Being a mother and an immigrant (a note to my daughter)

From: Diva Medeiros, Norwich and Outskirts Host

Dear daughter,

This is how everything started: I was born in one of the Portuguese islands, where I grew up and trained as a nurse.

Unfortunately, due to the economic crisis and lack of opportunities, I had to emigrate and chose England to work. After living in here for a while, I met this lovely English man, we fell in love, eventually got married and now we have you. This sounds more straightforward than it has actually been! Hehe

I never really thought that being an immigrant would shape my experience as a mother, but it actually does and quite a lot. In all fairness, I think it makes me feel even more lost in this motherhood experience. Not only do I have to learn how to be your mother, but I constantly have to learn all the aspects of parenthood from the society we live in and without my “village”.

From the early days in pregnancy, it has been a tough learning curve. Anything I knew about pregnancy, babies and beyond was part of a completely different culture, with different people and in a different language. The cultural differences are such that sometimes it feels like we don’t live in the same year or decade.

Very often I think about my parents’ experience or my own childhood when taking certain decisions, but none of it makes sense now because I live in a different country. Although my body is here, my heart and mind are always divided between where I was born and where I live now. This unsettled feeling has been greater since becoming a parent, as emotions are all over the place, we lose our old identity and need to hold on to something “familiar”.

As with any other immigrant, all the news, experiences and baby milestones are shared with family through messages, phone and videocalls, instead of in person and with laughs or hugs involved. We can’t be with each other frequently, so technologies have to do. They only know about our achievements or struggles once they happened already (which isn’t always a bad thing). Some people would be shocked to know that you don’t use a dummy or have earrings as a baby girl. Others would find it strange that I breastfeed beyond 6 months. Imagine if I tell them that I intend to breastfeed until whenever you want to stop! They would have a heart attack!

Sunday is always a hard day, because it used to be our “family day”. I see new parents surrounded by their relatives or life-long friends and I feel sorry that I can’t do the same with my people. I often wish I could meet them for a tea or just see that old friend when I am having a hard day in motherhood. I also wish they could see and hold you frequently. I heard a few times that “It takes a village to raise a child” and that is so true. As I didn’t have one here, I had to create my own. I met some really nice people through my life in England, particularly during pregnancy, that have been my greatest support and tribe. They don’t replace the need to connect with my people and origins, but they are my village now and it’s a good one.

Not having family around can make us feel lonely, but also give the space we need, especially in the early months after having a baby. I really appreciated privacy and time to learn our way into breastfeeding and parenthood without constant visits, tips and opinions. I wouldn’t change that! Funnily enough, unsolicited advice still manages to travel through the Atlantic sometimes and find its way to this new mum here, particularly on hard days, when I just need positivity and kindness around. (I know, right?!)

We can’t choose our place of birth and that’s not what defines us as a person either. I am Portuguese, your dad is English and you are both. We live in England, but I hope we can visit the Azores every year! I want you to meet the people, see that beautiful nature, learn the culture and the language. It would help a lot if I didn’t get the odd looks here and there when I speak in Portuguese in public. It is hard enough trying to teach you two languages, even more when one of them is taught in a “one-way conversation” with you, because I don’t have other Portuguese people around. Your dad learnt quite a lot of Portuguese so far and with an Azorean accent (the cutest thing ever), but it’s a difficult language, so it is easier for both to think and talk in English. I can imagine you will have an interesting accent as well. It’s funny when you say “dada” and people think it means Daddy, as in Portuguese that means “give, give”. All babies make the same first sounds, but they have different meanings depending on the language you speak. A language is so much more than sounds and words, there’s a whole culture behind it. Generally speaking, Azoreans tend to talk loudly and gesture a lot, so no wonder people often think that we are upset or having some sort of fight, when we are just talking about what we had for dinner, for example!

I am sorry I’m not that great with nursery rhymes. You can’t rely on me for that, darling.

When your Dad caught me singing “Heeeedgehogs and mistletoes, mistletoes!”, instead of “Head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes”, I knew I had to try a few bounce and rhyme sessions. They were quite happy and entertaining, actually. You seem to enjoy them and good job there were always other experienced parents, because I didn’t know any of the tunes and playback is not an option when you don’t know the lyrics either. Slowly, I memorised some, properly!

I have a strong (let’s say “beautiful Azorean”) accent, right? Still, I found some people forget I am not from here, so I don’t know how everything works unless I learn about it. The information and support you get (or not) makes a huge difference in what you end up achieving in pregnancy, labour and motherhood. Not everyone can search the information they need and filter what they find, so they go by what they hear from others. It makes me think how scared and lonely some people must feel. Being pregnant makes you feel so vulnerable, especially when you don’t have family around and English is not your first language. Even more so, if it is not a straightforward journey and you end up having to see different health professionals or have various procedures done.

I don’t like to compare things between countries as each one has their own culture and that is completely fine. We can adapt and adjust. I was impressed when I learnt that hospitals have (very nicely equipped) midwife led birth units or that people can choose to give birth at home. They will not be options in my hometown for decades! Let’s not even talk about spraying lavender fragrance on your hospital pillow! Hehe

One thing I still cannot get my head around is the number of meanings for the word “nursing”. I studied nursing, but I also bought a nursing bra because I am nursing you? You go to nursery, but one with children, because there are nurseries for plants, did you know? Good job your Dad and I searched for one together, otherwise you could have ended up in the wrong one, surrounded by bamboo! The thought of it makes me giggle. In Portuguese, we have different words for all those meanings.

One last thing! Recently, I realized that as children grow in here, they learn how to play tea parties. On the other hand, when Portuguese children play, they bake bread and make espressos. So, darling, I think we’ve got it all covered! Hehe


Your Mamã