Elizabeth Bortolaia Silva

Mothering has long occupied a central place in debates about women’s positions in society. Feminist perspectives have asserted that motherhood and mothering are not natural for women but that they are historically, culturally and socially constructed. Building on these assumptions, this volume considers recent debates on lone motherhood by focusing on the links between married and unmarried motherhood in historical and cross-national contexts, as well as on policies regarding women’s employment, the care of children and ideologies of the family.

The late 1980s and the early 1990s have witnessed an increase in lone motherhood. In Britain, in 1992, there were between one in five and one in six dependent children living in a one-parent family (National Council for One Parent Family, Annual Report 1993­94)} In the United States it was estimated that by the time they reach the age of eighteen, at least 50 per cent of children and youth will have spent some time in a lone-parent home (American Research Council 1989). Over 90 per cent of lone parents are mothers. Together with this apparently increased ‘normality’ of lone motherhood, a good deal of disagreement has also emerged over the effects of lone mothering on children, and of the costs of lone motherhood to the budget of the state. The heated debate in Britain in the 1990s stimulated this exploration of the historical roots of the problem, and its comparative national and cultural basis. While the contributors to this volume do not all agree with each other’s positions, the contributions offer complementary accounts and point to the difficulties of establishing a fully coherent feminist perspective on mothering in general and on lone mothering in particular.

Lone motherhood has recently been discussed in association with women’s independence and gender equality. Do women have the right to pursue careers, to live independently from men and to raise children on their own? Is current public concern an attempt to force women back into the traditional roles of housewife and homemaker ‘for the sake of the children’? The politics of gender is at the centre of these debates. The contributions to this book give positive answers to both questions.

The book is structured around three main themes. The first two chapters give a historical perspective on mothering and motherhood. The following four chapters address cross-national comparisons, with a focus on developing countries and more industrialized economies, particularly richer Commonwealth and European countries. The remaining five chapters focus more directly on the ideological constructions that have informed welfare policies addressing lone mothers and their children. The focus is then mainly on Britain, but comparisons with the United States are also made in the last two chapters.

Several issues recur in many of the contributions to this volume.

First, a distinction between motherhood and mothering appears pertinent to interpretations of the changing roles of women both historically and culturally. While a legal connection between mother and child is applicable to motherhood, mothering remains mostly connected to the caring activity per se. Although motherhood is not necessarily derived from biology and is a social construction, mothering per se is absolutely disconnected from biology. However, there are various connections between motherhood and mothering and very often the terms are used interchangeably. Yet ‘good enough mothering’ can be well explored as an autonomous feature of various kinds of motherhood (i. e., by adoption, biological, married or lone). The description ‘good enough’ applies to a mothering that is acceptable, not ‘perfect’. It reflects both a diversity in experiences of mothering and the substitutability of the provider of mothering (see Winnicott 1960, 1967).

A second relevant theme is the analysis of links between mothers and lone mothers. On the one hand, they are ‘two sides of the same coin’. The constructions of lone motherhood through time and across cultures bear similarities to the constructions of married motherhood. Women’s greater dependency on individual men tends to stigmatize lone motherhood more than in situations where women have greater autonomy. Yet there is no linearity in this process since the achievement of autonomies occurs in contradictory contexts of gains and losses. Also, lone motherhood is increasingly a transient phenomenon, as many women pass through lone motherhood. On the other hand, distinctive features characterize lone motherhood. Poverty and moral stigmatization are recurrent aspects.

A third theme is the distinction between mothers and workers. This relates to ideas of exclusive and sometimes irreconcilable roles for women: either as full-time mothers or working for pay. While full-time mothers require material provision for themselves and their children either from other individuals (usually men) or the state, workers who are mothers of dependent children require adequate child care and guarantees of their ability to provide materially and emotionally for themselves and their children. The scope for choices between the two roles has varied historically and cross-culturally. Feminist discourses have not offered a clear perspective on these kinds of choices. The growing numbers of lone mothers introduce new pressures on the choices involved in these matters.

