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Navigating Cultural Stigma: Immigrant Mothers and Mental Health

Are you the child of immigrants? Perhaps just your mother is an immigrant, or you yourself are technically one, but were too young at the time of immigration to remember your ‘home’ country. Perhaps you are the secondborn, the one who doesn’t quite know your ‘ethnic culture’ as well as your older sibling might; the one who was raised more American. Whatever the type of situation that you were raised in as the child of an immigrant mother, or parents, there is certainly quite a bit of anxiety that crops up in this kind of childhood.

Trapped between Worlds

This is true of many children of immigrant parents, or those who may be immigrants themselves; as you grow up, you may find yourself trapped in between two worlds. At home, you are under the purview of your parents and the culture that they have brought with them. At times, they may encourage you to follow what is considered the cultural norm for them; at other times, you may be told to behave as an American would. Yet for a period of time, you are in a situation where you do not know what the ‘American’ norm is, until perhaps you enter the public school system, or social spheres among your local peers.

Immigrant student

At that point, there is a divergence. Suddenly, what is considered normal to you, whether it is the clothes on your back or the food you eat or even the way you perform hygiene–such habits are not normal to the rest of the world. The way one person refers to something may differ from the way others do, leading to misunderstandings. As you get older, puberty will strike, creating bodily differences that might result in social isolation, or at the very least, anxiety in social spaces about being different. But that, naturally, was already there–because you have always been different.

Why Immigrant Mothers?

A single look at internet spaces will tell you that jokes about ethnic mothers are rampant. How Asian moms are strict ‘tiger moms’, how Hispanic or Latinx moms bear the ‘chancla of doom’, how Black moms might be distant or portray a ‘strong woman’ trope; such tropes are borderline racist at times. This, though a major issue, is not the focus of the article–the focus is that immigrant mothers often do bear the burden of trauma, whether it is due to the circumstances of their relocation, the events that they endured while in their native or current country, or any other context. And if there is one thing that can be assumed of trauma and mental illness, it is that whether by nurture or by nature, it is passed down.

Many children of immigrant mothers have fraught relationships with their mothers, whether it is due to behavior they perceive as wrong in the context of where they have been raised, genuinely abusive behavior, emotional distancing, or simply ideological differences. There are many other reasons besides these, but to list them all would be a futile endeavor. Regardless, when considering these things, especially if you can relate to this yourself, it would be valuable to consider the dichotomy of the situation; to consider your relationship with your mother under a lens that is not purely how you have received and been received by your mother, but how the world may have received and shaped your mother to be the person she may be today.

Dialectically Viewing Yourself

Just as you have been split between two worlds, so too may have been the mother that brought you into the situation, whether at a young age or at an older age. Your own trauma is not negated or excused by the fact that your mother may also be traumatized; in fact, if you wish to repair that relationship, provided it has been damaged, it may be a healing factor for the both of you to share these things. It is important to acknowledge that your mother’s trauma, and potentially undiagnosed mental illness, may have played a factor in shaping your own trauma, and possibly (provided you are reading this) diagnosed mental illness. In that respect, pay careful attention to your emotional fatigue, and its various sources. Look at a relationship that may be toxic and consider where the toxicity stems from, and remember: just because something is ‘bad’ in some respects, does not mean there is no ‘good’ to be found in it.

Consider using skills such as mindfulness, which encourages you to release your judgments of a situation, be they negative or positive, and simply view the facts of the matter as they are. This might allow you to release long-held sticky judgments you may have about your mother, yourself, or the relationship between the two of you. Take into account radical acceptance, which you can practice when you are at a point where you are aware the relationship or situation cannot immediately change. This is a temporary practice, one to guide you until you come to a point where you can initiate change.

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