Sun | Sep 24, 2017

Missing Migrant Mothers

Published:Sunday | August 14, 2016 | 8:00 AMSuzanne Cousins

Being without your mother as a child is hard, not being with her as an adult is unfathomable, especially when she is the only parent you ever depended on.

When my mother migrated, I was 20 years old. People say I was too old to be emotionally affected by her leaving, but age is nothing but a number, and I still wish she was here.

Many mothers migrate to make a better life for their children, but at what cost? Outlook asked persons who grew without their mothers as children to share how they have been affected by being what is commonly termed 'barrel children'.

Eric Martinez*, now 21, was eight years old when his mother migrated, leaving him with his four brothers and sisters.

"As a single mother, I understand now why she made that decision to leave, and I'll never hate her for it - but I don't know how much effort she made to stay around either. The only thing I'm certain of is that she was scared," he relates.

Growing up without her around, he said, was painful. Sometimes he felt unloved, misunderstood and unwanted. "Even though she made it a point of duty to communicate regularly, nothing in this world can replace a mother's touch, and there is nothing as comforting as running into the arms of your mother when you get hurt. Because she is not physically here, our relationship is complicated. Besides telling her I love her, I'm confused as to how else I should express my love for her," Martinez confesses.

But this is not to say that Martinez did not benefit from his mother

leaving. "With her not being around, there were a lot of things I had to do for myself - making me more responsible, because although she would send money, I, along with my brothers and sisters, were the ones now in charge of paying bills, buying groceries and sending ourselves to school. Overall, my situation has made me what I call 'life-smart'. Now I am more realistic, and so I'm not stunned by common disappointments. My situation wasn't a pleasant learning experience, but it has made me into a wise individual; it's something I like about myself that makes me unique."

Twenty-four-year-old Romeo Barnett* also had his mother migrate when he was 12 years old.

"I was still young at the time, and so I had to live with my grandmother." He remembers being excited for her at first until sadness crept into his heart. "I felt alone because my mother was the closest person in my life and she had left, so I had to adapt to a different way of being - hoping one day to be reunited with her."

With his grandmother being his primary caregiver, he learnt quickly to fend for himself - before that, he was what he likes to call a 'momma's boy'. Then one year later, his wish finally came true.

"I was fortunate enough to join my mother when I was 13."

He didn't realise how much of an adult he had become by then - one who was independent and set in his own roots. While the experience of living with his mother was thrilling, it was also different. He made the decision to return to Jamaica when he was 18 years old, but has since returned to the United States to be closer to his mom. Even now at 24, he says he has no regrets that she left him, but if he were a parent, he would not leave his child behind. The plus side he revealed is, "Now, I have grown up to be more self-sufficient and reliant on my own decisions, and I love my mother with all my heart," he shared.

Child guidance counsellor Cheryl Evans told Outlook that children whose parents have migrated, leaving them behind, will experience behavioural issues, withdrawal, anxiety and even stress.

"This is how they deal with the fact that their parents have migrated and left them behind. They will feel a sense of abandonment, which is understandable in cases where their caregivers sometimes abuse or mistreat them."

This was evident in the case of 23-year-old Nicolla Palmer*. She explained, "I always wanted to be around her. It still hurts me to know that she left and didn't come back for me, and some nights I cry. Occasionally, the family members I lived with reminded me that my mother didn't care about me."

When Palmer was only three years old, financial struggles between her parents forced her mother to migrate to England. "The deal was for my mom to better her life in England then come for me. She kept telling me that she would send for me, but it didn't work out because I am still here. The last time I saw her was when I was seven years old and it was for two weeks when I spent time with her in England." The now 23-year-old tells Outlook that migration has not only affected her emotionally, but mentally as well.

She continued, "When I was younger I benefited a little financially, but honestly, it seems that she benefited mostly from it, because she got married and now has a son whom she treats as her only child."

Evans says it is natural for children to feel remorse or even anger when they are left behind.

Everyday Palmer regrets her mother's decision. "If she had come back for me like she had promised, I wouldn't be struggling as a single mother taking care of my own child now."

Palmer faced tremendous hardship and at age 17, looking for affection in the arms of a lover. She became pregnant and the father of the child left her. She wishes she could improve her life to ensure that her child gets the care she never received.

"If I end up in a situation like hers, I will make sure that my child visits me until she can come to live with me, but I would not take that long because my child would be affected by it," Palmer says.

Migration has a rippling effect, so Evans provides a few key tips for parents to help their children cope with the distance, and, in some cases, neglect they will face, seek counselling; get them into behaviour modification programmes; place them in loving, caring homes; provide emotional support; and make every possible arrangement to be reunited with their children.

* Names have been changed to protect identity.