Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 25–53 | Cite as

Motherhood and “Moral Career”: Discourses of Good Motherhood Among Southeast Asian Immigrant Women in Australia

  • Pranee Liamputtong
Original Article

In this paper, I examine the lived experience of motherhood among Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese immigrant women in Australia. The women in this study felt a profound change through the process of becoming a mother; they experience the “transformation of self.” The results reveal several discourses of good motherhood. Becoming a mother was experienced as a moral transformation of self and women were urged to perform their moral career. The representation of mothers as the “keepers of morality” is prominent. Women's moral career is influenced by an ethic of care and responsibility for others, particularly their children. The paradoxical discourse of motherhood is profound in the women's narratives of their lived experiences of motherhood. It is clear that motherhood is not an easy task. When this is combined with difficulties resulting from migration, motherhood becomes double burdens. Lack of sufficient English, financial difficulties and support network in a homeland make the task of good motherhood difficult to achieve. Social and health care services need to take women's experiences into account if sensitive care for immigrant women is to be achieved.


motherhood moral career Southeast Asian immigrants Australia 


Traditionally, Vietnamese mothers live for their children. They tend to forget about their own interests and put their children first. (Vietnamese mother)

Ever since I got married and had children, all I did was for my children. I worked to get money to feed them. I wouldn't have to work if I didn't have them. Every thing I did was for my husband and my children. After leaving school, I spent all my young life looking after them. I haven't done any thing for myself. (Vietnamese mother)

A dominant discourse of motherhood in Western society tends to present motherhood as “good mother” (Chodorow 1978; Wearing 1984; Marshall 1991; Thurer 1994; McMahon 1995; Hays 1996; Brown et al. 1997; Lupton 2000; Lupton and Fenwick 2001). This is clearly the message women receive in most published materials concerning the way women should mother their children (Chodorow 1978; Hays 1996). Feminist writers, however, argue that motherhood is far from the idealistic image of good mother (Hays 1996). Boulton (1983), for example, interviewed mothers from middle and working class backgrounds about motherhood and daily lives. In her study women expressed mixed feelings about being a mother. While motherhood provided enjoyment and pleasure, for others, particularly poor women, it was burdensome. Some women had negative experiences of motherhood. Weaver and Ussher (1997, p. 51) examined the expectations, experiences and motherhood changes among mothers of young children in North London. Similarly, they found that “societal myths were implicated for giving a false impression of motherhood.” When this is combined with the high demands of childcare, it led to “disillusionment and a sense of lost identity.” The reality of being a mother is contrary to the idealized image of motherhood normally presented in the media to society (Antonis 1981). This made many women feel inadequate.

To date, the lived experiences of motherhood among Southeast Asian immigrant mothers are largely unknown. Within limited literature on motherhood among immigrant women, it has been suggested that the process of becoming a mother depletes women's health and well-being (Macintyre and Dennerstein 1995; Liamputtong and Naksook 2003a), and women endure multiple burdens of motherhood due to their immigrant status (Greig 2003; Liamputtong and Naksook 2003b). Furthermore, a question of what it means to be a mother in a changing social and cultural circumstance such as becoming a mother and being a migrant at the same time deserves great attention. This aspect has largely been neglected in research concerning motherhood. How would Southeast Asian immigrant mothers see themselves as mothers in changing social and cultural environments? What are the impacts of migration on motherhood? I will examine these issues in this paper.

It is important to briefly discuss some aspects of immigration in Australia to provide the specific context of this study. Prior to 1972, most Australian immigrants came from Southern European countries. Most Asian immigrants, including those from Southeast Asia, entered Australia when the “White Australia” policy was abolished in 1972 (Jupp 2002; Liamputtong, Lin and Bagley 2003). The White Australia policy was adopted from the 1880s to limit immigration to persons who were “White” as a way to preserve the cultural homogeneity of the white race and avoid “racial contamination” (Zubrzycki 1995, p. 3). After the abolition of this policy, Australia adopted the principles of multiculturalism which encourages the acquisition and maintenance of ethnic languages and cultures among the migrant populations (Liamputtong Rice 1997, 1999; Jupp 2002; Liamputtong et al., 2003). Despite this, Australia is still a monolingual society with English used as the official language and medium of exchange in all matters. As Liam (1991, p. 156) points out, “the influence of the English language remains overpowering; it is still the language which gives a person access to information and resources.” Ironically, multiculturalism does not mean that ethnic and cultural diversity is accepted as a permanent feature of Australian society either (Jamrozik et al. 1995, p. 95). It has also been criticized on a number of grounds, particularly in emphasizing cultural dimensions and obscuring class inequality among immigrant communities (Jamrozik et al. 1995; Jupp 2002). Although some of the long-established immigrant communities have achieved many high statuses and enjoyed wealth and prosperities in Australia, most of the more recent arrivals like the Southeast Asian immigrants are still struggling with financial, employment and settlement problems. As I will show, this is clearly the situation confronted by many women in this study.


Although existing literature on motherhood has provided a rich understanding of motherhood and women's personal experiences of becoming ‘a mother,’ it has largely been examined from a western cultural perspective. McMahon (1995, p. 24) succinctly puts it: “motherhood is constructed as the expression of women's natural, social, and moral identity — or, rather, the identity attributable to moral women, that is married white women.” Squire (1989) and O’Barr and others (1990, p. 2) argue that motherhood reflects a culturally privileged image of white, Western nuclear family. The experiences of those who lay outside this image such as poor mothers and mothers from non-White have been largely excluded. Bhopal (1998, p. 485) too argues that motherhood has often been investigated from a white, western perspective. This research often neglects “divisions based upon race and ethnicity.” Current social constructions of motherhood do not reflect the realities of non-Western mothers. Hence, they are socially constructed as “other” (Bhopal 1998, p. 486; Phoenix and Woollett, 1991, p. 18). Morokvasic (1983, p. 18) asserts that studies dealing with migrant women as a distinct category have not received much attention. She points out that prior to 1970s, migrant women “remain silent and invisible, present as a variable, absent as a person.” Hence, migrant women are treated as unproductive and not worth paying attention to (Liam 1999).

It is possible that women from different cultural backgrounds may have different perceptions and experiences of motherhood. As Thurer (1994, p. xv) insightfully puts it: “motherhood—the way we perform mothering—is culturally derived. Each society has its own mythology, complete with rituals, beliefs, expectations, norms, and symbols 舰 The good mother is reinvented as each society defines her anew, in its own terms, according to its own mythology.” In Bhopal's study (1998), for example, she shows that South Asian women living in East London see motherhood as a natural result of an arranged marriage linked to the importance of bearing male children in order to continue the ancestral line and to enhance the family pride and honor. It is through this social construction of motherhood, Bhopal (1998, p. 492) argues, that women are “judged as a good or a bad mother.”

Motherhood contains no single meaning or a given experience. McMahon (1995) suggests that there is no universal ideal of motherhood, nor the universal experience of mothers’ responsibility for their children. For some poor women, even the ideology of good motherhood dominates their self-perceptions and identities; in practice, their inadequate resources may mean that the task of motherhood is simply a struggle of trying to find food and shelter to keep their children alive. Social structures such as class status of the women have great impacts on the ways women become mothers and their worldly view of responsibilities toward their children.

Butler (1990), Werbner (1996), and Brubaker and Cooper (2000) argue that there is no single identity. Rather, there are “multiple, fragmented, and fluid” identities (Brubaker and Cooper (2000, p. 6). And as McMahon (1995, p. 24) concisely puts: “a woman is never only a woman; multiple other social relationships of race, class, ethnicity, or sexuality shape the lived meaning of being female,” I argue similarly that women are not simply only mothers. Rather, women have other interpersonal identities that are also salient to them and impact on their mothering roles. In the case of this study, it is the identity of being a migrant woman that is important for motherhood and mothering.

Motherhood is complex and multi-faceted (Bhopal 1998). Just as the experience of motherhood varies according to class structure and family forms (Boulton 1983; Sharp 1984; Doyal 1995; McMahon 1995; Hays 1996; Maushart 1997; Lupton 2000), ethnicity also has important effect on women's lives as mothers (Collins 1994; Glenn 1994; Bhopal 1998; Liam 1999; Feldstein 2000;Liamputtong 2001; Liamputtong et al. 2002, 2004; Liamputtong and Naksook 2003a). Models of mothering, I contend, need to take into account ethnicity and class if the voices of many women, who wish to become a mother, can be heard.


