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Digital community mothering: How migrant mothers in Australia build community on Facebook
Being a new parent is often associated with feelings of loneliness, and living far away from family and friends can further exacerbate the issue. In the absence of these traditional support networks, can social media play a positive role in creating new communities?
Today on BroadAgenda, Dr Leah Williams Veazey explores the intersections of migration, motherhood, and digital cultures in contemporary Australia.
Migration and motherhood are both significant life changes. They disrupt social infrastructures, requiring the rapid acquisition of new knowledge and new networks, and the renegotiation of identity. In this age of the 'connected migrant' and 'digital motherhood', migrant mothers in Australia are turning to social media to help them manage life as a mother away from ‘home’.
A Facebook search in 2015-2016 found over 80 groups specifically for migrant mothers living in Sydney, and around 60 for migrant mothers in Melbourne. Some groups have only a handful of members, others have thousands. The Indian Mums Connect (Sydney) group currently has over 19,000 members.
These migrant maternal Facebook groups are part of an established landscape of mothers’ groups in Australia
These migrant maternal Facebook groups are part of an established landscape of mothers’ groups in Australia. Nurse-run groups and baby clinics were established in Australia in the early twentieth century to educate new mothers and reduce infant mortality rates. The 1970s saw a change to a more socially-oriented service, providing information and social interaction to support mothers in their new role. Despite an official shift in 1997 to the gender-neutral term 'parents’ groups', these groups are still commonly referred to as 'mothers’ groups'. (The 2017 ABC comedy series The Letdown centred on one such parents’ group, including a token stay-at-home dad among the collection of new mothers.) Almost all research focuses on mothers’ experiences of these groups.
I interviewed 41 women who had created or joined a Facebook group for migrant mothers in Australia. Some were recent migrants or new mothers; others had migrated years earlier or were mothers to teenagers. The women came from Brazil, Colombia, Germany, India, Iran, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
Most of the 14 Facebook groups in the study were self-described as 'mothers’ groups'. Eight strictly enforced this gender boundary, rejecting men’s requests to join. Others were, in theory at least, open to fathers, although most had no paternal members. (In May 2016, a group for Indian fathers in Sydney was created, which now has over 4,600 members. As my study focused on migrant mothers, this fathers’ group was not included.)
Mothers’ participation in these groups constitute a 'gendered settlement activity'. Women use them to seek the information they need to set up family life in a new country. For example, finding schools, childcare and doctors, finding accommodation, navigating welfare and health systems, and so on. Mothers exchange tips on where to purchase familiar products, food and ingredients, where to celebrate cultural festivals, advice on passports, birth registrations and citizenship issues, recipes and remedies, advice on managing postnatal depression and the emotional challenges of migrant motherhood.
Kavita,* a British-Indian woman, migrated to Sydney years before the Indian mothers’ group was created. She remembered crying on the phone to her mother because she couldn’t find cumin to make a familiar dish. Later, she struggled to find the ingredients to make traditional postnatal foods. “I got this list from my mum and my aunt, and half of these things I don’t know what they were, and I didn’t know where to find them. Whereas now [because of the group], I’ll know in like 10 minutes, not even. That’s amazing.”
As well as these knowledge-based settlement activities, mothers also use the groups to re-build their social infrastructure. They arrange meet-ups in parks and cafes, set up playgroups, arrange cinema outings. Women engage in these ‘relational settlement’ activities to make a place for their family in their new local community. Importantly, though, women also emphasised the importance of the groups for seeking friendship and support for themselves.
Observing online conversations in the group reassures her that she is “not the only person feeling that way,” that is, lonely and homesick
Many of the migrant mothers reflected on their difficulties forming friendships after migration. Those who had migrated with young children had often left behind employment, as well as family and friends. Those who became mothers after migrating realised the inadequacy of their workplace-centred social networks to support them in their new maternal life. Siobhan*, a 40-year-old Irish migrant and new mother, wistfully imagined the support she would have ‘back home’ where she lived close to her parents and saw her mother nearly every day. Siobhan’s mother looks after her other grandchildren until they go to school, and her mother’s house is the 'meeting point' for the whole family. Living in the same town where she’d grown up, Siobhan had a large network of friends and family. Her husband’s family also lived nearby.
The contrast is stark with the long days she now spends alone with her baby while her husband works long hours, six or seven days a week. She longs for someone to bring her a cup of tea or hold the baby for a moment. Even though she has never met up with anyone from the Facebook group, she finds it reassuring to know that she could. Observing online conversations in the group reassures her that she is “not the only person feeling that way,” that is, lonely and homesick.
Feminist scholars of technology have argued that online community management, paid and unpaid, should be understood in relation to gendered emotional, relational, and reproductive labour (1). My interviews with the groups’ administrators support this contention (15 of the 41 women I interviewed held an administrator role in their group).
Administrators shape the migrant mothers’ groups into sites of belonging and trust, using ‘meta-maternal practices’ to establish a behavioural norm of compassion between mothers and build migrant maternal solidarities. They establish and maintain boundaries and behaviours through role-modelling, empathetic interventions and compassionate discipline, and nurture relationships between the members. Drawing on a concept from Black feminist scholars like Patricia Hill Collins and Arlene Edwards, I suggest the administrators’ practices constitute a kind of digital 'community mothering', in which a maternal ethic of care extends beyond the needs of one’s own children into maternally-based community service and community-building.
Migrant mothers use online communities to make a place for themselves and their families in their local community
While not dismissing concerns that digital technologies can be used to create 'virtual ghettos' my research has found that migrant mothers use online communities to make a place for themselves and their families in their local community.
* All participant names are pseudonyms.
(1) de Winter et al., 2017; Jarrett, 2016; Portwood-Stacer, 2014