An open heart is the key to being a friend and an ally
One of the best ways to help Solo Moms who are immigrants involves something we all have: an open heart.
Many immigration stories are idealistic. A brave soul decides to pursue a better life, hops on a boat, arrives at Ellis Island, and lives the American dream. Movies, books, and media accounts of people who immigrate to the United States usually share a common narrative of hope followed by success.
Immigration, however, is often a stressful, frustrating, and even traumatic experience, one that can involve extreme poverty, infuriating red tape, and separation from loved ones who stayed behind. Some people immigrate legally, after months and sometimes years of interviews, paperwork, and complicated logistics. Others who immigrate circumvent that process.
Scores of Solo Moms and their children immigrate to the United States each day, hoping for a success story. Although each family’s story is unique, it often involves a tremendous amount of courage, culture shock, and confusion.
Chances are you have a Solo Mom in your community who is a recent immigrant. Immigrant families face many challenges, from language and communication barriers to financial struggles. There are many community resources available for helping Solo Moms and their kids, but one often overlooked way of helping is to simply be a friend. Here’s how:
- Don’t confuse compassion for pity. Helping or interacting from a place of feeling sorry for someone can come across as condescending. Unfortunately, even people with the best intentions often conflate compassion and pity. Author Criss Jami wrote in Killosophy (CreateSpace, 2015), “Popular culture is a place where pity is called compassion, flattery is called love, propaganda is called knowledge, tension is called peace, gossip is called news, and auto-tune is called singing.” When approaching a Solo Mom to offer help or friendship, approach her as a peer and an equal.
- Do share information on local resources. If you’ve moved before, you know how overwhelming it can be to find a new hairstylist, primary-care physician, and grocery store, not to mention a job, housing, transportation, and child care.
- Don’t take anything for granted. Be prepared to explain how things work. I was once at a gym with a friend who had recently emigrated from Europe; he did not realize that he could not walk out of the locker room into the sauna naked. His sister also sunbathed nude in my very small, very public backyard. Both situations, while amusing now, were mortifying at the time. Assume your new friend might need basic information that you take for granted. In some countries, children have freedom to roam unsupervised from a very young age. Your new friend might need to know about guidelines in your area so she doesn’t end up with an unwelcome interaction from other parents or even local authorities.
- Don’t assume you need to speak the same language to be friends or acquaintances. Some of my favorite friendships were with people who did not speak English as a native language (or at all!). It is hard to arrive in a new country without speaking the language. You can do a lot of activities together that don’t revolve around communication, such as walking, cooking, picking fruit, or going to the park with the kids.
- Do offer to attend school and community events with your friend. It is hard enough being a Solo Mom in communities where most people are married. Imagine having the added stress of not speaking the language well or feeling out of place because you just arrived from another country. Reach out and offer to attend a school or community event together.
- Do offer practical help, and do set boundaries. You can offer help to your new friend while setting limits. If you offer to watch her child, it does not mean you need to have an open-door policy every time she needs help. If there are extensive needs, ask if it is OK to recruit more help or introduce her to other moms who are willing to help. Help also doesn’t have to be time consuming. It could be as simple as helping fill out a form or explaining the procedure for reporting an absence to school.
- Don’t “other-ize” her. It is awesome to meet people from your own culture, but when three or four people in a row respond to you with, “You should meet Elena. She is from Russia, too!” it definitely can feel awkward and create an unwelcoming vibe. If you do have a friend from the same region, that would likely be a welcome introduction. Be careful, however, not to foster feelings of “otherness.” Although it might be great to meet another Solo Mom, you probably know how it feels when the fifth married woman you try to befriend says, “Oh, bless your heart. There’s an unmarried lady with kids in my church.”
- Do be culturally sensitive. Views on modesty, eye contact, family obligation, respect, punctuality, table manners, self-disclosure, and much, much more can vary tremendously between cultures. It is helpful to be patient, realizing that certain ways you interact could be confusing or even offensive to your new friend. Likewise, it is helpful not to take things personally or assume the worst if your friend’s mannerisms and habits are uncomfortable. Some friendships do not get off the ground because of cultural differences. Always assume the best.
A Solo Mom who is a recent immigrant might have a lot of practical needs, some as basic as warm clothing. Keep in mind, though, that she has likely left people who knew her, accepted her, and loved her. Friendship cannot be formed overnight, but providing companionship can go a long way for someone who has just moved to a new country.
Danielle Bostick, a former Solo Mom and ESME’s Wellness–Mental Health Resource Guide, is a Latin teacher, an advocate, and a mom to six kids in Winchester, Virginia. When not working as an educator, Bostick writes about the National Football League for various sites and sexual assault and child sexual abuse for the Huffington Post. You can find her on Twitter: @danibostick, and on Facebook: Dani Bostick.
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