I have written a previous blog about two mothers in Korea and China who I will never know but yet I honor each year on Mother’s Day. This blog post is about those moms from throughout the world who moved to America and have raised their children in a world where their family looks different, may dress differently and are caught between two very different cultures. While most of us will celebrate our mothers this weekend for providing us with guidance, car rides, food and love, immigrant mothers in this country have done even more to make sure that their children have a better life than they did. They have left their country of birth, their extended families and all that they have known, to move to America and start over so that their children would have more opportunities. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with four of these women and asked them to share their stories.
Mona was 15 when she moved to the US with her parents and three siblings from Somalia. Both of her parents learned English and held more liberal views, but still believed that girls needed to be more submissive in their behavior than boys. Mona often needed to stand up to her parents in order to gain much of the same independence that was granted to her older brother and friends. Because of the ongoing conflict in Somalia, her mother has not had an opportunity to return to her home to reconnect with her siblings and parents. If she had remained in Somalia, childcare would have been shared between relatives as well as cooking and socializing. Raising her family in America left her much more isolated and without a support system when her independent daughter brought home a Caucasian boyfriend who she would later marry.
Hieu entered the US from Vietnam at age one, accompanied by her parents and two older brothers. Their family was sponsored by a church in Hinckley. Unlike Mona, who grew up in a diverse metro high school, Hieu and her family were the only Asians in a rural community. Although Hieu never thought of herself as different from her classmates, she remembers her mother struggling to assimilate as she had a difficult time learning the language and mourned the lack of a community of women and the comfort foods of Vietnam. A monthly trip was made to Minneapolis to purchase some of the ingredients for homemade Vietnamese food. This move to America had been Hieu’s dads plan and her mother went along with the idea as she believed her children would have greater opportunities in America rather than in Vietnam, which was just starting to rebuild after the war. Although she has had a few opportunities to return to Vietnam, the memories and lost connection with family makes the trip emotionally difficult.
Jackie came to the US from Kenya at age 19 on an academic scholarship to attend college. Her parents had saved and worked 2 and 3 jobs in order to put her and her 8 siblings through boarding schools and college. As each child graduated from college and got a job, they were expected to give their paycheck back to their parents in order to help the next child in their education. The expectation was even higher for Jackie as she had the opportunity for a well-paying job in America and could send larger funds back to Africa to provide for education for nieces and nephews.
Gladys won the green card lottery at age 36 due to the medical needs of her son with sickle-cell. The medical care that he could receive in the US far surpassed what was available in Kenya. Gladys had worked as an RN in Kenya and soon found a job in the US but had to move here 3 months before her husband and children could follow. Once her family arrived she noted that the big difference in this country was that she was not able to afford a maid or in-home childcare provider, as she had done in Kenya. Like many working moms in America, she was faced with a second full-time job when she returned home from her paying job as a nurse.
Despite coming from different parts of the world and at different ages, all of these women shared with me many of the same stories. Feeling responsible for family members that remain in the home country – whether that be paying for the education of a niece or being asked to help fund the purchase of a house by a cousin you have never met. Trying to keep parts of the home culture alive in your children while also allowing them to feel fully American. Sharing stories of the struggles you had to overcome to make a life in this country in order to combat the entitlement that can be a pervasive part of teen life in America. Creating a middle ground in your nuclear family between the opposing pull of the individualistic American culture and the community culture back home.
Observing a woman become a mother is something I see happen every day in my work as an ob/gyn physician. Giving birth is not what makes a mother. That task is accomplished in the sacrifices mothers make for their children and the love they bestow on them. Immigrant mothers have often made one of the largest sacrifices imaginable – leaving all that they know to try to create a better life for their children in a foreign land with a foreign language. I often wonder if I would have the strength to do the same.