The role of memory in constructing imagined maternal communities and narratives

Women’s memories of childhood, of being mothered, and of witnessing mothering connect them to their imagined maternal communities. Those individual memories are also layered with cultural memories and family narratives, creating strong attachments to a “maternal commons” that endures across time and borders (Baraitser 2012). As discussed above, women carry this “culture of bonds” (Diminescu 2008) with them as they move countries, with it sometimes remaining latent until activated by impending motherhood. Women also forge new connections in migration, creating attachments with new imagined maternal communities which may offer new possibilities, conflict, or distress. In their interviews, some women drew on childhood memories, emphasising the importance of memory to their mothering. Situating themselves in an individual maternal narrative that stretched from their own childhood into a future represented by their children, women centred themselves in the middle of an idealised unbroken narrative in which part of their maternal role was to replicate parts of their own childhood experiences in their mothering practices. Migration had made that impossible, fracturing the continuity of their individual maternal narrative, leading to a sense of loss and sadness. This suggests that as well as having a past, women’s maternal narratives also have an imagined future, which may be disrupted by migration. Unable to deploy memories in their present mothering and therefore unable to share them with their children, women expressed a sense of loss and discontinuity, as those memories must remain only in the past.

Michelle recalled memories of her English childhood “digging up worms” while exploring her local forest, explaining that she wanted the same experiences for her son, but this had been jeopardised by moving to a country containing dangerous Australian spiders and plants:

My god, is my son ever actually going to go and play in the garden? And it’s like what I'm kind of brought up with, and 1 kind of hoped he would go and lift rocks and stuff, and because I wasn’t born here, and I don’t know what the dangers are, and 1 don’t know what’s safe and what isn’t...”

As she describes herself in this narrative, Michelle appears to be at risk of failing to perform two of Sara Ruddick’s three key maternal practices: preserving her child’s life and fostering his “physical, emotional, and intellectual growth” (Ruddick 1980, p. 348). Or rather, she fears that her attempts to preserve his life - by restricting his garden exploration - might hinder his growth. Migration has caused an epistemic deficit that jeopardises Michelle’s attempts to draw on her childhood memories to frame her notions of what good motherhood involves. The practices of her imagined maternal community have less salience in her family’s new environment.

Some women expressed a deep sense of nostalgic longing for their childhood, and a sense of loss at their inability to curate their children’s experiences to include the same memories. Rebecca described “struggling” with the fact that her six-year-old daughter would not experience elements of her own childhood in south-east England, such as “easy travel to Europe” and “playing in the parks that 1 used to.” Rebecca’s wistful childhood memories of the “excitement of waking up to snow, big family lunches [...and...] the contrast of the seasons” were echoed in Susie’s nostalgic recollections of sheltering from inclement British weather with “decent TV,” board games and “a nice roast dinner on a Sunday,” experiences she desired for her own children. Sheila conjured up vivid images from her Malaysian childhood of being “dragged into the kitchen” with her cousins to help cook for festivals; “being privy to adult gossip” during extended family gatherings; playing in the street with neighbours’ children; and speaking multiple languages and dialects with her extended family. As much as she tried to replicate elements of her childhood, she noted regretfully, “it’s still not the experience like we had as children, being taken by an uncle to go fish in an abandoned tin mine. You know, go swim in the rivers, and just to experience all of that. We just don’t have it here.” In acknowledging the impossibility of replicating those experiences, the women recognise the ruptures to their personal and family narratives resulting from migration, and the sadness that engenders for them.

Memories of childhood experiences were attached to notions of home and national identity for many women. The inability to share childhood experiences of home with their children introduces a discontinuity in their personal narrative that runs from ‘being mothered' to ‘mothering’ and troubles their attempts to instil a sense of national or ethnic identity which would link their children (future) to their own childhood (past). Lina recognised that her childhood was a form of ‘home’ temporally as well as geographically inaccessible to her children: “my home is my childhood home that doesn’t really exist, but that’s in my mind.” Home for Lina is the Swedish landscape and language, Swedish values and identity. While she can teach them to speak Swedish, the “greenness, and the lakes and the trees in Sweden” encapsulate a sense of home that she cannot share with her two children, who relate more to “eucalyptus and wallabies.” While the Swedish landscape may remain relatively unchanged and accessible at least by visits home, Lina expressed a sense that the values she identifies as Swedish belong only in the past: “the values of my childhood is not the same any more in Sweden, so 1 don’t know. My idea of Swedish might not be actual Swedish.” Susie has tried hard to instil a sense of ‘Britishness’ in her Australian-born children, drawing on childhood memories to formulate the skills and experiences that a good British mother helps her children to attain, such as resilience to bad weather and boredom, and a “quirky sense of humour.” Susie’s sense of failure is palpable when she describes how her youngest child “waves an Australian flag around the house, singing the national anthem.” She sighs, “it’s really weird, and it’s not what 1 wanted. But then I’ve created it.” Susie appears to be articulating a responsibility to teach her children how to cope with everyday conditions to which they are no longer exposed: inclement British weather, and the resulting indoor lifestyle. She is frustrated by her failure to perform this element of maternal practice, which may be just a residual shadow of a no longer relevant maternal project.

This sense of failure resonated with some of the other mothers. Usha expressed this explicitly:

It’s very nice that he adapts, he’s able to adapt himself, you know, adapt to different countries, and adapt himself for different cultures. But for me, I feel somewhere have I failed as a parent, to not instil in him what India really means to him.

The impossibility of replicating their own childhood experiences, and transmitting the skills, values, and emotional significance embedded in those memories, highlighted the rupture in their maternal narratives. They worried that this discontinuity might create emotional distance between them and their children. Aditi noted, “some things that mean so much to me, they mean nothing to them. And that’s kind of disappointing.” Nicole, perturbed by her 18-year-old Australian-raised daughter’s values, communication style, and outlook, planned to return to Europe so her two younger children could grow up with a more similar outlook and experience to her own. These experiences suggest that “mothering for ethnicity” is not just about preserving culture as a common good that can be passed down the generations. It is also about nurturing bonds between mother and child and maintaining a sense of continuity in women’s maternal narratives into an imagined future. While some elements of maternal narratives can be productively re-worked or reconciled in migration, the way women spoke about childhood memories, home, and identity suggests that some elements may be irrecoverably lost, causing a melancholic sense of maternal failure.

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