Transnational Women Often Struggle With Differing Cultural Attitudes and Expectations
By Andrea DeHaan
Claudia Wright insists that qualitative research is good at making the evident more obvious.
“We have an awareness for the things we think we do,” she says, “but not necessarily for the things we actually do.”
A doctoral candidate in sociology, Wright has studied migrant motherhood for six years at Utah State University but continues to be impressed by how much her research interests parallel — and sometimes contrast — her own experience.
In 2012, Wright moved to a small town in Indiana where her husband was in graduate school. It seemed like a good time to become parents, as good a time as any for the young couple who debated becoming parents at all. But living at the end of a winding road 40 miles outside of town and thousands of miles away from her family in Colombia, Wright felt totally alone.
“I did not experience the cozy warm feeling that motherhood is supposed to bring,” Wright remembers. “Instead, I felt the heavy expectations, people telling me what to do or what not to do, and telling me how to feel. I was expected to stop being me.”
As a new mother, Wright had the sense that she was constantly being monitored and judged — more harshly than her husband — by strangers and medical professionals, as well as their families from afar. Thinking back on the experience now, she says they felt adrift as new parents.
Searching for answers, she sought solace from an unlikely source. Wright had studied the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault as an undergraduate, and she took inspiration from his idea of the panopticon — the way in which discipline and punishment work in modern society. Society’s expectations, from the multiple cultures in which she existed, were fertile fodder for the surveillance that she and others imposed on her actions and attitudes around the experience of motherhood.
“Maybe if I hadn’t studied anthropology, I would have seen motherhood from a more 1980s, Johnson & Johnson TV commercial perspective,” she jokes.
Whether it’s Dr. Spock’s “common sense” for the 20th century or today’s #momtok, the world is full of advice and opinions for current and expectant mothers, and Wright argues that migrant mothers face more scrutiny despite often being more isolated. Being transnational, or having ties to more than one country, further complicates the expectations placed upon them.
For her research, Wright interviewed transnational women living in the United States and, in many cases, their mothers still residing in Colombia. She narrowed the scope of her qualitative research to women with strong connections to their country of origin to better explore how this dual identity impacts women looking to redefine themselves within different cultural and social identities.
“In-depth interviews allowed me to establish a semi-structured conversation to dissect mothers’ and grandmothers’ rationalization of their identities as mothers,” Wright explains. “This multi-generational and multi-sided perspective gave me holistic insight to understand transmigrant motherhood identities.”
Among her findings, Wright notes the older generation in her study tended to define motherhood by what they gave up for the sake of others, while their migrant daughters saw parenting as a chance to empower future generations. Both groups put their children first, but the transnational population tended to see motherhood as more of an opportunity and less of a sacrifice.
“Migration plays a role in how transmigrant mothers experience the freedom and independence to be the mothers and the women they want to be,” Wright says. “But at the same time, women continue to abide by and struggle with the transnational and gendered expectations of class and motherhood.”
At its heart, Wright’s research explores how migration, class, and motherhood impact the way in which women define their experiences.
“My research is about empowerment, struggle, privilege, and resiliency,” she says. “It shows how all of these can produce very unique livelihoods.”
In reviewing the literature on the sociology of migration, Wright has also noticed a link between strong transnational connections and class. Colombia has some of the highest levels of cross-border engagement among Latin American countries, and Colombian culture places a high value on class identity.
Motherhood obviously transcends borders, but women emigrating to the Global North are often racialized upon arrival, meaning that they may occupy different social positions in their country of origin than in the U.S. When societal expectations for mothers are added to existing perceptions of class and gender, transnational mothers can become targets of additional bias and find it difficult to live up to competing model identities.
“Migration is both a source of conflict and an opportunity for more egalitarian gender practices in the home as well as less authoritarian parenting styles,” Wright says. “Studying how transmigrant mothers configure their identities as mothers and the role that transnational ties and their intersectional identities play … is a step toward exploring the ideologies, social constructions, and discourses that define how mothers think of themselves.”
There is an opportunity to use sociological studies like these to affect change at the policy level, and Wright wonders how we can better support parents trying to access resources, especially those without a network of family and friends.
“The positionality that they had in Colombia is lost upon migration,” Wright explains. “Even though they had great jobs in Colombia, they’re not able to get the same recognition here. If mothers in the U.S. struggle with a system that does not offer support, what outcome do you expect for a diverse group of migrant mothers?”
Far from being done with the work started during her dissertation, Wright would love to continue the research. How is the experience different for mothers from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and those of varying gender, racial, and ethnic identities? How does mental health affect the bigger picture? She would also like to explore changing expectations for fathers.
During her time at USU, Wright has enjoyed the support of mentor Erin Hofmann, director of sociology graduate studies, and had the opportunity to study the gender gap among advanced degree holders in Utah with Associate Professor Sojung Lim. Following esteemed fellowships from the American Association of University Women and the USU Office of Research, Wright leaves Utah State to begin teaching the next generation of sociology students at Central Washington University this fall.
Looking back on it, Wright sees motherhood as a powerful experience that allowed her to discover more about herself and find communion with others.
“I haven’t met one person whose research doesn’t touch them at a personal level. Motherhood definitely influenced my dissertation,” Wright says. “I tell my daughter all the time, ‘You are the muse of my inspiration.’”