Regulating migrant maternity: Nursing and midwifery’s emancipatory aims and assimilatory practices

I’ve just had the first paper from my PhD published: DeSouza, R. (2013), Regulating migrant maternity: Nursing and midwifery’s emancipatory aims and assimilatory practices. Nursing Inquiry. doi: 10.1111/nin.12020

In contemporary Western societies, birthing is framed as transformative for mothers; however, it is also a site for the regulation of women and the exercise of power relations by health professionals. Nursing scholarship often frames migrant mothers as a problem, yet nurses are imbricated within systems of scrutiny and regulation that are unevenly imposed on ‘other’ mothers. Discourses deployed by New Zealand Plunket nurses (who provide a universal ‘well child’ health service) to frame their understandings of migrant mothers were analysed using discourse analysis and concepts of power drawn from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, read through a postcolonial feminist perspective. This research shows how Plunket nurses draw on liberal feminist discourses, which have emancipatory aims but reflect assimilatory practices, paradoxically disempowering women who do not subscribe to ideals of individual autonomy. Consequently, the migrant mother, her family and new baby are brought into a neoliberal project of maternal improvement through surveillance. This project – enacted differentially but consistently among nurses – attempts to alter maternal and familial relationships by ‘improving’ mothering. Feminist critiques of patriarchy in maternity must be supplemented by a critique of the implicitly western subject of maternity to make empowerment a possibility for all mothers.

 

 

Refugee women in New Zealand: Findings and recommendations

Today on International Women’s Day, it seems apt to share this article that I wrote on behalf of our research team for the Women’s Health Action Update, volume 16, Number 43, December 2012. Women’s Health Action is a charitable trust, that works to “provide women with high quality information and education services to enable them to maintain their health and make informed choices about their health care”. Their focus is on health promotion and disease prevention and they are particularly supportive of breastfeeding and screening. Their vision is ‘Well women empowered in a healthy world’.

More than 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are women and their dependent children. Often women of refugee backgrounds [1]are constructed within deficit frames as having high needs. This representation is problematic as it deflects attention from considering broader historical, social, systemic and political factors and the adequacy of resettlement support.

Little is known about the experiences of women who enter New Zealand through the Women at Risk category identified by The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This category constitutes up to 75 places (10%) of New Zealand’s annual refugee quota of 750. Refugee Services worked with AUT University and the three Strengthening Refugee Voices Groups in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to undertake a project to examine the resettlement experiences of women who enter New Zealand through this category or become sole heads of households as a consequence of their resettlement experiences. This project was funded by the Lotteries Community Sector Research Fund.

The project was important not only for its findings but also for the research process, which focused on strengths, social justice, community development and transformative research. This transformative agenda aimed to enhance the wellbeing of refugee background women by focussing on the roots of inequality in the structures and processes of society rather than in personal or community pathology (Ledwith, 2011). Within this frame we were committed to constructing refugee women as an asset rather than deploying a deficit model of refugee women as a burden for the receiving society (Butler, 2005).

Focus groups were held in 2009 and 2010 with women who entered New Zealand as refugees under the formal category ‘Women at Risk’ or became women who were sole heads of households once they arrived in New Zealand. Women that took part had lived in New Zealand from between five months to sixteen years.  Lengthy consultations were held with the three Strengthening Refugee Voices groups in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch prior to undertaking data collection, in order to scope and refine the research focus and process. These groups were subsequently contracted to provide services and support.

Key findings

Although support needs are similar to all refugees arriving in New Zealand, there were unique and exacerbated gender issues. Refugee background women experienced a double burden of stress with half the support, especially as they parented on their own. This is despite the tremendous unpaid and voluntary support provided by faith and ethnic community members. Women frequently postponed their own aspirations in order to assure the future of their children. When they were ready to take up further education (including English language classes) or employment, limited assistance was then available (given the focus on early resettlement) leading to women feel disadvantaged.

We have made several recommendations based around several specific themes. More broadly we recommended that:

  • More intensive and longer term instititutional support be made available from agencies such as Refugee Services.
  • Subsidised practical help be made available.
  • Assistance to broaden sources of support and networks is goven.
  • Subsidised English language lessons and childcare are available.
  • That a one stop shop/holistic support from culturally and linguistically skilled refugee community insiders be provided.

