tirsdag 7. oktober 2014

Social Orphans and Care at a Distance: popular representations of childhood in Ukrainian transnational families

Publisert i Global Studies of Childhood, Volume 1, Number 4, 2011 

ABSTRACT International labour migration creates new relational, emotional and social challenges for migrating parents and the children staying behind. In Ukraine, children who grow up in a transnational household are not only a concern for the individual family, however, but also a phenomenon that is thoroughly discussed in the public sphere. In this article the author analyses Ukrainian media, as well as popular and individual ‘texts’ on transnational childhood and child care at a distance, and argues that there are two diverging models of care that underlie personal narrative texts and public texts: care as fulfilment of a child’s material needs, and care that necessitates physical closeness and constant face-to-face interaction. He also identifies diverging perspectives in the various texts on what are considered adequate alternative carers, and on what the relational and social consequences are of the separation of migrating parents from their children. 

Childhood, whether defined as an ontological, transitory or age-specific category, is contingent on societal, economic and political structures, and changes in these structures will necessarily have implications for childhood and children’s experiences. We can therefore assume that childhood in Ukraine has markedly changed as a consequence of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the announcement of an independent Ukraine in 1991, and through the parallel transition from socialism and a planned economy to capitalism and democracy. In the politics of childhood, for instance, there has been a marked change from an ideological focus on the institutionalisation of childhood and on the state as a co-parent in Soviet times (Goldman, 1993; Kirschenbaum, 2001; Rockhill, 2010), to a turn towards family upbringing and a ‘gender-based traditionalism that links the strength of the nation to motherhood and increases the importance of home’ in independent Ukraine (Wanner, 1998, p. 168; see also Rubchak, 1996; Kis, 2005).

The structural changes in Ukrainian childhood have to a certain extent been discussed and scrutinised in Ukrainian media and popular texts. In this article I will focus on one phenomenon that has received much attention internationally in the last years – namely, what Orellana et al (2001) refer to as transnational childhoods (see also Bryceson & Vuorela, 2002; Parreñas, 2005; Dreby, 2010). As a consequence of the mass labor migration from Ukraine to Europe and Russia since the mid-1990s [1], many Ukrainian children grow up in transnational households, in which one or both parents work abroad for a shorter or longer period, while children and youth remain in the care of grandparents or other relatives, or are left more or less to themselves. Representations of Ukrainian labour migration in media and popular texts have already been thoroughly analysed, and ambivalent models of the migrant have been identified – namely, as a betrayer of family and nation, and as an economic agent and saviour (Keryk, 2004; Fedyuk, 2006; Shostak, 2006; Friesen, 2007). However, the public discourse on children growing up in transnational families and on child care at a distance has not received the same academic attention. The aim of this article is thus to supplement the analysis of how transnational childhood is represented in various Ukrainian texts – that is, media and popular texts. The analysis of such public texts will then be compared with two personal narratives, one by migrating parents and one by a child of migrating parents, to identify common and diverging ideas.[2]

Transnational Childhoods and the Ukrainian Public Discourse on Care at a Distance

The most common portrait that is painted of children of labor migrants in Ukrainian media texts is of a neglected, abandoned and ‘socially naked’ (Howell, 2007) or unrelated child. An obvious indicator for such a view is the categorization of children whose mother and/or father work abroad as ‘social orphans’ – that is, ‘orphans with living parents’ (see Tymczuk, 2010). ‘Social orphan’ is a recently constructed category, which is mainly used in Ukrainian media and academic texts for children who live in institutions or in foster homes because their parents have abandoned them or have had their parental rights removed. ‘Social orphanhood’ thus indicates that the child is deprived of parental care in a way that does not imply the death of his or her parents.[3]