A fourth feature of many contributions to this book is the presence of cross-national and cross-cultural analyses. They show diverse ways of dealing with similar issues. A very significant comparison is the concept of ‘female-headed household’ used to identify lone-mother families in developing countries and ‘lone mother’ as applied in developed ones. Whereas the former carries a connotation of responsibility and power, the latter’s connotation is of abandonment and loneliness. This is a reflection of both the hardship placed upon women and the agency expected from them, both of which exert particular pressures in developing countries. By comparison, the relative hardship of the lone mother tends to be sheltered in developed countries. State welfare policy regimes and the agencies and strategies of different groups of women are informed by particular ‘gendered contracts’ regarding the roles of mothers. Ethnicity, religion, class, economic resources and political beliefs play a powerful role in such gender politics and the resulting constructions of lone motherhood and ‘adequate’ mothering.

Historical transformations of mothering in Britain highlight many of the key general issues regarding motherhood and mothering. As I suggest in Chapter 1, the transformations of ‘the mother’ are part of the history of women. Conventional histories of women in western cultures have presented the glorification of domestic womanhood and motherhood as a counterpart to both the deterioration of middle-class women’s public power and the degradation of working-class women’s living conditions as a consequence of industrialization. The acceptance in feminist discourses of these conventional accounts of female historical subordination has led to an implicit and widespread acceptance of the premise of the degradation of mothering. The assertion is that either there was a time when mothering was better, or that mothering has been essentially always the same: submitted to by women and controlled by men.

An examination of the ‘degradation of mothering’ thesis shows that mothering and motherhood have been transformed in contradictory non-linear processes with gains and losses. Positive gains have been achieved by women. For instance, in the late twentieth century the rising lone-motherhood phenomenon reflects changing sexualities in society and increasing autonomy of mothers from fathers. Motherhood and mothering can increasingly be done without men, and women have been able to choose when and how often to bear children. The contrasts with the turn of the century are enormous. However, many continuities also exist, such as the assumptions that still inform the welfare system’s allocation of allowances, that mothers are supposed to be dependent on a breadwinner. The change of women from being dependents to providers has been contradictorily interpreted in feminist discourses and is often interpreted as part of a trend towards the deterioration of mothering conditions. The powerful identification of women as mothers inhibits the further development of autonomous mothering.

Historical continuities are given greater emphasis by Carol Smart. Her revisionist history of motherhood in Britain (Chapter 2) goes back to the seventeenth century and concentrates mainly on the nineteenth century to consider recent reconstitutions of ‘normal’ motherhood. She shows that in this period the ‘naturalistic chain of events’ from conception to motherhood is constructed around the assumption that motherhood is natural. Normative expectations that define what is ‘proper’ mothering are imposed from this ‘natural’ base through legal and public policies, aided also by psychological analyses. The legal institution of motherhood prescribes rules that are secured by stigmas and impositions placed upon those who disregard the rules. In the context of ‘normalizing motherhood’, working-class unmarried mothers are perceived as most disruptive of the norms. They are presumed to be ‘bad mothers’ in opposition to the married ‘good mother’.

Despite the current generalized blame on lone mothers, the recognition that an illegitimate child is not an unwanted child allows for a reconstruction of unmarried motherhood. As divorced mothers came to constitute most of the category of lone mothers, the boundaries of normalization shifted. Yet this also brings a reconstitution of fatherhood aimed at reinforcing men’s control of mothering by reinforcing mothers’ economic dependence upon men. This is one of the ways in which the reinstatement of the traditional family has been attempted.

Such anxieties about a ‘crisis in the family’ have appeared in different parts of the world. Henrietta Moore shows in Chapter 3 a recurrent trend of states reducing their own role by pushing more ‘social care’ into families, or more directly onto women. The implications are that individual women are made responsible for bringing up their children ‘properly’. Yet the resources to which women must have access in order to mother adequately are not considered.

The proportion of households headed by women has increased world-wide, redefining women as providers rather than dependents. But this redefinition has many contradictions related to the reasons for women becoming heads of households and the renegotiation of gender roles and expectations in ‘families’ and in society.

States in poorer countries are seeking to redefine the relationship between the family, the market and the state more profoundly than in developed countries, by portraying the family as an autonomous unit responsible for its own relations with the market. ‘Adequate’ mothering becomes an impossible task for many. Child labour is needed and many children are abandoned by deprived adults. Turning women into providers without supplying them with adequate resources seems to imply that mothering can be sustained by natural, instinctual provision.

