Giving birth in exile: motherhood as reterritorialization


This paper explores the effects of exile on the subjectivity of pregnant migrant women through the lens of the processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Having escaped the gaze of the parental superego, the subject’s encounter with sexuality becomes possible. However, in addition to the emancipatory aspects of migration, we observe particular somatic-psychical effects on reproductive ability. These “exile” pregnancies are generally experienced as difficult and painful, laying bare a symptomatology that is as much psychical as somatic, and which highlights the cost of a desire for independence. In this context, where perinatal risks must be evaluated and treated through an interdisciplinary approach, a clinical accompaniment proves to be indispensable for the maternity to progress smoothly on foreign soil.

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  1. 1.

    This research was conducted in Buenos Aires in 2009, in close collaboration with the mental health staff of the Ramón Sardá Maternity Hospital (Dr. E. Andina, Dr. S. Naddeo) and the University of Buenos Aires School of Psychology (UBA—Master “Politicas de Migraciones Internacionales”).

  2. 2.

    These neologisms, coined by Gilles and Guattari (1972) in Anti-Oedipus, denote the way in which these two movements, locked in a permanent dialectical relationship, follow and respond to each other while producing various changes, especially at the level of meaning and of subjectivity more generally. To become deterritorialized is a way of escaping a sedentary position; it is a way “by which ‘one’ leaves the territory” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980, p. 559). Reterritorialization, on the other hand, means “re-creating territory” on something “of a different nature” from what one has left behind (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994, p. 67.) Both processes, therefore, require creativity and novelty.

  3. 3.

    The largest maternity hospital in Argentina, located in the south of the capital. Accredited by UNICEF and the Argentinian Ministry of Health, it registers approximately 7000 deliveries per year.

  4. 4.

    The Greek kliné, from the verb klinein (“slope, lean or recline”) means “at the bedside.”

  5. 5.

    Half of the interviewees were hospitalized locally for high-risk pregnancies; the other half were patients awaiting a consultation in the hospital waiting room.

  6. 6.

    We should specify that this was psychotherapeutic treatment that allowed for in-depth exploration, thanks to the unfolding of a transferential bond, of the clinical signs that were laid out and the effects of the migration process at the level of the pregnancy process.

  7. 7.

    Drawing on Berman (1984)’s formula: the “drive to translate” (p. 21).

  8. 8.

    Our clinical study is a qualitative one, with statistical data presented for information purposes only. Even so, we may mention that we were struck above all by the absence of any formulated wish to get pregnant and the contrasting advent of these pregnancies “in the wake of the migration”. The figures themselves are remarkable: of the 40 women interviewed, 78% became pregnant during the first 2 years after moving to Argentina. Although, all the women were still of reproductive age, it is noteworthy that 42% became pregnant during the first year of their presence on Argentine soil.

  9. 9.

    In reference to the Spanish word for “pregnant”—embarazada. This term, which otherwise translates as “ill at ease” or “in a bind,” refers to an expression, in the past also commonly used in French, denoting a woman who became pregnant outside marriage.

  10. 10.

    We may add that at least four cases have been identified as presenting this same symptom (statistics for information purposes only).

  11. 11.

    The patient explained: “My womb was too small.” According to the medical file, tests had concluded uterine hypoplasia. Nevertheless, the file provided little detail.

  12. 12.

    Several clinical studies suggest connections between infertility and psychology. For a review, see Greil, 1997. Among more current work, see Pragier and Faure-Pragier (1993), Bydlowski (1997) and Stoléru et al. (1996).

  13. 13.

    The announcement—which in any case is always “mortifying”—revives ancient repressed material. As Benslama (2005) puts it, “regardless of the content of the announcement—the arrival of a child, a text, a sacrifice, a new era, and so on—it appears essentially as a revelation of one’s overwhelming responsibility before the other, where the very fact of giving life also inherently ‘brings death’ ” (pp. 67–72).

  14. 14.

    This path has also been developed on the basis of my clinical observations on maternity, in particular during my limited participation in a weekly talk group for teenagers.

  15. 15.

    The impact of migration on women’s sexuality has been the object of several articles, notably in gender studies linked to migration studies, but also in the sociological field and even the psychological field. See Espín (1997).

  16. 16.

    Raphael-Leff (1996), speaks about “psychological immunity.” (pp. 373–399) I prefer to use the expression psychical immunity.

  17. 17.

    Similar somatic manifestations in migrant and refugee populations have previously been studied in detail. See especially Douville and Galap (1999) and Pestre (2010).

  18. 18.

    See Bydlowski (1997)’s work on the double aspect of the child’s pre-Oedipal and Oedipal desire and the process of motherhood.


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Correspondence to Elise Pestre.

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*Dr. Elise Pestre is Associate Professor at Paris Diderot University at Sorbonne Paris Cité, member of the Center for Research in Psychoanalysis, Medicine and Society, EAD-3522.

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Pestre, E. Giving birth in exile: motherhood as reterritorialization. Am J Psychoanal 75, 304–319 (2015).

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  • migration
  • sexuality
  • pregnancy
  • fertility
  • deterritorialization
  • clinical approach