Consequently, the inclusion of children of labour migrants within the category of ‘social orphans’, constructs them as abandoned and neglected. Newspaper articles that deal with children of labour migrants thus have headlines such as ‘Social Orphans – Children of Labor Migrants’ (Serhata, 2010), ‘Children of Labor Migrants – Social Orphans with Living Parents’ (Zhebrats’ka, 2010), ‘Social Orphans: Abandoned Children of Labor Migrants’ (Olendii, 2006) and ‘Labor Migrant Orphans’ (Levyts’ka, 2005). The focus in these articles is on the broken relation between migrant parents and left-behind children, and the inadequacy of other-caregivers, such as grandparents. General descriptions of ‘unrelated children’ of labour migrants are often illustrated with cases of child neglect, such as that of a five-year-old girl whose parents work in Poland, while she lives with her grandmother in Ukraine. When she is hospitalised with intoxication, her grandmother cannot leave the household in the village to be with her granddaughter at the hospital in the regional center (Kominform, 2008). Further, there is in these articles a strong tendency to stress negative consequences for children who grow up in split households, and the negative consequences that are mentioned by expert commentators are as a rule health problems and psychological problems, smoking, alcoholism, drug addiction, excessive computer gaming and ‘a gravitation towards homosexual relations’ (Olendii, 2006).

The dominant understanding of children of labour migrants that is mediated in the printed press thus concentrates on two related consequences for children living in transnational families: the children lack significant and proper care relations, and they are potential victims of various social problems. Such a perspective is of course guided by a central idea of the nuclear family as the ‘natural environment for the child’s physical, spiritual, intellectual, cultural and social development, and for the satisfaction of the child’s material needs’ (Ukrainian Parliament, 2001). The underlying premise for the discourse on ‘social orphans’ is thus that proper child care and a healthy childhood depend on a physical closeness within the nuclear family (of parents and child) – that is, that parents, preferably both parents, and child live together and spend enough time in face-to-face interaction.[4]  In this context, parents’ labour migration is equated with depriving children of their natural environment, and this is yet another reason why migration is viewed as a negative phenomenon in the public discourse. As such, labour migration becomes a morally contested
phenomenon; leaving one’s children in order to go abroad to work is, within a conceptual framework of ‘social orphanhood’, seen as an act of orphaning them. Consequently, ‘social orphanhood’ is potentially a moral category of child-parent relations.

How is the issue of transnational childhood discussed or portrayed in Ukrainian popular fiction? So far I have identified a public discourse in which children of labour migrants are described as ‘unrelated’ and in danger of developing various social ills. Is this view reproduced in popular or fictional texts? Fiction can be valuable as ethnographic sources and descriptions (Eriksen, 1994), especially when it comes to moral discourses (McGinn, 1997). Authors are thus more or less free to create a moral universe or a certain story line that raises different questions from those it is possible to raise within the genre of journalistic texts. I will analyse two different Ukrainian fictional and popular ‘texts’ that deal with transnational childhood - one episode produced for Ukrainian television, and one theatrical play.

‘Family Dramas – While Parents are Abroad’

‘Family Dramas’ (Сімейні драми) is a weekly television series that is shown on the countrywide channel 1+1. According to the series’ web page, the episodes are ‘not fictional stories, but reconstructions of real events that can happen to every family’ (1+1, 2011). The style is also documentary, with ‘live’ clips of ‘real’ events, interviews with the persons involved, and so on.

However, it is obvious that the persons are actors, and that the filming is directed. The stories in the series could also be regarded as ‘worst-case scenarios’, but still in line with local notions of personal misfortunes, criminal structures, social problems, stereotypical characters and so on.

The episode called ‘While Parents are Abroad’ (Поки батьки за кордоном) was shown in April 2011, and tells the story of Nina and Oleh, a married couple who have been working in Moscow for a year, while their 14-year-old son Dima lives alone in their house in Ukraine, being looked after by Nina’s 70-year-old mother, Kateryna.

The episode starts with Nina and Oleh on a construction site in Moscow, and they tell us that they have decided to go home for a surprise visit. Nina has received a phone call from her son, and he told her that he will move to live with his grandmother in a neighbouring village. In an ‘interview’ with Nina she tells us that she is worried about her son, and finds it strange that he decided to move to her mother’s house. The grandmother, Kateryna, provides us with a different perspective in her ‘interview’, however. She complains that she does not understand her daughter and son-in-law in having left their son behind: ‘Do they not understand that a child needs its family?’

