Economic calculations, rather than an asocial economic rationality, are a factor in lone mothers’ decision to enter the labour force or live on benefits. They are not, however, the only form of rationality at work, and may be overridden by other ways of making sense of the world. Carling (1991) has discussed the ways in which a rational – choice approach to understanding human action can go beyond merely market-based economics to include independently acting issues around gender. In particular, family life, and especially the combination of motherhood with other roles, is not easily understood on the basis of economic or means-ends rationality (Edwards and Ribbens 1991; Finch 1994).

As pointed out earlier, lone mothers—in common with other women in their social groups and networks—can hold particular understandings about their identity both as mothers and as lone mothers. These understandings about the identity and responsibilities of mothers can be termed ‘gendered moral rationalities’. Some of these rationalities may sit comfortably with models of economic rationality; others do so less easily (see Carling 1991). Data from our research into the processes underlying lone mothers’ uptake of paid work illustrate these.

Some lone mothers may give primacy to the moral benefit of physically caring for their children themselves over the financial benefits of undertaking paid employment. This moral rationality is socially sustained by norms held in common with others in their social group and local social network. For example, Susan is a white, working-class woman with two children under five, living on a large council estate on the outskirts of Brighton. She says she would ‘love’ to have paid work as she thinks she would be financially better off, but she has no-one to look after her children. Her own mother, who lives nearby and is very important in Susan’s life, is not in employment. Nevertheless, she would not look after Susan’s children while Susan worked. Her mother believes that mothers should stay at home and look after their children, as she did, and—like Susan—does not approve of leaving children with ‘strangers’. So, even though Susan would respond to a questionnaire by saying she did want paid work, if she did pursue this course of action it would cause tremendous problems in her relationship with her mother, so important in her everyday life. Taking up paid work is seen as morally wrong; even if it is economically rational at an individual level for Susan, it is socially irrational. Here, identities as worker and good mother can be in conflict and are difficult to balance.

In contrast, other lone mothers may see financial provision through employment as one part of their moral responsibilities towards their children. Again this can be sustained socially with others in their social group and networks. For example, Rachel is a Ugandan woman, who also has two children, one of whom is under five, and lives in local authority housing in inner London. She believes that mothers should ‘go out to work to earn money and look after the children’. Rachel is currently studying so that she can get a good job in order to ‘care adequately’ for her children, who attend the college creche. She gets support and encouragement for her views and actions from her close circle of friends, mainly also African. (The majority of her relations live in Uganda.) For Rachel, a very different gendered moral rationality is in play from the one Susan has to negotiate. It is a moral rationality in which looking after your children encompasses providing for them financially through paid work. Here, identities as worker and good mother are reconciled.

Lone mothers’ individual economic calculations thus need to be placed in the framework of gendered moral rationalities that are constructed, negotiated and sustained socially in particular contexts. This is in obvious contrast to dominant economic models of rationality, which see the decision to take up paid work as individually made on the basis of calculations of financial loss and gain.