From a Girl to a Mother and Immigrant

Written by Katia Weiss
Edited by Seyeon Hwang & Kayla Byrd

Based in Michigan, Katia Weiss is currently in the process of getting into college to pursue a degree in Psychology and Behavioral Analysis. For the past eighteen years, she was a stay-at-home mom supporting the education of her three daughters. She is also a volunteer in the local community and has worked as a Teacher’s Assistant at a preschool for two years.

Katia (far right) with her husband (far left) and daughters, Nadine (second from upper right), Alicia (lower right) and Julia (lower left) visiting Germany in 2012 (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, I have been living in Michigan with my husband and my beautiful daughters for the past two decades.

Looking back, my life as an immigrant has taught me some important lessons on being a woman, mother, and a person of color in America.

Today, I would like to share them with you.

A Childhood Defined by Gender

Katia at 6 months old in Brazil (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

Growing up in Brazil, I had a very strict upbringing.

My parents were authoritarian. Sometimes, I felt as if my every emotion was being controlled in an attempt to earn their conditional love. Somehow I felt as though I would never earn it, no matter how hard I tried.

I was rarely allowed to host a sleepover or stay out with my friends. Whenever I spent time with my friends, I was always the first person to leave due to my strict curfew. I was always ordered to be at home before sunset, much earlier in the day than anyone at my age normally would.

My parents were hesitant to initiate any intimate talks with me about the experiences I faced as a teenager. They hardly asked about my social or love life; as far as they knew, I wasn’t permitted to even have such a thing.

Naturally, I never discussed any of my feelings, thoughts, or life with them.

As a young girl, I was always taught not to speak up unless called upon. Whenever I tried to express my opinion, I was stifled and rejected. If I tried to respond it was often deemed as “inappropriate” and out of my rights. They hated when I answered back and considered it as an undermine to their authority.

However, I don’t blame my parents for how I was raised. They didn’t know any better.

My mother once told me about her father who used to follow her and her sister around everywhere. There were even times when he dressed as a detective in order to disguise himself.

This took a huge toll on my mother. Her strained relationship with her own father made her vigilant about exposing her own daughters to any potential dangers.

Ironically, her coping mechanisms led her to rarely respect the privacy and free will of her own daughters.

Katia in third grade at elementary school (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

My parents also believed that each gender had different roles to play: a daughter was expected to be quiet, submissive, and helpful to her parents. Contrastingly, a son was expected to be outspoken, ambitious, and domineering.

Inevitably, their beliefs were translated into how they treated me and my siblings.

Katia (second from left) with her friends in high school in December 1995 (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

My brother, who was six years younger than me, was allowed to get away with almost everything. Yet, my sisters and I were sheltered and suppressed to meet my parents’ high expectations.

Still, there is no resentment.

I miss them dearly everyday.

Coming from a large family, we loved one another dearly. We often invited many of our uncles, aunts, and cousins for large family gatherings. Our family was always happy to gather together and got along so well with one another.

Love, the Beginning of Everything

One evening in 2000, I walked into a local restaurant packed with people attending a send-off party hosted by my friend. Surrounded by my friends chattering away in close proximity, I noticed a man staring at me at the opposite side of the table. I blushed.

When I carefully looked up to meet his gaze, he smiled and winked at me.

It was an odd yet very funny encounter.

Slowly, I noticed him walking towards me and he asked,

“May I sit?”

I said yes.

From there, we talked for hours. I felt a strong, instant connection to the man.

Our chemistry was undeniable.

Katia (right) and her husband (left) pictured in Brazil in 2001 (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

Language was never an issue because we were so in love. He took the time to learn Portuguese and even took the time to familiarize himself with important parts of my culture.

Initially, my parents were worried about my blossoming relationship. They knew my heart had been broken by a previous relationship four years ago and they didn’t want me to see me get hurt again. As parents, their reaction was understandable.

But as soon as they were able to meet him in person, they could see how much he loved me and how happy I was.

Shortly after, he flew me out to Germany to meet his side of the family.

His family was very welcoming.

Katia (right) with her step-daughter, Nadine, in Germany in 2014 (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

My soon-to-be-stepdaughter at the time, Nadine, was only ten years old but we instantly made a strong bond. Talking to her and getting to know her, I could tell how dearly she missed her own father. I couldn’t imagine myself living that far away from my father!

As we fell deeper for each other, I grew scared that he would leave and break my heart someday. The thought of losing him was hard to deal with.

One day, he told me that he’d been offered a job in America and asked me to come with him. I snapped back at him,

“I am not going to a new continent just to follow around a boyfriend!”

Right in that moment, he said,

“Then, let’s get married.”

At first, I nodded along thinking that it was a joke. But then, he affirmed that he was serious.

“Yes, I will marry you.”

Starting the very next day, we began planning our wedding.

During the wedding planning process, I discovered that I was pregnant. My parents were embarrassed that I could be having a baby out of wedlock and asked me to change the wedding date to make the pregnancy seem less apparent.

I said no. And it may have been one of the first times that I fully expressed what I wanted to my parents.