On their way to Ukraine, Oleh is arrested by Russian border guards, as he has been staying illegally in Moscow. Thus, Nina travels home without her husband, and when she enters their front yard, an unknown man with a rifle chases her off their property. She calls her son on his cell phone, but he does not answer. Confused, she goes over to their neighbour’s house, where the neighbour tells that her son was arrested by the police. Clearly disoriented by all this, Nina travels to her mother. The grandmother tells Nina that Dima was caught in someone else’s house and arrested, and that she hired a guard to watch their house. Then the conversation goes:

Kateryna: I have to look after my own house, your house, my grandson and myself. I am sorry 
but I am not 20 years old any more. 
Nina: I have not been on vacation either. 
Kateryna: I understand, but your own son has become an orphan with a living mother. Do you not have any shame?

Nina is now interviewed, and in the text box her view is summarised as ‘Nina thinks she is forced to earn money for her son’s education’. She says: ‘Dima will soon start to study, and how much does that cost? I can never make such money here [in Ukraine].’

As Nina finds out, her son crashed their neighbours’ car, and her mother paid the neighbors $1000 for the repair. In order to raise the money, her mother rented out Nina and Oleh’s house. When Dima went to the house to get something, a newly installed alarm went off and he was arrested. It turns out that the person renting the house sold it by illegal means and falsified documents, and the armed guard is actually hired by the new ‘owner’. When Nina confronts her mother on why she didn’t tell them, Kateryna says: ‘You didn’t have to go abroad. If you had been here, you could have taken care of your son, and none of this would have happened.’

In a desperate attempt to rescue her son, Nina agrees with a woman she meets outside the prison to pay a judge a bribe of $5000, and it is evident that Nina is naively being tricked by the strange woman. When she tells her mother about the deal, Kateryna complains: ‘This is all because of your gypsy life, and Oleh is just the same. You gave birth to a child, but who takes care of him? None of you take care of him, you handed him over to me and that’s it.’

As an augmentation of their already serious problems, Oleh calls and says he needs $500 to pay the border guards. As it turns out, he hid all the money they had made in Moscow under the mattress in the train, and since he didn’t say anything to Nina about it, she didn’t take it. Nina breaks down, and her mother says she will sell her house in order to pay the judge.

Finally, they get $500 from the neighbour, because it turns out that their car was stolen not by Dima alone, but together with their own son. Oleh thus pays his way out of prison, and the new ‘owner’ of their house does not press charges against Dima, and he too is released. When the police officer comes to the grandmother’s house to get some final information on the man who illegally sold their apartment, this man also turns up at her house because he got information from the woman Nina met outside the prison that Kateryna’s house is for sale. After a short chase the man is arrested. The house is returned to Nina and Oleh, and Nina finds the money they earned in Moscow when she unpacks her suitcase, remembering that in the commotion she found the money and put it in her bag.

In the concluding scene Nina, Oleh, Dima and Kateryna sit in the kitchen. When Nina tells that she has found the money, the following conversation takes place:

Oleh: You are really something. I have already agreed to go back to Moscow to build a cottage. 
Nina: No, we will not go anywhere again; we will stay at home now. 
Dima: But at least buy me a laptop. 
Nina (interview): Mother is right. A grandmother can never replace one’s father and mother. A 
child needs its family. 
Oleh (interview): Yes, you make more money abroad, but it is not worth it. I have for a long time 
thought about ending the travelling abroad. It is time to start working here in my own country. 
Kateryna (interview): Sometimes I think about how it would all have been if Dima hadn’t crashed 
that car. I guess everything happens for a reason.

