The first time I separated from my son, he was only 4 months old. It was an unchosen separation. I had to travel to another country due to the requirement of immigration documents so that the child, as a newborn, could enter. The three days we were away seemed like an eternity. Although my son had involuntarily stopped breastfeeding, I desolately cried under the shower in the hotel bathroom, clutching my breasts. As if that part of my body was also crying because of the separation.
It was the most vivid trace of the bond between him and me.
After that first lethargic bath, I looked at myself in the mirror with puffy eyes and took a picture of myself. It would be, without him suspecting it then, a healing exercise that I would repeat seven years later, in June 2022.
I was invited as a panelist to a congress in Mexico City. In addition to being a collective commitment, that was also an individual goal. But breaking the ice, cutting the umbilical cord with home and with my son, trusting others and being away from home for eleven days seemed impossible to me.
Before my trip, I designed an almanac with numbers, symbols, and different colors that would help my son understand the days of the week that mom would be away. I explained to him how he should run the magnet through the squares as time passed. I hugged him, kissed him as much as I could, said goodbye, and entered the airport without looking back. It was already done, the most difficult part had begun.
While I reviewed the conference schedule during the journey (airport-plane-airport-hotel), the heavy outfit of a mom was changed to that of a worker and intellectual who had to face presentations and debates. Life, and even my own corporality, became lighter. My body was mine again, it belonged to me. That was what I felt and repeated to myself.
As in the first separation, once in the room and alone, the feeling of guilt for abandonment came back to visit me. I reconstituted the ritual of the shower, the mirror and the photo.
The intrinsic contradiction of the separation process is inevitable: on the one hand, you experience the relief of freeing yourself from daily maternal obligations; on the other, nostalgia and guilt for being away from that being with whom you have built an immeasurable bond of love.
However, in the distance, there persists the dedication to care: calling by phone, verifying that the routines continue, making sure that the child ate well, that dad bathed him on time, that he took his medication, finding out how he slept, and more, much more.
One also takes care from afar. One is maternal, even in the distance.
I have had to raise my son far from my country of origin and my support networks. I am a migrant mother to the extent that I mother in the solitude of the nuclear family (mothers, fathers, children) and in foreign territory. Perhaps that is why detachment, for me, is more visceral, even if the separation time is just a few days.
There are migrant mothers who are mothers in much more unfavorable conditions and even extreme danger. Mothers on the migratory route, in the jungle, in exile; migrant mothers who, in the face of the adversities of motherhood, manage to maintain and nurture the ties of long-distance upbringing.
Less than a year ago Mabel1 left Cuba for Central America; she passed through Mexico and arrived in the United States. She knew that the journey would be one of the most difficult experiences of her life, but she was also sure that leaving her dependent teenage daughter on the island would be the most painful part of the process.
“I always wanted to come. Since two of my three daughters are here [United States] and my granddaughter was born, whom I did not know, I always wanted to come.” Thus, the dilemma of her decision to migrate was impacted by the analysis of where she was most needed, where she could be most useful, including the possibility of financially helping her daughter who would be far from her. “The situation in Cuba was desperate due to the general shortage that exists. That also pushed me to make the decision.”
However, despite the distance, Mabel does not stop being maternal. Her accompaniment and her vigil with the daughter who has remained in Cuba are constant.
“Being a mother while away is difficult. A lot! But what I do every morning as soon as I get up is send her my blessing. Every day,” she emphasizes. “I tell her: ‘Bless you, good morning, my baby.’ When she answers me, I feel calmer, because I know she’s fine. We talk two or three times a day, and we write to each other even if it’s three words. If she doesn’t feel well, I guide her. I tell her: ‘Look, you have to take this medicine, you have to do this, or make yourself such a tisane. If she has a problem, which I immediately notice on her face, because she doesn’t tell me, I turn to my godchildren or friends: ‘Anita doesn’t feel well. Please take her to the doctor.’”
“It’s very difficult to be away,” she insists, her voice cracking, and she pauses. “It really is very difficult to take care of her, but it is not impossible. I do my best to take care of her from here. In fact, when I write to her in the morning and I see that it’s noon and she doesn’t answer me, I immediately call another person and say: ‘So-and-so, look and see what’s the matter with Anita, she hasn’t answered me,’ or I ask if they’ve seen her. It is a constant worry, a constant and desperate worry because I am not present.”
Mabel also allocates almost all of her meager income in the United States to help Anita. When she can, she sends her medicine, clothes, food.
“I haven’t gotten any money for two months,” she confesses, referring to the instability of the material support she can offer her daughter.
“For example, just yesterday she told me that she hadn’t eaten yet because she didn’t have rice…and I couldn’t eat anymore. It hurts me because she is a part of me. I am here with my daughters and my granddaughter, but I left a part of me there. I know that it is a part that is going through a lot of work, and I can’t help as much as I want,” she tells me, almost shaking.
After four months of preparing her trip to emigrate to the United States by irregular land route, Sandra left Cuba in the company of her son. She did it without saying goodbye to anyone.
“I prepared everything on my own. I didn’t say anything during the months that the preparations lasted, nor did I say goodbye. My family and everybody found out when I was crossing Mexico because someone I knew saw me. My son found out the night I woke him up and said, ‘I have a surprise for you.’ The surprise was to go to the airport.”
The challenge facing Sandra’s life was immense. At no time did she think of leaving the country and leaving her son behind. Faced with the risks, she prioritized everything that her child might need on the journey: medication, comfortable clothing and shoes. However, she could not imagine how difficult it would be to cross borders, jungles and rugged terrain to reach her destination.