Parenting

Raising children in New Zealand brought new stresses. These included concern about the loss of culture, values and language and losing their children to less palatable values including the consumption of alcohol and drugs, gender mixing and loss of respect for elders. Women addressed these issues in a range of ways that included trying different less hierarchical styles of parenting, attempting to spend more time with their children, engaging them in broader supports eg mosque. However, a few women had the experience of losing their children through the intervention of CYFS and felt disempowered in their interactions with CYFS and with schools.

  • Programme for parenting for Refugee women, particularly around issues such as discipline, inter-generational gender issues
  • Programmes for young people.
  • Cultural competence training for CYFS.

Family reunification

Living in New Zealand is difficult for women who are conscious of their own comfort while other family members struggle. However, the cost of bringing family members over is prohibitive and the costs involved in providing support in the form of phone calls and remittances add a burden to already stretched lives of the women. The importance of extended family is highlighted for women on their own and the kinds of help that could be provided by family members. Additional stresses are the requirement that refugee women are able to support their families once they arrive in New Zealand. The process is also made difficult by the lack of transparency in the immigration process.

  • Prioritise the reunification with family for women who are here on their own.
  • Provide financial support to women.
  • Increase transparency of the processes and decisions that are made.

Health system

Women encountered a different health system that at times was difficult to navigate. Many women felt that their health concerns were not taken seriously and that the health system created new problems. In terms of some health beliefs and stigma there was value in having more culturally appropriate services available. The surfeit of refugee background health professionals was a potential resource that was not being used.

  • Train and employ a more ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse health workforce at all levels
  • Develop culturally responsive services.
  • Examine the affordability of services.
  • Develop cultural competence of staff working in health services.

Education

The cost and availability of day care for Refugee women on their own is prohibitive in some cases consuming the lion’s share of their income/benefit. Taking up loans in order to finance their own educations is also a problem. This prevents women from achieving their own goals such as learning English, driving or further education, which would assist them in the long term with employment and independence. Women generally considered their own advancement as secondary to their children. If women were resourced financially to gain an education this would assist them to also be a resource for their children. Having long-term support to enter the workforce would also be of benefit.

  • Subsidised day care for women on their own.
  • Mentoring.
  • Scholarships for further education.

Employment

Women were concerned that their children were not getting employed despite tertiary qualifications. Barriers to employment included: ‘lack’ of New Zealand experience, language barriers, their perceived difference (clothing, culture, skin colour) and paucity of appropriate childcare, poor public transport. The impacts of unemployment included losing their dignity, health impacts of taking inappropriate jobs, boredom

  • Subsidised driving lessons, support with transport
  • More work with employers to destigmatise refugee workers
  • Work mentoring/brokering services
  • Support for family members who come into New Zealand through the reunification category to obtain further education

Racism

Refugee women and their families experienced a range of racism related harms that were instititutional and interpersonal taking physical and verbal forms. Their clothes and accent marked them out, and verbal altercations saw stereotypes being invoked particularly around Islamophobia and discourses of war on terror. Women deployed a range of strategies to cope with racism including minimising the racism and helping their children to cope with it.

  • Social marketing campaigns
  • Community education
  • Addressing structural racism
  • National conversation on racism
  • National campaign against racism

The research team hope that this research provides a snapshot of the role and value of various sectors in enabling or constraining the resettlement of refugee background women. This could contribute to better informing theory, practice and policy in order that the self-determination and resilience of refugee background women and their communities is supported.

 


[1] Note that terms like ‘refugee background women’ and ‘communities’ refer to highly diverse groups of people (Butler, 2005). In capturing the experiences of refugee women as sole heads of households, we were mindful of the potential that using a category could imply a “single, essential, transhistorical refugee condition” (Malkki, 1995, p.511).

 

How can we better support new mothers to sing?

I am a member of the Perinatal Mental Health New Zealand Trust (PMHNZ) whose vision is to : “improve outcomes for families and whanau affected by mental illness related to pregnancy, childbirth and early parenthood”. They produce a quarterly newsletter that includes information about research, training, workshops and courses, innovative projects and services, topics for discussion and stories. It was a privilege to share my research with other members in the February newsletter (pdf) and on this Women’s day it seems apt to share it with a broader audience.

One of my favourite stories that I would tell when we ran workshops in the nineties about postnatal depression was by Jack Kornfield. I would share this story and half the room would be in tears.

