Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Motherhood, Risk and Responsibility: Infant Care in Northern Thailand

Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Motherhood, Risk and Responsibility: Infant Care in Northern Thailand

Article excerpt


The cultural construction of childrearing and infant care in northern Thai society is discussed on the basis of in-depth interviews with 30 women in Northern Thailand. The results indicate that Thai mothers observe and practise many socially and culturally acceptable tasks to ensure the health and wellbeing of their infants. These beliefs and practices tie them not only with their family and their society at large, but also the supernatural world. Mothers see themselves as responsible parents and hence follow numerous rules to avoid risks which may pose threats to the health and wellbeing of their infants. This attempt is used as a means to prove that they are good and moral mothers.

Keywords: childrearing; infant care; Thai mothers; Thai culture; risk and responsibility


Most published materials concerning infant care of women in non-Western societies have given little attention to the subjective experiences of mothers in relation to their social positions and how they see themselves as a parent and their difficulties and risks entailed in rearing children within the social and cultural context of their mothering roles. However, there are few exceptions. Unlike most studies on childrearing and child care, Scheper-Hughes (1987) undertook an interesting study on mothers' emotional responses to their children's health and conditions in a poor and changing society of Brazil. Her work is a classic example of the importance of examining the ways mothers make sense of their children's illnesses and the impact on their emotional responses, and hence, the ways they care for their ill children within the context of poverty. Her findings pointed to the importance of the social and economic context of women's lives. The expression of maternal sentiments and the cultural meanings of mother love and child death are constructed within the mothers' 'experiences of attachment, separation, and loss'. Scheper-Hughes (1987) alerted us to a luta, 'a unifying metaphor of life, a struggle, between strong and weak, or between weak and weaker still'. This culturally constructed concept allows mothers to 'explain the necessity of allowing some, especially their very weak--babies to die a mingua, that is, without attention, care, or protection'. She suggested that 'maternal thinking and practices are socially produced rather than determined by a psychological script of innate of universal emotions'. Her study pointed to 'the indignities and inhumanities' that the poor mothers have to make decisions; the decisions that no mothers should have to make. The selective neglect of children, Scheper-Hughes (1987) argued, needs to be understood as a direct result of the 'selective neglect' of their mothers, who have been marginalised due to their poverty.

Olin Lauritzen (1997) examined the ways mothers make sense of the illness of their young infants. She theorised that mothers understand health in relation to a double frame of reference, the bodily and the social, as a cue to tell if their infants are healthy or ill. In their attempts to assess the health of their infants, mothers try to 'read' the bodily signs and reactions in their young babies. Mothers feel many threats in their attempts to raise children and these include threats of abnormality, survival, thriving and ill health. Olin Lauritzen (1997: 436) concluded her findings that 'the embodied images of child health are intertwined with the mothers' presentation of themselves as responsible for the health of their children as "worthy" parents'.

In this paper, I discuss infant care practices among Northern Thai mothers. In particular, I focus on issues relating to risk and responsibility of mothers in their childrearing practices and the ways in which charges of irresponsibility are related to infant care. I also examine the rituals applying to a newborn infant in Northern Thai society. The aim is to show that in order for mothers to claim that they are good mothers, they have to be responsible mothers by adhering to the cultural beliefs and practices surrounding the newborn infant. …

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