Finding a balance: Raising children as an immigrant mother

Written by Ludmila Leiva

Photo by Ludmila Leiva

Photo by Ludmila Leiva

Names have been changed at the interviewee’s request.

For women who choose to have children, the path to motherhood is usually an exciting time. But, for many immigrant women — especially undocumented women — in the United States, motherhood can be frightening and isolating. This was the case for Ana, an undocumented woman based in New York City who, during her pregnancy seven years ago, lacked a stable support system, had a job that offered no maternity leave or benefits, and did not yet have a command of the English language.

Ana was not a first time mother. When she came to the US, she left behind a daughter in her home country of Ecuador, but this pregnancy was different. In New York, Ana was socially isolated and lived with a jealous, controlling husband. When she learned she was pregnant, she worried how she would raise a child without help from her mother and the support of a community like she had in Ecuador.

Once her pregnancy began to show, some of Ana’s friends recommended that she seek out services from the Metropolitan Hospital on the Upper East Side. They assured Ana that the staff was friendly, unlike some hospitals in the city that they claimed were not always helpful or accommodating to non-English speaking immigrants.

“They told me, don’t go there,” she said. “They said Metropolitan was very good and they speak to you in Spanish.”

Ana continued working until she was eight months pregnant, later giving birth at Metropolitan Hospital. She stayed at home with her son until he was two years old, at which point she re-entered the workforce. Seven years after giving birth, Ana now works at a nail salon in Murray Hill.

“I’m here by luck, but I work hard,” she says.

Ana eventually left her husband and now cares for her son alone.

“In the mornings I drop my son off at school, and in the afternoons a babysitter picks him up,” she says. Ana often does not return home until 11 p.m., but she says she’s looking for a job that will let her spend more time with her son.

“I don’t want to pay a babysitter to raise him,” she says, her voice beginning to break.

Though concerning, Ana’s circumstances are not unique. Today, there are 21.2 million immigrant women residing in the United States, representing 51 percent of the total foreign-born population. Among these women, many are undocumented and lack economic agency, adequate support systems, and comprehensive access to social resources — however, pregnant New Yorkers can get Medicaid and also have access to other resources regardless of immigration status (see a list of resources below).

Though circumstances vary depending on country of origin and immigration status, being an immigrant mother can come with a litany of challenges, from juggling menial jobs with meager wages to navigating healthcare, schooling and other services without proper language skills. Maternity policies in the US are the worst in the developed world. Current federal law mandates only twelve weeks of leave for companies of more than fifty employees, but does not offer wage compensation. Immigrant women who are working at smaller companies, under the table — like Ana — or as day laborers are often not offered any options whatsoever.

Childcare options are also often inaccessible, which presents obvious difficulties for immigrant women who are forced to continue working and do not have family members who can help. This often means relying on babysitters and casual childcare, which can be expensive. And though free or subsidized systems do exist, many immigrant women are not aware that they do.

Still, Ana and others like her persevere with the resources they have in hopes of giving their children the best lives they can. But, without a path to citizenship, women like Ana are unlikely to secure stable jobs that would allow them to care for their children as they would like to.


Where immigrant women can find help

Though being an immigrant mother is daunting at times, there are resources and options available in New York City. Aside from Medicaid — which, as mentioned above is accessible to pregnant women regardless of immigration status — pregnant women and mothers can find help at these organizations, regardless of documentation:

  • Head Start: a Federal program promoting the school readiness of children from birth to age five from low-income families by enhancing childhood development
  • Nurse-Family Partnership: a maternal health program connects vulnerable first-time parents with caring maternal and child health practitioners
  • WIC: program of the New York State Department of Health funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture providing support with breastfeeding as well as nutrition programs for kids
for more information

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