Motherhood in Malawi

By Kimberly Rovin

Discourses and practices of good motherhood are continuously produced at international,
national, and local levels. As women bear the onus for practicing good motherhood, these
discourses charge women with caring for themselves and their children in specific ways.
However, in Central Malawi, the achievement of good motherhood is inhibited by a variety of
social and economic barriers including extreme poverty and marked gender inequalities. In this
context good motherhood discourses have the potential to produce expectations that are
unattainable for mothers in difficult socioeconomic environments. In light of these challenges,
this dissertation examines how women in Malawi understand and practice good motherhood.

This dissertation presents the findings of a qualitative study of motherhood in Central
Malawi conducted from January to October 2013. My study explores the ways that women in
one location in Central Malawi defined and understood good motherhood and then examines
how these local ideas intersected with constructions of good motherhood touted by public health
programs, in particular those promoted at pediatric health clinics called “Under-Five Clinics.” I
show that the specific vulnerabilities mothers faced in their daily lives—poverty, food insecurity,
and domestic abuse, for example—challenged the ways women were able to enact the specific
mothering practices advised by the Under-Five Clinics as well as by their own communities. To
deal with these challenges I suggest that women employed the concept of “trying,” producing a
rhetoric of trying to be a good mother in spite of a scarcity of resources, regardless of actual
success. By shifting the metric of good motherhood away from successful outcomes, “trying”
allowed women to maintain the appearance of being a good mother within their community
despite dealing with severe socioeconomic barriers. I argue that in this way emphasizing “trying”
may constitute a means through which women are able to actively reframe good motherhood to
incorporate and respond to socioeconomic environments that are at odds with ideal expectations
of good motherhood.

By examining women’s own definitions of motherhood and their responses to public
health programming that attempts to define good motherhood, this study provides a critical look
at the impacts of public health agendas in local contexts, and especially how these programs
affect the women who are often the program’s targets. In particular, I suggest that the current
Under-Five Clinics’ use of discourses of responsibility and blame, which hold women solely
accountable for the health and well-being of their children, are ineffective public health strategies
that ignore both the extensive social aspects of good motherhood present in Central Malawi and
the scarce resources available to women to enact good motherhood practices.