Mothering From a Distance: The Role of Technology and Digital Literacy Practices in Parenting Children ‘Left Behind’ (Sondra Cuban)

Sondra Cuban is a lecturer at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. She received a grant from the Economic Social Research Council in England to study women immigrants who worked in health and social care services in England. This guest blog is drawn from a portion of that study: “Home/Work: The Roles of Education, Literacy and Learning in the Networks and Mobility Patterns of Migrant Carers.”

It is commonly believed that when immigrant caregivers arrive and then settle in a new country to care for other people’s elderly parents or children that they relinquish childrearing activities of their own. In some cases this may be true. But in my research, funded by the Economic Social Research Council in England, I have found the opposite case, confirming other research studies on transnational mothering and families where it is seen as a rearrangement rather than abandonment.

With the advent of mobile phones and computers with webcams, joined to high digital literacy skills among this population, immigrant parents can keep tabs on children’s school work, resolve family problems while contributing money from as far away as 6000 miles.

But this is not without tensions. One study (email from Dr. Nitya Rao, University of East Anglia, UK) found that Bangladeshi fathers (and husbands) who worked in the construction industry in the Arabian peninsula made important household decisions and enforced them often overriding female caregivers’ choices. Technology can be a powerful mediator in parenting practices.

While most mothers don’t choose to leave their children behind, they often do find better paying jobs in other nations where employers or the government do not sponsor or support family reunification. Many of these jobs are not “child-friendly” due to the on-call hours that limit family time aside from the low pay and dim promotion opportunities that lessen the quality of life.

Many caregivers hope to someday return or bring their children to where they work with the goal of giving them the best education they can afford and material comforts. In fact, many women may put their own professional careers, ones established in their native-born countries, on hold when they find jobs as caregivers in the U.S. Yet the popular media and the literature, in reproaching parents for leaving their children behind, and in upholding traditional views of families, neglect the new intimacy and relations that form across the miles.

A recent film called “The Caregiver” shows a woman from the Philippines whose child has emotional scars due to her absence. While the film reveals the suffering of physical separation between them, it also reinforces the myth that children suffer damages because of a lack of a particular type of parental contact. The film fails to consider the novel qualitative exchanges that occur through new technologies that I found in my study.

Take another example of a Filipina caregiver who I got to know well over the last three years as a participant in my study: Annabelle. In 2006, when I interviewed Annabelle for the first time she confessed she was “smiling on the job but crying inside because I miss my children.” She found the separation from the three of them to be unbearable and only wanted to keep busy to distract herself from her pain. Her only compensation over three years was to call and text them in Taglish, English, and Tagalog daily to check on their whereabouts and to connect with them emotionally from a distance.

Since her husband was a merchant seaman, the children stayed with her parents. While the changed dynamic produced some pressures after she left, when she reasserted her presence, albeit from a distance, her children responded as did others; it was a regular routine, for example, to discuss her children’s grades on the phone with her parents, the children, their teachers, and monitor their homework and after school activities. She wanted to make sure they were physically safe and carrying on well despite her not being there. Eventually, she brought children and husband (who also worked as a caregiver) to England. The letters, phone calls, webcams, emails, and texts never fully substituted for being physically close to her children but they were ways to fill the gap of parental control and express her identity as their mother.

The new technology was used to stay close to children and monitor their well-being. Annabelle was not a distant mother, but mothered from a distance. There is a difference. Their connection was important in letting the children know that mom was still “here” although not physically present and that being in a transnational family could work. In the process of communicating with them through technologies, she built a type of ‘network capital’ which contributed to their social development.

What needs to be explored more are the implications for the parents themselves as they care for other people’s children and their own abroad. Those ‘cared-for’ in advanced economies are assumed to have more value and are therefore worth sacrificing for those who need care in emerging countries. The former are also expected to be the first to be cared for because of their physical proximity to the immigrant caregiver. Indeed, and it was often the case, clients’ needs came first and caused tensions for the caregivers in staying in touch with their family members when they were constantly pulled away. However, these mothers persisted. They used technology–phone calls were always rescheduled and texts were somehow paid for across time and space–to mother from a distance.

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