‘Transnational families, migration and the circulation of care.’

By Loretta Baldassar & Laura Merla

Every day during his lunch break at around 1pm, Alberto, who lives in Perth, Australia, phones his 85 year old father, Angelo, who lives in Rome, Italy. Angelo, who is not in the best of health, is usually sitting at the kitchen table having his morning coffee and bread roll. “It’ll only be 6am in Italy, but Dad will always be waiting for my call,” Alberto explains. Since Alberto’s mother’s sudden and unexpected death a year ago, Alberto, an only child, has tried to manage his father’s increasing care needs from a distance. He took 6 weeks unpaid leave from work to travel to Italy to arrange the funeral for his mother and put in place care supports for his father. Both Alberto and Angelo see aged care facilities as a last resort option; they are expensive and have a social stigma that reflects badly on families. Angelo wishes to remain living in his own home for as long as he can. Moving to Australia is not an option because of Angelo’s failing health; furthermore, aged migration to Australia is costly with prohibitive requirements. Given the aged care regimes in both countries, father and son adopted the commonest solution and hired a domestic worker, Maria, to work from 9 to 5 each day, preparing lunch and dinner, doing the cleaning and shopping and taking Alberto to his medical visits. Maria has agreed to move into the spare room as a live-in carer if Angelo’s health deteriorates. A long-time family friend, Nadia, the daughter of Angelo’s old friend and neighbour, Nello, sets up a Skype every Sunday when she visits her father (who lives next door). Alberto feels this is the best way to “get a thorough update”.

Every Saturday and Sunday, at around 6am, Maria phones her 10 year old son, Diego, in the Dominican Republic. She arrived in Rome a year ago on a tourist visa. Maria planned to find work as a domestic and raise enough money to bring Diego to Italy. In the meantime, Diego lives with his grandmother Lucia, Maria’s mother. Twelve people currently live in Lucia’s crowded house, including her frail partner Arturo, two of Maria’s brothers, their partners and children, and Maria’s sister Anna’s three children. Anna is a domestic employee in the US. Maria and Anna call Lucia a few times a week to talk with and discuss their children, exchange support with their mother, and talk to other family members present at the time of their call. The two sisters are also in regular contact with their oldest sister, Teresa, who lives in Belgium with her Spanish husband and their three children, and the three women send monthly remittances to their mother. In spite of the distance, Teresa plays a central role in her extended family, and is considered by all as the head of the household that is stretched across thousands of kilometres and several countries. Teresa checks with her brothers and sisters-in-law that Arturo, who suffers from diabetes and has lost his sight, takes his medicines and eats properly, and sends emergency remittances when a specific need arises. She visits her family every year, and during these visits she works with her brothers on the renovation of the family house.

These case studies highlight the way family members from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds care for each other through a process of asymmetrical reciprocal exchange, across and despite the distance that separates them, and the way that care circulates between them. The idea that care circulates within transnational family networks is indeed central our edited book entitled ‘Transnational families, migration and the circulation of care : understanding mobility and absence in family life’ (Routledge).

With increased mobility and improvements in both travel and communication technologies, more and more people are experiencing transnational family lives. The chapters that make up this volume cover a rich array of case studies including analyses of the inequalities between transnational families who circulate care between developing nations in Africa, Latin America and Asia to wealthier nations in North America, Europe and Australia. There are also examples of intra- and extra- European, Australian and North American migration and care circulation, which involve the mobility of both the unskilled and working class as well as the skilled middle and aspirational classes.

Whether pushed or pulled out of homelands in search of safe asylum, better economic futures or improved lifestyles, increasing numbers of people are separated from their family by distance and national borders. Those family members who ‘stay behind’ or ‘stay put’ (as it were) in their place of birth or ancestral homeland, also become part of social relationships stretched across time and place, even though they might never actually relocate or even move at all. We believe a focus on the disparate trajectories of care circulation helps us to better understand mobility and absence in family life, so that we might theorise transnational families as contemporary family forms in their own right. This book highlights, in particular, how the sense of belonging in transnational families is sustained by the reciprocal, though uneven, exchange of caregiving, in the form of financial, emotional and practical support, ‘hands on’ care as well as accommodation. By doing so, this volume challenges narrow definitions of care to consider the portability of care, a fundamental topic for our contemporary lives.

Sources:

Baldassar L. & Merla L. (Eds) (2013) Transnational Families, Migration and the Circulation of Care: Understanding mobility and absence in family life. Routledge, Transnationalism Series

Baldassar L., Kilkey M., Merla L. and Wilding R. (Forthcoming) ‘Transnational Families’. Revised Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Families.

c/o Professor Loretta Baldassar

Anthropology and Sociology
The University of Western Australia (M255)
35 Stirling Highway
CRAWLEY WA 6009
Australia