In this paper, I situate my findings and discussions within Goffman's (1963) theoretical framework of “moral career”: women and a moral career of motherhood. Career, according to Goffman (1961, p. 119), refers to “any social strand of any person's course through life.” Goffman (1961, p. 119) argues that “such a career is not a thing that can be brilliant or disappointing; it can no more be a success than a failure.” I argue that Goffman's concept is a useful framework for the understanding of women's moral career as mothers. As Goffman (1961, p. 119) puts it, the framework provides a “two-sidedness” which links internal matters such as the image of self and self-identity (the image of self and self-identity as mothers) with broader structures that include the “publicly accessible institutional complex” (the institution of motherhood). As such, Goffman's notion of career enables an individual to “move back and forth” between individual agency and social structure; that is between “the self and its significant society” (196, p. 119). Zodoroznyj (1999, p. 273) contends that the centrality of Goffman's argument is its emphasis on the temporality of the development of “self” in a “career.” Therefore, this involves the important process of the “labeled” developing an identity interacting with others with the power to “label.” In this sense, women may develop self-identity as mothers and be labeled as good or bad mothers as they interact with others around them.

Goffman refers “moral” to “self-conceptions” or “the experience of the self” (McMahon, 1995). Goffman (1963, p. 45) suggests that individuals who have “similar changes in conceptions of self” share “moral career,” which in turn may be “both cause and effect of commitment to a similar sequence of personal adjustments.” As such, the women in my study share similar changes in self-perceptions of being a mother, hence motherhood becomes a “moral career” for women who mother their children. Following arguments made by Chodorow (1978), Gilligan (1982) and Lyons (1983), McMahon (1995) suggests that through motherhood, women achieve the moral characteristic of giving and caring. In this paper, I also refer to the moral career of mothers as not only changes in their self-perceptions, but also as changes that occurs in relation with the ethic of care and responsibility of women (Chodorow 1978; McMahon 1995).

Goffman's conceptual framework of “moral career” is related to the concept of “identity.” Identity, according to symbolic interactionists, is formed through shared social interaction. People make sense of their experiences through a common set of symbols and these symbols are developed and find meaning through an interaction (Strauss 1959; Blumer 1969; Brubaker and Cooper 2000). Following Bourdieu (1977), Brubaker and Cooper (2000, p. 4) suggest that identity is conceptualized as a “category of practice.” Identity, as a category of practice, is “used by ‘lay’ actors in some everyday settings to make sense of themselves, of their activities, of what they share with, and how they differ from, others.” In the case of this paper, I contend that identity as the category of practice is adopted by the women to make sense of themselves as mothers and their mothering roles. As well, their identity as migrant women and their changing social situations make them conceptualize themselves as different from other western mothers.

The concept of identity, according to Stone (1981), represents self as a social object. Therefore, identity places the self in social terms. Identity refers to the social meaning of the self. McMahon (1995) argues that since identities are upheld through interaction, when individuals embark on different social relationships, pertinent identities must be formed. The social relationship of mothering a child, for example, is the social meaning of how women care for their children. Therefore, this is the social identity of motherhood. Motherhood, in this sense, as McMahon (1995, p. 29) succinctly puts, has the potential to carry “shadow images of immoral mother or bad mother”; the image of mother who do not conform to societal expectation of a good motherhood identity.

Brubaker and Cooper (2000, p. 17) suggest that identity emphasizes “self- understanding”: that is how an individual sees herself, her social location, and how she is prepared to act in a given situation. This is the “practical sense,” in Bourdieu's term (1990): the cognitive and emotional sense that individuals embrace themselves and their social world. This practical sense or self-understanding may take many forms. Identity, hence, signifies “the unstable, multiple, fluctuating, and fragmented nature of the contemporary ‘self’” (Brubaker and Cooper 2000, p. 8). To intersect the identity of motherhood and immigrant women under this framework, I contend that there are multiple and competing discourses of self-understanding of motherhood identities, as women, ethnic people, immigrant mothers, and moral/immoral mothers, amongst the women in this study. Because of this, the women must constantly re-negotiate their identities in their new social environment.

Both Goffman (1963, pp. 130–131) and Brubaker and Cooper (2000, p. 34) point to “identity ambivalence” of an individual in the society. Goffman (1963, pp. 130–131) maintains that, for individuals who fail to “acquire identity standards” norm of the society, they will inevitably feel some ambivalence about his or her own self. If women who become mothers feel that they cannot perform motherhood careers according to the societal expectations, they inevitably feel ambivalent about their motherhood careers and self identities as mothers. McMahon (1995, pp. 20–21) suggests that “children have become social objects of great cultural worth. They carry the symbolic power to transform women's identities.” Children become so important to women's self-conceptions. Connectedness with children can impact greatly on women's moral career as mothers. Through interaction with their children in a changing social environment, women may have ambivalent feelings toward their traditional mothering roles.

Goffman (1961, p. 155) theorizes that when an individual is in the process of socialization into another set of social identity and role, one can expect to find resentment and discontent followed by a new set of beliefs about the world and a new way of conceiving of self; Goffman refers to this as “rebirth.” This “rebirth” may prompt individuals to conform to the beliefs and practices of the conceiving new world. In this paper, I shall show that as a migrant woman confronting many obstacles in trying to settle into their new home, individual mothers change their ways of mothering and bringing up their children in a new set of environment. Some may relinquish their old ways and adopt the ways of the new world they are now living in. And this is the re-negotiation of self in Brubaker and Cooper's term (2000).


Motherhood, McMahon (1995, pp. 15–16) argues, has “the paradoxical character of appearing both socially determined and personally contingent in women's lives.” For many mothers motherhood is experienced as a “crisis” (McMahon 1995). Women's moral transformation inextricably links to the ideology of responsibility. Becoming a mother, women do not simply step into this role. Rather, becoming a mother is internalized in the sense of responsibility for their children. The feelings of responsibility for children, therefore, invest motherhood with its sacred character. Thus, motherhood can be “morally uplifting” to women, but paradoxically, it also impacts on their emotional and physical well-being (Chodorow 1978; Hays 1996).

According to La Rossa and La Rossa (1981), the paradoxical character of motherhood is not only from the nature of the rewards and costs involved, but because these costs and rewards are so extreme. Women's connectedness with their children is described as both positive and destructive. This paradoxical character of motherhood is illustrated in women's accounts of its effects on their identities. Boulton (1983), in her study with the middle class, full-time mothers for example, points to the sense of meaning and purpose in life that children brought to the mothers she studied, but she also discloses the restrictions and loss of personal identity among these women.

Rich's (1992) personal account of motherhood reveals that becoming a mother for her was not a one-sided career experience. Despite the fact that becoming a mother provides a powerful emotional experience that put her in touch with her body and her children, bringing up children also brings anger, frustration and resentment to her life. In their study with Australian women, Brown et al. (1994, p. 139), point out that women feel fulfilled that they could become a mother and that the best parts of being a mother include such aspects as watching the child grow, the love received from the child, of feeling needed and contented. However, “being a mother of a small child is both physically and emotionally demanding.” Lupton (2000, p. 62) too echoes this paradox in her study with new middle class, Anglo-Celtic Australian mothers. She points out that although motherhood is seen as “a source of self-fulfilment,” it is also “a significant constraint upon self-actualisation.” Motherhood, according to the women in her study, “requires great flexibility and agility” on the part of the women in “moving between multiple subjectivities and their associated, and often competing, demands.” Lupton (2000, p. 62) concludes that many women will continue to encounter hardships in achieving their ideal image of “good motherhood.” Physically, as Liamputtong and Naksook (2003a) show in their study with Thai immigrant mothers, motherhood has a negative impact on women's health. Becoming a mother, through the process of childbirth and caring for their young children for many Thai mothers, depletes their health. Thai women perceive their health to be worse after having a child or a few children.

