The Impact of Separation on Mothers - Dr. Aurelie Athan

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The Lasting Impact Family Separation Can Have on Parents

Immigrant children who are separated from their parents at the border are at risk of longterm damage to their wellbeing. Medical experts say that parents, too, may see lasting effects to their mental health.

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Aurélie Athan, a reproductive psychologist who teaches at Teachers College, Columbia University and is founding member of the Sexuality, Women & Gender Project, isn’t surprised by the focus on the wellbeing on the children. She’s been working to revive the anthropological term “matrescence”—that is, a woman’s transition into parenthood—for more than a decade. “Our compassion lies with the child, and rightfully so,” she tells Broadly. “They are the vulnerable other of the dyad—but it’s only half the story when we leave the mother out.”


In fact, Athan says, the repercussions of separation that a mother endures will likely mirror that which her child experiences. “It’s the other side of the same coin, basically,” she explains. “When a child is separated from their parent for a moment, such as, God forbid, in the grocery store, they panic first and start to search and look for them. When they can’t find her, then the fear and anxiety and all that starts to kick up. The same thing [occurs] for the mother.”


Athan, who’s worked with several women in her clinical practice who were separated from their children, says that oftentimes mothers will cope during that time apart by trying to maintain some kind of connection with their child: whether that’s holding onto belongings or photos or revisiting memories in their minds. Even then, however, these mothers risk potentially reviving the trauma of separation. “It’s not necessarily comforting at times,” Athan says, adding that many women she’s spoken to describe their coping as a “moment-to-moment, day-to-day survival.”


Athan also raises the concern that some parents separated from their children may be at risk for suicidal thoughts. “It’s just like maternal deprivation of children,” she explains. “We know that there’s something called ‘failure to thrive’—they can literally stop growing. Mothers can succumb to losing their will to live ... they can stop eating or sleeping or [have] poor self care.”