This episode of ‘Family Dramas’ can be interpreted as a portrayal of child care in transnational families and of the consequences migration has for each family member - first and foremost for children and grandparents. The predominant view on child care at a distance is in this representation voiced by the grandmother, who has involuntarily been appointed to the role of an alternative care person, according to her own statements. She also regards her own execution of the care of her grandson as inadequate and inferior to that which a mother can provide. She actually undermines her own role as a carer for Dima, when she says that he is an orphan. This of course stands in stark contrast to Nina’s rationalisation for leaving – that is, that they migrated for the sake of Dima and his future education. However, Nina’s argument of economic necessity is undermined by Kateryna when she says, ‘With the education you now give him he will become a lumberjack.’ In light of the public discourse on children of labour migrants as ‘social orphans’, and from the overall storyline and editing of the episode, it is plausible to conclude that it is Kateryna who stands out as the morally responsible adult. This is also confirmed by Nina and Oleh when they finally realize that Kateryna was right all along.

The main focus in the episode is thus on how a lack of everyday care can lead to unintended and unwanted consequences. Nina and Oleh had all the best intentions when leaving their son, but when things started to turn bad, the situation became too difficult for the grandmother to handle. Alternative care relations, such as grandparents-grandchildren, are thus represented as inferior to care relations between parents and children.

‘I Want to Go to Mama’

‘I Want to Go to Mama’ (Хочу до мами) is a theatrical play which was written by the Western Ukrainian playwright Nadia Kovalyk. Kovalyk’s previous play on labour migration, ‘Cinderellas of Naples’, has been a huge success in Western Ukraine (see Shostak, 2006 for an analysis of that play), and ‘I Want to Go to Mama’ is sort of a follow-up play in which social consequences of labor migration are dealt with in a more serious manner.[5] In ‘Cinderellas of Naples’ we thus follow two female labour migrants from Ukraine to Italy, while in ‘I Want to Go to Mama’ we stay behind with the children of labour migrants. A common thread in the two plays is still the transformation of relationships as a result of labour migration – that is, how physical distance and long-term separation put a stress on matrimonial and parent-child bonds.

‘I Want to Go to Mama’ is about two neighbouring families, and the stage is the living room of Yakym and Liusa Kulynak and their 14-year-old son, Roman. Roman’s mother has lived in Italy for six years, while Roman has lived with his father. The daughter in the neighbouring family, Natalia, lives with her younger brother and her mother, and her father has been working in Greece for as long as Roman’s mother has lived in Italy. Roman has become aware that his father is in a relationship with Natalia’s mother, and decides to send a letter to his mother in which he begs her to come home. He persuades his father to write a letter too, and even convinces Natalia to write a letter to her father.

Compared with ‘Family Dramas’, the focus in ‘I Want to Go to Mama’ is not so much on (unintended) negative consequences for children of labour migrants (the main character in the play ends up in a fight at school because someone speaks badly of his mother in Italy, but that is a minor event in the play), but more on the relational and emotional difficulties children have while their parents work abroad. A child perspective is thus also given more space in ‘I Want to Go to Mama’, as both the main characters are youths, and since their thoughts and their agency are at centre stage throughout the play. Contrastingly, Dima is barely visible in ‘Family Dramas’, as he is in prison for most of the episode.

An important point that we can extract from the play is that the dissolution of relations is an unavoidable outcome of separation through labour migration. For instance, Natalia defends her mother and Roman’s father when discussing with Roman their parents’ relationship:

Natalia: You shouldn’t judge them too hard. 
Roman: I shouldn’t? 
Natalia: They are grown-ups. And everything is different for grown-ups. 
Roman: What do you mean by ‘different’? 
Natalia: Well… they cannot be alone for years. 
Roman: Why can they not? Moreover, when there are children there are obligations! 
Natalia: Naaaatuuuure! It is a torture for them. A real torture to be without a partner. 
Roman: That means… that neither you, nor I have a family any longer. You see, we have lost everything. That is what has happened, Natalia!

Later, Roman’s mother replies that her Italian employer has asked her to marry him, and Roman realises that his fears have come true. Liusa wants a divorce from Yakym, and asks Roman to come and live with her in Italy. In Natalia’s family there is a tragic outcome to the letter having been sent. Her father loses sleep and becomes depressed after reading their letter, and then falls off a roof and dies. In this play we thus follow the children as their webs of significant relations dissolve, either through divorce or through death.