Although we have seen that motherhood has a reward and brings happiness to many women, paradoxically, it also has negative impacts on the women's lives. Despite this, Elliot (1990) points out that the paradoxical nature of motherhood has not received much attention. This is largely due to the fact that women themselves are reluctant to discuss the emotional and physical impacts of motherhood on their lives. Brown et al. (1994, p. 161) argue that, for a mother, “to disclose feelings of stress and inability to cope to others, when these feelings are believed to be ‘unnatural,’ is to experience them as stigmatizing.” To disclose negative feelings of motherhood is to express a personal failure as a woman and as a mother. This failure will result in disapproval and rejection. Because women can anticipate this kind of reaction, silence remains in their narratives of motherhood experiences. This is what Maushart (1997, p. 21) refers to as “the mask of motherhood.” This mask of motherhood “disguise[s] the chaos and complexity” of women's experiences as mothers and it is this mask that “keeps women silent” about their lived experience of motherhood.


This paper is based on a larger ethnographic research project on childbearing, childrearing and motherhood among Southeast Asian women in Australia. In the study, in-depth interviews (Gubrium and Holstein 2001) were conducted with 91 women, including 30 each from Laos and Vietnam and 31 from Cambodia. The number of participants was determined by Strauss's (1987) sampling technique, which is to stop recruiting when little new data emerge (Ezzy 2002). Purposive sampling technique (Ezzy 2002; Liamputtong and Ezzy 2005) was adopted; that is only women who have experienced childbearing, childrearing and motherhood were approached to participate in the study. The women were recruited initially through personal contacts made by the three bilingual interviewers who are members of the Laos, Cambodian and Vietnamese communities. Further recruitment was made through a “snowball” technique (Ezzy 2002; Liamputtong and Ezzy 2005), when informants nominated their acquaintances as prospective participants of the study.

Each interview was conducted in the women's first language to maintain the subtlety and any hidden meaning of the women's statements. Prior to field-work which occurred during 1997–1998, the three bilingual interviewers were trained in the interview technique and familiarized with the guideline questions. These questions were open-ended, covering the issues of childbirth and reproductive health, ranging from pregnancy to menopause. Prior to the study being conducted, ethical approval was obtained from the La Trobe University Human Ethics Committee.

Before making an appointment for interviewing, consent to participate in the study was sought from each woman. After a full explanation of the proposed study including details of the projected length of the interviews and the scope of questions, each woman was asked to sign a consent form. The duration of each interview, including all aspects of the study (issues relating to childbirth, childrearing, motherhood and the experience of birthing services in Australia) took between three to four hours. Usually, the interviews were completed in one session but in some cases the bilingual research assistants made a second visit to conduct the rest of the interview. Questions relating to motherhood covered issues such as perceptions of good motherhood, the impacts of motherhood on their lives, and the experiences of becoming a mother.

With permission from the women, interviews were tape-recorded. The tapes were then translated into English and transcribed by the interviewers. This process was performed as soon as possible after an interview, so that the project's chief investigator (PL) could read the transcripts to assess the quality of the interview, and provide guidelines for the subsequent interviews. In terms of the translation quality and accuracy, the bilingual interviewers were encouraged to translate the materials as closely as possible to the terms or expressions used by the women, or to leave them in the original language. This matter, and other field-work problems, were discussed and clarified in the regular bi-monthly meetings attended by all members of the research team.

The theoretical framework guiding this study is situated within the phenomenology approach. The in-depth data concerning perceptions and experiences of childbirth was analyzed using a thematic analysis method guided by phenomenology (Ezzy 2002). According to Becker (1992, p. 7), phenomenology aims to interpret “situations in the everyday world from the viewpoint of the experiencing person.” Moustakas (1994, p. 13) also suggests that phenomenology attempts to “determine what an experience means for the persons who have had the experience and are able to provide a comprehensive description of it.” In this study, the interview transcripts were used to interpret how women described the meaning and their experiences of becoming a mother in their everyday lives. The focus of my analytic approach was on identifying not only themes and patterns that the women recounted their lived experience, but also “contradictions, ambivalence and paradoxes” of their narratives. (Lupton 2000, p. 53; Liamputtong and Ezzy 2005), as presented in the following section. Verbatim quotations are used to illustrate responses on relevant themes. The women's quotes are identified by their ethnicity and pseudonyms.


Only sixty-seven Southeast Asian women experienced childbirth in Australia and these results are reported in this paper. These include 21 each from Laos and Vietnam and 25 from Cambodia. Nearly half of the women lived in one suburban area of Melbourne. The majority of the women were aged between 31–40 years. Most of the Lao and Cambodian women were Buddhists and about half of the Vietnamese women were Catholics. Seventy per cent of the women interviewed were married and seventy-six per cent had between one to three children. More than half of the women had given birth to children both before and after coming to Australia. Most women's latest experience of birth in Australia took place within the period of five years before this study was undertaken.

Fifty-eight per cent of the Southeast Asian women lived with their spouses and children, nearly twenty per cent had their parents or extended family members living with them, and approximately twenty-two per cent are sole parents. Almost all the women from Laos and Vietnam were of the original ethnic groups, namely the Lao and the Vietnamese. Nearly half of the women from Cambodia were Chinese Cambodians. Across the three groups, only one woman who was from Laos, was married to an Anglo-Australian. The rest were married to men of the same or similar ethnic backgrounds. Of all the three groups of women, the Lao and the Vietnamese appeared to have received more education. Nearly a quarter of the Lao and Vietnamese women were educated up to the tertiary level, whereas more than half of Cambodian women had received primary education. When asked to evaluate their English proficiency, around half of Lao women felt that their English was not sufficient to communicate effectively with others, and about two-thirds of both the Vietnamese and Cambodian women felt that their English was poor. In terms of occupations, almost half of women from Laos and eighty-eight per cent of women from Cambodia were engaged in home duties or cared for other members of the family including young babies. The majority of Vietnamese women described themselves as unemployed. Nearly eighty per cent of women from Laos and Vietnam came to Australia as refugees and most arrived before 1983. Only a third of Cambodian women were refugees, and thirty-six per cent came to Australia through marriage arrangements and most were recent migrants, arriving Australia within the last five years.


Becoming a mother allows the women to claim women's biological and social nature of being female (Chodorow 1978; Antonis 1981). It is seen as part of being a woman. The women's discourses clearly reveal that becoming a mother was a proof of their functional bodies.

I feel (that motherhood) fulfilled the nature of life from the beginning to the end, from being a teenager, then getting married and having children. (Lanna–Lao woman)

Motherhood was also a social role that women must fulfill (Chodorow 1978; Antonis 1981). Women, Vietnamese in particular, perceived it as their social responsibilities that they had to perform as a member of their society. In Vietnamese society, as Greig (2003, p. 32) points out, “motherhood has been regarded as the occupation for all women just as men's work can be considered to reside in the public domain.” Becoming a mother, for these women then, is to fulfill the expectation of the gender role in society. As one woman put it:

I find it very spiritual and very important, because as mothers, we are bringing up the next whole generation and that we enormously contribute to this society if we correctly fulfill our duties. (Nam–Vietnamese woman)

Although motherhood brought hardship to some of their lives, it was seen as their social and cultural role. Motherhood, to these women, then was not too difficult.

It is hard, but it is the tradition. We perform our duties as our parents and grandparents did theirs. So it is not really hard. (Hoa–Vietnamese woman)

According to McMahon (1995, p. 25), motherhood provides a “cultural motif that functions to symbolically structure female adult biography.” Self identity of women as mothers is in a sense “simultaneously the object of her culture's script” (O’Barr, Pope, and Wher 1990, p. 3). Cultural motif dictates women to act as cultural actors. For example, having children was seen as a catalyst for concrete relationships with their partners. Some women viewed having children as having a bond between husband and wife. It made their relationships strong and this could save the marriage when problems arose, thus, fulfilling Asian's commitment of family ideologies. A Lao woman said:

Husband and wife are like friends if they have no children. If there are children it's different. Between the two of us, if we have conflict, we are always worried about our child. (Boonthong)

A Vietnamese woman elaborated on this issue.

