Mothers Day Immigrant Style

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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Jackie’s mom

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.

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Gladys’s mom

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.

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Left to right: Gladys, Jackie, Hieu and Mona

 

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What Moms really want/need for Mother’s Day

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Dear Baby Daddy,

This letter applies to anyone who has fathered a child, whether they be husband, boyfriend or estranged partner. If you aren’t aware, this Sunday is Mother’s Day. You should be honoring not only the woman who gave you life but also the woman who gave life to your children. And this honor thing should not be for just one day. It should be every day.

Being in the baby business for the past 25 years, I have been present at the start of hundreds of families. This is the moment that parenting starts and some guys do it better than others. Let me give you a few clues as to what is expected of you.

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  1. Remember when this all started 9 months ago? You were there for the blessed event of conception and if you didn’t want to be a father, you should have voiced that opinion with the use of a condom. FYI – they are inexpensive, freely available and can be kept in your wallet for just such an occasion. History tells us about one immaculate conception and your partner hasn’t made history by being the second. This child is your responsibility for the remainder of your life, so stick around. And that means at the birth as well as the birthday parties. Responsibilities come in the form of monetary payments as well as emotional/physical support.
  2. Start practicing your involvement by coming to a few obstetric appointments. Hearing the heartbeat of the baby is a pretty cool trick that we doctors perform each visit. You can ask questions your partner may have forgotten. You CAN’T play video games on your phone during the entire visit – that makes you look like a child rather than a potential father.
  3. Set a good example at home with your diet and exercise habits. Eating a meal of McDonald’s on the couch while watching tv all evening doesn’t help your partner make nutritious food choices that will help her baby grow. Go for a walk and then help to cook a meal. You might even have a conversation about baby names that wouldn’t have happened in front of the tv. And if your partner is trying to give up smoking or drugs for the welfare of your child you are not allowed to offer her a cigarette, smoke in front of her or invite friends over for a night of illegal substance use.
  4. Support your partners decision to breast feed. Her breasts are not your property and will soon belong to your unborn child. Get over it!
  5. Pony up the money for a birthing class. When patients tell me they can’t afford the $80 fee, I wonder how they will afford to care for a child over the next 2 decades. I realize that you don’t need a birthing class in order to have a baby, but it makes the experience much less anxiety producing for both the mom and the doctor. Nobody would consider driving a car before taking driving lessons, but everyone thinks they are an “expert” at the birthing process because they watched someone else give birth.
  6. Your partner is in labor and you are with her at the hospital. These pointers will help you in how you are treated by the nurses and doctors. Your wife is our patient – not you. You will be required to get your own food and drink. If your partner is awake, you should be also. Sleeping on the couch in the room while your partner is trying to birth your child isn’t acceptable. Since the doctor and the nurse have been up all night helping to care for your partner, you have no excuse. And realize there will be a few sleep deprived nights ahead, so this is good practice.
  7. Labor hurts. Let me say this again; Labor hurts. Just because you and your partner decided that a natural childbirth without pain meds was a good idea last month doesn’t mean she can’t change her mind when she realizes that the horror stories she has heard are true and more. It’s her body and her decision – its your job to be supportive of her decision. Would you consider having your appendix removed without anesthesia to make it a more “natural” process? I didn’t think so.
  8. The baby has arrived and you are home. Now the hard work begins. Your partner has just pushed a volleyball out her vagina and she may be a bit sore. She is also experiencing 2 boulders sitting on her chest that leak copious amounts of milk at inopportune times. Your job is to take over the household responsibilities for at least a week. No sports on tv, no guy time, no video game marathons.
  9. For those men who are not living with the mother of their child, don’t feel that the above rules aren’t applicable to you. You are still on the hook for financial support and you should make sure that your visits aren’t disruptive but that you are helpful. Hold your child and become acquainted while mom takes a nap. Purchase a package of diapers as a gift. Offer to wash the dishes in the sink. See #1 – this is your child and your responsibility. Your parents (paternal grandparents of child) also should be holding you responsible. And if you think all this parenting work is too difficult – buy a lifelong supply of condoms.
  10.  You and your partner have made the mutual decision to stop producing more babies. She has birthed a few children as well as managed the birth control options to this point. Now it’s your turn. A vasectomy takes 10 minutes – that is the length of time for 2 contractions in a 12 hour labor – and is much less painful than one contraction. If your partner went thru childbirth without pain meds, you might want to consider a vasectomy without pain meds to make it more “natural”.  And finally, don’t forget the flowers this weekend.

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Keeping Moms and Children Together in Haiti: The best Mother’s Day Gift

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Mother’s Day brings a feeling of overwhelming gratitude for the many mothers in my life – the mother that raised me, the mother that raised my fabulous husband, the mother of my 3 children created thru egg donation  and the Korean and Chinese mothers that gave birth to my daughters and then made the difficult decision to place them for adoption. I have always imagined what their life would have been if,  instead of completing reams of paperwork and writing checks for large sums of money, we had worked to provide for their original families so that they would have been able to be raised in their country of origin. That venture is much more difficult and involves a more long-term world view than a short-term individualistic approach. But that is exactly what the founders of Second Mile Haiti are trying to achieve. We were fortunate to spend a few hours touring their expanding facility on our last day in Haiti.

The founders of Second Mile Haiti are Jenn Schenk and Amy Syres, two young women who had a vision to create a sustainable option for families who were previously relinquishing their malnourished children to care centers, where the children were  either placed for international adoption or reunified back into their impoverished families after their malnutrition was corrected. ” It didn’t seem right that the only available way to help these families was to take their kids from them. We really had to ask ourselves if there wasn’t some sort of alternative” says Amy, regarding the experiences that led the co-founders to start Second Mile Haiti.

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The alternative that they have created is flourishing. Severly malnourished children are referred to their program from nearby hospitals. Each child is admitted with a caregiver, usually their mother, and spends 4-6 weeks in the program slowly being nourished back to health. Caregivers are taught what causes malnutrition and how it can be prevented. They are part of the team that works to improve their child’s malnutrition. Second Mile also offers daily business, literacy and home gardening classes so that the caregivers can participate in sustainable small business projects. At the end of each caregivers stay, she is given instructions and goals for her child in follow-up. Providing these goals are met, which they almost always are, the caregiver is given the goods she will need to begin a small business that will continue to provide for her family, preventing the recurrence of malnutrition in addition to empowering her to become a leader in her community and share her knowledge with others.

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Currently, the facility has room for 12 moms and children. Construction of a second building to house another 12 caregivers and their children was in full swing on the day of our visit. An additional 30-40 Haitians were employed in the building project. The gardener proudly showed off the 4 acres of produce that is used to feed the caregivers, children and staff. A large mango tree in the middle of the property supplies the mango jam that flavors the newly made goat yogurt. These are the ingredients that help to break the cycle of poverty and undernutrition. The benefits extend beyond the walls of the compound – each person that Second Mile touches with their program, whether it be a caregiver or employee, amplifies the effect in the community with information and salaries.

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Mother’s Day is everyday for these fortunate women, as they are able to continue to care for their children and provide them with adequate nutrition. The cost of this program is far less than housing a “relinquished child” and then trying to reintegrate them back into Haitian society. A United Nations Grant is funding the expansion project and will hopefully replicate this program in other parts of the developing world.