The quality of mothering can be quite irrelevant when the economic viability of mothering is under pressure. This is shown by Carolyn Baylies in Chapter 4 in her analyses of numerous countries, particularly the Zambian example. The diversity in patterns of parenting and household formation world-wide reflects the singularities of colonial experiences of mothering. Norms of the colonialists had important implications for the family structures and kinship of the colonized. Labour migration changed structures of authority, but did not automatically lead to woman-headed households. The varying prevalence of such households is associated with women’s access to resources, such as a facilitating legal framework, social tolerance for diversity in family forms, supportive welfare provision, or availability of employment with adequate pay to maintain a household and cover for the costs of children.

Compared to world-wide patterns of lone mothering, the proportion of lone mothers in the United Kingdom appears relatively small (about a quarter of households are female-headed compared to two-thirds in Norway and nearly half in Barbados; see Baylies, Chapter 4). But the problems of lone motherhood loom large if considered from the perspective of British political discourses.

In the UK in the early and mid-1990s, a recurrent argument was that lone motherhood was imposing an unacceptable high cost on society on two fronts. One was the rising social security bill, the other the rising ‘culture of dependency’ constituted by women wedded to welfare. These social policy problems are explored by Jane Millar in Chapter 5 in relation to the nature of support offered by European and rich Commonwealth welfare states to lone mothers. She finds that welfare states that are most generous to all families are also most generous to lone parents. This implies that benefits tend to be based on women’s status as mothers rather than as lone mothers. In this regard, for instance, measures that facilitate the combination of motherhood and employment are applied to all women. The comparison focuses in particular on the Anglo-Saxon and the Scandinavian child-support models. The former tends to enforce financial dependency of individual women upon individual men whereas in the latter the income of the lone mother does not depend on the actions of the separated father. Even so, however, particular features of lone motherhood still recur: lone mothers are at greater risk of poverty than other mothers.

The observation that married and lone mothers have more in common than apart is also examined by Rosalind Edwards and Simon Duncan in Chapter 6. They offer a complementary angle to the assertion by Millar that gender, rather than family status, is the key to understanding the situation of lone mothers.

They argue that a specific focus on lone mothers is essential. For instance, poverty and state-benefit dependency for lone mothers are greater in Britain than in any other European countries. This seems to be linked to low levels of employment for lone mothers in Britain compared to high and rising levels of employment for married women.

Edwards and Duncan point to the workings of ‘gendered moral rationalities’ to explain the choices and motivations of lone mothers regarding employment. Their comparison of Britain, Sweden and Germany indicates that moral beliefs about mothers—and lone mothers—in paid employment, and the moral acceptance of substitute mothering, are crucial for the uptake of paid work and for claims for the provision of material conditions for the undertaking of paid work. Mothers in Britain are implicitly dependent on a male breadwinner, in contrast to Sweden, for instance, where they are regarded, like all other adult women and men, as workers. The implication is that the moral force to provide for mothers is greater when there is no assumption that there should be an individual male breadwinner to depend on.

However, dependency on the state as an alternative to dependency on an individual man is also highly problematic for women. In the field of social policy this has been a particularly contested terrain for British women since the 1991 Child Support Act. Lorraine Fox Harding argues, in Chapter 7, that the Act represents an attempt by the state to transfer parental responsibility, defined in terms of financial contributions, away from the state. This transfer involves making individual biological parents pay for the costs of children and increases state control and surveillance of pay. Further consequences are that middle-class parents benefit more than those on means-tested benefits, few lone-mother families have benefited, and further problems have been created for second families of absent fathers pursued for maintenance.

These problems of British social policy, and the interpretation that private patriarchy is being restored, could be interpreted as an example of the ‘degradation of mothering’. Yet attempts made by the state in this direction have only marginally succeeded, largely because offsetting material and ideological transformations of mothering have led to popular acceptance of lone motherhood as a quasi-normal occurrence, in contrast to the discourses of politicians and the media stigmatizing lone motherhood.

