Long-distance mothering through new media

Child and computer21 February 2012

By Angela Jones

Women who leave their children behind to take jobs overseas can still experience an intense sense of motherhood, thanks to the arrival of today's new media environment teeming with affordable digital communication technologies.

Before the mobile phone explosion, voice communication between Filipina women and the children they left behind was rare and cruelly expensive, but new media has revolutionised the way 'transnational' families maintain long-distance relationships.

Migrant mothers now call and text their left-behind children every few hours, join them on social networking sites and leave the webcam running all day to achieve a sense of co-presence.

Funding from the ESRC enabled Dr. Mirca Madianou (University of Leicester) and Daniel Miller (University College London) to carry out ethnographic research and in-depth interviews with over 100 Filipina women working as nurses and domestic workers in London and Cambridge, as well as their left-behind children in the Philippines.

The research revealed that the women maintain their emotional and parenting bond with their left-behind children by using a range of new media. As well as mobile phone and texting, they also use email, webcam calls and instant messaging – as long as both they and their families in the Philippines have internet access.

Mothers with infant children described how webcams enabled them to use visual communication, such as peek-a-boo games, to develop the bond with their offspring and maintain their own emotional wellbeing.

The migrant mothers welcomed the prevalence of new media because it enabled them to achieve a 'more complete' mothering experience - but follow-up interviews in the Philippines revealed that left-behind teenage children often see this constant craving for digital communication as intrusive.

The way older children perceive their relationship with their mother also depends on their age during her initial migration, how close they were to her before she left, and the types of media available for communication. Many felt their mother was failing to understand how grown up they had become in her absence.

The Filipina mothers had left the Philippines for a variety of reasons, including the need to provide for their family, lead more fulfilling lives or escape broken relationships. Whatever their motivation, knowing they would be able stay in touch with their children had helped the women to make the decision to migrate.

"The availability of communication technologies transforms the whole experience of migration, and it often influences key decisions such as whether, and where, to work abroad," says Dr Madianou.

On average, the Filipina women interviewed had been separated from their families for almost 16 years. During that time, mobile phone communication has become a convenient, affordable and integral part of transnational family relationships. For undocumented (illegal) migrants, a mobile phone is the only way to stay in touch.

Dr Madianou believes the rights of live-in domestics should take into account their communication needs, especially as most are women with left-behind children. "New communication technologies do not solve the problems of separation, but they do allow families to maintain some kind of family life at a distance," said Dr Madianou.

"The migrant mothers in our study, because of their extended separation from their children, depend on new media, and it gives them a real and tangible experience of mothering. We believe their experience of managing their relationships and emotions through what we call the 'polymedia' environment contributes to our wider understanding of mediated relationships, and could inform and influence the design of new communication technologies and their applications."