In Roman’s view, it is not only the family relations that break down around him. He also regards the care relations he is incorporated in as unfulfilling. When his mother writes in a letter how she takes care of the children of her Italian employer, Roman scratches out the eyes of the children on a photograph his mother attached. Natalia confronts him about it and notes that he cannot blame the children in Italy for the fact that his mother works there. Roman then replies: ‘They are guilty!… They took my mama away from me!’ Likewise, Roman’s father is portrayed as someone who does not understand his son’s need for care. When Yakym asks his son what he can do to make him feel better, Roman answers, ‘You can give me guidelines. Lecture me on morality. Threaten me with something… Set some kind of restriction. You can bang the chair against the floor. You can yell that you cannot take it any more. Ultimately, you can at least give me a good

Another important theme in the play concerns what I would argue are two diverging models of care – namely, a model of care as fulfillment of material needs, and a model of care that necessitates physical closeness (face-to-face communication and being together). The following conversation takes places between Yakym and Roman’s teacher, Sofia:

Yakym: Believe me, Roman does not lack anything. ... My wife and I take care of him. We bought 
him a computer, and he wears the clothes that he likes . ... Many children wash cars ... in order to 
make a living for themselves and their parents. Thank God, everything is fine with us. 
Sofia: Not everything. The boy is very concerned … 
Yakym: Concerned?! 
Sofia: I have the impression that he lacks motherly affection. 
Yakym: Nonsense. He does not lack anything.

Yakym is here portrayed as prioritising a model of care as fulfillment of material needs, while Roman’s teacher argues that Roman really needs care through physical closeness. Later in the conversation Yakym realizes that he has underestimated the effect his wife’s migration has had on Roman: ‘I thought that Roman is OK with his mother’s absence, and that he is quite happy with, let’s call it, the compensation that he receives for the separation.’ The same discussion about these two models can be seen in a conversation between Roman and Natalia as well, when Natalia points out that Roman’s mother has a good salary in Italy.

Roman: I don’t give a damn about her salary! 
Natalia: But you live off your mother’s money! And not bad. 
Roman: And other children die? Their mothers are together with them, and don’t go away. 

Again, Roman is presented as arguing for a model of care through physical closeness, while Natalia represents the view that places most importance on care as fulfillment of material needs.

Other Texts, Voices and Perspectives

So far we have analysed how transnational childhoods and care are depicted in Ukrainian popular texts. If we compare these texts with personal experiences of transnational family life, a diverging picture emerges from these individual narratives. The view held by migrants themselves and their children to a certain extent overlaps with the public moral discourse on long-distance care in transnational families, as the underlying premises of the centrality of the nuclear family and the importance of physical closeness are held in common by the great majority of Ukrainians I have met during fieldwork in Spain, and by more or less all of the 143 children and youths who wrote texts in a literary contest in 2008 (see note 2). However, through interacting with labour migrants and their children’s texts, I have also identified an alternative moral discourse of labour migration and care in transnational families. In the eyes of most migrating parents, labour migration is mainly motivated for the sake of their children, in order to earn money for education, housing, etc. Such a perspective is also represented in the fictional texts through the expressed motivation of Dima’s and Roman’s parents. However, in the narratives of real-life migrating parents, the immoral agent is not the parents who leave their children, but rather the ‘authorities’ (влада) that are blamed for the precarious economic and political situation in contemporary Ukraine that forces people to migrate for work (cf. Tymczuk, 2006). Further, in the eyes of migrating parents and their children, the real consequences for children who are left behind, in terms of relations to parents and care persons, and in terms of possible negative consequences, are not as serious as they are made out to be in the public discourse. Although children (and their parents) living in transnational families see themselves as being in a state of deep longing and emotional stress, many still regard their relations to their parents as strong and resilient, and the alternative care relations they live in as adequate.

