The burden of care

IMG-5865 (1)From 2004-2007 I carried out research for my PhD in Batticaloa, a coastal town in eastern Sri Lanka. Those years of living and researching in Sri Lanka were turbulent: I was there when the 2004 tsunami hit the shores of the island; when the already precarious ceasefire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) unravelled, descending into fighting which eventually led to the annihilation of the Tigers and the deaths of thousands of Tamil people in the north. What struck me, and what I ended up focusing on in the writing up of my PhD was the ways in which everyday life was held together. I questioned and explored how certain routines and rhythms were held in place despite layers of loss, suffering and uncertainty – but also argued that what is ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ in contexts of extreme, protracted violence is constantly remade. In particular I looked at mothers – what it meant for them to keep going – to find meaning when searching for disappeared husbands and sons who had been killed and, the constant threat of violence against their lives and bodies.

I remember visiting one mother whose 14 year old son had been taken by the LTTE. This was her only son. He was snatched on his way to school. She had tried to hang herself twice since his abduction. When we met she had nothing to say. She sat mute with pain.

Another mother had threatened to kill herself in front of the LTTE if they did not return her son. She shouted and screamed outside the camp where her son was being held until they released him, something that almost never happened.

Now in 2017 as I sit and reflect on my current research with a group of migrant women from the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda and Angola  – I am again trying to make sense of ‘the everyday’ and the ‘ordinary’ – the attempts and means of keeping going when lives are shaped by layers of loss and violence.

In earlier posts (see Poking the wound – research, stories and process – thinking through the complexities  and “This small piece of paper” and Being seen) I’ve written about the challenges that the women face in Johannesburg. These are women who fled to South Africa seeking safety and support – and for most – their everyday lives remain precarious and full of risk. Risk because they are cross-border migrants – the scapegoated ‘other’ – accused of making life for local South Africans harder; of taking jobs away from locals even though they can’t find work. They are the ‘other’ whose reproductive bodies are represented as threatening and hostile – bodies that are blamed for burdening an already fraught and struggling healthcare system. They are the ‘other’ assumed to have had children in order to access documentation (which in reality they cannot do) and (non-existent) forms of welfare. They are the ‘other’ who are expected to integrate into a city that does not want them – expected to simultaneously ‘live in invisibility’ while proving they deserve to remain. As ‘othered’ bodies the entanglements of vulnerability and risk frame a troubling and exhausting everyday life.

I have also reflected on the challenges of doing research in this context. I have described the questions – around representation, responsibility and role – that have arisen when working with individuals who are traumatised and, who have many immediate and often, urgent needs. I have been challenged personally in many ways and particularly in writing this reflection about some of their experiences, my relationship with them, and the lenses through which I try to understand their undoubtedly complex lives: motherhood and migrant mothers.

Like the mothers I met in Sri Lanka, for this group there is that everyday struggle to find meaning, to keep going, and especially to keep yourself and your children safe. But in contexts of suffering and violence mothers are almost always defined by their gender, their relationship to others and their wombs – as wives of men killed or disappeared, as daughters at risk and, as mothers. They are mothers in conflict zones – victims and/or survivors, or migrant mothers – working away from their children or enduring life in a refugee camp. As researchers we create these labels and lenses through which lives are explored. We create another ‘other’ – the mother as a research subject.

But while my research project ostensibly set out to look at the lives of migrant mothers – the participants –have clearly and forcefully pulled my focus over to their lives as woman – as individuals. They have asked me to look at them. They want me to understand them as women facing violence on the streets of Johannesburg and struggling to make sense of who they are and who they can be. Their lives include the struggle of mothering. All (except one) of the group are mothers and largely, coping on their own. Being mothers and having dependants shapes most of their everyday experiences and vulnerabilities. Having children makes everyday life that much harder – in many ways an everyday burden.

This is not just a burden in terms of the difficulties of having to provide – it’s about feelings, and desires and desperation and distress. What emerges most palpably in our group discussions is the absolute exhaustion of having to care; the challenges of facing daily struggles with additional worries about food, money and rent.

When the women talk in the group it is often from this place of desperation and of the burden of being a mother. The love each has for their children is definitely not in question. This is not about the “bad migrant mother” and should not in any way reflect the common negative assumptions made about “foreign mothers” who neglect their children or have them simply to access support from the state.

This is about women who are compromised in what they can do and what they can even hope for because they are ignored and targeted. In a world and especially in a country where women’s bodies are systematically oppressed and violated – and where poor, black, foreign bodies are easily treated as disposable and unimportant – being a mother adds layers of fear, threat and physical and emotional burden.

The burden manifests in social and economic challenges. It is about precarity in a context where everyday survival is a struggle, that leads to many questions:

What if I gave up?

Can someone else care for my children?

If I wasn’t here would things be better for them?

Mercy has three children aged 13, 7 and 5. A few months ago she arrived at our Friday morning group in crisis. She was exhausted and said she was ‘giving up’. Through tears she described how she’d spent the previous evening searching for rat poison to eat. She felt this was her only option,

“I wish I could die.” she said “At least then someone would have to take care of my kids”.

While that moment of crisis passed and Mercy kept going – there were many more Fridays where she expressed the same desperation.

Until the week she left.