Yes, they are certainly a link between husband and wife, especially when the couple feel too tired of each other, or in a serious conflict and they want to separate and live their own lives, but when they think of the children, they just can't do it and would try to resolve the problem or just put up with it. (Lan)

Southeast Asian mothers held strong views about family, its function and the continuation of lineage. Becoming a mother assisted them to complete a family unit and to fulfill their role in carrying on the family's name. “Having children makes my family more complete, having a father, a mother and children,” one Lao woman told us. And a Cambodian woman similarly remarked:

Having children is passing on ancestry to keep a family's name. When parents die, their children keep the family's pathways until the next generation. (Montha)

In return, children are expected to look after their parents in old age. When they thought about motherhood, many women, especially from Cambodia and Laos, felt that children gave them security in the future. One Lao woman put it:

My view about having children—it is for continuing the generations and family name. In the future we don't know what is going to happen when we pass away 舰 We would like to see their future and be able to rely on them when we are old. (Vasana)

And a Cambodian woman suggested:

Naturally, when you have children, you have someone to take care of you when you are old. They can serve food to you (if you can't cook anymore). If you are sick, you have children to look after you. (Sida)

This cultural perception appeared to be strongly expressed by single mothers. Having no or less support from their partners and other family members, these women hopefully believed that their children would be their sole security in old age. As one Lao woman put it:

[Apart from a responsibility to help them to have a good future] I want them to look after me when I am old 舰 As a single mother, I only have my children to lean on. I would like to live with my daughter, even after she is married, because I have no one to live with. I don't want to live alone. (Kularb)


Brubaker and Cooper (2000, p. 19) contend that being connected to a “bounded group,” like motherhood in my study, can provide the group members with the “emotionally laden sense.” As I have found, the question of what it meant to be a mother received overwhelmingly emotional responses from the women in the study. When talking about motherhood, the first thought that came to the mind of the majority of women in this study, like most mothers, was that of happy self. A Cambodian woman described her joy of being a mother that:

Having children makes life so happy in the family. We have them to play with. It’ s so good to have them. (Thavi)

According to Chodorow (1978), motherhood relates the personal experience of self to children. To many women in this study, becoming mothers creates connectedness with their children by ways of companionship, which helped them to avoid the feelings of loneliness. Narratives from these women exemplify that a life without children would be become problematic for them:

I made a decision to have children because I felt lonely. The children are my company and they make me feel warmed and loved in the family. (Boonkham–Lao woman)

Having children is about friendship. For example my child can become my friend and he makes me feel good and makes my life more enjoyable and more meaningful, otherwise I will be lonely. (Bualuang–Lao woman)

Some women perceived motherhood as an honor that a woman may have and believed that women who did not have children would not have happiness as those who became a mother. Becoming a mother, for some women, was a spiritual affair, particularly when one could observe each child growing up.

Having children makes me happy, gives me a big responsibility in supporting them. I enjoy seeing my children grow up, seeing how their personalities differ from each other. They are not the same. (Dorasy–Cambodian woman)

For some, the pleasures and difficulties of life as a mother were inextricably intertwined. Although becoming a mother meant some difficulties, motherhood still brought joy and happiness into one's life. Difficulties of being a mother were seen as female responsibilities. Hence, women felt they should not be too surprised about it. This was seen as the cost of having children. One Lao woman defined it:

Being a mother results in some difficulties in my life, including more responsibility, but I feel proud of having a child. I feel warm in my heart. (Sook)

A Vietnamese woman said:

It is hard work, but it gives you many happy returns. When I have children, everything I do is for my children. When I have free time I would want to cook something for them to eat to make them happy or want to help them iron their clothes. (Kam)

Taking a psychoanalytic analysis, Chodorow (1978) contends that women identify with their own mothers as they become more mature, and this identification produces the women as mothers. Motherhood, for some women in this study, gave them a better understanding about their own mothers and enhances their connectedness with their mothers when they became mothers.

After my birth experience I just realized that the role of the mother is very important. Mother's love is unlimited. Her work and responsibility for her children is huge. Because I love my daughter, I found it difficult, let alone my mother. I can't imagine how difficult it was for her. (Minh–Vietnamese woman)


For many women in this study, becoming a mother meant a sense of profound personal change; it is a social transformation of self identity (Chodorow 1978; Crouch and Manderson 1993; McMahon 1995; Hays 1996). Despite happiness and joy of becoming a mother, a sense of overwhelming responsibility, was mentioned by the women. One Cambodian woman expressed her feelings of responsibility and commitment in the following ways:

I have a baby and so I like my baby. Before I had a baby I liked going out, I could go wherever I wanted. Now it would be hard to go out and leave my baby behind. I would be thinking of my baby all the time. (Yadi)

The women accepted these commitments and responsibilities without question. McMahon (1995) claims that societal and cultural expectations about responsibility of mothers allow women to uphold their unique maternal identity and consciousness. McMahon (1995) further argues that mothers’ responsibility for their children goes beyond a social role expectation. Rather, it becomes self constitution and hence any denial of such responsibility is unthinkable. One Vietnamese woman put it this way:

To me, I regard it as my responsibility and commitment, so I am happy to accept any effect that motherhood may have on my life. For other women now it may be impossible because they have to work. (On)

Within a culturally “female value system” (Chodorow 1978; Gilligan 1982), becoming a mother enables a woman to obtain a positively valued self. Children permitted the women to claim for the responsible self they valued. And the sense of responsibility provided women with the sense of self-worth:

Before I was a mother, no matter how much money I had, I spent it all. I feel important now that I am a mother, I plan my budget well, like how much I should spend on food, on my children's education, etc. (Boonthong–Lao woman)

And pride:

I didn't believe that I would be able to take care of my child. I am proud of myself. (Saykaew–Lao woman)

In addition, having a child provided a new way of perceiving oneself as “a new self” (McMahon 1995). One woman remarked:

The word mother has a deep meaning for me. From my point of view, when a child calls me Mum, it means I am becoming more mature and aged. (Natrudi–Lao woman)

The responsibility as a mother brought many women a feeling of maturity as they had to learn to cope with difficulties in caring for children. Women perceived this change as a process of personal growth and development (McMahon 1995). This “growing up” or become more mature is as a Vietnamese woman suggested:

舰 I have to learn how to control my temper. There is no use in growling and hitting your children. I must learn how to be gentle with them at all time even when I feel boiling inside.(Ha)

For some, this maturity was seen as a “moral lesson” (Hays 1996) for them as it taught them to be less self-centered. This also provided them with a sense of achievement and hence pride. As a Lao woman put it:

I feel I have more responsibilities, different from before. Now I feel more mature. I don't want to go out anymore, only want to look after them and be with them. 舰 But I have fun being with my children. (Chantha)


Chodorow (1978) contends that motherhood has a profound effect on a woman's life. Becoming a mother is “centred on emotional and psychological functions.” Hence, “woman's work is ‘emotion work’” (Chodorow 1978, p. 178). While almost all women acknowledged that motherhood brought them happiness, a sense of responsibility and pride, almost all of them also thought of hard work associated with raising children. This is particularly so among women who had had younger children. Becoming a mother of small children is a physically and emotionally demanding endeavor (Rich 1992; Hays 1996; Brown et al. 1997; McMahon 1995: Weaver and Ussher 1997; Lupton 2000). As most mothers, the women expressed their views that becoming a mother meant they must put their children's needs first.

When I have children, my way of life has been restrained. I don’ t have the freedom that I used to have, and my life now very much depends on my children 舰 They always have the first priority of all 舰 By all means and effort, I put their needs before mine. (Phong–Vietnamese woman)

And this restrained their social life.

Everything I think about or do will be for the good of my children. Motherhood very much limits the mother's social life. (Anh–Vietnamese woman)

Because of this, very often women felt that being a mother was difficult and hardly rewarding. A Vietnamese woman remarked:

Sometimes it is very hard. Other times it is all right. It is hard because I had to work hard to earn enough money to care for my children. I have never felt rewarded as a mother. (Huong)

But even though children grew older, it did not mean that motherhood would become an easier journey either. There would be other issues that they did not have to come to grips with when the children were still in young age. Most often the women remarked on their children's behaviors that impacted on their own emotional well-being. A Cambodian woman told us that:

It is hard being a mother, because your children won't listen to you 舰 Children here listen to their friends more than their own parents. Every day I am angry with my children. Sometimes I want to hang myself 舰 I am very worried that they would follow bad peers. (Thavi)

Women held one common negative view about being a mother; that is, motherhood changes their lifestyles. They said that their activities became much more restricted. They also had less freedom and often less money. Feelings of frustration and exhaustion were expressed in their descriptions of being a mother. The following narrations clearly illustrated the overwhelming feelings experienced by the women in our study.