A particularly important dimension of the discourses ‘demonizing’ lone mothers is that they also highlight many problems about dual parenting: rising divorce rates, women’s reluctance to marry, women’s almost exclusive responsibility for children, and the absence of other alternatives for parenting. Mary Mclntosh pursues this line of argument in Chapter 8 to assert that the anxiety about the crisis of the family centred on lone motherhood expresses ‘two sides of the same coin’. She exposes dangerous fantasies such as that married mothers’ confident dependence on their husbands is more deserving than the lone mothers’ dependence on state benefits. If individuals and families should be able to care for themselves, it is vital to recognize that this is not always possible for everyone.

The demonization of lone mothers is particularly strong in relation to the adequacy of their mothering. In Britain the idea of a ‘dependency culture’ implies the creation of a chain of benefit scroungers. Lone mothering is bad mothering since it is assumed that the traditional heterosexual two-parent family is a better agency for the proper socialization of children. However, the experience of children of lone mothers compared to those in ‘intact’ families is not as sharp a contrast as the stigmatizing discourses wish. Louie Burghes explores in Chapter 9 the complex, contentious and controversial issues regarding such comparisons of outcomes for children. Increasing numbers of children are experiencing life in a diversity of families and family structures, and children do not have uniform responses to this. The effects of family disruption on children and of lone motherhood may be less important than parental unemployment, poor health, or inadequate education. While difficult transitions in family situations may affect children’s outcomes, lone motherhood per se does not. These considerations become even more important when it is impossible to assume that families stay stable forever.

The processes by which discourses elaborate demonization include focusing on ‘problems’. Thus, those faring well within the stigmatized category are ignored. This is why particular blame has been placed on teenage single mothers by politicians and the media in Britain. Ann Phoenix discusses in Chapter 10 both the construction of teenage single motherhood as the epitome of the problematic mother, and the silence on ‘race’ in recent moral panics about lone motherhood. Discourses on teenage single motherhood appear as a ‘generalization from extreme examples’. The absence of discourse on black lone motherhood is not necessarily positive. It reflects a ‘silent discourse’. While black families have consistently been constructed as problematic both in Britain and in the United States, black lone mothers in Britain have not been a focus in discourses. In the USA, lone motherhood has been racialized and this has informed the ‘underclass’ debate. Yet its absence in Britain does not reflect ‘deracialization’. Phoenix suggests that an implicit racialization exists. This intersects with the construction of ‘people with a different culture’ as the outsiders in the British nation. In this light, the discourses on black and white lone mothers do not converge, as the former are a threat from outside while the latter are a threat from within. Black families are excluded from the ideological construction of Britishness, even as an ‘underclass’.

The rhetoric on ‘race’ has not been translated from the United States to Britain. But anxieties over a ‘dangerous and growing underclass’ and a feminist backlash linked to lone motherhood have both been prominent in both countries. Sasha Roseneil and Kirk Mann (Chapter 11) discuss these issues, focusing on the claims by ‘underclass’ theoreticians that solutions to child delinquency are to be found in the reconstitution of the nuclear family and the reassertion of the power and the role of the father within it. They suggest that these attempts at patriarchal reconstruction show a reversal of constructions of dominant power relations, as lone mothers and feminists are pictured as defining the features of society in powerful ways.

The discourses addressing the perils of lone motherhood in the 1990s, as discussed by Roseneil and Mann, show remarkable continuities with the past. For example, beliefs in the civilizing powers of women over men are reminiscent of ideologies of the 1910s and 1920s. In Chapter 1, I show that similar notions supported an ideology of full-time motherhood and made women’s employment appear to be a hindrance to the development of proper male responsibilities. Also, gendered role models of the 1950s, which linked inadequate mothering to delinquency (discussed by Smart in Chapter 2), have been reinstated by the underclass theoreticians in the 1990s. The naturalness of mothering, deconstructed by Smart, is also reinstated by the contemporary presumption that mothers instinctually foster morality.

Traditional and conservative ideas still dominate assessments of ‘good mothering’. This book contributes to a discussion of these ideas and, it is hoped, to the eradication of many of the worst of them.


1 During the second week of December 1992 all of the Queen of England’s six grandchildren were living with lone-mother families (McKendrick, n. d.).