People have been migrating with the hope of improved economic prospects throughout human history. While historically the male immigrant, single or as head of a family, searching for greener economic pastures has been the model, increasingly throughout the world women are traveling distances small and large to improve their own and oftentimes their families’ economic well-being. Since gender plays a very real role in how immigration is experienced and viewed, as illustrated by this week’s immigration series here on GAB, it is particularly striking how immigrant women with children, who they frequently must leave behind, are treated by governments, media and society at large. Specifically the well-publicized, domestic, Polish phenomenon dubbed by media as euro-orphanism, has turned mothers who leave the country for work in other more prosperous nations looking like neglectful witches.
Transitions from a planned communist economy to a market-driven, capitalist system in the last two decades left many Central-Eastern Europeans without various social benefits that were previously guaranteed. With mass closures in the once State-owned industrial sector, such as coal mines, steel mills, factories and other large businesses, unemployment rates climbed into the double digits. This unemployment or under-employment of working class people continues to play out in Poland today, despite the fact that statistics show the nation fairing reasonably well in the global economic meltdown. Women specifically have been hurt by the cuts to public, State-subsidized childcare facilities, which previously made it possible for them to work. Today with low prospects for a reasonably paid job in their own country, men and women from all walks of life are leaving in search of improved financial possibilities. Members of the lower socio-economic classes, especially women, mainly from rural areas or small towns, who in many cases are single parents, are especially vulnerable to the deteriorating social safety nets and rapidly rising living costs, pushing them to make economic choices that are difficult.
As Poland entered the European Union (EU) in 2004, potential job opportunities in numerous countries across the continent opened up. Many people left, not to stay away permanently but to return after a few years, having earned just enough money that would provide funds for a less financially-strained and more comfortable life. As certain portions of the population continue to advance economically, at the same time, the once moderately comfortable members of the working-class, including small farmers, are falling into ever deeper poverty. The nation of 38 million isn’t proud of the fact that as of 2008 almost 15% of children were living in poverty. With 79% of children from single parent households, in which a woman is normally the head and is unemployed, living in poverty, it is no wonder that there would be an exodus of mothers wanting to provide economic stability for their children from abroad. The media and various government officials have latched onto ostracizing these women particularly, over-blowing the rare instances where immigrating parents abandoned their children to family members or orphanages. In the isolated incidents of true neglect where the State eventually took away parental rights, society’s fury over the lack of responsibility on the part of typically the mother is rife. Fathers who are employed abroad or who really do abandon their families have not been particularly singled out the way women have in exposés of euro-orphanism.
A sociologist from the University in Warsaw has spent a number of years studying this euro-orphan phenomenon and her findings, based on extensive interviews with mothers, who have or continue to work abroad, show a very different reality from the sensational reports on television. The women who travel outside Poland from anywhere between 6 months, 1 year and up to 3 years do not feel that they truly had a choice in whether to stay or go. The reasonably close proximity of work in other European countries, as opposed to the distant US, has also made things easier for parents to save on travel costs and still afford to visit so that separations are not too long. Economic circumstances, of both partnered and single mothers, literally force them to choose between traditional mothering in stifling poverty or for temporary mothering from abroad, while ensuring a better financial future for their families. This solution of enhanced earnings abroad while separated from their children is far from ideal but it is the only one that allows for any agency on the part of these women in the face of social and economic paralysis.
Jobs performed by immigrant women who don’t speak the local language well, have no special skills or are simply unable to perform work in their profession are far from glamorous most of the time so it isn’t exactly like these mothers choose a fulfilling career far from their families’ reach. The interviews show that since they tend to come from poorer regions and severely economically depressed social realities, the ability to improve their families’ well-being by temporarily leaving is painful but also empowering. When they entrust their children for the time they are gone to a spouse, grandparents or other family members, they do it out of absolute necessity. Unfortunately, since old-fashioned ways of viewing a woman’s place in society and traditional ways of parenting still persist, it has been easy to exploit the image of a non-conforming mother.
Pointing fingers at women, who with no tenable options leave children behind to work outside of the country, serves as a convenient diversion from the larger forces contributing to poverty, patriarchal systems of organizing society and an overall messy transition from formerly ensured social services by the state to a modern, continuously changing and oftentimes ill-performing support structure. When institutions designed to help citizens fail to provide adequate support, they are compelled to improve their situation themselves, even at a high cost. Social benefits like affordable child-care, social and economic support for victims of domestic violence, well executed alimony/child-support laws, welfare programs that provide an actual way out of poverty, labor laws that protect workers and include a living wage, as well as, a new approach to how family and gender roles are viewed today would help those who struggle. The mainstream media and politicians in Poland fail to ask the right questions or are perhaps inconvenienced by the reality, finding it more manageable to scapegoat a group of people, who don’t have the opportunity to defend their actions and share their sobering experiences.
Labeling children from households in which just one parent works abroad as neglected, emotionally scarred-for-life euro-orphans is shameful. Putting a greater burden of responsibility for the direct care of children on women makes clear how sexist and stereotypically gendered mainstream society still is. If motherhood is such a respected role why does Polish society or any other society throughout the world so often turn being a mother into such a difficult endeavor for so many women? Divisions in any society among women, may they be mothers or not, too often mask what the real problems are. It is the failure of sexist, elitist, patriarchal, money-saving at any cost policies that deserve examination, and not women who set out to improve their own and their families’ economic situation.
I have the privilege of knowing various cases where mothers have gone to extraordinary ends to ensure a better life for their families, foremostly for their children and while those choices may not have been easy, they were never selfish as popular, attention-grabbing media reports portray. Clearly financial stability isn’t the most important aspect of parenting but it is a crucial one, since poverty is often cyclical, passed from generation to generation. When institutional support within a country fails mothers the way the current system in Poland frequently does, it is encouraging that they still forge ahead; making sacrifices in order to ensure a better life and provide more opportunities for themselves and their children. Instead of vilifying mothers for their choice to leave the home country, their can-do spirit, in the face of sheer insurmountable economic obstacles, should be applauded. These situations ought to also serve as a cue for the government to change their current anti-family and anti-woman policies.