The policies that various European states adopt in relation to motherhood and paid work can be distinguished in terms of various gender contracts, embodying expectations and setting out parameters of what women and men should be, how they perceive themselves and what they do (see Duncan 1994 for a review). This explains the differences in lone mothers’ employment between European countries referred to in the introduction to this chapter.

Here, we compare the policy contexts for lone mothers’ employment in Germany, Sweden and Britain. These countries are archetypical cases, within Europe, of conservative, social democratic and liberal state welfare regimes (Esping-Andersen 1990).5

In Germany, 35 per cent of lone mothers have incomes below half the national average, while in Sweden this is just 2 per cent. In Britain, this is the case for 60 per cent of lone-mother families. This is related to the uptake of paid work. In Germany, 58 per cent of lone mothers are in paid work (35 per cent full-time), and in Sweden it is 87 per cent (54 per cent full-time, but with many ‘long part-time’ jobs, nearly equivalent to full-time in terms of hours worked).6 In Britain, however, only 34 per cent of lone mothers obtain the bulk of their income from paid work, in Germany and Sweden this reached 54 per cent and 70 per cent respectively (Gustafsson and Kjulin 1991; Bjornberg 1992; Roll 1992). Indicatively, and again in contrast to Britain, more German and Swedish lone mothers are in paid work, especially full-time, than partnered mothers.

In Germany, state policy positions married and cohabiting women primarily as mothers in traditional male breadwinner-female home­maker families. For partnered mothers the most rational economic decision and the most socially legitimate are the same—to become a housewife (possibly modernized by part-time work). Family wages and the tax benefit system compensate for loss of income, while child­care provision and the school system (with varying hours and no meal provision) leave little choice. Thus lone mothers do present a specific problem—the absent breadwinner role has to be filled. While means-tested lone-parent allowances are often available, grandparents or fathers are legally obliged to provide support to cover other claims on social assistance (Madje and Neusus 1994). In this way, lone motherhood does not seem to undermine or challenge the given gender order; rather, in reinforcing the male breadwinner role, it confirms the prevailing national gender contract.

In Sweden, the state regards lone mothers as just another type of worker, where the tax, benefit and welfare system treats all adult women as workers. These workers may also be parents, and hence the development of a pervasive child-care system and rights to parental leave and reduced working hours. Some workers, like lone mothers, may have particular problems, and so local authorities usually give them preferential treatment in child-care provision. State policy, however, does not see lone mothers as a particular social category in themselves, or as posing any overall social problem, let alone a threat to the national gender contract.

In Britain, the state ostensibly gives mothers a choice on whether to take up paid work or not. On an underlying level, though, traditional motherhood is assumed in terms of (lack of) public child­care provision, which is among the lowest in Europe, but not in terms of family wages. Thus it is difficult for mothers to participate on equal terms with men, and with other women, in the labour market, but paradoxically they need to. Policies thus reinforce mothers’ employment in part-time jobs, which are often low paid, insecure and sometimes even without employment rights and protection. Lone mothers are particularly disadvantaged, with as many as 50 per cent having no access to any sort of child care (Popay and Jones 1990; Bradshaw and Millar 1991). Mothers are implicitly dependent on a male breadwinner or, if this fails as with lone mothers, on increasingly minimal and stigmatized state benefits.

This situation leads to lone mothers in Britain being regarded as, at best, a social problem or, at worst, a threat to the social order.

There is ambiguity regarding women’s integration into the social order, whether as workers in the labour market (as in Sweden) or as mothers and housewives in families (as in Germany). If the state provides sufficient child-care support, then it implicitly takes the position that all mothers are primarily workers. If it treats all mothers primarily as homemakers, this also costs an awful lot, even at minimal levels. Both political strategies risk offending powerful interest groups and alienating voters, and are fraught with political implications vis-a-vis the relations between men and women and the nature of ‘the family’.


The apparent irrationality of British lone mothers’ decreasing employment rates over the past two decades, unlike married mothers in Britain and also lone mothers in most of western Europe, is related to other shifts in addition to changes in the labour market and benefit structures. There have been two main, and interlocking, shifts in child-care availability and in gendered moral rationalities.

First, in the 1970s the higher percentage of lone mothers in paid work was matched by the majority of them living in multi-unit households, most usually their own parents’ home, and with their own mothers’ (grandmothers) providing child care (Land 1993)— following traditional familial moral obligations. Grandmothers are now far more likely to be in paid work themselves, and do not always wish to undertake such caring (see, for example, Cotterill 1994).

Second, in the 1970s lone mothers formed a smaller overall proportion of families. They either continued within the dominant gendered morality for motherhood—widows for whom the state substituted the deceased’s breadwinner role—or fell outside it—they had children out of wedlock. To be a single mother was to be in a marginal and stigmatized position and, therefore, not subject to another dominant norm of ‘normal’ motherhood, that of full-time homemaker. As lone mothers have become an increasing proportion of the population, and as the situation has become one that ‘normal’ mothers may face (especially given the rise in divorce and separation), so they too become subject to dominant understandings of mothers and their role.

However, conceptions of motherhood, in relation to its incorporation of paid work, can vary between different social groups of lone mothers, often living in particular neighbourhoods.

Moreover, while similar developments in the proportions of lone mothers have taken place elsewhere in western Europe, there have not been similar declines in their employment rates. Different national gender contracts have meant other welfare regimes have either recognized these changes (as in Sweden, with child care) or absorbed them (as in Germany).

Paradoxically, as lone mothers have become numerically more important and have been incorporated into dominant norms for motherhood, discourses around lone motherhood have become heavily politicized in Britain. Dominant discourses impose definitions of what lone mothers are and what they should do, and also have very practical consequences in influencing policies and hence the provision of resources. Similarly, gender divisions of labour operate differentially at the level of local labour markets, reflecting the interaction of spatial divisions of capitalist labour with regional views of the gender contract. It is not only particular jobs (especially socially defined women’s jobs) that will be differentially distributed but also conceptions as to whether women are mothers and/or workers. Lone mothers’ job opportunities and their propensity to take up paid work will be locally differentiated. At the level of social networks and neighbourhoods, lone mothers’ access to resources in terms of child care and social support will vary in interaction with local and social group-based discourses and socially held moral rationalities about (lone) motherhood and paid work.

It is in these interacting contexts that lone mothers take decisions about paid work. For instance, the existence of social networks and support at a neighbourhood level, and how these may constrain or offer opportunities to lone mothers, may be related to differences in the national welfare state regime. Where countries have developed policies that favour high levels of mothers’ employment combined with high levels of provision of formal child care, the development of local support networks among women may be less likely. In Sweden, Scott (1982) suggests that self-help autonomous networks among women are rare because the government has incorporated feminism. Conversely, where policies do not support mothers’ employment or child-care provision, local social networks may play a stronger part. In Germany, Epstein et al. (1986) found that women had a sense of belonging to a specifically female culture and holding family-based values, with German governments also emphasizing traditional family life through welfare policies. In Britain, informal networks of women are significant in child care.

As we have argued, there is a risk in over-stressing the supremacy of welfare state regimes and also of individualistic economic calculations. Too often both are seen as all-determining, so that the complexity of lone mothers’ responses to the structures in which they live is not allowed for. Viewing lone mothers as women in social context, rather than as ‘rational economic man’, allows us to see beyond the passive respondents in a simple stimulus-response policy model. It allows us to see lone mothers as participating women, socially creating and shaping opportunities for themselves and their children, acting within the constraints and opportunities provided by different social contexts.


Our thanks to Rob Eastwood, whose comments on our ideas concerning the gendered nature of economic and moral rationalities were invaluable.