For instance, Anastasia and Andrii, a Ukrainian couple in their late thirties, both have lived and worked in Madrid for almost eight years. Their 15-year-old son Ihor lives with Anastasia’s parents in Western Ukraine. Both Anastasia and Andrii were highly educated in Ukraine, but work as unskilled workers in domestic cleaning and construction in Madrid. Anastasia and Andrii’s own notions of child care both coincide with and differ from the ongoing discourse in Ukraine on children of labour migrants. First and foremost, they consider their family situation as unnatural and emotionally difficult. Andrii says:

It’s hard to stay away from him. On the one hand, it’s good that the grandparents raise him, but 
on the other hand, it’s not natural that parents are away from their children. It is difficult. When 
we are in Ukraine and we finally get to know him again, we have to go back.… Ihor is my child 
and he is not my child. The relationship between parents and children is not the same as when 
parents are together with the child all the time. It is different when you can be together, talk 
together, sit on the lap. Imagine yourself, if you, I, or Anastasia, had been in his situation. I 
would have preferred that my parents stayed with me.

Here Andrii expresses that he considers their family situation to be unnatural, and that the relationship between parents and children who live separately differs qualitatively from that between parents and children who live together. Anastasia and Andrii emphasise, however, that they endure the separation from Ihor because of their obligation to provide for his material and educational needs, and the motivation to go to Spain was first and foremost to earn enough money to buy their own apartment, and to save up money to pay for Ihor’s education. Anastasia and Andrii’s stay in Spain can therefore be said to be an investment in care and family life in a long-term perspective. Their family has been a so-called transnational family for a long time, precisely in order to create a home in Ukraine. They point out that their home country does not give them an opportunity to support the family, and a temporary separation from their son is therefore necessary in order to ensure the family’s future. Such a rationalisation is concurrent with that which is represented through the statements of Dima’s and Roman’s parents.

Thus, Anastasia and Andrii might agree with the point often made in the Ukrainian public discourse that a physical separation of parents and child is unnatural, and that it has certain relational consequences. Still, they would not necessarily agree with the conclusion in ‘Family Dramas’ that a temporary separation as a rule has negative consequences for the child because of inadequate alternative care relations with grandparents. Andrii points out that what he calls ‘unacceptable behaviour’ among children who are left behind is a result of neglect and failed child care, and is not caused by the absence of parents as daily care persons. As he expresses it: ‘There are many children who are not being taken care of by grandparents, but by neighbors, or left to themselves completely.’ Interestingly, Anastasia and Andrii can apply for family reunification with Ihor, and they have engaged a lawyer to arrange all the paperwork for them. However, the reason why they wish to apply for family reunification with Ihor is not to bring him to Madrid on a permanent basis, but rather to have the opportunity to bring him to Madrid for school holidays. They do not want to discontinue his schooling in Ukraine, since he has only two years left of the Ukrainian primary school, and they have plans to move back to Ukraine in the near future anyway.[6] In the meantime, Anastasia and Andrii consider Anastasia’s parents to be natural and safe caregivers for their child. Anastasia’s parents are still relatively young and healthy, and Anastasia says that she would not have left Ihor in their care if her parents were old. I asked Anastasia whether Ihor enjoys staying with her parents, and she answered: ‘He has become accustomed to living with them - in fact, more accustomed to my parents than to Andrii and me. Ihor calls both my mother and me “Mother”.’

Even though the premises underlying the public discourse – that is, the centrality of the nuclear family and of physical closeness - are resonant in Anastasia and Andrii’s views of their family situation, they still have a more positive understanding of the real consequences of their migration – that, through migration, they are able to make their family household economically viable. The same tendencies can also be found in the texts written by children of labour migrants in a literary contest from 2008. Roman, a 17-year-old boy whose parents work abroad, thus writes:

The world of childhood ... it is a world of dreams ... of hopes, love and tenderness. 

I, Roman …, was born one December night, and I made myself heard with a baby’s loud cry. My parents were very happy that a boy was born, because they already had a little daughter. That is my sister Irynka. Even though I was very young, I still remember the touch of my mother’s lips and hands to this very day. 

