Migrant mothers in austere times: Finding love in a hopeless place?

Migrant mothers in austere times: Finding love in a hopeless place?

Agata Lisiak 

Advertised as measures to reduce the government budget deficit, the austerity-driven reforms introduced in 2010 by David Cameron’s government have effectively punished the most vulnerable – the disabled, children and single parents – and intensified socio-economic inequalities. That some low-income Polish migrant mothers report feeling ‘safe’ and ‘free’ in the UK according to my research data, may thus seem rather unbelievable. How can they, faced with the impending neoliberalisation of the family, express their satisfaction with her precarious situation? And what can we learn from their apparent contentment?

Poland and other eastern EU member states have been experiencing austerity ever since the demise of the communist regimes in 1989-1991 (and, arguably, even long before that) and it is predominantly women who have been acutely affected by these transformations. Feminisation of poverty is a widespread phenomenon across Eastern and South East Europe. For those familiar with everyday realities of mothering in post-socialist countries, having and caring for children in the UK appears to be, in words of one of my research participants, ‘much easier’ – despite all the cuts, despite the exorbitant cost of childcare, despite the geographical distance separating immigrants from their families and friends they could have otherwise relied on when it comes to child rearing. For those who feel humiliated by their poverty in Poland, migration is a solution that holds a promise of a sense of security. One of the Polish mothers I interviewed for my research project Immigrant Mothers As Agents of Change, part of the ERC-funded TRANSFORmIG project, recalls: I escaped Poland because once, walking down the street in my hometown, my daughter wanted a banana and I had no money to buy it. Here that doesn’t happen to me.

The words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ keep recurring in the interviews I conducted with Polish mothers living in Birmingham and London in 2014-2016. These women, mostly in their late 20s to late 30s, emphasise the importance of the ability to satisfy one’s family’s basic needs through an income that, even if minimal, allows for renting an apartment, keeping the fridge full, and even saving some money for trips to Poland. Migrant mothers appreciate the provisions they could not take for granted ‘back home’ such as partially free childcare, free medication for children and some financial support for single mothers – even if they do not necessarily benefit from them directly. As one single mother living in Birmingham explained:

I don’t make use of any of that, but it’s good to know it’s there: if I wanted to use it, it’s there. I don’t have to feel ashamed to ask for help – they’re open.

There is a common perception among Polish mothers in Britain that, as one mother put it: even if you earn the minimum, you can survive, somehow, you can get by. And in Poland on a minimum [wage]? Oh my, if you have no one to help you, how do you do that?

This sense of affordability of everyday life and the ensuing sense of security is hardly immediate upon arrival in the UK. Many of those I spoke to admitted to humble beginnings, furnishing their rented – and often overpriced – apartments with things found on the street or GumTree.

Yet even in those difficult early months, sometimes years, these migrants recall being positively surprised at the apparent abundance of cheap or entirely free products that made their lives easier. The sheer amount of things produced by the machinery of global capitalism running on the system of labour and land exploitation is, indeed, breath-taking and intensely felt in the UK where chain stores line up high streets and fashion collections change every few weeks. Discarded products fill up charity stores and car boot sales praised by my research participants for their affordability. Although Poland has hardly been immune to the influx of international corporations and the bargain goods they bring with them, the scale of this phenomenon is nowhere near as large as it is in the UK. Also, many mass-produced items are more affordable in the UK than in Poland when compared to the disparities in earnings.

Migrant mothers’ sense of freedom in the UK depends primarily on their sense of economic security (even if very modest), but also, as I wrote elsewhere, on whether their need for respectability is fulfilled. It comes as a big relief to them that they can not only borrow, but also afford buying what they deem necessary for their children: clothes, shoes, diapers, school supplies, strollers and toys. This often newly found ability to self-sufficiently provide for one’s children is crucial in the context of transnational and local family power dynamics. In Poland, poverty and the lack of choice, which results from it, pushes mothers into dependency on family from which some, like Iza from Birmingham, manage to free themselves through migration. Formerly relying on her family to survive, now Iza is the one who can help out her sisters and their families in Poland:

Here everything is much cheaper so you can afford buying clothes for your child. … I collect everything and send it over to my sister [who has two children]. I ship everything to Poland. I collect it, put it aside, and then send it over. A big, 30 kg parcel costs 15 pounds.

Owing to well-developed migrant infrastructures catering to Poles in the UK, Iza can afford not only buying things for her sister’s children, but also shipping them over to Poland.

The migrant mothers I interviewed are involved in complex networks of exchanges and transfers of goods with friends, colleagues, and family members, both locally and transnationally. These networks are strongly feminised and function primarily, though not exclusively, within the Polish diaspora and between migrants in the UK and their significant others in Poland. Whether an item gets passed on, sold or given as a present depends on a wide range of factors such as the child’s gender and age, the season of the year, the workings of migrant infrastructures, emotional investments and whims, among many others. Through exchanges of objects related to child rearing new friendships emerge and are nurtured and older familial ties are kept, bonding happens and love is expressed, generating hope. Marta in Birmingham received many baby clothes from British colleagues and neighbours – and then returned them or passed them on to other friends. These exchanges encouraged or required personal contact: Marta and the other women would use the occasion of the exchange to meet for coffee and chat. Another migrant, Sylwia, is engaged in an elaborate exchange network with her sister in the United States and their mother in Poland:

I always send stuff to Poland via a courier service and when my sister was there now she already took some stuff with her [back to the US]. … When [my sister’s] son grows out of his clothes, she ships them over to Poland and mom sends them via courier over here. … If we buy something once, it simply circulates.

Sylwia is a driving force behind many exchanges of objects within a group of Birmingham-based Polish women. As objects change hands, these mundane items create palpable connections between people in various locations, as well as local solidarities that positively affect migrants’ sense of belonging to communities in their new places of residence – a sense of belonging that has recently been jeopardised.

Like many people in Britain and beyond, Polish migrant mothers in the UK expressed their disbelief at the victory of the Leave campaign in June 2016. As we found out in a TRANSFORmIG online focus group with Poles in Britain, uncertainty and disappointment replaced the feelings of ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’ in those first weeks and months after the referendum and the drop of the pound substantially severed the former sense of affordability. Individual responses to the new circumstances varied. Some succumbed into their private worlds where they shared their worries with family and friends both in the UK and in Poland, but many others made it a point to show their defiance. One Polish mother recalls that right after the referendum she started to speak Polish more often on the street … to celebrate our Polishness. Another one said that her parents, who live in Poland, warned her not to speak Polish in public because of the reports in the Polish media about xenophobic attacks on Poles in the UK. Although she initially listened to them and stayed ‘cautious’, she soon abandoned this strategy and went back to speaking Polish with her child and did not experience any discrimination because of that: I wanted to show to myself that I am not scared, that I am not ashamed.

Though Britain may now seem more than ever a hopeless place, listening closely to migrant mothers who had made it their home despite the difficult economic and social circumstances created by neoliberalism draws our attention to the potential for resilience and defiance that can be found in their everyday gestures and practices.

Agata Lisiak is an urban scholar working at intersections of migration studies, visual cultures and gender studies. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Humboldt University’s Institute of Social Sciences and a lecturer at Bard College Berlin. She tweets at @agatskil.