Georgian migrant mothers: never to return home?

Older women migrants are locked into perpetual domestic work in New York, endlessly deferring retirement and returning home because their adult children in Georgia depend on their remittances.

Christina Lomidze
24 May 2016
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Georgian women hoping to migrate to the USA to work

Georgians are very proud of the fact that mothers are highly valued and respected in the Georgian culture. The Georgian mother or “deda” is viewed as a self-sacrificing individual who is always willing and ready to sacrifice herself for the needs of her children. In recent years, however, some Georgian mothers have taken these traditional roles to a whole new level: More and more are migrating to distant lands in order to financially support their adult children through remittances.

The high demand for domestic caregivers in the developed world has further incentivized many Georgian women to migrate.  Naila Kabeer refers to this idea of gendered nature of globalization in her article, “Marriage, Motherhood and Masculinity in the Global Economy: Reconfigurations of Personal and Economic Life.” Many are, thus, converting their traditional nurturing roles in the heavily patriarchal Georgian society into marketable skills caring for the elderly and for young children in the US or Western Europe.

But does this work convert into financial empowerment for migrant mothers and their children? Or does it trap mothers into perpetual domestic labor, fuel a constant dependency by adult children, and in effect disguise the depth of the Georgian economy’s malaise, where even skilled professionals cannot make ends meet?


One of many currency exchange kiosks in Tbilisi

I conducted 20 in-depth interviews with 10 Georgian female migrants in New York and 10 of their adult dependent children in Georgia, and surveyed 70 other Georgian women migrants in New York to find out.  Adult dependents often desperately needed the remittances sent by their migrant mothers as their full or supplemental income. The remittances are spent on immediate consumption needs – food and school fees - rather than on investments, and this was true of both employed as well as unemployed adult children. Even those who are highly educated and in managerial or other professional work are not able to live off their salaries alone and require a supplemental income. One adult remittance recipient, a father of three who works as mid-level public sector employee, and whose wife is a doctor, said:

"Our combined salaries are not enough to live comfortably. Our salaries are enough for bills; it is not enough for food. Our incomes go to paying bills, expenses related to the children’s education, and their extracurricular activities. They are in public school but there are some expenses associated with the schools."

Remittances, therefore allow some adult children to make ends meet; something that their salaries alone would not enable them to do. One respondent explained the following:

 "I am married and my wife works in a daycare center. My wife’s and my own salary is not enough to survive. It will be enough for just survival and nothing else. 2000 GEL is the very least required for a family to live as decent human beings; such an income would allow you to go on a week-long vacation during the summer, for example, or to buy a reliable car."

To maintain this kind of a relatively modest lifestyle, however, requires the financial support of aging migrant mothers.  The cost to these women is a postponement of a long wished for return to Georgia and also, a lack of investment in their own retirement finances. According to one of the migrant mother in New York:

"I want my children to be able to stand on their feet. I cannot do anything for myself because I need to provide for my children. Every time I think about doing something for myself, I feel guilty because I will be spending money that I could send as remittances. I feel like I would be taking something away from my children if I spend the money on myself."

Another migrant mother states the following:

I have not saved any money for my retirement. When I go back to Georgia I might move to the village and practice subsistence farming.”

The majority of the adult children of the migrants, however, have not even had a conversation with their mothers regarding their retirement and eventual return home. The respondents did not know how their mothers plan to support themselves once they retire and many do not know how they will manage to scrape together a livelihood once the remittances stop. According to one adult remittance recipient migrant:

"I believe that I can survive without remittances, but I will have to cut back on a lot. I do not have any plans on what I will do when the remittances stop; I might have to come up with a plan for a small business."

Another adult relying on her mother’s remittance stated:

“If the remittances stop, I will be impoverished; I will not have money for food or clothes.”

For the migrant mothers, beyond the financial burden, there are painful emotional and psychological consequences: According to one migrant:

"Migration has affected us (migrants) psychologically. I personally have suffered from depression. My doctor diagnosed me with depression a while ago and I was taking anti-depressants. It was only after I began taking the medication that I sang for the first time since I have been in this country."

Another migrant mother explains the following:

"No amount of money is worth the separation of mother and children. I think my children would have been better off if I had stayed there, they would be happier and they might have married better people. I was able to financially support my children and help them financially, but I deprived them of what they needed the most: a mother. I have realized that motherhood is not just about sending money; my children need emotional and moral support. If I could go back in time, I would not stay here as long as I did. I would go back as soon as I saved enough money to buy an apartment."

The migration of mothers, among this sample, has offered the dependent adult children a temporary relief from poverty which will end as soon as their mothers return from migration. The migrant mothers have also not been able to attain any significant financial empowerment through migration since they are not able to freely choose how to spend their hard-earned money, amass personal savings and freely decide when to retire and return home to their families. In spite of the sacrifices the migrant mothers make, they all told me that they will work as long as they are physically able in order to support their adult children. According to one migrant:

“The mentality among Georgian women is such that they feel morally obligated to provide for their children regardless of the age of the children. They will continue to support them both financially and physically as long as they are able to.” 

The weak Georgian economy is further perpetuating the problem of eternal dependence of adults on aging migrant mothers by not rewarding workers with adequate salaries with which to sustain themselves and their families. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the Georgian economy in shambles. High unemployment coupled with a decrease in production and hyperinflation left many people in poverty. Even though the Georgian economy has improved since the chaotic transition period following Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union, many people still find it difficult to find employment.  Also, the salaries of those who are employed are often not enough for daily consumption and many are forced to rely on other sources of income such as remittances.

In addition, a large portion of the Soviet-educated workforce lacks the necessary skills for the modern competitive labor market such as computer skills and the knowledge of the English language. The pension benefits in Georgia are also very low and no one can survive on them.  Many people simply have to migrate in order to support themselves and their families back home: According to the 2015 Migration Profile of Georgia report, in 2014 there were a total of 40,221 male emigrants and a total of 29,634 female emigrants from Georgia. For Georgian mothers, who believe that it is their responsibility to support their children no matter how old, migration allows them to send remittances to their adult children and thus help them avoid poverty.

The majority of the migrant mothers expressed the desire to eventually return home to retire (the average age of the migrants from the qualitative sample is 61 and 51 is the average of the respondents from quantitative survey sample. Some of the migrants, although, are over 70 years old). However, it is uncertain what will happen to their adult children, who as dependents have become accustomed to living a certain lifestyle. Perhaps they too will eventually consider migrating in order to financially support their own adult children, thus continuing the vicious cycle of migrating, sending remittances and spending many years of their lives far away from their families.


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