She took me aside one Friday and quietly told me she was leaving the group early because she had decided to travel to a neighbouring country with the hope of making some money selling clothes. I questioned Mercy – my fear and concerns were mostly about the children and that she was still waiting for refugee status, which meant re-entering the country could pose a challenge. She replied,

“there is nothing in the cupboards, the kids have nothing…I can’t find work, I can’t do anything…I have to try”.

 She had a point. She had nothing. This was her one attempt to try something different. It wasn’t my place to stop her. Her husband, who had disappeared for a number of months was back in Johannesburg. Mercy thought he could care for the children. She wasn’t abandoning them. She was searching for another way. She was trying to keep going.

This was a few months ago now and Mercy hasn’t returned. Her husband mistreated the children and they are are now in a shelter (funded by an NGO). They are together and being well cared for.

Mercy may not have yet returned for many reasons, lack of money, problems in gaining entry back to South Africa, or worse. But part of me can’t help but wonder is she hasn’t returned because she was exhausted with the realities of life in South Africa. In the weeks before she left she was growing thinner and thinner. The family had no food and what she was given by the NGO she handed to the children. She had hit crisis point. Burned by the expectations associated with being a mother who felt like she had nothing left to give.

I am clearly speculating. I don’t know exactly what has happened to Mercy or why she hasn’t come back. But of course I am concerned about her, and her children and, we miss her in our group.

Her story is powerful because it illustrates the intense levels of distress that many migrant women are experiencing in Johannesburg. Women who are traumatised by what they’ve been through and who meet a callous everyday life in Johannesburg. Women who are expected to ‘get on with it’ and expected to provide as mothers, with little (if any) support or options. Women for whom suicide sometimes feels like the only option.

As Clara, a young woman from Rwanda with a small son has told me,

“sometimes I feel so tired I just want to sleep…and sleep…sometimes I don’t want to wake up. It could be easier.”

Precious, a participant with two small children, one of whom is mentally and physically disabled told us very early on in our group meetings that she often thought of a way out.

“When I am in a taxi with the boys I think about it crashing. I wish it would crash and kill us. I wish it would kill us all together at that one time….then the suffering is over and we are all gone”

Precious is devoted to her children. Everything she does is for them. But she is unemployed, she is struggling to find a place for them all to stay and she has little support with the youngest child who if fully dependant on her. The family were recently evicted from their flat in Yeoville after defauting on the rent during a time that Precious suffered a miscarriage. Precious fled the DRC and the horrific experiences she endured there in the war many years ago. Her family is scattered now and she is alone in South Africa. She doesn’t want her children to suffer. She doesn’t want them dead. But living in a country, a city where violence and loss have become the ordinary and where the everyday is defined by struggle dying sometimes seems like the better/only option.

This talk of suicide as an option, real or imagined has come up a lot and is often a response to the layered nature of trauma and crisis, and sometimes even – a desperate call for help; a way to put into words their anguish, both past and present. Thankfully we work through a Psychosocial NGO at the same site where the group meets. This means that we are able to ensure that support is provided whenever such ideations are shared. But this does not change the reasons why suicide is talked about and often entertained as the only way out of their current stresses and traumas.

Interestingly, in Sri Lanka, the women I came across would say they wanted to die because they didn’t have their children with them. They couldn’t bear life without them. Here, the women talk about dying with or without their children as an end to the immediate pain and/or a place or point where something different can be imagined. With the children they could perhaps all be freed of suffering – without them the children might be better provided for. Thus thoughts around death are tangible in a context where the past and present pose unanswerable questions about the future. The women do not know if next week or month will be easier, they don’t know if they will ever find work, ever be granted refugee status and if this will even make a difference.

To reiterate – this is not about wanting less or loving less.

This is about the burden of motherhood and of care that is created by dire poverty, persistent gender-based violence and brutal xenophobia. And yet, despite the frequent desire to give up many find a way to manage. Week after week they come back to our group, often saying “we are still trying. We are still here”.

Their situation, however, remains desparate – and even bleak.

In Sri Lanka an exploration of the significance of routines and rhythms of everyday life and ideas of what is ordinary helped me make sense of violence and loss. In South Africa – as work with this group of women has shown me – this feels more complex. This is not an obvious war zone – the conflict is not always visible – but the suffering and violence still continues. The women are expected to anticipate this and to deal with the layers of vulnerability they face while caring for children. They have all fled war. They know the realities of conflict and they now know that sometimes the isolation and persistent forms of violence in a country that hoped would be safe can sometimes feel worse.

And this is captured by Mary below. Mary is from the DRC and the mother to four children – the youngest of whom is a result of rape. Her words powerfully express what I have been trying to say and push us to really try and better understand ‘migrant motherhood’ not just through the lens of mothering but from the experience of women, of individuals who are trying – and who sometimes feel like giving up.

“In DRC…In DRC….It’s not a country it’s a hell.

But in South Africa I’m not free.

Killing is something even like the Congo. Everyone has a gun and can do anything. That is so painful that I am not free staying here. Any movement, you cannot enjoy life. Something, anything can happen, anytime, any moment in South Africa. People are dying – foreigners are dying .

 I have nowhere to go, nothing to do, no hope …and my children are waiting”



Thank you to all the courageous participants in the group for sharing their stories and to Elsa Oliveira for her support in running the group and thinking through the issues that arise.

The research for the group is funded through MaHp, SeaM and a “Life in the City’ postdoc with the Wits School of Governance and hosted by The ACMS.






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s