While most mothers cherish the joy of having children, women all too often also become disillusioned by motherhood, their feelings heightened by the sense that, as mothers, they have lost their own identities. Feelings of inadequacy, of being “just a mother,” are mentioned frequently in the research literature about motherhood—at least in the research carried out in Western countries. Studies done in England and Australia have reported women with ambivalent feelings about their motherhood. They say they have contradictory reactions—pleasure from the experience is mixed with the sense that their childcare work has low status because it is routine and burdensome.
A recent journal article by Pranee Laimputton and four colleagues seeks to compare the findings of Western-based research with the attitudes of Thai women toward motherhood. They interviewed 30 Thai women living in the city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand and in a subdivision 49 km away. All the mothers reported that they were Buddhists, and 28 of the 30 were married. The authors interviewed the women in their homes, in the Thai language, for one to two hours each.
The Thai women emphasized to the researchers their pride and happiness at being mothers. Although they often complained about exhaustion from their childcare, they valued the experience of motherhood very much. As one woman commented, “sometimes I feel frustrated because I have too many things to do…. This makes me very tired. But when the children call me ‘Mae’ [mother] and give me a hug or a kiss, I just feel so happy and forget all the hard work (p.592).”
The Thai women also told the researchers that motherhood increased their sense of responsibility and self-sacrifice. They realized that they had become more mature because of the mothering duties, and had learned to control their emotions and behaviors better.
Some of the Thai women believed that raising children was hard on their health. However, many of them also believed that their health problems were their own fault, due to their not following traditional practices of confinement after giving birth—normally 30 days. On the other hand, some of the women felt that the challenges and work of motherhood fostered good health.
Some of the women reported to the authors that they experienced conflicts involved with raising their children, especially with other family members who tried to tell them what to do. But most of the women said they had few problems with their husbands. Since husbands traditionally leave the childcare to their wives, women found it easy either to ignore their suggestions or to go along with them nominally in order to keep the peace. Some husbands increased the amount of housework they did when their children were born, since they recognized that their wives were involved with so much childcare. Occasionally, however, tensions with family members resulted in outbursts of anger and even incidents of hitting the children.
As a result of their motherhood, the Thai women indicated that they gained a much greater appreciation for the work, sacrifices, and love of their own mothers when they were children. The women said they have a strong sense of bun khun (a Thai concept, also spelled bunkhun)—meritorious deeds, assistance, or favors—that their mothers gave them and that they must pass on to their own children. The concept of bun khun, derived from the Buddhist concept of karma (bun means “merit” in Thai) is quite important to understanding the ways Thai parents interact with their children.
According to Liamputton et al., a Thai who does favors for others must not expect reciprocal favors. Instead, the recipients must seek ways to return favors to express their gratitude—a fine distinction perhaps. They add that the bun khun of parents can never be completely repaid by their children, but an important reciprocal duty is gratitude. Children who are able to return their parents’ bun khun with assistance of their own, such as when they grow older, gain a measure of bun themselves that fosters happiness and harmony in society.
In sum, the difficulties of raising a child prompt the Thai woman to reflect on the problems her own mother must have faced. As one woman expressed it, “we would really appreciate our mothers’ bun khun when we have become a mother (p.594).” Another woman, speaking about her mother, told the interviewer, “now, I look after her very well; I do my best to take good care of her. This is the way I pay back her bun khun (p.594).”
Phillips (1965) also provides a careful analysis of parent/child relationships, though his research was done in Bang Chan, a rural village in Central Thailand. While he does not focus specifically on women’s feelings about motherhood, he does dwell on the bun khun relationships between parents and children which, he argues, are clearly reciprocal. His research subjects emphasized that they often thought of the kindness and goodness of their parents, some even suggesting that they were deeply moved just to recollect their parents’ goodness. One woman recalled how her mother “brought me sweets and comforted me when I was frightened (p.158).”
A book on Thai social life by Mulder (1990) also provides a careful analysis of the importance of bun khun. It is worth quoting a few sentences of his discussion. “The primary symbol of moral goodness is the phrakkun or bunkhun, the pure devotion which a mother has for her children. She cannot help but be good, cannot but give and care; she is always benevolent and forgiving. She feeds and loves without expectation of return; she gives without asking and does not punish…. She is a refuge, a haven of safety, and the wellspring of the moral identity of her offspring. (p.25)”
While that kind of expression might seem overly sentimental to some readers, the concept of bun khun evidently helps foster positive feelings by Thai women for the role of motherhood. Lainputton et al. emphasize in their conclusion that they did not find the ambivalence toward motherhood among Thai women that has turned up frequently in research based on Western societies. The authors conclude, “the level of low satisfaction with motherhood and its consequent unhappiness found in several studies with women from Western societies does not exist in this study [of Thailand] (p.598-99).”
Liamputton, Pranee et al. 2004. “When I Become a Mother!: Discourses of Motherhood among Thai Women in Northern Thailand.” Women’s Studies International Forum 27: 598-601.