A photo of Katia (right) and her husband (left) on their wedding day (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

I was sure that we were getting married because we loved each other, not because of the baby. Even without the pregnancy, we were in love and ready to start a new chapter of our lives.

A little more than seven months into the pregnancy, we happily tied the knot in Brazil.

Leaving Brazil for Safety

In February 2002, we welcomed our beautiful daughter, Alicia, into the family. Five months later, we decided to move to the U.S. permanently.

Initially, I had mixed emotions about moving to America. My husband had just been offered a job and we knew that moving here would give my daughter better opportunities. Brazil had been infested with violence and we wanted to raise her in a safer environment.

But at the same time, I was afraid.

Saying goodbye to my family was extremely hard.

At that time, I had never moved outside of Brazil. It was my home and I wasn’t confident that I would be able to find another home that meant as much to me in the new country.

Each time I said goodbye to another family member, I grew more anxious.

In the morning of the last day in Brazil, I was exhausted.

But I knew I had to stay strong for my daughter and family. I worried that I would get cold feet and decide not to leave. The thought of leaving behind everything was hard to process.

Throughout the entire 14-hour flight from São Paulo to Chicago, I could not stop crying and neither could my five-month-old baby. Sitting next to my husband who had dozed off, I stayed up holding my sleepless baby wondering what my life would be like in America for the next few days, months, or years.

By the time we got off at Chicago for a three-hour layover before leaving for Detroit, my husband noticed that I was oddly quiet. Worried, he asked me how I was doing.

“I’m okay, don’t worry.”

But the truth was, I was terrified. I already missed my family and wanted to go back.

Scared that I might be losing my only chance of raising my daughter in a safer country, I pulled myself together and boarded the Detroit-bound flight.

Motherhood in a New Country

Dealing with the beginning of my motherhood in a foreign country was extremely difficult.

Fortunately, with the help of my neighbors who were also from Brazil, I slowly grew fond of Detroit. My husband and I loved the city so much that we later bought a house and settled down.

In Brazil, I had a strong support system to raise my daughter. My parents and relatives were willing to help me out if needed.

Katia’s daughter, Alicia (left), with Katia’s mother in Brazil (pictured in blue) in 2006 (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

But in America, it was me and my husband but practically, most of the burden fell upon me. My husband, who had just moved to a new country for a job, was always at work. I felt as though I was raising my child all alone.

Having a fussy baby made it even more challenging for me.

I would have normally sought advice from my mother but she wasn’t there. I didn’t know what to do and where to ask for help when I needed it.

What made the situation worse was the moving company hired to help our transition. Even though they had been paid to support all paperwork, move, English assistance, and other basic set-up for the entire family, the needs of me and my baby were totally neglected. However, they had made necessary arrangements for my husband. When I tried to speak up about this, I was blocked and had no say in what was happening or what should be done to make the transition a little easier for the two of us.

For months, I had to take charge of setting up everything for our new life on my own.

Without knowing anything about the country and not speaking the language, this came as a huge challenge.

Not only was I a new mother in a new country, but as it later turned out, I was also suffering from postpartum depression.

One day, my husband took me to the hospital for my regular check-up with our doctor. After a series of routine examinations, the doctor called me in and started asking me if I had anyone I could rely on or talk to.

I said no.

Following a few more questions on my mental health, she prescribed me a small dose of medication to help with the depression and anxiety disorder I was suffering from. In that moment, I was finally able to piece together why my life had been so much more difficult than what it had to be.

Katia on Facetime with her siblings and father in Brazil. She comes from a big family and talks to them frequently by phone (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

Without the support system I once had in Brazil, I suffered greatly from the emotional tension of having to accept and adjust to the new role of a mother and immigrant. I could never really talk about how I was feeling with anybody.

The depression made it difficult for me to drive. Whenever I approached my car sitting in the driveway, I couldn’t pull the courage to start it.

Instead, I broke down and cried.

For the next several months, unable to drive, all I could do was keep myself at home sobbing with the newborn sitting right next to me. Added to this was the devastating news of the passing of my great uncle who I had been very close to growing up.

I still feel guilty that I wasn’t able to take full care of my then-teenage daughter, Nadine, while she was visiting us all the way from Germany at that time.

As time went by, things got better gradually but slowly.

I was lucky to have my next-door neighbor, a very nice Brazilian lady, who helped me a lot. She often took me on drives around town and even accompanied me on trips to the grocery store and the mall. I found great comfort in her company.

At first, taking care of the newborn took all of my time and energy that I could not find the time to learn English. Eventually, as my daughter became older, I was able to attend English classes and pick up the language quite quickly with the help of an amazing English teacher.

Katia (left) with her English teacher, Nancy (right), at her baby shower in 2005 (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

Nancy was an American woman who was hired by my husband’s company for private lessons. She was a kind teacher who understood the difficulties I was having as a new mother and an English language learner. She was supportive and understanding of my situation, not only as a teacher but also as a friend.

For a long time, she was the only person I was able to speak to besides my husband.

With her, I finally felt like I was a human being.

