From the Archive: “A Mother’s Heart is Weighed Down with Stones”

In our “From the Archive” series, we highlight an article from a past issue of the journal. In this installment, we explore Sarah Horton’s “A Mother’s Heart is Weighed Down with Stones: A Phenomenological Approach to the Experience of Transnational Motherhood,” available here. This article was featured in Volume 33, Issue 1 (March 2009).


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While there is still considerable confusion and uncertainty surrounding the current state of immigration in the United States and the international movements of people, our journal article authors have continually acknowledged the importance of focusing on the lived experience of individuals within these larger political contexts. In her article, Horton discusses transnational motherhood through the embodied distress of mothers and children, showing that their suffering cannot be examined separately. Through her analysis of the narratives of undocumented Salvadoran mothers living in the United States, Horton explains the pain of these mothers’ undocumented status is experienced within the intersubjective space of the family.

Horton begins by describing Elisabeta, a Salvadoran mother working in the United States while her young son and elderly mother remain in El Salvador. Elisabeta was part of Horton’s research at a Latino mental health clinic in a New England city. Since Elisabeta was unable to hold or touch her young son, Carmelo, she instead carried his photo with her wherever she went. Elisabeta described her life as divided, “I work here but my heart lives there.” This division of “here” and “there” in transnational motherhood is not uncommon for undocumented immigrants who left their children in their home countries.

As the postindustrial, technology-based economy has grown within the U.S., women are increasingly migrating alone to find work in the high-tech sector, reshaping the immigrant family and trans-nationalizing the meaning of motherhood. At the same time, the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) increased both border policing and militarization as well as deportation and family separation in border communities. This meant that mothers working in the U.S. have found it more difficult to be reunited with their children, fearful of the dangerous and expensive crossing for their undocumented children, and the inability of the women to return home to visit. Thus, while many women had originally imagined their separations would be only temporary, the transnational relationship between mother and children can last years.

Horton explains that even though family separation has long been a reality for immigrants, scholarship has often ignored this lived experience as an independent factor of stress and trauma. Further, mental health analyses are frequently positioned at the individual level, and neglect the larger context of how such familial changes and separations are experienced and endured in the inter-subjective space between parents and children. Elisabeta described the aching in her chest when she would speak to her son on the phone each weekend. Later, when her son became seriously ill, Elisabeta felt an acute sense of failure – as both a mother unable to care for her ill son, and as a provider unable to pay for the operation he needed. Elisabeta was often unable to sleep at night, surrounded by thoughts of Carmelo’s words and tears. Horton explains Elisabeta’s vivid narrative expressed her embodied distress of being a transnational mother and the relational nature of the family’s suffering.

Gloria, another immigrant from El Salvador, left to find better economic opportunities after a series of devastating earthquakes in her home town. Gloria decided to leave her birthplace after it had become a space of death and scarcity, and the small business she and her husband had established had been destroyed. “There wasn’t enough food to give the kids. There was no way for me to keep them alive. And so I came here,” she said. For Gloria, and other women Horton interviewed, traumatic events reshaped familiar places and people, and triggered their decisions to migrate. Further trauma of the women having to explain their departures to their children were overwhelming.

The paradox of parenthood for these mothers is often having to choose between either financially supporting their children from a distance or physically being their caretakers. Horton explains that these parents have a profound sense of moral failing, perceiving that their inability to serve as “proper parents” is compounded by the difficulties of succeeding economically. Horton argues that placing these issues of “choice” and “decision making” against the backdrop of limited agency and “illegality” in the U.S. causes the parents’ immobility and powerlessness to reverberate through the space of a family stretched across international borders.

Children left behind in El Salvador often shoulder adult burdens, attempting to either prevent their mothers’ departure or requesting to join their mothers on the dangerous journey to the U.S. According to Horton, when the realization of the uncertainty in their separation becomes overwhelming, children respond to what they perceive as their mothers’ withdrawal of love with their own form of withdrawal. “My daughter then told me she had erased me from her heart, and that she didn’t love me anymore,” Gloria recounted. “El corazon de madre es un monton de piedras.” (“A mother’s heart is weighed down with a mountain of stones.”) This “weighing-down” is the burden Gloria had assumed in suffering the anger of her children while she only wished to protect them from hunger. Horton explains Gloria’s narrative demonstrates that suffering is relational, experienced through social connections and threats of uncertain future relationships. Horton says this transnational separation strains the bond between mother and child, as their distance is experienced both physically and emotionally.

Horton discusses strategies these transnational mothers undertake in order to attempt to substitute their parental presence. One strategy of sending gifts and luxury items, such as a color T.V. or special toys, is a way of feeling as if they are giving their children love and support. Yet this happiness from the fulfillment of financial support is temporary, and quickly overshadowed with sadness as children will often ask when they will be reunited again. Both the mothers and children know the gifts are double-edged, symbolizing the mothers’ love yet justifying their absence.

Horton concludes by calling for researchers to bridge the gap between subjective experiences of families living with separation and objective analyses of structure “illegality” and immigration policies. In hoping for more phenomenological accounts of transnational family life, Horton shows how sociopolitical inequality shapes individual experience and produces patterns of social suffering. She also places transnational mothers’ distress within a larger framework of social conditions that reproduce powerlessness and disadvantage. The sophistication of phenomenological approaches illustrates the ways that undocumented immigrants may experience embodied stress of strained family ties.

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