And so another Ukrainian family was born. My parents, so generous, intelligent, kind and sincere people, have worked all their lives for us, their children, and for the benefit of Ukraine – the country where we were born and live. Deep I bow to you, mama, my beloved and dear. You are like the bright sun, which warms my soul and body with caressing beams. 

My sister and I grew up very quickly. Like our parents say, they didn’t even have the time to get dressed before we were adults. Life changed, our needs changed, and so did also our outlook on the world. 

In our family something happened which none of us had foreseen. As it were, my father was forced to go abroad to work. He would never have left us if there had been work and sufficient earnings in our village. 

Our separation was hard. But I think it was harder for him without us. Time passed. And then came that moment when I was left with my grandmother, and my mama went to help my father. 

Dear grandmother, she will give up everything for us, and share the last droplets of water. [She] teaches us all her skills with love, and teaches us to complete all of our homework. How much did she not go through, but her soul is gentle and sincere. 

Still I miss parental words, and mother’s sincere advice. My father’s words are law in our family, and ... ultimately, a necessity in our family. How I want to feel the warmth of my mother’s hands, her breath, to gently lean on her shoulder and tell her about my dreams, to share my thoughts about a book I have read, to entrust her with all that which stirs and discourages. 

It is not without reason that it is said that nobody is closer than your mother. All of our happiness and sorrows, dreams and aspirations are together with her. And even though my mother and I are separated by many kilometres, my mama is constantly with me in my wanderings of life. ... Do not worry, my dear one, I am all right, I know that your prayers protect me every minute. You are by my side and I feel it. 

I do not feel lonely or abandoned, because my family – aunts family, sister, brothers, grandmother – all of them are with me. Together we celebrate New Year, Easter, celebrate birthdays and other holidays.

Just as Anastasia and Andrii describe their separation from Ihor as painful but necessary, so Roman balances his description of his family situation as being dominated by both longing and necessity. Roman also expresses the fact that he regards the alternative care relations that surround him as adequate, and his perspective thus distinguishes itself from what is portrayed in ‘Family Dramas’ and ‘I Want to Go to Mama’. His grandmother and other extended family members are for Roman a good substitute as care persons. Further, his text also contains a testimony of relational resilience, as his mother is constantly with him, although in a metaphysical sense.[7]

Final Remarks 

If we compare the two fictional texts reviewed here, in which the authors stand free to use illustrative examples to discuss moral dilemmas, with individual narratives of the same phenomena, some interesting ideas on child care and transnational family life emerge. In a context where just some decades ago the institutionalisation of children was an ideological goal and the ‘state’ was suspicious towards parents’ influence over their own children, it is indeed interesting to note the unanimous support among a variety of texts for the idea that the natural environment for a child’s care is the nuclear family. 

Still, there are some evident differences in how migrant parents’ decisions to leave their children behind are morally evaluated in the various texts reviewed here. The two fictional texts together raise questions about what negative consequences a separation between parents and child has for the child’s social behaviour, for the care the child receives from alternative care persons, and for the stability of family relations. The grandparents and especially the grandmother have traditionally been regarded as an important care person for their grandchildren in Ukraine (see Fürst, 2011, for similar practices in Moldova), but this care relation is clearly undermined in ‘Family Dramas’. By undermining her own ability as a care person and by calling Dima a social orphan, Kateryna thus reproduces the predominant representation of the ‘unrelated’ child of labour migrants that is seen in Ukrainian media texts. Still, the texts do not place the blame on the parents as conscious agents, but rather portray them as victims of unintended consequences, whether relational or situational. 

