Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Grandparents across the Ocean: Eastern European Immigrants' Struggle to Maintain Intergenerational Relationships

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Grandparents across the Ocean: Eastern European Immigrants' Struggle to Maintain Intergenerational Relationships

Article excerpt


Advancements in phone and internet communication, affordable transportation, dual citizenship, and globalization of the world distinguish modern immigrants from those of centuries past when immigration involved the probability that an emigrating person would never see her loved ones again. Indeed, historically speaking, many departures to the U.S. were viewed by families as funerals (Boss, 1999). Today, more and more individuals around the globe are engaged in migration to enhance their welfare, and it is thought that the number of transnational famiUes (families that maintain significant contact with two or more countries) will only continue to increase (Bryceson and Vuorela, 2002; Sherif Trask, Hamon, and Hepp, 2006). Despite the debate over the novelty of the phenomenon of "transnationalism" (e.g., Morawska, 2007), it is indisputable that the integrated economies of today allow for much greater transnational activity, and offer "an attractive, and at times, deceiving, imagined possibility of living with two hearts rather than with one divided heart" (Falicov, 2005, p. 399).

The aim of this exploratory study is to investigate whether this possibiUty of "emotional transnationalism" is realized by contemporary immigrants. Based on a purposefully selected group of highly educated, middle-class, ethnically white, legal immigrants to the U.S., we seek to understand these families" experiences, as they try to maintain intergenerational relationships across significant distances. The present study offers answers to the following specific questions: How do contemporary Eastern European immigrants define their family? What effect does living in distant countries have on the relationships across three generations? What are some specific strategies the participants employ to maintain relationships with grandparents and extended family? Finally, how do they resolve the losses of immigration, and negotiate living in multiple environments?

Contributions of the Present Study

Most recent studies of immigrants in the U.S. have focused on the two largest immigrant groups, those from Latin America and those from Asia. Little research has been done with the less visible but substantial population of immigrants from Eastern Europe, which increased after the coUapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Communist regime in Eastern Europe. From 1987 to 2001, there was almost a six-fold increase in the number of Eastern European immigrants admitted for legal permanent residence in the U.S. (Robila, 2007). During that time, four Eastern European countries (Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and Bosnia-Herzegovina) were mentioned on the annual U.S. lists of the top ten immigrant-sending countries. Yet the research on this group of immigrants remains limited.

In addition, "from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, worldwide about one third of all legal immigrants to the U.S." (with the exception of dependents) were high status professionals "brain drain" immigrants. In 1993 this number was as high as 34% (Rumbaut, 1997, p. 20). Due to their inconspicuous and virtually problem-free presence in the receiving country, the experiences of this "invisible" group of immigrant professionals received little attention from researchers. At the same time, we know much about the experiences and struggles of recent lower income immigrants, most of whom come from Latin America and Asia (e.g., Portes and Rumbaut, 2001; Suarez-Orozco and Suarez-Orozco, 2001). The current study is focused on those who belong to both of these understudied groups: (a) immigrants from Eastern Europe, who are also (b) in the professional ranks.


In contrast to the "huddled masses" coming through ElUs Island over a hundred years ago (Gabaccia, 2007; Handlin, 1951), a large proportion of recent immigrants to the U.S. from Eastern European countries are young, college-educated people searching for economic opportunities that the disintegrated economies of the former communist states do not provide (Ispa-Landa, 2007; Roberts, Clark, Fagan, and Tholen, 2000). …

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