Being a mother really imposes restrictions on my life. For example, I would like to participate in some religious activities on Sundays, but my husband is already in it, so I have to keep myself out of it. My caring for children wouldn't be complete otherwise. (Mai–Vietnamese woman)

If I didn’ t have children, my life would have been better in terms of money舰I don’ t mean that I regret having them, but when you don’ t have enough money and you care for them, you pay for their education and equipment. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself and think that if I don't have children my life would have been easier than now. No worry, no problem about money. (Saijai–Lao woman)

During periods of intense personal change, such as becoming a mother, women tend to become overwhelmingly emotional (McMahon 1995). The women in this study also talked about emotional constraints they experienced when they became mothers.

Before I had children I could do whatever I wanted and go wherever I wanted. Now I have no freedom but more responsibility. Wherever I go, I have to rush back because I am worried about my children. (Sunthorn–Lao woman)

Some younger women felt regret of becoming a mother too early. One Lao woman stated:

I feel strange. I was 22 when I was married 舰 I asked myself why I got married and had children at that time. I wished I could be myself, be single a bit longer. I didn’ t feel that I was a woman yet 舰 After I had a child, I didn’ t want my child to call me Mum. (Natrudi)

Women compared difficulties of mothers and those of their husbands as fathers, in particular, if they had to work too. Due to this, motherhood, for some women, meant multiple burdens for them.

Being a mother is more difficult than being a father. We have many kinds of responsibilities. We have to work hard to take care of our children 舰 at the same time we may have to work to gain additional income. (Montha–Cambodian woman)

Some women felt that being a mother was more difficult because they lived in a new country and could not receive help like they used to have at home. This issue will be further expanded in the latter part of this paper.


Good motherhood, according to Chodorow (1978, p. 33), “requires certain relational capacities which are embedded in personality and a sense of self-in-relationship.” When asked to articulate qualities of a good mother, the women's narratives revealed three dominant discourses: caring for the physical and emotional well being of children; cultivating values and norms in children; and guiding children to attain personal success. To the women in this study, the representation of mothers as the “keepers of morality” (Hays 1996, p. 30) was prominent. Women's images of good mothers emphasized both the process and on product (McMahon 1995). Women said these goals can be achieved by giving all kinds of support to children and being a good example for them. However, some children may not turn out well even though they have a good mother, therefore some women believed that they should not expect much from their children but should try to do their best as a good mother.

The first duty of a mother, according to women, was to care for physical needs of her children. These duties included, for example, giving proper foods and clothing, allowing enough sleep, rest and play.

To be a good mother, I should take care of my children very well. When they are sick, I should take them to see a doctor. (Molyda–Cambodian woman)

Good mothers, as McMahon (1995) has found in her study, are mothers who love, care, and are sensitive and responsive to the needs and well-being of their children. Brown et al. (1997) also point to many similar good mother characteristics in their study with Australian-born women. The women in my study provided similar characters of good mothers. The women in Lupton's study (2000, p. 54) also articulated that a good mother is one who “devotes a high level of attention and affection to one’ s child.” In terms of emotional needs, women said that a good mother should give her children love and affection especially by means of physical contact.

The mother needs to be with her children to care for them, to play with them and to respond to their need and love. (Linh–Vietnamese woman)

According to our women, a good mother must raise her children to be of good character. This good character seemed to represent the cultural good of a person in a society. According to the women, some of the qualities of good character included: being a good person; being able to tell right from wrong; being responsible in the society he or she lives in; and having moral values and religious beliefs.

A good mother must understand how to teach her children to become good persons. (Ngoc–Vietnamese woman)

A good mother should educate her children to grow up to be good people. (Vathana–Cambodian woman)

It is of particular interest that a common concern among Cambodian mothers was that their children would not listen to them when they grew up. The women told us that a good mother must be able to make her young children listen to her advice; that is to educate them. The women said that there is a saying in Khmer: “Good children are those who respect and follow parents’ advice.”

As mothers, we must educate our children to be good. Only when the children listen to our advice, our job as a mother could be seen as successful. (Bopha–Cambodian woman)

Some mothers viewed that children’ s respect for parents and looking after old parents was an important cultural value that should be cultivated in their children.

As parents we can’t take care of them for all their life. Give a very good support when they are young, then they can take care of us when we are getting old. I think this is very important. (Salee–Lao woman)

Guiding children to success was a perception of a good mother held by many mothers, especially Vietnamese; “Our children's success in life is an indicator of a good mother” (Cuc), one Vietnamese woman told us.

Children's education played an important part of being a good mother. A good mother, women told me, needed to provide good education and support to her children, so that the children's future would be positive.

As a good mother, you have to be very tolerant, look after them well and support them to gain good education for their future. Support them as much as you can because in the future, our life is in their hands. (Chalai–Lao woman)

Having a good job was seen as personal success. To have a good job, children must have a good education. A task of a good, and perhaps a perfect, mother is to ensure that her children would cultivate what Bourdieu (1984) refers to as “cultural capital.” Ideally, they would do well at school in terms of formal education and the acquisition of knowledge that comes with it.

Despite these intentions, women, however, did realize that the living standards of some mothers might not permit them to perform their moral career as easily as others. One Vietnamese woman alluded to some of these barriers:

However, many other things would be contributing factors. Many parents work day and night to support their children, but they become addicted to drugs 舰 We can't say that they are not good mothers, quite opposite, but due to their conditions, they don't have the knowledge and understanding to teach their children to succeed in education and lead a moral life. (Xuan)


Women articulated various ways about how to perform their duties as a good mother. Two logics of practice, to borrow Bourdieu's word (1990), that most women expressed included giving all kinds of support to children and being a good example for children. It seems, as Hays (1006, p. 32) suggests, the women's appropriate childrearing remains “a self-conscious moral enterprise,” as their narratives repeatedly reinforced the notion of mothers and moral career.

In terms of providing support to children, women talked about some of the ways such as giving attention, being close, giving understanding, and sharing time. Gilligan's theory of the feminine role and ethic of care (1982) seems to be reinforced in examples from these mothers:

A good mother must understand and be close to her children and make herself available to them at all time 舰 She must support them regardless of time. (Anh–Vietnamese woman)

Willing to support them and understand their needs is the most important part of being a good mother. (Sooksan–Lao woman)

Being sensitive to the child’ s needs was seen as a task of a good mother.

It's very crucial. As your children are conceived in your body, so they become part of your body. Naturally you will be more sensitive to your children's needs, to little things in particular, than father. When they grow up to be teenagers, you have got to go alongside them into their future. (Anh–Vietnamese woman)

For some mothers, to be a good mother one must be brave.

We must be brave, we must try to work and we must live for our children. We should be strong mothers, devoting ourselves to children. (Montha–Cambodian woman)

Some women suggested that to sacrifice oneself to the children was a way to be a good mother.

If I want to be a good mother, I have to tremendously sacrifice for them, giving way for them. (Oanh–Vietnamese woman)

The logic of practice of being a good role model was essential for a good mother. Some good values that women mentioned as good examples included working hard, being gentle, keeping self-discipline and moral values.