Migrant parents and their children have a different way of evaluating the situation, and they tend to stress the necessity of the situation, the adequacy of alternative care relations, and the resilience of the parent-child bond. All the texts reviewed in this article thus acknowledge the importance of both models for a child’s well-being, but the migrating parents argue that the two models are incompatible under the current political and economic situation in Ukraine. Faced with this dilemma, I would argue that a model of care as fulfilment of material needs is given priority in the personal narratives of migrant parents and their children. This goes against commonly held ideals of the nuclear family and physical closeness between parents and child, but migrant parents’ migrations are legitimised by the construction of labour migrants as victims of macro-level structures. Contrary to the priority of migrant parents, the fictional and media texts uphold a model of care that necessitates physical closeness (face-to-face communication and being together) as an absolute precondition for proper child care. A similar discrepancy is found in a survey of families of children who are left behind and experts. The results thus show that those who are themselves affected by transnational family life tend to focus more on the positive aspects of labour migration, and it is stated that ‘[p]eople from the children’s social environment report mainly positive changes in the children’s behavior after the departure of their parents, while experts report mostly negative [changes]’ (Illyash, 2006, p. 33). The reason for such a discrepancy, whether it is because of legitimising efforts on behalf of migrants themselves or because experts and media generalise from ‘worst cases’, is difficult to ascertain, and should be the object of further study.


The research for this article took place within the framework of the research program Informal Child Migration in Europe (N-ICME), funded by the Research Council of Norway. During my project, entitled ‘Care at a Distance and Ideals of Closeness: child care in Ukrainian transnational families’, I was a PhD student at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo. I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the article.


[1] See Markov (2009) for an overview.
[2] Fieldwork for this study was carried out for two months in the West Ukrainian city of Lviv in the summer of 2007, and for a total of two months among Ukrainian labour migrants in Madrid, Murcia and Alcala de Henares from September 2007 until October 2008. I also draw on 143 texts which were written in a literary contest I arranged together with the International Institute of Education, Culture and Connections to the Diaspora (MIOK), at the Lviv Polytechnic University in Western Ukraine (see MIOK, 2008/2009). The contest was called ‘Children of Labor Migrants Write about Themselves’, and was distributed to schools across Ukraine and to several Saturday schools among the Ukrainian diaspora abroad.
[3] The concept is defined even more widely in a Ukrainian doctoral dissertation in sociology as being connected to parents’ neglect – that is, as representing a lack of parents’ involvement and communication with their children, and thus as being extended to a wider group beyond the merely ‘social disadvantaged’ (Kovalenko, 2005, p. 15). The concept has also been used as a legal term in the law proposal ‘On changes to several legislative acts of Ukraine (concerning the overcoming of social orphanhood in families of citizens who work abroad)’, of 20 October 2010. Identical or similar concepts, such as Euro-orphans, are found in other post-socialist states, such as Poland and Russia (see Rockhill, 2004, 2010).
[4] The centrality of the nuclear family and physical closeness in child care is interesting in a historical perspective of Soviet collectivism and institutionalisation of child care. As Jean Ispa summarises the view of early socialist reforms: ‘If children were away from home for all or most of the day, the ill effects of parents’ influence could be minimized. Given all-day child care, children’s personalities could be shaped by politically enlightened educators in the direction of the new ideals’ (Ispa, 1994, p. 7).
[5] I saw the play ‘Cinderellas of Naples’ in Lviv in 2004. I have not seen ‘I Want to Go to Mama’ on stage, but Natalia Kovalyk gave me a copy of the manuscript in 2008.
[6] A majority of my Ukrainian interlocutors in Spain actually stated that they do not wish to bring their children to Spain because the Spanish educational system is regarded as inferior to the Ukrainian, because their migrations are only temporary, and, most importantly, because most Ukrainian labour migrants in Spain live a number of years as irregular migrants, and thus have no possibility to reunite with their children (Leifsen & Tymczuk, 2012).
[7] I have chosen not to focus on gender roles in this analysis, but it is evident from Roman’s text, ‘Family Dramas’ and ‘I Want to Go to Mama’ that there is a strong emphasis placed on the role of the mother as a care person (see Fürst, 2011 for a discussion on gender roles and transnational parenting in post-Soviet societies). This is in itself interesting in the context of a previous Soviet ideology of gender equality, and the ‘feminization’ of labour migration from Ukraine (Tolstokorova, 2010).


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