Family Separation Can Ruin the Mother-Child Bond

After seven years apart, I was reunited with my mom, but she has grown cold.

by Valentina Ferreira

When I was around 6, my mom left our home in Barranquilla, Colombia, to pursue better opportunities in the United States. She left me and my older brother with my dad’s parents. I felt loved and well taken care of there. (I didn’t live with my dad because he was an alcoholic.)

Although I received an abundance of love from my grandparents, I felt that something was missing. I was too young to know that I wanted my mother.

I had memories of her waking me up every morning to put on my uniform for school, and having our breakfast ready: cheese, bread, and a cup of coffee. The happiest time of day was when she picked me up from school.

About two years later, when I was 8, we visited my other grandmother, Mama Daisy, who lived about two hours away in Soledad. I got to meet my other cousins for the first time. I wanted to spend more time with all of them. So my brother and I moved in with my Mama Daisy.

An Unsafe Place

Over the next five years, I was shuttled among family members, including my grandmother Daisy and an uncle, who were physically and emotionally abusive to me, and Cielito, a loving grandmother who talked with me at night until my tears ran out and cooked my favorite foods.

When I was being abused, I started calling my mom because she was the only person I thought I could trust. I cried to her, but I lied about the real reasons why I was crying. I’d say: “Mama Daisy didn’t buy this for me,” Or, “She doesn’t want me to hang out with Patricia.”

But what I really wanted to say was, I don’t remember you and I can’t deal with not being able to remember my own mother. I’m tired. I don’t want to go to school but I don’t want to be at home either, because Mama Daisy treats me so badly. I’m starting to feel this hate in my heart, and I feel it mostly when I talk to you. And it’s because I have so much resentment toward you for leaving me and for making me stay in this unsafe place.

Imagining a New Life

When I was 13, arrangements were made for me to join my mother and other family members in New York City. When I stepped off the plane, it was so cold, and I was nervous. I didn’t know how to feel when I saw my mother again. It had been seven years.

Then I saw her and other relatives standing before us with baskets of flowers, hugs, and smiles. My brother and I hugged our mom at the same time. At first, I felt a mix of sadness, joy, and resentment, but everything went away when I hugged her. Her hands still smelled of candy like they had when I was little. It felt like she was just as happy that we were finally together.

“I’m sorry,” was all she said. My brother and I stayed quiet; it was not time for sadness.

My Mom Feels Like a Stranger

For the first few months, things with my mother were good. She had a room in her friend’s apartment, and the three of us lived there. I felt an inner peace there; it always smelled of good food, and it was clean and comfy, and the lamps gave off a warm, yellow light. I never wanted to leave.

Mom worked from morning until midnight. But we sometimes went shopping for winter clothes and visited schools. She waxed my eyebrows for the first time, which hurt but her attention made me happy. When I kissed her cheeks, it reminded me of when I had slept in her arms as a little girl.

But soon after, our relationship became strained. We did not communicate well; she felt like a stranger to me. I think that after two people are separated for a long time, when they reconnect, their personalities are not always the same.

I was not a little girl anymore and I had been through a lot of difficulty, sadness, and abuse. And I had a lot of resentment toward my mom. In my heart there was a strong wall separating me from her, even if we were only a few feet away.

When I disagreed with her or she upset me, she shut me down, and sometimes was mean about it. My mom always thinks she is right. So I stopped trying to explain my point of view.

My Aunt Understands Me

It’s been five years since I came to the U.S. and our relationship has not improved. I don’t feel that we understand each other. But I do feel understood by my aunt, my mom’s sister. She moved to the U.S. before I was born, and we connected right away. She gives me good advice when my mom and I argue. Mostly she says, “Try to stay calm.”

I open up with my aunt about many of my feelings and opinions. When I tell her the hurtful, offensive things my mom says to me, I have someone special telling me, “You are more than those awful words.”

My aunt also helps me try to understand my mother. She told me that Mama Daisy also treated my mother cruelly and that has made her hostile. Maybe that’s the only way she knows how to treat her children because that’s what she learned from Mama Daisy. With these things in mind, I’m always trying to forgive her, although I am not there yet.

When Mama Daisy visits us, I see she has changed a lot. I’m not sure why; maybe her life is easier now. She gives me lunch money for school, or sometimes $20. She frequently calls to see how I am doing. This gives me hope my mom can change the same way.

I feel like all the separations harm our relationships. I hope we can repair our connections.

Read more from teens who migrated to New York City about how it feels to be separated from their parents.

I have so much resentment toward you for leaving me and for making me stay in this unsafe place.
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