unjust circumstances can lead into unjust mothering practices and unjust maternal mental health outcomes. It proposes recommendations for interventions with migrant mothers, and for the formulation of policies with special protections for migrant mothers and children. It presents a gender sensitive theoretical framework that can guide both scholarship and practice.