She came to fear more for the life of her child than for anything else in the world.
“One day I felt like I was losing him. He told me: ‘Mom, I can’t take it anymore,’ and I told myself that if something happened to my son there, I would have no way to forgive myself for this.
When climbing one of the high and steep mountains between Nicaragua and Honduras, Rafelito, who underwent heart surgery in Cuba, felt that his legs did not respond and that he could not advance. Sandra carried him on her back, left behind a backpack, put the one that was left with food in front of her and managed to safely reach the top with the child.
“I remember that I couldn’t climb the hill, and I held my knees and said, ‘My God, help me not to be left behind and to be able to climb with my son,’” she tells me through tears. “I was the last of the group, but I was able to get there.” Days later, they celebrated Rafelito’s 8th birthday, alone and symbolically.
“Nobody helped me,” she says, “nobody really tells you how hard it is to cross and what really happens.”
She came to blame herself many times for the “selfishness” of her decision. However, looking back and taking stock of what it was like to travel as a mother with her child in charge “illegally and undocumented,” she points out that, upon arriving in the United States, it was “incredible, I was shocked and I started crying, because it seemed incredible to me that we were already out of danger, that we had made it, that we were here alive, that we had finally reached the goal.”
“I am the mother of a 13-year-old boy. I left Cuba eight months ago for reasons of professional improvement, through my work, to do a research stay at UNAM for two years.” This is how María Elena introduced herself when I interviewed her.
She says that, before making the decision, she discussed it with her son. The process of migrating temporarily was highly consensual between them, and with the grandmother, who takes care of the child in the absence of María Elena.
“He understood and wanted it, hoping to meet me here. He understands that it is for our good, for my professional improvement and that it will bring benefits to our lives,” she adds.
María Elena’s departure also meant an additional effort to reorganize the family, because she had to change her son from one province to another as well as his school so that he could be with his grandmother.
Despite the fact that they exchange photos, tell each other daily stories, and make video calls every day, she confesses to me that these have been difficult months.
“I had never been separated from the child for so long. There are times when one is sad; others, cheerful. Sometimes one worries because one doesn’t receive news, but I have always tried to maintain communication,” she explains.
“The most difficult moments are the special days. When it was his birthday in March, for example, I couldn’t go because I had gone to Cuba in December. Those moments are very difficult. I always avoid telling him that I miss him, so as not to generate anguish; I always try to tell him happy things, from here in Mexico. I show him videos of where I’m living. Something also very difficult was the farewell when I made trip to Cuba in December. He told me that he missed me a lot, that he knew that this was all for our good, but that he missed me, that what he wanted most was to be with me again. It is very difficult when you decide to be away for so long without knowing when you will be able to return,” the migrant mother acknowledges.
Luckily for María Elena, she has been able to verify the maturity that her son has been acquiring. She tells me that he is becoming less dependent, he is responsible at school, he likes to get good grades and surround himself with good friends. That being the case, the weight of the separation lightens a bit.
Being a mother in the nest, on the borders, in the distance
Leaving sometimes supposes a possibility of a safe and expeditious return. In others, the return seems totally uncertain. Furthermore, it is becoming more frequent every day to hear stories from Cubans in which mothers alone or in the company of young daughters and sons cross the borders of Central America or the Balkans.
When one is a mother, the care is not diluted even at a distance. It just changes faces. They mutate to digital means, are supported by complementary human networks and close to the children in the countries of origin. They are transformed into economic procedures, into shipments, into aid. But in them the intensity of the affections is preserved, is even increased.
In maternity there are tangible care tasks, such as domestic work. But others are inserted in the emotional and affective field. They are intangible and, at the same time, essential for sustaining life and the mother-child relationship.
Hence, in the notion of a mother’s body as a territory, as a real physical space where this maelstrom of work and emotions takes place, care is cross-border; either because the children were left in their places of origin for an indefinite period of time, or because they went with them in the dangerous trot of life and mobility, that is, fortunately, that it was possible to return to be with them in the short term.
One could not speak of global care chains or, rather, of the circulation of transnational care if mothers (or those who raise or act as mothers) were not the body-territory of care.
One could not speak of the maternal body-territory of care if the social mandate did not inexcusably entrust us with the unbalanced weight of upbringing.
Parity in care also requires the co-responsibility of States, companies, institutions and society. Guaranteeing quality care and co-responsibility means dismantling the stereotype of the full-time “almighty mother.” It implies demystifying that we have to be mothers first and then everything else.
The quality of care depends on the focus also being on those who care. It depends on the understanding, individually and collectively, that we are not self-recharging mechanical bodies by the “nature of instinct.” The love we feel for our sons and daughters is not enough to replenish the energy that we run out of by caring for them. Accompaniment, distribution of care and time for rest and leisure of those who care are needed.
Mothers migrating has a very high cost in terms of social disadvantages. Under these conditions, there are no human and support networks that exist in the country of origin. It is not the same to exercise maternity with full-citizen rights, than undocumented or with half rights.
Being a migrant mother is redoubling the burden; expanding survival strategies in unknown terrain; challenging physical separation with screens and cell phones; inventing digital affection, electronic presence; living with a lump in your throat hoping nothing bad can happen to you because you are the safest maternal body-territory for your offspring.
1 Pseudonyms have been used to respect the privacy of the interviewees.