In our Identities article, 'Private empowerment and public isolation: power in the stories of migrant ‘Mother-Poles’, we seek to understand what kinds of empowerment and disempowerment narratives can be linked to migrant motherhood and mothering in the case of Polish women raising their children abroad.
By linking two perspectives of migrant mothers themselves, as well as at looking at stories of adult children brought up by Polish mothers outside of their country of origin, we investigate maternal power which may, on the one hand, ground women as managers of their households but, on the other hand, does not seem to alleviate the general isolation they face in regards to the broader society.
To gain a better understanding of the specific type of Polish migrant mothers we call ‘Mother-Poles’, it is vital to clarify that the particular Mother-Pole construct is a significant yet somewhat blurry notion of Polish motherhood. Moulded from both a religious inspiration of the Virgin Mary’s cult in Catholicism, and an experience of managerial matriarchy which described women’s resourcefulness during the time of State Socialism in the Central and Easter European block, the Mother-Pole figure is omnipresent in religious, social and political discourses, imbuing a reference point for the everyday life of many Polish women over 40.
This icon of motherhood is also characterised by a strong dedication to tradition in the process of socialisation and transmission of values, which results in an inherent paradox of the Mother-Pole position abroad. From one perspective, Mother-Pole served as a guiding light when migrant women felt a certain mission regarding the maintenance of family values and being the protectors of Polish national identity 'in exile', or simply away from the home country.
From another angle, however, it often meant that everyday lives of women were overburdened by responsibilities connected with uneven and gendered division of household labour. Drawing on data from two qualitative projects including interviews with Polish migrant mothers and adult children of Polish migrant women, we show the facets of motherhood and mothering that are connected with power.
We found that both women and children highlighted specificity of their households. For instance, Lidia vocally underscored the difference between her mothering practices and the British/German ones: 'We, Polish mothers, sacrifice much more for our children', explaining this statement further by underlying everyday care-work of home-made meals, keeping a house clean and running.
Eliza aptly observed that this attitude puts women in vulnerable positions, somehow against the outside world: 'As a mother abroad you are under attack all the time, always in the trenches, because your practices seem suspicious to [the locals], even small things like the fact that they get different food in the lunchbox for school is questioned (…) even if what you made is actually better, healthier'.
Through the broader selection of narratives, it is possible to observe the tensions between feeling marginalised and unwelcome within the host society (public isolation), while concurrently having a sense of pride and superiority about their mothering practices (private empowerment).
The fact that the mission of Mother-Poles is to be guardians of Polish language, culture and values deepens the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy emerging from the experience of migration. Feeling powerful and justified in the intra-family choices, women tend to be reluctant about adopting new patterns of behaviour abroad. As a result, there is something of a vicious circle: migrant ‘Mother-Poles’ socialise with similarly inclined Polish women, thus fueling the mistrust and distance towards the host society.
Due to evading development of interethnic relations that could aid the processes of integration, women remain absent from the public life – such as work or civic engagement - in the destination society, rendering them invisible. This is evident from Eliza complaining about loneliness and the lack of social support which is not getting better with time: 'Nobody understands you, your mother, sisters, friends – they aren’t here!'.
As noted above, it would be a mistake to think that ‘Mother-Poles’ are completely powerless and devoid of agency. On the contrary, they compensate for their lack of empowerment in the public sphere with garnering power in the private realm of home.
Zosia openly sees herself as being in charge of the family: 'Just ask my children who is the boss at home and they know that it’s me'. Interviewed children also chronicle their mothers as ‘adaptation managers’ since all women typifying ‘Mother-Poles’ took the lead in planning the logistics of the move and organising the family life after migration.
In line with gendered division of labour in the household, ‘Mother-Poles’ sometimes devalue their husbands’ skills and question male presence in the home domain. There is a stark contrast between their exclusion from the public sphere, and private and family life where their powers appear almost limitless. As confirmed by the interviewed adult children, maternal power at home is acknowledged and accepted by men and offspring alike. Moreover, it is reinforced and vindicated by social norms of the national community, since they socialise their children to speak the Polish language, and adhere to national values and traditions.
In sum, we argue that the foreign context of living abroad exacerbates the tangibility of the intrinsic Mother-Pole model’s features. On the one hand, women draw a sense of pride linked to their resourcefulness and managerial skills at home, equipping them with purpose, superiority and maternal power in the private realm. On the other hand, self-isolating from a public sphere makes them vulnerable and prone to marginalisation in the long-run.
While the example we analyse is strongly embedded in the Polish context, the broader maternal figure it evokes is actually present across cultures – from Ukraine, through Israel to Mexico, among others. Therefore, our work offers a chance for taking a more in-depth look at how certain practices that may seem monocultural are in fact more universal, as well as subject to change in the context of global mobility and its implications for the continuity and change in modern families.
Blog post by Paula Pustulka, SWPS University of Social Science and Humanities, Poland and Agnieszka Trąbka, Jagiellonian University, Poland
Read the full article: Pustulka, Paula & Trąbka, Agnieszka. Private empowerment and public isolation: power in the stories of migrant ‘Mother-Poles’. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2017.1291190