Working Migrant Mothers and Their Children: Overcoming the Consequences of Absence

Dana Al-Azzeh, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Migration Studies


In the hope of giving their children a better future, many female migrant workers leave their countries and seek work overseas. These mothers can miss out on their children’s entire childhoods, while they care for other people’s children in higher-income countries. Studies report that this prolonged separation increases the likelihood of children developing mental health problems, especially depression, anxiety and conduct disorder. Additionally, years after the migrant worker returns, their relationship with their children may still be strained and distant. This article focuses on the impact of these migrant workers’ absence on their children’s education and mental health, in addition to the ways mothers try to overcome the consequences of their absence on their own children.

Impact on School Performance

Despite the fact that migrant domestic workers (MDW) leave their countries and work abroad to secure improved educational opportunities for their children, some studies point to the fact that the academic performance of children suffers due to their mother’s absence. Batistella and Conaco (1998) indicate in their study that children of migrant mothers perform poorly at school in comparison with their peers. This could be attributed to several reasons. Zhao et al. (2013) point out that children who are left behind by their parents are most often taken care of by their grandmothers, who tend to lack the necessary knowledge about the emotional or educational needs of these children. Similarly, some elderly grandparents and younger siblings are being taken care of by the left-behind children. Thus, time-consuming household duties manage to take up the children’s time and interfere with their chances to develop socially, emotionally and academically.

Furthermore, Tarroja and Fernando (2013) highlight that children of migrant mothers are more likely to be bullied at school than their peers because, in their mother’s absence, they feel as though there is no one to protect or stand up for them. The authors also emphasize how the lack of structure offered by mothers causes these children to stray from their studies. Interestingly, in the context of the importance of a mother’s presence, studies conducted on children with migrant fathers concluded that their academic performance was not affected as such; they even received recognition from their schools for their scholastic excellence. 

Impact on Mental Health: How Much of a Role Do Mothers Play?

Findings of studies concerned with the impact of prolonged absence of migrant working mothers on children’s mental health vary. Some studies conclude that prolonged separation can have dire consequences on the child’s social and emotional development. For example, Dai & Chu (2018) deduced that children who are left behind by their migrant mothers report more mental health issues than their peers. In light of that, they scored lower on good mental health indicators, such as self-esteem and happiness, but higher on signs of poor mental health, such as depression and anxiety. It is important to note that while the absence of a mother in a child’s life has posed detrimental impacts on their mental health, numerous studies adhere to the fact that such impressions have been mitigated through the presence of close and caring grandparents, relatives or other members of the domestic worker’s extended family

The findings of the aforementioned study complement Bryant (2005) and Werner (2000) who corroborate that children under the care of the extended family or grandparents are more likely to be safeguarded from developing mental health issues, especially if their mother’s absence is associated with working abroad or other contributing factors, such as being imprisoned, mentally ill or struggling with addiction. This takes place due to children forming strong attachments to their grandparents and extended family members: a process that promotes their resilience and helps them cope better with the negative consequences of their mother’s absence. 

In conclusion, the variance in mental health outcomes in children of migrant domestic workers could be attributed to the quality of the attachment fostered between the children and their secondary caregivers. It is worth mentioning that if the child was neglected/abused by the secondary caregiver, they will not only blame the mother for putting them in such situations but also find it increasingly difficult to trust her since she had abandoned them in abusive circumstances with negligent caregivers. Respectively, this may result in forming a pattern of attachment called ‘disorganized attachment,’ which occurs in children who were exposed to traumatic incidents.  

People who develop disorganized attachments become hyper-vigilant most of the time because they see the world as a dangerous place and people as neither trustworthy nor supportive. As a consequence of yearning for closeness but always being apprehensive of it due to the abuse they endured, people with disorganized attachments have difficulty forming and remaining in relationships for fear of being abandoned. As mentioned previously, having a loving and caring secondary caregiver can mitigate the consequences of a mother’s absence on children. Nonetheless, separating from one’s mother is a painful experience indeed, and children can still be influenced on many levels because of that separation. This is patently clear when the children finally reunite with their mothers.  

Challenges to Reunions

When the mother ultimately returns and reunites with her children, they sometimes welcome her with rejection and avoidance. This could be attributed to several reasons, among which is the development of an avoidant attachment style in the child. Children with this attachment style have difficulty expressing their emotions, feel uncomfortable with intimacy as adults, and never seek help or show vulnerability. The avoidant attachment comes as a response to the stress children endure in light of their mother’s absence and their inability to comprehend the reasons behind their mother’s departure. More often than not, children are told that their mothers leave them to work abroad in hopes of creating better opportunities for them, yet such an explanation is hard to be justified or understood by children and may bring further sadness at a young age, considering that they value love and care over material things. Furthermore, the mother’s return can become a source of stress for the children because it is accompanied by separation from their familiar caregivers — the grandmother, extended family members, and the like — which may also result in disrupting the routine they are accustomed to

Maintaining the Bond From a Distance 

It is imperative to note that migrant mothers do not turn their backs on their children; they strive to keep the attachment bond with them in order to alleviate the consequences of their absence. For instance, mothers send their children packages and gifts and talk to them regularly using new technologies. Evidence was found in the literature that said technologies make it easier for children to come to terms with their mother’s absence, as mothers follow up on their children’s homework on a daily basis through phone calls and text messages among other ways. They also help their children solve the problems they face at school, at home, or in their communities. Some migrant worker mothers even go as far as plan weekly menus with their children and wake their children up for school. However, one should take into consideration that the place of origin of the domestic migrant worker plays a key role in keeping communication with their children. These new means of communication are not always available in a domestic migrant worker’s place of origin. For example, Ukwatta (2010) concludes that Filipino migrant workers make more use of new technologies to keep in touch with their children than Sri Lankan migrant workers, which could be attributed to the fact that the use of high technology in communications in Sri Lanka is still not as widespread as in the Philippines. All the same, such means of communication are not available in the Philippines due to social inequalities and disparities in income between rural and urban areas.

Concluding Remarks

Some countries, such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Indonesia, introduced policies to ban women from traveling abroad to seek employment. Sri Lanka, for example, proposed a law prohibiting mothers who have children below the age of five from emigrating and seeking work overseas. The same law requires mothers who have children above the age of five to provide evidence to the Ministry of Women and Child Development that the mother provided adequate care arrangements for her children before leaving. The purpose of this proposal was to attenuate the consequences of migration on migrant workers’ children and their families. But the proposal was dropped. Bans are not the solution to such an issue, given that they do not revive the attachment bond between the migrant mother and her child. On the contrary, they cause more harm than good, as they lead to a disproportionate risk of trafficking. Interventions based on the biopsychosocial approach and the strength-based approach for children, schools, mothers and secondary caregivers can help in alleviating the consequences of mothers’ migration on their children. Besides, creating social welfare programs and support structures for secondary caregivers will assist them in providing better support for such children.  Mothers and their children will in turn benefit from intensive counseling regarding the reasons behind the mother’s departure, what happened during her absence, and how to restore the broken bond between the mother and her child.