Fortunately, my pregnancy with Julia was much easier because by then, I had made a few friends who were there to support me along the way. Deyar was one of those people I could turn to.

Deyar (right) and Katia (left) pictured together in 2006 (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

Still, the fact that I could not have my family visit me was hard to accept and it still saddens me that I can’t meet them here.

Even until today, my family in Brazil have never been to the U.S. They applied for a tourist visa multiple times over the past two decades but their applications were rejected every time. At one point, I even had a signed letter from Senator Debbie Stabenow included in the application along with my letter vowing to sponsor their short trips and a detailed plan outlining the dates, times, places to visit, and locations for lodging.

Despite the exceptional effort, their applications were denied again.

Racism and Hardships Untold

The families on both my and my husband’s sides always believed that our life as immigrants resembled a fairytale or luxury vacation. For instance, not understanding the lack of public transit in where I live, they have always been envious that we own two cars.

Knowing this, I felt like I would be too spoiled to complain about my own hardships. Crime and violence are prevalent in Brazil and I didn’t want to add to the heavy concerns they already have about their safety. So, I kept telling myself that my life was better than the lives of my family back in Brazil.

But the truth was, my life in America wasn’t easy either.

I was alone, exhausted, and in dire need of help.

Katia (left) with her daughters, Julia (middle) and Alicia (right) when they were younger (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

Being a mother and immigrant in America presented another unforeseen challenge — racism.

I am very tan with green eyes and black hair.

When my daughter started preschool, I suddenly had to step out of my community of immigrant friends and interact with parents who were non-immigrant Americans.

Many of them started asking me questions like,

“Are you sure this is your child?”

In the eyes of some Americans, having pale daughters with blue eyes and blonde hair meant that I couldn’t be their mother. I was frequently mistaken for their nanny or babysitter. The fact that the color of my skin didn’t match that of my daughters was enough for people to reject the fact that I was indeed their mother.

Occasionally, some people noticed my accent and asked me where I was from. When I told them that I was from Brazil, many of them said that they could associate Brazil with only partying and carnival.

I felt offended and undermined.

After all, I was no less of a parent than they were; yet, they did not hesitate to throw judgments against me based solely on my looks and the country I was from.

Every time I went through these experiences, I was reminded of the color-based society that America was. Even coming from a highly multiracial and multicultural society like Brazil, I had to adjust to the new identity I had been pressed to take on the moment I stepped into the country as an immigrant — a brown Latina woman.

These unexpected hardships were hard to share with my family in Brazil and Germany.

I felt a distance between us in understanding the everyday struggles that an average American faces, which are often distorted and unfairly portrayed in the media. Nevertheless, my family continued to believe that I was living the perfect life that they couldn’t have. I knew that my speaking about these difficulties wouldn’t be enough to shatter the fantasy that my family had about my life in America.

So, I suffered in silence.

Raising Daughters From Experience

Being an immigrant, I see the differences in the culture and opportunities that affect girls between America and Brazil.

As a mother of three daughters, I never wanted to make them feel inferior or suppressed due to societal expectations. Rather, I raised my children to know that they deserve to pursue a great career and higher education.

Julia (left) and Alicia (right) on Katia’s 45th birthday in 2019 (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

In particular, I raised my daughters to speak up for themselves and fight for what they believe in.

My second daughter, Alicia, just graduated from high school and is now in college studying to be a doctor. I take great pride in raising her to be a confident, independent woman and a compassionate individual who is passionate about helping others.

My youngest, Julia, helped raise money for kids through UNICEF by introducing the organization to her school. She spoke up and now, the school raises money for UNICEF every year at Halloween.

Julia during one of the Halloween fundraisers in 2014 (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

I want my children to know that I am their support system.

At a young age, I had to take on the responsibility of being a mother and immigrant in a country where I was still learning the language without the help of anyone. I did not want my daughters to feel the same loneliness and neglect that I had to go through.

Thankfully, as young women, I see them being vocal about the things that matter to them and constantly fighting for what they believe in. I am always supportive of their beliefs and goals.

Learning From the Past for Future

Katia (left) pictured with her husband (right) (Photo Credit: Katia Weiss)

At first, I was scared to start a new life in America. But in the end, I confronted my fears and I found freedom in a safer place that I now call “home.”

As terrified as I was, I was able to learn that in order to find your true self, you have to step out of your comfort zone. To me, it was moving to America and raising my children without the help of my family.

I don’t see myself as a victim; yet, a lot was expected of me as a new mother and immigrant. Starting a family in a new country was a joy but also a straining task.

Looking back, I rather consider myself a “survivor.” The path I have taken so far has shaped who I am now, especially as a mother to my three daughters.

Nowadays I’m preparing to get into college in order to continue my education. I can proudly say I’ve faced and overcome my struggles. It was a lonely, challenging journey but one that has been so worthwhile.

I am now looking forward to having the opportunity to help other immigrant families so they don’t go through what I went through alone.

Disclaimer: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of WeaveTales and its employees.

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We collect and share the stories of refugees around the world to correct misperceived narratives and empower refugees to find a safe home. www.weavetales.org

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