It is important for a mother to make good examples for her children, no gambling, no smoking, being faithful to her husband, no adultery or flirting. (Trinh–Vietnamese woman)

A good mother should be a good example for her children. For example, don't let them see when you have argument with your husband, don't use rude words in front of your children. (Orathai–Lao woman)

A few women said that being a good mother did not always guarantee that the children would turn out well. They believed that they should not expect too much from their children. Being a mother was a very important task for a woman, and a good mother should perform her duty to the best of her ability. As one Vietnamese woman put it:

I have to do my job as a good mother, for example, taking care of my children carefully in terms of physical and mental health as well as education. I closely follow them with their study 舰 make sure they complete their homework each day. I must do my best for my children and if it does not turn out what I want, at least, I won 't regret not having fulfilled my duties. (Vy)

Being aware that even though a woman did a good job as a mother but she could not guarantee and expect good results, some women believed that this matter depended on one's destiny. As one Cambodian woman remarked:

Every mother wants to do a good job as a mother 舰 I have seen some children who don't like their mothers and their mothers don't like them either舰Raising children is like playing the lotteries. If we pick up a good number we win 舰 If the mother has a good destiny, even though she doesn't spend much time to educate her children, they are still well behaved. I think it depends on one's destiny. (Nyren)


Unlike mainstream, White, Anglo Celtic, mothers in Australia (Wearing 1984; Crouch and Manderson 1993; Brown et al. 1994, 1997; Maushart 1997; Lupton 2000), the women in my study had to cope with double identities: as a mother and as an immigrant woman. Indeed, the lived experience of these immigrant women reflects the “multiple” identities in Brubaker and Cooper 's term (2000). This factor essentially makes the situation of the women in this study divergent from other Western women in the literature on motherhood (Chodorow 1978; Oakley 1979; Boulton 1983; McMahon 1995; Hays 1996). Clearly, not only the women had to deal with the ideologies of good motherhood or moral motherhood, as described in earlier sections, but their ideologies of good motherhood were also nuanced by their new social status and identity as immigrant women. When asked about their concerns in being a mother while living in a new country, women provided numerous emotionally-laden responses. Their narratives of their lived experience as “migrant mothers” reveal several discourses.

For many, their social status and class structure within a new society in which they now lived made the tasks of their attempt to be responsible mothers difficult. Many mothers remarked on the hardships of being a mother while having to adjust to a different life in Australia. This was hampered by the fact that women and their husbands had to manage to bring enough income so that the whole family could survive in a new country. This often meant long working hours in physically demanding settings like factories. Mothering, as a result, became more difficult. As McMahon (1995) suggests, for poor women, there will always be a conflict between having enough money to feed their children and having enough time to care for them. Good mothering needs time and energy to care for children. Due to a physically demanding nature of their work, it is difficult, or even impossible, to be a “good mother.” This concern permeated through the women's narratives. One Lao woman remarked:

I was very worried about how I could manage the children in Australia. There were only me and my husband, no one else to give me a hand in anyway 舰 I got a job in a factory; my husband still couldn't find one. My friends suggested that we apply for a house from the Housing Commission. When we got it, it was much better for us in terms of finance. The budget is still very tight, the important thing is to make sure that we have enough for children to go to school each week. (Vanita)

One notable theme emerging from the women's narratives is the lack of sufficient English language among the mothers in my study. This made many migrant women feel inadequate when living in an English speaking country like Australia. As Liamputtong and Naksook (2003b) have found in their study with Thai immigrant women, the women in this study felt that language problems made their duty as a mother more difficult and, in many ways, limited their access to such opportunities as receiving available services and employment. For instance, without enough English, many women were not able to access health and social services provided for a new mother and baby.

The language is not our mother-tongue language舰we of course have to face certain disadvantages. There are many services that we are not aware of, so we can't make use of them. (Trang–Vietnamese woman)

A few mothers raised an important consequence of having language problems: they were not able to help their children with education, or to participate in school activities as much as they wished. As they perceived that a good mother should attend to her children's education, this problem indeed limited their capability as a good mother. A Lao woman remarked:

Being a mother and a migrant at the same time is difficult as you face a lot of problems, for example, language. I feel sorry for my children at school. We are unable to help them with their homework because of our lack of English. (Samlee)

Language problems also made it more difficult for some women to communicate with their children who grow up in Australia and speak English more than the languages of their parents. Their children are socialized in a multicultural society of Australia where the use of English expressions in their daily conversation with their peers and others at school is common. These children tend to use English at home with their parents who have limited English (Liamputtong and Naksook 2003b), and this became problematic for some of the mothers in this study. Because of this, raising children became a difficult career for many migrant mothers.

For most Southeast Asian women, familial and kinship ties play a crucial part in their family life. In their home countries, these women had extended family members, such as grandmothers and sisters, to help with caring for young children both in terms of physical help and advice. In Australia, lacking help from family members was a common problem for many women. This support was not available to many young mothers who were not too experienced in taking care of young children. A young Cambodian mother said:

I have some difficulties in that I am alone with my husband. We have no relatives or parents nearby. With our children, we really don't know how to take care of them and look after them properly. (Tonny)

A Vietnamese woman also commented:

It is very complicated and difficult. In a poor country the matter of raising children seems to be easier even though we have less to eat (because we have assistance from family members). I found myself in a very difficult situation having to raise children on my own. (Ha)

Goffman (1963, p. 49) suggests, for individuals who are socialized in “an alien community, whether inside or outside the geographical boundaries of the normal society,” they must “learn a second way of being that is felt by those around them to be the real and valid one.” A prime concern across the three ethnic groups of women was the difficulty in bringing up children in a different culture. Their ways of parenting, which women grew up with and believed in, was not acceptable, or even possible, to conduct in Australia (Liam 1991, 1999; Liamputtong 2001; Liamputtong and Naksook 2003b). Thus, their moral career was challenged.

Being a mother alone is already difficult and responsibly, so it is extremely hard when you have to be two things, a mother and a migrant, at once. You were born and grew up in a country in which the tradition and culture are totally opposite to that of the country in which your children are growing up. (Anh–Vietnamese woman)

Following Brubaker and Cooper’ s argument (2000), these women have to re-negotiate their identities as moral mothers. For some mothers, to be a good mother they realized that they must be flexible with their children.

It is very hard in terms of cultural differences. We want to bring up our children in our way, but our children spend a lot of time at school learning the host culture. Therefore there are likely to be some conflicts between parents and children. I have to be flexible, half and half, or my children will suffer. (Trinh–Vietnamese woman)

But for others, the price of this difficulty was their emotional stress.

The Asian parents’ concept is to control children's life. You are my children, you have to do what I said and I’d punish you if you don’t 舰 This concept of mine doesn't work for children who are growing up in Australia. I realized that I was wrong 舰 I set my aim on my children too high. I failed and I hurt myself. (Sooksan–Lao woman)


I have thus far shown that many of the lived experiences of Southeast Asian immigrant women in this study are similar to those of mainstream, Western women in literature, but there are also aspects that separate them from their Western counterparts. It is clear that the women in this study felt a profound change through the process of becoming a mother; as in McMahon's term (1995) they experience the “transformation of self.” But for these women, there is not just one “self”; there are “multiple selves” (Werbner 1996; Brubaker and Cooper 2000). The women in this study have to come to grips with their double identities, as a mother and as an immigrant woman.

Motherhood, McMahon (1995, p. 158) suggests, plays “a symbolic role in integrating issues of individual identity, moral choice, and social commitment in the women's lives.” Chodorow (1978, p. 6) too contends that motherhood “stands out in its emotional and intensity and meaning, and it its centrality for women's lives and social definition.” This is clearly seen in the discourses of the women who took part in this study. The data reveal several discourses of good motherhood. For the women in this study, becoming a mother was experienced as a moral transformation of self and women were urged to perform their moral careers. A good mother has a moral career; she is a gatekeeper of morality. She must ensure that her children will grow up to be good citizens of society. To be a moral mother, one needs to follow the rules of motherhood knowingly (Murphy 1999). These rules are “expressive of the extent to which the social worth of motherhood and mothers is currently contested” in the society in which these women live (McMahon 1995, p. 190). It is not too surprising to see the women in this study enlisted prescriptions of moral mothers in so many ways.

A second discourse of motherhood is concerned with the female's ethic of care. According to Chodorow (1978) and Gilligan (1982), women's moral career is influenced by an ethic of care and responsibility for others. Motherhood, McMahon (1995, p. 274) argues, permits women to obtain “a loving, caring and responsible” feminine identity. In addition, being responsible for their children is about “being moral as a person.” As such, motherhood is associated with “female morality.” Then motherhood has “high personal value and moral worth” (McMahon 1995, p. 271). Gilligan (1982) also suggests that women’ s perception of care and responsibility is seen through their connectedness with others. Becoming a mother, according to Rothman (1989, pp. 60–63), is “the physical embodiment of connectedness.” As McMahon (1995) has suggested in her study, the importance of connectedness with, and responsibility for, others was prevalent in women's ways of thinking. This, too, was expressed by the women in my study. In McMahon's study (1995), she found that through connectedness and responsibility for their children, motherhood brings forth an adult identity. However, for the women in this study, women's connectedness with “others” extended beyond their children. They not only talked about their connectedness with their children, but women also connected to “social others” such as their mothers.

