Here or There? Shifting Meanings and Practices in Mother–Child Relationships across Time and Space

AuthorPaola Bonizzoni
Date01 December 2015
Published date01 December 2015
Here or There? Shifting Meanings and
Practices in MotherChild Relationships
across Time and Space
Paola Bonizzoni*
In this paper, I analyse the changes that mothers and children experience in their relationship
due to the physical separations and reunions entailed by the international migration process. I
argue that the different geographical conf‌igurations that migrant families take over time are the
outcome of a negotiation of care responsibility and desired geographies of family life, and are
accompanied by changing meanings and practices in intimate relationships: the location of care
relationships is inf‌luenced by the relativescapacity both to take part in family negotiations as
well as to overcome the constraints imposed by policies. Time is relevant because it leads to
shifting meanings and practices of transnational family life, as well as to the changing role of
children in the family.
International migration often entails the physical separation of people who used to live close by or
even share a household: the geographical dispersion of families, as argued by Massey (1990) is,
moreover, intimately linked to the development of self-sustainingmigratory networks, due to the
reunif‌ication of nuclear and extended families abroad (Ambrosini, 2008). Migration is thus accom-
panied by changes in the way in which family life is practiced and conceived: migrants adjust f‌irst
to transnational family arrangements, and subsequently to a different environment in terms of cul-
tural values, labour market features and institutional frameworks (George, 2005). A well-developed
body of research has brought to light the crucial role played by women in economic migration,
especially in domestic and care work.
This sector is strategic in Italy, a country whose demo-
graphic trends and welfare state features feed a steady demand for low-skilled female jobs, met,
from the 1990s onwards, by immigrant women. Domestic work has often been associated with
transnational family life: its characteristics (demanding working schedules, cohabitation, informality
etc.), coupled with the circulatory style that some migrants may choose, make family reunif‌ication
a not always desired, nor easily accessible, option. However, the arrival of children from female-
led migration f‌lows is clearly observable in Italy, testifying to the active role that women play not
just in economic migration, but also in family reunif‌ication processes, something that has not
received adequate attention by researchers.
* Department of Social and Political Sciences, University of Milan.
doi: 10.1111/imig.12028
©2012 The Author
International Migration ©2012 IOM
International Migration Vol. 53 (6) 2015
ISS N 00 20- 7985 Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Drawing on more than 60 qualitative interviews collected in the course of a 2-year project,
I will
provide an exploration of the family migration process as it is experienced by immigrant working
mothers and children in Milan. The data collected reveal that the process is accompanied by profound
changes in the way in which the motherchild relationship is practiced and conceived in time and
space. In order to interpret the extent of these shifts, it is necessary to consider the timing and fre-
quency of transnational family practices: f‌irst, the ages at which children are separated from and
reunited with their mothers, but also the duration of the separation between mothers and children as
well as the frequency of transnational exchanges. Time is also relevant because it inf‌luences chil-
drens agency and the negotiation of their adult status in the family, the extent to which they can par-
ticipate in transnational practices and take part in the negotiation of the family migration process
itself. Family reunif‌ication entails the mediation of not always overlapping desired geographies of
family life, which are, moreover, embedded in a set of structural constraints f‌irst, migration poli-
cies. I will show that transnational arrangements and family reunif‌ication perspectives are experi-
enced in different ways by relatives, and each of them may welcome (or resist) geographical shifts in
the familys conf‌iguration: family migration therefore involves a complex negotiation of care respon-
sibilities (Finch and Mason, 2005), which may be better understood by paying adequate attention to
the timing of transnational family practices and of the family reunif‌ication processes themselves.
The transnational approach in migration studies underscores the advantages that families may
gain in being rooted in a plurality of local contexts: for example, earning money in one place
and spending in another (to access higher levels of consumption and forms of investment
), or
even benef‌iting from participation in a plurality of local citizenship regimes (Ong, 1999). The
transnational dispersion of family members, however, may not be so much strategic as forced:
hardships in economic integration or restrictive immigration policies may lead relatives to stay
apart much longer than desired or expected, and constrain transnational social action (Fresnoza-
Flot, 2009). While kinship ties are often kept alive and maintained in spite of great distances
and prolonged separations (Boccagni, 2010; Reynolds and Zontini, 2006), genders and genera-
tions do not share the same access to transnational mobility, nor are they subject to the same
expectations regarding the kind of support expected of them (Bonizzoni and Boccagni, 2013).
Even though the diffusion of low-cost ITCs and travel operators make transnational practices
more accessible today, huge discrepancies can still be traced in the way in which care is man-
aged at a distance (Baldassar et al., 2006), due to factors located at the micro,
macro levels.
The survey that we have carried out revealed, for instance, that women, com-
pared to men, tended to be more actively involved in all of the transnational family practices
considered (phone calls, remittances and gifts
)except for the case of visits home, which
were very hard to sustain economically, especially during the f‌irst years spent in the country.
Research has shown that transnational mothering radically rearranges both motherchild interac-
tions and meanings (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila, 1997), and it is often accompanied by a deep
reorganization of the household, due to mothersneeds to share the care of children with other
(generally female) carers, who often f‌ind themselves reciprocally interlocked in global care
(Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2003; Yeates, 2005). Emotional intimacy (Dreby, 2006,
2007; Parreñas, 2005) more than economic performance remains crucial in def‌ining good
(May, 2008) transnational motherhood: however, the practices achievable are limited and the dif-
f‌iculties involved in performing an emotional role at distance often become apparent.
has successfully shed light on the circumstances leading to transnational care arrangements, as
well as on the means through which families reproduce across (and despite) time and space:
Motherchild relationships across time and space 167
©2012 The Author. International Migration ©2012 IOM

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