Activating imagined migrant maternal communities
Women who became mothers some years after their migration to Australia described how motherhood sparked an increased interest in their national or ethnic attachments, particularly in relation to their new maternal role. Before becoming a mother, Stefanie had few German friends in Australia. Living in Australia for over a decade before having her son, married to an Australian man, Stefanie had felt no need to seek out other German migrants. Indeed, she continued to be sceptical about how much common ground she had withmost German migrants, whom she described in our interview as arrogant, transient, querulous, and unwilling to adapt to Australian life. Stefanie did not imagine herself as part of a community of German migrants in Australia, but once she became a mother, she began to identify with an imagined community of German mothers. This was reflected in how she thought and spoke about motherhood, and in the choices she made about maternal practices and the people she surrounded herself with. In explaining why the friends she has made since becoming a mother have mostly been German. Stefanie contends, “we raise our children fundamentally different to a lot of Australian people.” She explains this difference with reference to their own childhoods: “I think they grow up very differently to the way I've grown up, so 1 wouldn't watch much TV. I wouldn’t watch any American TV.” This difference then manifests in the way Stefanie’s son plays:
I think, just from a toys perspective, so, yes, I know a lot of Australians do play with the same toys, but a lot of Australians always have these electronic telephones, and it doesn’t interest him. So he just, he plays very differently, and 1 think a lot of the German girls do the same, so, so...
Stefanie’s narrative makes clear that “mothering for ethnicity” is not simply about passing down knowledge or values to the child but also about enacting a mode of mothering that reflects and produces her sense of being a mother from a particular place and who has been formed by her own experiences of childhood. Stefanie positions herself within an imagined German maternal community, the members of which raise their children in a way that is distinct from the dominant maternal practices in Australia. To support her in maintaining these practices and this sense of herself as a ‘good German mother in diaspora,’ Stefanie has drawn around her a local network of German mothers, centred on the German mothers’ Facebook group. This German maternal identity, practice, and community help to produce a sense of her son as a German child who “plays very differently” from the Australian children around him. Stefanie’s sense of this difference produces a desire for support and validation from German maternal peers.
Kavita, a British migrant with Indian heritage, had lived in Australia for nearly a decade before becoming a mother. Her experience illustrates how migrants position themselves in relation to different imagined communities, and how motherhood shifts that positioning, activating attachments which had been less salient. When she and her husband, also a British migrant with Indian heritage, settled together in Sydney, they chose to live in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, an area she identifies as suitable for “young professionals” in contrast to Sydney’s western suburbs, where they might have found a more established Indian community. “Reasonably solid” in their British-Indian identities, and imagining themselves as part of a mobile, middle-class migrant community, they had felt little need to forge links with Indian communities in Sydney beyond a desire to locate food and ingredients that they were used to having easy access to in the UK.
Pregnancy activated a familial and cultural narrative in which Kavita would be nurtured by female relatives in pregnancy and early motherhood. Kavita’s geographically distant female-centred family network, which emphasised Indian prenatal and postnatal rituals and traditions, became more significant, but distance prevented them from actively cooking and caring for her. Kavita instead gathered recipes from her older female relatives and prepared them herself:
I got the recipes from my mum, and my mother in law, and my aunts, all that age of women in our family, and I said we need these because there’s not always going to be someone who can do these things for us. We’re going to have to do them for ourselves. So I made a lot of these things for me; 1 actually made a semolina pudding that’s really nourishing when I was in pre-labour, so it was ready for when I came home.
In caring for herself in this way, Kavita was not just connecting to her heritage; she was drawing on an imagined Indian maternal community that takes prenatal and postnatal care of mothers seriously, in a way Kavita suggested was less common in “our Western society.” Had Kavita been a member of an Indian mothers’ online group when she became a mother, she could have taken advantage of the services she sees offered through the group:
There’s a lot of first-generation women that have come over that will cook, so you can get this tiffin service where someone will cook for you for a week and bring food over. 1 might not have done that, but 1 might have asked somebody to bring me some of those postnatal foods and drinks over.