The women 's discourses also reveal that children play an essential role in the constitution of women's senses of self. By becoming mothers, the women in this study also experienced themselves as new persons. This new self identity can be explained by Berger and Luckman's (1966) theory of “resocialisation.” Resocialisation is typically achieved through interactions with significant others such as the interaction between mothers and their children. A requirement of the resocialisation process is that an individual does not merely change her behavior, but also has a change of “heart.” As such, resocialisation is “highly emotionally laden.” Children have profound influences on women's essential characters and motherhood (Chodorow 1978) can be experienced as moral transformation.

The paradoxical discourse of motherhood (Rich 1992; Brown et al. 1994, 1997; McMahon 1995; Hays 1996; Maushart 1997; Lupton 2000; Greig 2003) was profound in the women's narratives of their lived experiences of motherhood. Motherhood provided the women with a happy self but it was also a source of adversity. As Lupton (2000, p. 58) points out in her study, becoming a mother means “repetitive, frustrating, arduous labor that often lacked reward or recognition and from which it is difficult to escape due to the good mother ideal.” Greig (2003), too, argues that motherhood for Vietnamese women is not only the potential for women to explore new identities, but it is also about isolation and confinement to the home. This is further complicated by the fact that they are also immigrant women who find difficulties in settling and living in a new environment and that they also experience other social factors such as being poor. Greig's findings (2003) are also echoed in the women's accounts in this study.

One distinct and important aspect of women's expression relating to good motherhood in their new social environment is that they must teach and train their children to have behavior appropriate and acceptable to the society in which they are now living and in which their children are growing up. As Phoenix and Woollett (1991, pp. 216–7) point out, this is because it is usually assumed that mothers have the major responsibility for the upbringing of their children. When children have problems or behave in inappropriate or antisocial ways, it is the mothers who are blamed. Similarly, Chodorow (1978) and Ruddick (1984, p. 215) argues that a mother is seen as a person who must bring her child up in such a way that her child becomes the sort of adult that others in the society can accept. This is why these mothers believe that to be a good mother one must teach and train one's child to be “a good person” who is accepted in the society. This expectation can impose an extra burden on the women. What happens if her child does not turn out the way society expects to see? The blame falls on the mother, as Marshall (1991, p. 83) argues: “any social problems are blamed on faulty mothering. Society and structural influences are omitted from the equation.” With insight, Hays (1996. p. 48) claims: “while maternal affection was absolutely necessary and natural, it could easily slide into dangerously unwholesome forms. Maternal omnipotence was stressed, and women were either held responsible for all that was good in children and morally desirable in society or blamed for their children's individual psychological disorders and the larger social ills that resulted from them.” When motherhood is combined with migration, some mothers may not be able to fulfill this ideal role of good motherhood. Therefore, the blame may fall on the mother as being a “bad immigrant mother.”

The importance of providing a good education for the child was seen as being a good mother presents another distinct and interesting response among the women in this study. But this finding is in line with the study of Liamputtong and others (2002) with Thai immigrant women. Liamputtong and colleagues pointed out that Thai parents, regardless of their social class backgrounds, were enthusiastic in supporting the education of their children. However, those who came from poorer backgrounds have stronger concerns with education and the future employment of their children. Among the poor, education was seen as the opportunity for social mobility (to become the boss), for improving quality of life (to live a better life), and for security in old age (parents can depend on their children at old age) (Naksook 1994). Tantiwiramanond and Pandey (1991) argue that those with higher education can take advantage of job opportunities in the modern sector of the society. This was believed by the mothers in this study, particularly those from poor families, as the only way to improve their class status and living situations, thus enabling them to get out of the cycle of poverty or long deprivation in their new social environment. They believed that only education would make the lives of their children better in the future in Australia.

Taking a symbolic interactionist view, the lived experience of motherhood, McMahon (1995) argues, is not universal. Individual women, as McMahon (1995, p. 29) puts it, “experience motherhood in terms of their own situated but interactive relationship with their social worlds and the material and cultural resources available to them.” Poor and ethnic women hence may experience motherhood differently from those of white, middle class women. In this paper, I have demonstrated constraints and adversities of Southeast Asian immigrant mothers. As Greig (2003, p. 48) has found in her study with Vietnamese immigrant women that living as immigrants in Australia has changed women's social positions and this in turn has “nuanced their experiences of maternity.” Greig (2003, p. 84), for example, illustrates in her study that “the experience of being a mother in Australian society—teaching your child the value of education and to stay away from social problems—have been nuanced by the changing ideologies of womanhood who are simultaneously mothers and migrants.” Difficulties arising out of these two social factors—being a mother and an immigrant woman - also abounded in the narratives of the women in this study.

Goffman (1963, pp. 52–53) theorizes, in reviewing one's own moral career, an individual “may single out and elaborate experience which serve for her to account for her coming to the beliefs and practices that she now has regarding her own kind and normals.” A critical life event, such as becoming a mother, can have a “double bearing on individuals’ moral career; first as immediate objective grounds for an actual turning point, and later as a means of accounting for a position currently taken.” We can clearly see this in the women's accounts of being a migrant woman and a mother. Following Brubaker and Cooper's theory of “self-renegotiation” (2000), we see that these women attempted to modify their mothering roles and be more flexible and realistic in their expectations of motherhood. For some, this might not be too distressing, but for others this might take a toll on their emotional well-being.

Feminist scholars (Oakley 1980; Thurer 1994; McMahon 1995, Hays 1996; Maushart 1997; Bhopal 1998) have argued that the journey of motherhood is not an easy task. As Oakley (1979, 1980) suggests, becoming a mother is a life crisis for women; it is “a journey into the unknown.” Hays (1996, p. 32) too argues that mothering is not only “emotionally absorbing but also labor-intensive.” As Chodorow (1978) contends, women do become mothers, but the process of becoming a good mother is often problematic and not without contradictions. And when women have to come to grips with the double transitions of motherhood, as a mother and as an immigrant woman, the journey is even more problematic. As I have shown in this paper, the women not only had to struggle with the ideologies of moral motherhood, but they also had to simultaneously cope with their social problems in their every day lives. The societal expectation that motherhood is an easy and instinctive part of womanhood and mothering is, therefore, contested by the women in my study. It confirms indeed that motherhood is a very complex matter (Weaver and Ussher 1997). I contend that it is imperative that we understand the social and cultural environments in which women try to mother if we are to provide sensitive care to women who choose to become mothers. This, I argue, is particularly important in a multicultural society like Australia and elsewhere where women come from diverse social and cultural backgrounds.



I wish to thank all the women from the three ethnic groups for the contributions of their valuable time and for sharing with us their knowledge and experiences. I thank Chandoravann Dy, Nam Doan, Boungnou Phaosihavong, Charin Naksook and Lyn Watson for their assistance in the data collection and management during the study period. I also thank the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation and the Public Health Research and Development Council (NH&MRC) for their financial support to this research project.


