When I Googled ‘refugee mothers’ the other week, this came up on the first page: “Refugee
Mothers”. Try as it might, Google could not find any resource that contained both words – the refugee mother somehow could not be located. She was missing.
In a weekly Dance Movement Psychotherapy group for refugee mothers and their preschool children that I facilitate, a participant tells me that at a party in her accommodation recently, someone was taking photographs. The next day, pictures of her appeared, printed out, and pinned up along the street with the word ‘Missing’ emblazoned across them: her image had been turned into a missing persons poster. But, as the woman said to me, genuinely bewildered: “I wasn’t missing?!”
Refugees lose many significant things when they leave their home, including possessions, loved ones, even honor and prestige. All that might remain after their flight from danger is their body and mind, but trauma can make even these feel somehow unreachable or dislocated. As another woman noted in the group: “It’s just my body that is tired, not me”. This feeling of being separate from one’s body may remain even when the refugee is in “in safety”, and it can become a normal way of experiencing the self.
Rediscovering one’s lost body might involve what Psychotherapist Susie Orbach has called ‘daring to be comfortable’ – that is, turning our attention inwards and using this as a place from which to meet the world, rather than colluding with a view of our body based on an objectifying gaze. But trying to ‘get comfortable’ in this way is not easy. In this group, the bodies of the refugee women are often galvanised in tension, ready to fight or flee, or they are quick to collapse, like formless pools without bone or muscle. When the women choose to perch on a wobbly pile of chairs, feet far from the ground, they seem to be conflating the notion of being comfortable with being ‘safe’ and ‘separate.’ Perhaps it feels too dangerous to lie on the floor, unless curled up in a foetal position. How then to make small physical adjustments that might help tolerate the challenges of the present moment, however uncertain, and from there to move into the future?
As another woman says to me of some casual racism she experienced earlier that day: “I have to let it slide over me, I can’t let it touch me otherwise it will hold me back.” As she spoke, she moved her hand quickly over her body, so that I could imagine something sliding off a surface that nothing could stick to or penetrate. She then leapt up and moved quickly from the spot, engaging in a practical task. This idea of a border that aims, like skin, to keep out the unwanted is a familiar one to us all these days, whether we are a refugee or host country.
Many psychotherapy interventions for mothers and their infants are based on improving the attachment relationship. But as some have noted, Bowlby’s attachment theory has been in part co-opted by an individualistic, mother-blaming and very Western-centric culture, or misunderstood as the need for a mother to be literally stuck to her baby at all times. Likewise, the use of Winnicott’s concept of ‘primary maternal preoccupation’ often leaves out the crucial point that a mother needs to be well resourced to emotionally care for a baby, and it is the wider environment’s responsibility to ensure that. In the case of refugee mothers, resources are scant, and trauma has been immense. Refugee women are among those most vulnerable to gender-based violence. They are likely to have experienced rape, domestic violence, FGM, trafficking, or some combination of all of these. It is thus dangerous to foist more blame onto her for the trauma she has experienced. It makes her responsible for the impact of war, geopolitics and patriarchal violence on subsequent generations, when these forms of violence have been literally acted out on her body.
So how does the political manifest in the physical body? What does it look like, what are its postures, its movements and its bodily felt sensations as it intertwines with personal history? How does the political animate the body of a refugee that has travelled perhaps thousands of miles, but now has no clear way forward and no path back? And how ‘comfortable’ can these mothers be in their bodies, in a kind of limbo with an uncertain future, but with a child who must be somehow delivered to the future? For the refugee mother, what can her next move be?
A version of this piece was read at the conference Oxytocin, birthing the world, The Royal College of Art, in June 2017.