Moving into motherhood activated Kavita’s desire for a locally based Indian maternal community to support her maternal project of raising her daughter with sufficient understanding of her Indian heritage. In fact, it was her daughter’s first Diwali that inspired Kavita to look online for Indian community groups. She recalled, “I posted on every page I knew to see if there were any Indian mums out there, you know, what do they do for Diwali, where could we go.” For Kavita, good mothering involves not just teaching her daughter about Indian languages, clothing, festivals, and music. It also involves making a place for her daughter, and their heritage, in their local community. She feels a particular responsibility because their decision to live away from established Indian communities in Sydney means “she’s not around many brown faces at the moment”:
I’m not happy about that. I mean, 1 did make the conscious decision to live in [Sydney’s eastern suburbs], but not at the expense of my daughter being able to ...[...] I wonder if she'll think, am I different and are there other people like me? I need to make sure that she’s around those other people like her.
She noted that her own identity as a “person of colour” had not been on her “radar” for many years but that becoming a mother had brought it back to her attention.
Like Stefanie, Kavita drew on her childhood memories to formulate her concept of good mothering. Kavita recalled her mother, a migrant to the UK, teaching the children at her school about elements of Indian culture, as Kavita has been doing at her daughter’s daycare centre. Unlike her mother, Kavita has been able to draw on the online mothers’ group for the knowledge, ideas, and confidence to support her in this: “1 know that that can be done because my mum did that when I was in school, but it’s a very different world that we live in now, and 1 might not have felt so confident about doing it if it wasn’t for that group.” Kavita also planned to teach cooking classes in her local area, “sending them home with spice packs, so they’re getting confidence in spices.” Through this work with her daughter’s peers, and her own generation, Kavita hoped to engender “more integration of our culture into general society.” Kavita’s maternal projects can be understood through the lens of “community mothering” outlined in the previous chapter. Stretching beyond the mother-child dyad, Kavita advocates for a place for Indian culture - and by extension for her family - in her local, predominantly white, Australian community. Kavita deploys her imagined maternal community -imbued with childhood memories, a familial narrative of good motherhood, and liberal values of cultural diversity and acceptance - as a tool to change the Australian imagined national community.
For Stefanie and Kavita, embarking on motherhood after migration activated a sense of being part of imagined maternal communities, linked to their childhood, familial narratives, and national and ethnic identities. These attachments became salient to them in new ways as they moved into motherhood, and drove them to forge connections with mothers whom they understood to share this diasporic maternal identity. The local online diasporic mothers’ groups provided a hub for these connections. As well as joining the Indian mothers' group, Kavita also joined the group for British and Irish mothers in her area and found comfort in being part of a community of mothers who shared her experience of raising her child a long way from family, missing British chocolate, and managing family visits, long flights, and migration-related guilt. Kavita’s membership of the British and Irish group was less focused on her daughter’s experience and more on her position as a British mother in Australia in relation to other British mothers in Australia. “Just knowing that they’re there” and “hearing them pipe up about their stories and what's going on for them” enabled Kavita to construct a sense of a migrant maternal community from which she derives a sense of solidarity and “sisterhood”: “just, you know, god, we’re all in the same boat.” Her memberships of the two groups positioned her within two imagined maternal communities, drew on different strands of her personal narrative, and enabled her to assemble the resources to meet her need for sociality and emotional support as a migrant woman with a disrupted social infrastructure, as well as her need for cultural connection and support in her project of “mothering for
Connected maternal migrants 111 ethnicity” (Manohar 2013a). Motherhood drew Kavka and Stefanie into these imagined maternal communities, and they, in turn, drew their fellow migrant mothers closer to them in order to construct a sense of themselves as British-Indian, or German, mothers in Australia and to facilitate their maternal projects which would meet their standards of good motherhood.