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Immigrant stories: Caught between two cultures

“The daily struggle of raising children in a society that devalues child-rearing, and the constant battle to understand and face racism, classism and sexism, is ‘triple jeopardy’ for the Black immigrant woman.”

 
As an African-Canadian immigrant mother, I am faced with the challenge of raising my children within my own cultural traditions while enabling them to function effectively as a minority in Canadian society.

Understanding the complex ways in which institutionalised systems of oppression such as racism, sexism and classism interact to create different mothering experiences for women from marginalized groups is critical to addressing the needs of women from diverse backgrounds.

The daily struggle of raising children in a society that devalues child-rearing, and the constant battle to understand and face racism, classism and sexism, is ‘triple jeopardy’ for the Black immigrant woman.

The effect of the forces created by the interaction between these three institutionalized systems of oppression is like a razor within the psyche: it constantly slices into our self-confidence, creating a wound that is reopened every time we receive the message that Black women are inferior to the rest of society.

The process of immigration and resettling complicates the process of adapting to pregnancy and other changes of motherhood. Limited understanding of English or French and/or speaking with an accent creates a barrier to accessing resources which, in turn, increases loneliness.

Adjusting to a different climate, clothing and food creates more challenges. For some, the greatest isolation occurs when they face their daily activities in snow and bitter cold. The experience of pregnancy is complicated by a change in clothing style and the multiple layers that provide necessary protection are restrictive and uncomfortable.

Food is more than a simple matter of nutrition. It symbolizes love, security, moral and religious values, attitudes to health and our beliefs about ourselves. Most newcomers have trouble adjusting to an unfamiliar diet, but it is especially difficult during pregnancy and after childbirth. Immigrant women may prefer to eat traditional foods brought by friends and spouses instead of the menu provided by the hospital.

Canadian children are encouraged to achieve, to be independent and competitive while many ethnic minorities emphasize interdependence, cooperation and contributing to the collective. While intimate interaction between mother and child is encouraged in Canadian culture, it is unusual in a cultural context where children are not considered partners with their mothers, but rather members of their community.

Oppression resulting from racism and classism may invoke feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem in the mother, making the mother-child interaction for Black immigrant families more complex.

The future of mothers who perform this very challenging role at the margins calls for creative leadership and a new political orientation that will incorporate multicultural and racial discourse as part of the agenda.

Discriminatory practices hurt all of us as human beings. All mothers deserve the choice on how to mother their children, and all children deserve a society that accepts them and celebrates diversity.

Josephine Enang, RM,RN,MN,IBCLC, is a Clinical Instructor for Dalhousie University School of Nursing and a Researcher with the Maritime Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health in Halifax. She is a Nurse-Midwife.

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