International Perspectives – Migrant families in the digital age

Written by Leah Williams Veazey

Raising children can be challenging for many families. Parents navigating family life in a migrant context face additional challenges. For example, migrant families often struggle with a lack of familiarity with health and education systems, social isolationlack of hands-on support from family members, language barriers, racism and discrimination, and navigating the complex and sometimes conflicting cultural norms and values around child-rearing and family life.

In a contemporary Australian context, migrant families draw on transnational and locally-based migrant knowledge networks – facilitated by digital platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp – to navigate family life in a migrant context.

In my research with migrant mothers in Australia who use online communities run specifically by and for migrant mothers, mothers told me how they used Facebook groups to make decisions (e.g. about schooling or healthcare), to seek out migrant-friendly services and familiar products (particularly food), and to work out how to reconcile or choose between differing norms and advice around parenting practices (e.g. infant feeding, sleep practices, discipline). For example, mothers recounted how they used locally-based (non-migrant-specific) parenting groups on Facebook to explore dominant Australian norms and advice, as well as Facebook groups specifically for migrant mothers from their specific migrant background to discuss how to reconcile or choose between those dominant norms and the norms with which they were raised, or between the advice given to them by family, friends and professionals ‘back home’ and the advice they received in Australia.

Whether they become mothers for the first time in a new country or migrate with children – migrant mothers have to quickly acquire new knowledge and skills, at a time when they are often many miles away from their usual sources of knowledge and support. In my study, mothers recounted how they used apps like Facetime, WhatsApp and Facebook to communicate with family and friends overseas. The mainly middle-class migrants I spoke to were able to draw on the professional knowledge embedded in their transnational personal networks to navigate the confusing territory of parenting in an unfamiliar context. For example, Diya, a British migrant with Indian heritage told me:

“My aunt is a nurse and my uncle’s a doctor, so I had them that I could ask as well. […] So I’d, again, just on WhatsApp: ‘They’re saying this here, what do you guys think? And then they’d tell me.”

Even advice and experiences from less ‘expert’ friends and family could be helpful, for example, in navigating norms around (for example) breastfeeding, co-sleeping, swaddling and other maternal practices. Knowing that alternative approaches existed – and getting validation of their choices from their online networks – helped women feel they had made the right choice ‘for them’ and alleviated the guilt and shame that so often accompanies parenting decisions. Whether they resisted dominant Australian practices (as with one German woman who recalled telling a nurse very firmly: “We do not swaddle our babies in Germany! You do not swaddle my baby!”) or chose to go along with them (as another German mother noted, “In Australia we do swaddle them, so they don’t wake themselves. I thought, this kind of works and I did it with all three of them”), navigating this complex territory of maternal practices was shaped by their digital practices. For example, the decision whether to swaddle (tightly wrap) your baby might be influenced by the awareness that family and friends overseas would see photos of the baby posted online and might comment or judge. By bringing more people into a position from which they can spectate and/or comment on parents’ choices, digital connections can constrain migrant parents’ decision-making as well as support it.

“Digital connections provide opportunities for migrant mothers and families to discuss their choices and decision-making around child-rearing… and to draw on multiple sources of advice and information.”

Beyond specific child-related practices, migrant mothers also use online communities to find friendship and support, to overcome the social isolation common to both migrants and mothers. One participant in my research, a mother of a toddler who had recently arrived from India to join her husband in Sydney, recounted how she had stumbled on Facebook and WhatsApp groups for Indian mothers living in her area after meeting another Indian mother in a local shopping centre. Through the groups she found advice, information, dance classes, cinema trips and friendship: 

“Every time I meet them, I learn something new. So, there are a lot of advantages, you socialise, you learn something new. Get to know a few things. They make you more familiar with the space, actually.”

Making these connections with other Indian mothers in her local area – via the online groups – introduced her to local activities and services she hadn’t been aware of, and generally gave her a sense of familiarity with her new surroundings. In her words, “I can go and join and I can feel home-like.” In this way, migrant mothers’ online communities help to generate a sense of belonging by facilitating new connections with other migrant mothers, which in turn make a place feel more “home-like”. Building a sense of belonging and creating homeliness in a new place through relationships is an important process that I refer to as “relational settlement.”

Digital connections – whether through locally-based online communities for migrant mothers, transnational online communities or personal networks sustained by digital platforms – provide opportunities for migrant mothers and families to discuss their choices and decision-making around child-rearing, to observe and discuss local dominant norms, and to draw on multiple sources of advice and information when deciding whether to resist or incorporate local practices into their family’s everyday life. In addition, the social connections and local knowledge generated in locally-based online communities helps migrant families to make a place for themselves in a new country.

This blog post draws on research published in Williams Veazey (2021), Migrant Mothers in the Digital Age: Emotion and Belonging in Migrant Maternal Online Communities, published by Routledge.

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