Care and Emotional Work Across Borders Through ICTs

Here’s my newest research and writing!

This case study of fifty women immigrants in Washington state focuses on the ingenious emotional strategies they engaged in with their left-behind families to care at a distance and the problematic ways the information and communication technology (ICTs) mediated these relationships across space and time. The study draws on a feminist transnational framework and an extended case method approach to understand the emotional dimensions and meanings of care by separated members and the ways the social technologies, and other factors, shaped these transnational spaces and interactions.

The study utilizes ethnographic methods (interviews, informants, journals, focus groups, documentary analysis, and informal observations) and both a thematic and narrative analyses to glean patterns across the women’s experiences as well as unique qualities. The themes and narratives of the participants demonstrated that these ICT-mediated interactions contained “conundrums:” 1) ICTs enabled “communication chains” that were essential for women immigrants caring for their families but which did not resolve problems; 2) Transnational family who interacted more regularly and through multiple modalities experienced an “embodied social presence” that made the care, more real, from afar but didn’t resolve emotional tensions inherent in relationships; 3) The existence of ‘hidden emotions” that resulted from the unacknowledged affective work of caring through ICTs; and, 4) the important roles mothers played as agents in their daughter’s migration.

In its simplest terms “care at a distance constitutes practices that often last for longer periods, sometimes for years and even semi-permanently, and that tend to transform as a result of their protracted duration” (Leifsen & Tymczuk, 2012, p. 220). Although a myriad of care practices are involved (for example sending financial remittances or giving information), I highlight the ICT-based contact and the rituals around giving and receiving emotional support and help (Leifsen & Tymczuk, 2012; Levitt & Lambe, 2011). When I refer to “distance” I include the differences of geographic locations and time zones (so many miles away and across national borders), but I emphasize emotions and link these to family members’ degree of relatedness.

This “relatedness” is based on the emotion work (such as attentiveness) that members put in to maintain the relationships and any outcomes associated with it, such as a sense of belonging, or, like in Ana’s case, a sense of exclusion (Licccoppe, 2004). In this sense, “distance” constitutes members’ shared understanding of the nature of the participant’s migration, and whether or not it was unpredicted and forced or expected and voluntary and the effect of this understanding on the relationship. Furthermore, members also have a shared understanding that the separation between them is either temporary or permanent and which also translates to the world of emotions. Resultantly, members may invest less or more emotionally depending on these circumstances and consciously or unconsciously achieve more or less “affective distance.” For example, the au pairs in this study were expected by their middle-class parents to leave the “nest” in their 20s in order to become more cosmopolitan and accrue cultural cache in the U.S. and they excitedly and warmly engaged with their parents who encouraged them to fly the roost, while some of the house cleaners never expected to leave their families, migration imposed on them as a necessity for the family’s collective survival. Many of their calls tended to be scripted to contain the complex emotions of being so far away and for so long and ended sadly for the loss of the physical relationships.

Perhaps the most evocative sense of distance within transnational families is styled in Reyna Grande’s The Distance Between Us. Through symbols, she illustrates both a sense of brokenness and connection of family relationships especially during periods of not communicating—the protagonist reflects on something her sister told her: She said that my umbilical cord was like a ribbon that connected me to Mami. She said, “it doesn’t matter that there’s distance between us now. That cord is there forever.” In this book and in others, the ICT-based communication is viewed literally as a type of umbilical cord, what Lippoccope (2004), calls, a “nurturing link” keeping separated families together, and it certainly is romanticized by sending countries who export their citizens (Parrenas, 2005). Yet this link can just as easily be severed and may be more capricious, as Reyna learned soon after her mother left for, “al otra lado (the “other side”), not seeing her for many years.

Members may experience moments rather than permanent states of “virtual intimacies (Wilding, 2006), depending on the quality of relatedness and the circumstances surround their distance and separation, but also logistical factors like full and reliable access to ICTs.

