Blog: Mothering across Borders Dialogue Series in Utrecht

Mothering across Borders Dialogue Series in Utrecht

By Özge Bilgili & Najuan Daadleh-Terpstra

Giving birth and becoming a mother is in general a challenging experience involving mental and physical changes. All mothers go through a new identity formation, get involved in maternal and child health and welfare, renegotiate family chores and responsibilities and seek out a support network. It is an overwhelming experience for women, but even more so for those who become mothers in a foreign context/country. Research to date has consistently shown that there are unique challenges for immigrant mothers whose mothering beliefs and practices are challenged due to cultural differences in their country of residence. Moreover, language barriers, sense of isolation, loneliness and limited material and emotional resources may exacerbate the difficulties faced in the early phase of motherhood.  Immigrant parents face a double challenge when rearing their children because they also have to find a balance between the norms and expectations of their origin culture and the culture they live. Last but not least, research looking at help-seeking experiences and access to health care has shown that women from ethnic minority groups feel less understood, have less confidence and trust in the staff and have the impression that they are not sufficiently involved in decisions.

 Why Dialogue Series with International Mothers in Utrecht?

Despite the extensive scientific documentation of these challenges, to our knowledge, very little is offered as a service in supporting immigrant mothers in our city, Utrecht. As a way to fill this niche, in the spring of 2020, we initiated the Mothering across Borders dialogue series in collaboration with the social initiative Parenting across Borders and funded by the Public Engagement Fund, Utrecht University. It included dialogues with eight mothers coming from various countries. In fact the participants came from a wide range of countries including India, United States, Peru, Philippines, Greece, Germany, Brazil and Belarus. The diversity of cultural backgrounds and having diverse perspectives on the concept of motherhood were valuable for the dialogues. In total seven bi-monthly meetings were conducted, followed by a short evaluation.

The idea behind the dialogue series was to offer international mothers a safe and non-judgmental dialogue setting where they could meet other mothers, share and reflect on their challenges and opportunities relating to their mothering role in a foreign country. In addition, we were aiming at equipping the mothers with academic and professional knowledge to support them when facing challenges and difficulties  to help enhance their well-being.

The opportunity to meet in a dialogue setting, where also academic knowledge is shared, provided the participants with the chance to self-reflect on their experiences and learn from each other on how to name and deal with the challenges and how to actively find ways to receive the needed support. As indicated by most of the participants of the Mothering across Borders dialogue series, their motivation to take part in the dialogue was based on their need to step away from their loneliness and to take time for themselves from their overwhelming mothering role. In the final evaluation, one of the mothers gave a nice summary of what it meant to participate in these series:

“It was nice to meet some other mothers facing similar circumstances about being far from home/family, navigating cultural differences, and managing life with tiny babies.” 

Conversations with self and Academics: A new way of creating support for each other

As organizers of the dialogue series, but also as two immigrant women who have also recently become mothers, we identified some relevant themes which may be important to discuss in a dialogue setting. Among others, we decided to focus on social network support, work-life balance and raising a multi-/bi-lingual child. For each of the themes, we aimed to benefit from Utrecht University’s in-house expertise and invited academics and researchers who could share their experiences and expertise in the field.

Our first thematic discussion was about the theme of social networks and creating a “tribe” around raising your baby with Dr. Özge Bilgili (UU) as a guest speaker. In this session, I aimed at highlighting that social networks are dynamic, not only bound to country of residence and include both strong and weak ties. Highlighting the relevance of transnational social networks, my objective was to make mothers recognize that they can benefit from their friends and family in their home country or elsewhere for different types of support. The participants had the opportunity to reflect on their social networks situated in different contexts, whether ‘being in touch’ with home can respond to their emotional needs or whether such support also at times comes with additional costs and tensions with regards to negotiating cultural expectations. As a result, all mothers had the chance to actively think if a change in their own network was needed and if so, which steps were needed to be taken. They also realized that the discussion group could be part of their social network as well. In fact, as a result, the mothers created a Whatsapp group, which has become a very active platform/medium for sharing experiences and receiving support.

In another session, we covered the theme navigating through work-life balance during the COVID-19 Pandemic with Dr. Mara Yerkes (UU)  as our guest speaker who raised awareness to inequalities related to work and care and initiated a discussion on how to tackle these issues as new mothers. At the end of this session, mothers indicated that they realized that balance between work and life is perhaps an illusion but that they can find ways to address their challenges. For example, one mother shared in her final statement that through this session she and her family learned that she needs more time for herself.

Another topic which was discussed in the dialogue series was raising a multilingual child with Dr. Luisa Meroni (UU) as our guest speaker. As an Assistant Professor at the Department of Modern Languages, Luisa discussed child language acquisition with a particular focus on second language acquisition. We also interviewed Ms. Mehri Zamanbin, a PhD researcher at UU, about her own experience growing up as a multilingual child.  Multilingualism was one of the most significant topics for the mothers and one where they could benefit from practical tips on how to raise their children with multiple languages.

All in all, the collaboration with the academics from Utrecht University led to various fruitful and inspiring discussions. It was also an opportunity for the organizers and the guest speakers to meet a very diverse group of mothers and to learn more about their needs, experiences and perspective on their mothering role. Moreover, we found the Parenting across Borders dialogue approach very effective. During the series, the facilitators focused on creating a safe space free of judgment where every participant would feel heard and part of the circle. Namely, according to PAB’s main guidelines, sharing advices was not welcomed in the dialogue, unless it was being asked for by a mother who was sharing her experience. In the final reflections on the process, the participants expressed their appreciation of the advice-free guideline, which according to them helped them to be more open about their experiences and feel less judged by the guest speakers and the other participants.

As a result of the Mothering across Borders dialogue series, we hope to have initiated a topical conversation between academics and immigrant mothers and we are dedicated to reaching out to mothers who face similar challenges in the future. In short, we find these dialogue series essential and powerful for supporting international  mothers to exercise their agency through motherhood, rebuild their social capital, enhance their interaction with the mainstream society and feel empowered to demand better services from their communities.