Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 40, Issue 1, pp 124–143 | Cite as

Motherhood and the “Madness of Hunger”: “…Want Almal Vra vir My vir ‘n Stukkie Brood” (“…Because Everyone Asks Me for a Little Piece of Bread”)

  • Lou-Marié KrugerEmail author
  • Marleen Lourens
Original Paper


It is widely assumed that the social and economic conditions of poverty can be linked to common mental disorders in low-, middle- and high-income countries. Despite the considerable increase in quantitative studies investigating the link between poverty and mental health, the nature of the connection between poverty and emotional well-being/distress is still not fully comprehended. In this qualitative study, exploring how one group of Coloured South African women, diagnosed with depression and residing in a semi-rural low-income South African community, subjectively understand and experience their emotional distress, data was collected by means of in-depth semi-structured interviews and social constructionist grounded theory was used to analyse the data. We will attempt to show (1) that the depressed women in this group of respondents frequently refer to the emotional distress caused by hungry children and (2) that the emotional distress described by the respondents included emotions typically associated with depression (such as sadness, hopelessness and guilt), but also included emotions not necessarily associated with depression (such as anxiety, anger and anomie). In our attempt to understand (both psychologically and politically) the complex emotional response of mothers to their children’s hunger, we argue that powerful gender and neo-liberal discourses within which mothers are interpellated to care for children, and more specifically, to make sure that children are not hungry, mean that the mothers of hungry children felt that they were not fulfilling their responsibilities and thus felt guilty and ashamed. This shame seemed, in turn, to lead to anger and/or anomie, informing acting out behaviours ranging from verbal and physical aggression to passive withdrawal. A vicious cycle of hunger, sadness and anxiety, shame, anger and anomie, aggression and withdrawal, negative judgement, and more shame, are thus maintained. As such, the unbearable rebukes of hungry children can be thought of as evoking a kind of “madness” in low-income mothers.


Hunger Food insecurity Poverty Motherhood Shame Depression South Africa 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyStellenbosch UniversityMatielandSouth Africa
  2. 2.Clinical Psychology, Department of PsychologyStellenbosch UniversityGrahamstownSouth Africa

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