Theme 1: Communication Chains Transnational families had “communication chains” that were essential for caring at a distance, but which did not resolve problems. These communication chains however were different than “chain migration,” which concentrates on migration decisions within people’s personal networks; although in many instances, participants and their family members recruited one another to migrate, the focus here is on passing on family news in the post-migration stage, within and across borders. This act was a form of “social insurance” to tell everyone that everything was OK (or not) on the other side and it provided a sense of “being” in the family. However it was not an insurance policy to the degree that it guaranteed safety, wellbeing and recovery of losses. The communication chains were evident during health crises and also for cultural transmission of traditions and family values, which made each member feel, as one participant explained, “to be united,” but also for transmitting new values. Passing on critical family information was a way for members to stay informed and (virtually) close-at-hand. During health crises family members depended on the news being delivered by a trusted member. I call these trusted members of family news and information, “operators.” An analysis of operators showed that they tended to be women, often, older siblings, on both sides of the border who had some available resources or had worked out ingenious systems of placing themselves in key informational roles so that members contacted them and/or responded to them first. They were also viewed as reliable. Although their social status in the family was solid, their own feelings about their role as operator could be conflicted; an example is Ana who had the resources to stay in touch with everyone in the family, passed on news and did far more, even though she felt her emotion work was unappreciated and, even with all her contact, did not ultimately resolve problems associated with the intimacy she so desired. With one entrusted member, families could consolidate and pass on important information from afar, knowing it would be received and accurate. Not only that, but, the practice of communicating this news, along with family remittances could save lives. For immigrant operators, those siblings left behind taking care of elderly parents were critical in terms of exchanging news about their parents’ health conditions. They also gave information to the operator about the contexts and conditions in which they were living, the effects of remittances and other issues. It would be important to also see these operators, too, as responsibilized individuals bearing the burdens of global inequities, that is, the immigration policies that immobilize and separate families.

Theme 2: An Embodied Social Presence Transnational family who interacted more regularly and through multiple modalities experienced a type of “embodied social presence” (Mennecke et al, 2014) that made the interactions seem more real, from afar but didn’t resolve distance or tensions inherent in the relationships. The in-built audio-visual dimensions enabled the parties to more easily establish cues than through phones, although not always, as Octavia’s case shows—she could detect her mother’s breathing as evidence of her withholding of emotions. The transparency of this cueing enabled each party to “care about” (demonstrate interest, attention and inquire about someone’s problem) each other more easily as well as “care for” (providing direct help) (Tronto, 1993). For example a number of the participants and their families back home used webcams to show areas of their bodies that were hurt, healed or, showed strain, or, even more subtle issues, such as exhaustion in the eyes and face, that enabled the other party to have a clearer understanding of their problems. They could keep their webcams on and develop a type of continuous “transconnectivity” across borders (King, 2015). This enabled a responsiveness that kept each member in the present moment; in other words, it gave each person more of a sense of psychological immersion in the virtual care space. In a sense, they could have a sense of: “being there, being with another body, and having a feeling of self-presence” despite being so far away (Biocca, 1997). What’s important though, is that it did not resolve emotional tensions that were pre-existing or had developed after the person or other family members migrated. In other words, a greater social presence did not necessarily lead to a greater emotional presence. This was because the expressive actions with family through heavy use of online communication appeared to weaken the density of their ties (Lin, 2001). This was most evident through the participants’ and their families’ uses of Facebook. It was easy for family networks to flow into friend networks on Facebook and for much of the communication to be in a similar vein with a similar tone of announcing events and posting news that was informational that actually decreased emotional involvement. Time after time the participants, who were in relationships that seemed to be dissolving, or significantly weakening, ended up on Facebook, with the intention only to share photographs, check in, and make announcements. This effect of achieving an embodied social presence but not an emotional presence is evident in research showing that streaming Skype on webcam all day and all night long, as some transnational couples do, has been found to actually de-intensify emotional connections (King, 2015).  