“There is a tribe in East Africa in which the art of true intimacy is fostered even before birth. In this tribe, the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth nor even the day of conception as in other village cultures. For this tribe the birth date comes the first time the child is a thought in its mother’s mind. Aware of her intention to conceive a child with a particular father, the mother then goes off to sit alone under a tree. There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together as they make love, inviting the child to join them. After the child is conceived, she sings it to the baby in her womb. Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village, so that throughout the labor and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its song. After the birth all the villagers learn the song of their new member and sing it to the child when it falls or hurts itself. It is sung in times of triumph, or in rituals and initiations. This song becomes a part of the marriage ceremony when the child is grown, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones will gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.” A Path with Heart (1993, p. 334).

For me the message in this story reflects the importance of love, being loved by a community and the importance of acknowledgement. Painfully, however, it highlights the ways in which women’s experiences of maternity can be just the opposite. That is, they can feel isolated, disrespected and invisible. As a clinician, I’ve learned that there are ways in which we, and the system that we work in can make this most magnificent, sacred and profound time in a woman and her family’s life also one that is painful, one that leaves long lasting scars. Health professionals can cause harm even especially when we think we are doing good. As an academic for 13 years prior to which I worked as a clinician for 10 years, I am deeply interested in the issue of power and how professional frameworks of care can undermine women’s personal experiences.

This song has been the background soundtrack to my recently completed PhD. I used data from a study funded by the Families Commission and assisted by Plunket, where I talked to 40 migrant women about their experiences of becoming mothers in New Zealand. I also talked to Plunket nurses about their experiences of caring for women from ethnic migrant backgrounds.

My motivation for doing research was prompted by my clinical experiences. Several years ago I decided to make a move from working in mental health to working in maternity. As someone who had worked as a community mental health nurse I took a lot of concepts about my work in mental health into this new setting, for example, I believed that care should be client centred and driven, that services should fit around consumers of services and that taking time to be with people was important. What I found in the institutionalised setting of hospital maternity care and later community care was that some of the routine procedures that are administered in hospitals and in the community with good intentions had negative impacts and were oppressive especially for women who did not tidily fit into the mould for the factory style model that was in place then. The conveyor belt metaphor is apt given that women who were the wrong fit were viewed as a problem, as only a single way of becoming a mother was acceptable. I saw that staff were frustrated at the extra demands or complexity of working with ‘diverse’ women, they lacked resources like time and knowledge. In turn, I could see that women who valued particular kinds of social support, acknowledgement and rituals were not getting their needs met. It seemed like a situation where no one was a winner.

What I found out in my research was that there was a big gap in satisfaction among women who were familiar with the structure of maternity services in the west and women whose lives had been shaped by growing up in other cultural contexts. Fundamentally there was a schism in the ways in which birth was understood. To be simplistic, western modes of being a mother valued independence, autonomy, taking up expert knowledge and using it and being an active consumer. By that I mean the individualising of responsibility for maternity on the mother, to take up scientific knowledge through reading self help books and for the role of the partner to be a birth coach and the goal of birth to be “natural”.

This dominant Pakeha middle class model of being a mother clashed with other understandings of motherhood, where responsibility was more collectivised, so that embodied knowledge from cultural authority figures (mother and mothers in law) protected mothers and where a range of rituals and supports were available for the mother (including some which were also not necessarily helpful). Women who became mothers in New Zealand had to negotiate these two different models of maternity and come to terms with what they negotiated. However, in the context of an assimilatory maternal health system it was very difficult for women to maintain traditions that were important to them. For example many women were not supported if they wanted to bring in traditional foods with them or have support from grandmothers. Many of these encounters left migrant mothers feeling disempowered. Another important clash was the different philosophies and roles of professionals and mother in the context of midwifery models and medical models. Some women viewed birth as a risky process and wanted the reassurance of visualising technologies. The view of birth as a risky process clashed with midwifery models of birth as a natural process that women are physically prepared for but need encouragement and support with.

Conclusion How can we support all kinds of women with different values, beliefs and rituals around birth, to feel loved, nurtured, safe and supported? How can we give women who might be separated from their loved ones, support to access those values, beliefs and that will allow them to manage the transition into motherhood? Returning to the metaphor of singing, and the power of connection it engenders, how can we connect and support people who are singing different kinds of songs? Can we adjust our tone so that we can harmonise? Can new songs and rhythms infuse the songs we already know with new energy and possibility?

Having a baby in New Zealand without your support base http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/kaixinxingdong/page/486- resources+dragon-babies+parents-stories