Reflecting on the wellbeing of transnational mothers in Johannesburg inner city: Insights from my PhD study 

written by Thulie Zikhali

‘…they were people who saw my decision to come to SA as irresponsible but then I told myself that if these people are not going to help me with money to take care of my children, then they are in no position to decide what I want to do with my life… my own mother passed away two weeks before I left for SA and so people were saying this was not the right time for me to leave but I did not listen to them because I know my situation…’  

(MaNdebele, 04-10-18)  

Research on transnational motherhood has highlighted that mothering across borders interferes with the health and wellbeing of migrant mothers [1]. Studies have pointed out that these mothers must contend with unpleasant emotions such as regret, sadness, anxiety and feelings of loss due to separation from their child(ren) [2]. The importance of these emotions notwithstanding, these studies tend to justify the experience of these feelings as being a result of mothers’ separation from their children. This inevitably portrays mothers as perpetual victims of their circumstances. I define transnational motherhood here as acts of affection and the provision of financial support done by mothers for their children across borders [3]. During my PhD, I found that this conceptualisation of wellbeing is narrow and tends to undermine mothers’ agency and overlook the social and physical context in which mothers are located. To get a broader understanding of wellbeing I used the concept of Subjective Wellbeing [4]. This brings out an understanding of wellbeing that goes beyond unpleasant emotions to an appreciation of how the structural context supports or undermines mothering strategies. It is also useful in understanding mothers’ motivations, goals, hopes and aspirations in relation to the migration project [4].   

Between October 2018 and May 2019, I carried out individual interviews with twenty women from Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe, who lived and worked in Johannesburg inner city while their children remained back home. My study indicated that transnational mothering in Johannesburg’s inner city is to a larger extent meditated by localised contextual factors such as irregular documentation, lack of employment, unstable jobs, crime, and xenophobia. These factors created an environment of uncertainty which undermined their transnational mothering strategies and obligations such as sending remittances on time and maintaining regular communication across borders. With regards to employment participants often held multiple jobs. They worked as hairdressers, waitresses, part time domestic workers and petty traders – buying cheaper goods around the city which they resell in the inner city for profit.    

Yet these challenges did not deter mothers from achieving their goals and aspirations. In the face of unrelenting everyday challenges, they did not perceive themselves as victims. They showed that they could assess their individual situations and make independent decisions. As MaNdebele (pseudonym) in the quotation above explains in relation to her situation before migrating to Johannesburg. Participants also acknowledged that their lives have been better since they arrived in South Africa. They embraced their challenges as part of the sacrifice they made to make sure their children have better lives as they perceived the migration project as a means to achieving a better life for themselves and their children. For example, even though taking the decision to leave their children behind was difficult, participants noted that it was a necessary move to secure a better future for their children, especially in terms of education. As Charity explains below, 

‘…I wish he could learn and do well at school and be somebody in life… look at me…as you can see, I only went to school up to O Level and then I got pregnant soon after O Level and had a child so for me to go back to school it was a problem, I ended up being forced to look for a job because I now had someone to look after …  

(Charity, 09-10-18) 

Having a broader perspective of wellbeing when trying to understand transnational motherhood sheds light on the complex lives of migrant mothers. It also enables a better analysis of the structural context in which mothers are located and how this context constrains or supports mothering strategies and obligations. This also shifts the attention from looking at transnational motherhood as an inherently emotional experience to acknowledging and understanding mothers’ motivations, goals, and aspirations.   


[1] Meyers, C., & Rugunanan, P. (2020). Mobile-mediated mothering from a distance: A case study of Somali mothers in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 23(5), 656–673. 

[2] Carling, J., Menjívar, C., & Schmalzbauer, L. (2012). Central Themes in the Study of Transnational Parenthood. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 38(2), 191–217. 

[3] Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Ernestine Avila, P. H.-S. (n.d.). “I’m Here, but I’m There”: The Meanings of Latina Transnational Motherhood

[4] Das, K. V., Jones-Harrell, C., Fan, Y., Ramaswami, A., Orlove, B., & Botchwey, N. (2020). Understanding subjective well-being: Perspectives from psychology and public health. Public Health Reviews, 41(1), 25.