Theme 3: The Existence Of Hidden Emotions There were hidden emotions involved in caregiving by family members through ICTs that were not always rewarded or reciprocated. These hidden emotions were often ones that participants couldn’t or didn’t always articulate but existed in the background of their narratives. These resulted from the difficulties of having to exert extra emotion work to care through ICTs to care for family. The ICTs required the participants to be engaged in more regular as well as intensive emotion work to make the intimacy and care robust, but which was not considered by the participants, as “work.” Instead it could be considered the “hidden curriculum” of being in a transnational family. Unpaid work that is done in a wage economy, which is not “counted”, has been normalized in society to the extent that it usurps so many daily activities. This hidden labor for the general public now includes everything from checking out groceries to commuting to work—making it more of a no-service economy than one of “self-service” or, public service—the burden of work being passed on to individuals (Lambert, 2011). It is additional work for those like the immigrants in the study, who lack many individual resources and were “outsiders” (that made asking for help even more difficult) and so they had to rely on themselves. A new area of “work” is, “digital labor” (Schotz, 2012) because the public’s engagement with ICTs is an unpaid commodity within a digital capital society, although it is rarely considered to be “work.” In this study, the participants engaged their digital labor to care for their separated families at a distance through ICTs. Maintaining and managing family connections are done as part of women’s felt responsibility, which through ICT based practices, “amplifies local practices of what it means to be intimate” (Horth, 2012, p. 38). Jennifer Hjorth (2012, p. 38) reminds us that “while domestic technologies can physically leave the home, they are still symbolic of sociocultural notions of what constitutes a household economy and the attendant forms of intimacy.” Yet the participants who were engaged the most discounted their labor, and instead of feeling like “net slaves” they tended to see the “internet as magic” (Francisco, 2015) for its connective properties across the miles—not surprising with the discourse of creativity and appreciation that surrounds the political economy of this technology (King, 2010; Fuchs & Sevignani, 2013). What’s important is that although ICTs have been dubbed as, “affective technologies” (see, Silva, 2012), in fact it is the emotional displays performed by the participants—in other words, their electronic emotion work— that make these ICT devices—phones and computers work. In emphasizing the machines, the social agents who maintain them exist in the hidden depths.

Theme 4: The Important Roles of Left Behind Mothers The “left behind mothers” in the study were active agents in the migration experience of their immigrant daughters regardless of the level and depth of their contact. Their mother-adult child relationship differed across the participants dramatically, as we’ve seen, but these mothers were not, what is commonly thought of as, “left-behind baggage” (Goulborne, et al., 2010; White, et al, 2011), on the receiving end of care. Most of the calls made to left behind family members were usually directed to the participants’ mothers. This was because they were often implicated in their initial decisions to migrate, as one participant described: “The situation is bad and tough…she supported me to come here.” The participants felt that calling their mothers was very important to help them maintain their connection overall to their families, even if she was the only one with whom they spoke. The content of their conversations was often secondary: “It’s more of the relationship and talk, just talk and share our week or whatever talk about our plans, what is happening in our lives.” Another said: “I call her two times a day using Facetime. I need it to talk to her.” Talking everyday could become a yardstick of the relationship, like one participant who said: “I talk to my mom every day, Email, are you okay, are you still there? If I do not communicate for a couple of days,”mom are you alive, are you still there?” They needed to keep family relations strong and by talking specifically to their mothers who were the centerpieces of the family (although not necessarily the operators), it made it more meaningful. Reversely, it was important for parents who were left-behind to provide long distance support to their adult children, especially those who were younger and single. One participant said, “When I need support, they are always there. To make myself stronger, if I am having a hard time I know they are there and they will be there for me. I know they are far. However, the communications at times left them feeling sad especially when there were celebrations that they could not attend, like one participant who said, “If it is bad or good I feel sad I miss it, I am not there. Weddings, birthdays, lots of things.” The mothers on the other hand, might tell their daughters everything or they might not divulge details, with sibling “operators” telling the participants more. For those without extensive ICT-based contact, mothers still played important roles, especially in sustaining their children’s settlement in the U.S. They may, as Yolanda and Octavia’s mothers suggested, return or visit, with daughter and mother knowing this would probably never happen—many of these being sentiments of love rather than actual plans.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to graduate research assistants at WWU, Melina Zahalka and Mariam Rashid for their assistance with the data analysis for this research.


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