Project Directors: Alice Frye, MPH, Ph.D., Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D.
Funder: Harold T. Benenson Fund and the Nan Mae Holstein Fund of the Wellesley Centers for Women

To better understand how the at-risk population of Cambodian working mothers adjusts to life in the United States—and to perhaps find more ways to help ameliorate those risks — this project aimed to understand how this population traverses the challenges of working outside the home and maintaining their roles as family caretakers.

Cambodian immigrants to the United States have been identified as a group at very high risk for poor health, economic, and social and educational outcomes (CDC, 2007; Sakamoto & Woo, 2007). The recent history of Cambodia, marked by civil war, famine, mass genocide, and interference from more powerful governments including the United States, Vietnam, France, and China, also mean that recent immigrants are likely to be from chronically destabilized social circumstances, with personal experiences of violent death and physical trauma, and years of residence in one or more refugee camps, prior to entering the United States. To better understand how the at-risk population of Cambodian working mothers adjusts to life in the United States—and to perhaps find more ways to help ameliorate those risks — we need to understand how this population traverses the challenges of working outside the home and maintaining their roles as family caretakers. In the exploratory, qualitative study, there were three objectives:

1) Investigate how Cambodian women’s transition from a largely rural, traditional life structure to simultaneously earning a living and running a household with children in an industrialized country affects their mothering of adolescents.
2) Investigate how their personal and family histories in Cambodia have influenced their ability to be both mothers and workers.
3) Illuminate the ways the Lowell and greater Massachusetts social service community can provide more support for Cambodian women and their families

Drs. Frye and Charmaraman collaborated with the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA) in Lowell, MA who helped recruit a focus group of 6 participants that provided pilot data to develop a semi-structured interview protocol. At the focus group (which was in English and Khmer with an English translator), we invited participation in a one-to-one interview at a time and location of women’s choice and encouraged snowballing referrals from the larger community. Women were eligible if they were working at least part-time and had at least one child living in the home with them. A total of 20 interviews were conducted in English lasting about an hour each. Women participants ranged in age from 22-57 years old. Almost all were born in Cambodia, except for one who was born in Lowell. They had anywhere from 1 to 5 children at home ranging in age from 9 months to 28 years old. Half were married, and the other half were divorced, widowed, or never married.

Brief synopsis of results

A major theme discussed by many of the interviewees was their experiences of either stigma or obstacles to working outside the home, because it violated Cambodian social norms about the expected roles of women and mothers. They nearly all reported that husbands and partners (where relevant) were glad to have the additional income, and that in fact the additional income was crucial to their lifestyle. Women also generally reported that their parents or elders in the community seemed to view their working positively, or with sympathy, though largely carrying the perspective that working was a necessity, not a lifestyle choice. Similar to working mothers who are less recent immigrants to the United States, there are the familiar themes of negotiating household duties such as cooking, and the exhaustion of being a single mother with few financial or family resources, and indeed the challenge of pursuing more education in the context of raising a child and financial constraints. But they note unique issues from their Cambodian community as well, such as the influence of being raised in a family atmosphere where “will you grow up?” was a more pressing question than “what would you like to be when you grow up?” This was especially apparent in addressing question 2, which was approached by asking what jobs they had imagined during their childhood that they would hold. Respondents most often reported that their mothers and fathers had had jobs in farming or in small business, such as selling out of the home. Some commented that their parents’ careers or parents’ values about working had indeed influenced their own pathways, to the degree that they had choices.

In response to the question about more support, women suggested more education and more opportunities for English language training would help them greatly. For instance, English language training was something they felt they would benefit from in their professional development, but had neither the time nor the money to pursue.