  1. Antonis, B. (1981). Motherhood and mothering. In The Cambridge Women's Studies Group, (Ed.), Women in society (pp. 55–74), London: Virago Press.Google Scholar
  2. Becker, C. (1992). Living and relating: An introduction to phenomenology. Newbury Park: Sage.Google Scholar
  3. Berger, P., & Luckman, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. New York: Doubleday.Google Scholar
  4. Bhopal, K. (1998). South Asian women in East London: Motherhood and social support. Women's Studies International Forum, 21, 485–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  6. Boulton, M. G. (1983). On being a mother: A study of women with pre-school children. London: Tavistock.Google Scholar
  7. Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  10. Brown, S., Lumley, J., Small, R., & Astbury, J. (1994). Missing voices: The experience of motherhood. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Brown, S., Small, R., & Lumley, J. (1997). Being a ‘good mother.’ Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 15, 185–200.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Brubaker, R., & Cooper, P. (2000). Beyond ‘identity.’ Theory & Society, 29, 1–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Chodorow, N. (1978). The reproduction of mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  15. Collins, P. H. (1994). Shifting the center: Race, class, and feminist theorizing about motherhood. In E. N. Glenn, G. Chang, & L. R. Forcey (Eds.), Mothering: Ideology, experience, and agency (pp. 45–65). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. Doyal, L. (1995). What makes women sick: Gender and the political economy of health. Houndmills: Macmillan Press.Google Scholar
  17. Elliot, S. A. (1990). Commentary on ‘childbirth as a life event.’ Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 8, 147–159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Crouch, M., & Manderson, L. (1993). New motherhood: Cultural and personal transitions in the 1980s. Melbourne: Gordon & Breach Science Publishers.Google Scholar
  19. Ezzy, D. (2002). Qualitative analysis: Practice and innovation. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  20. Feldstein, R. (2000). Motherhood in black and white: Race and sex in American liberalism, 1930–1965. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Glen, E. N. (1994). Social construction of mothering: A thematic overview. In E. N. Glen, G. Chang, & L. R. Forcey (Eds.), Motherhood: Ideology, experience and agency (pp. 1–29). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  24. Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice hall.Google Scholar
  25. Greig, F. (2003). Babies, bonds and boundaries: A study of maternity among Vietnamese-Australian women in Melbourne. Unpublished masters by research in Anthropology thesis. Faculty of Arts. The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.Google Scholar
  26. Gubrium, J. F., & Holstein, J. A. (Eds.) (2001). Handbook of interview research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  27. Hays, S. (1996). The cultural contradictions of motherhood. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Jamrozik, A., Bland, C., & Urquhart, R. (1995). Social change and cultural transformation in Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Jupp, J. (2002). From White Australia to Woomera: The story of Australian immigrants. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. La Rossa, R., & La Rossa, M. (1981). Transition to parenthood: How infants change families. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  31. Liam, I. I. L. (1999). The challenge of migrant motherhood: The childrearing practices of Chinese first-time mothers in Australia. In P. Liamputtong Rice, (Ed.) Asian mothers, Western birth (pp. 135–160) Melbourne: Ausmed Publications.Google Scholar
  32. Liamputtong, P. (2001). Motherhood and the challenge of immigrant mothers: A personal reflection. Families in Society, 82(2), 195–201.Google Scholar
  33. Liamputtong, P., & Naksook, C. (2003a). Perceptions and experiences of motherhood, health and the husband's roles among Thai women in Australia. Midwifery, 19(1), 27–36.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Liamputtong, P., & Naksook, C. (2003b). Life as mothers in a new land: The experience of motherhood among Thai immigrant women in Australia. Health Care for Women International, 24(7), 650–668.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Liamputtong, P., Yimyam, S., Parisunyakul, S., Baosoung, C., & Sansiripan, N. (2002). Women as mothers: The case of Thai women in northern Thailand. International Social Work, 45(4), 497–515.Google Scholar
  36. Liamputtong, P., Yimyam, S., Parisunyakul, S., Baosoung, C., & Sansiripan, N. (2004). When I become a mother!: The perceptions and experiences of Thai mothers in Northern Thailand. Women's Studies International Forum 27(5–6), 589–601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Liamputtong, P., Lin, V., & Bagley, P. (2003). Living in a different place at a different time: Health policy and Australian ethnic communities. In P. Liamputtong & H. Gardner (Eds.), Health, social change & communities (pp. 257–281). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Liamputtong, P., & Ezzy, D. (2005). Qualitative research methods, 2nd edition. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Liamputtong Rice, P. (1997). Multiculturalism policy and immigrants’ health: Are we achieving the goal? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 21(7), 793–794.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Liamputtong Rice, P. (1999). Multiculturalism and the health of immigrants: What public health issues do immigrants face when they move to a new country? In P. Liamputtong Rice (Ed.), Living in a new country: Understanding migrants’ health, (pp. 1–21). Melbourne: Ausmed Publications.Google Scholar
  41. Lupton, D. (2000). ‘A love/hate relationship’: The ideals and experiences of first-time mothers. Journal of Sociology, 36, 50–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Lupton, D., & Fenwick, J. (2001). ‘They’ve forgotten that I’m the mum’: Constructing and practicing motherhood in special care nurseries. Social Science and Medicine, 53, 1011–1021.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Lyons, N. (1983). Two perspectives: On self, relationships, and morality. Harvard Educational Review, 53(2), 125–145.Google Scholar
  44. Macintyre, M., & Dennerstein, L. (1995). Shifting latitudes, changing attitudes: Immigrant women's health experiences, attitudes, knowledge and beliefs. Melbourne: Key Centre for Women's Health in Society, The University of Melbourne.Google Scholar
  45. Marshall, H. (1991). The social construction of motherhood: An analysis of childcare and parenting manuals. In A. Phoenix, A. Woollett, & E. Lloyd (Eds.), Motherhood: Meanings, practices and ideologies (pp. 66–85) London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  46. McMahon, M. (1995). Engendering motherhood: Identity and self-transformation in women's lives. New York: The Guildford Press.Google Scholar
  47. Maushart, S. (1997). The mask of motherhood: How mothering changes everything and why we pretend it doesn’t. Sydney: Vintage.Google Scholar
  48. Morokvasic, M. (1983). Women in migration: Beyond the reductionist outlook. In A. Phizacklea (Ed.) One way ticket: Migration and female labour, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  49. Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  50. Murphy, E. (1999). ‘Breast is best’: Infant feeding decisions and maternal deviance. Sociology of Health and Illness, 21(2), 187–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Naksook, C. (1994). The role of education in the life of Sengki slum dwellers. Unpublished doctoral thesis. School of Education, Monash University. Melbourne.Google Scholar
  52. Oakley, A. (1979). Becoming a mother. Oxford: Martin Robertson.Google Scholar
  53. Oakley, A. (1980). Women confined: Towards a sociology of childbirth. Oxford: Martin Robertson.Google Scholar
  54. O’Barr, J., Pope, D., & Wher, M. (1990). Introduction. In J. O’Barr, D. Pope, & M. Wyer (Eds.), (Ties that bind: Essays on mothering and patriarchy (pp. 1–14). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  55. Phoenix, A., & Woollett, A. (1991). Motherhood: Social construction, politics and psychology. In A. Phoenix, A. Woollett, & E. Lloyd (Eds.), Motherhood: Meanings, practices and ideologies (pp. 13–27). London: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  56. Rich, A. (1992). Of woman born: Motherhood as experience and institution. London: Virago Press.Google Scholar
  57. Rothman, B. K. (1989). Recreating motherhood: Ideology and technology in a patriarchal society. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
  58. Ruddick, S. (1984). Maternal thinking. In J. Trebilcot (Ed.), Mothering: Essays in feminist theory (pp. 213–230). Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld.Google Scholar
  59. Sharpe, S. (1984). Double identity: The lives of working mothers. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  60. Stone, G. (1981). Appearance and the self: A slightly revised version. In G. Stone & H. A. Farberman (Eds.), Social psychology through symbolic interaction (pp. 187–202). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  61. Strauss, A. L. (1987). Qualitative analysis for social scientists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Squire, C. (1989). Significant differences: Feminism and psychology. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  63. Tantiwiramanond, D., & Pandey, S. R. (1991). By women, for women: A study of women's organizations in Thailand. Pasir Panjang Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.Google Scholar
  64. Thurer, S. L. (1994). The myths of motherhood: How culture reinvents the good mother. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.Google Scholar
  65. Wearing, B. (1984). The Ideology of Motherhood. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  66. Weaver, J. J., & Ussher, J. M. (1997). How motherhood changes life-a discourse analytic study with mothers of young children. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 15, 51–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Werbner, R. (1996). Multiple identities, plural arenas. In R. Werbner & T. Ranger (Eds.), Postcolonial identities in Africa (pp. 1–26). London: Zed Books.Google Scholar
  68. Zodoroznyj, M. (1999). Social class, social selves and social control in childbirth. Sociology of Health and Illness, 21(3), 267–289.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Zubrzycki, J. (1995). White Australia: Tolerance and intolerance in race relations. Canberra: National Museum of Australia.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public HealthLa Trobe UniversityVictoriaAustralia

Personalised recommendations