The Captive Mother? The Place of Home in the Lives of Lone Mothers

by Emma Head
University of Leeds

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 27 Oct 2004     Accepted: 23 Sep 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


Feminist writers have drawn attention to the way in which the home can be a source of oppression for women, by the experience of domestic violence and the unending burdens of domestic labour. In this literature little attention has been paid to the experiences of lone mothers specifically. This paper presents findings from empirical work with self-defined lone mothers living in social housing and in receipt of income support in south-west England. The tensions between the home being experienced in positive terms as a place of refuge or as symbolic of a new stage of life are contrasted with the experiences of home as a place of isolation and generating a sense of captivity. The way lone mothers experience the home can be understood with reference to a number of factors. These include whether the lone mother has insider or outside status in the area, the perception and experience of crime, racism, social networks and the experience of mothering.

Keywords: Lone mothers, Home, Social networks, Isolation


1.1 In the 1990s there was renewed interest in family sociology, as Giddens (1992) and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) turned their attentions to this sphere in an attempt to understand wider social changes (Smart and Neale 1999: 5). This intervention into 'family' sociology by mainstream social theorists has mainly been in terms of interest in relationships between adults and the shifting nature and experience of intimacy (Ribbens McCarthy and Edwards 2002: 198). However, there is a danger that this focus has marginalised relationships between parents and children and overlooks "significant social experiences centred on childrearing activities" (ibid.). Ribbens argues that the "maternal worlds" of mothers have generally been neglected by sociology and analyses should be developed which aim to understand the everyday experiences of mothers with their children on their own terms (Ribbens 1994: 4, Bell and Ribbens 1994: 254).

1.2 This neglect of the social worlds of mothers can be seen particularly in the case of lone mothers, where much research attention has been directed. Much of the work on lone motherhood has come from a policy studies perspective and has focussed on the demographics of lone motherhood, housing, health, income, employment and the analysis of policy changes (see Millar 1989, Ford and Millar 1998, Kiernan et al 1998, Rowlingson and McKay 2002). Other research has concentrated on comparative analyses, usually focusing on the treatment of lone mothers in different welfare state regimes (Duncan and Edwards 1997, Lewis 1997, Kilkey 2000, Millar and Rowlingson 2001). This work has been important in revealing poverty as the condition of the lives of lone mothers (Allan and Crow 2001: 136) and in emphasising that gender is the "key variable" in understanding the situation of lone mothers (Millar 1996: 113). Important work by Duncan and Edwards (1999) has used both quantitative and qualitative data and a comparative approach to explore discourses of lone motherhood and the orientation of lone mothers to how paid work and motherhood should be combined. This work has stressed the agency of lone mothers and their adherence to particular "gendered moral rationalities" as to how the relationship between paid work and motherhood should be formulated (1999: 253). However, despite this wide range of research on lone motherhood, there is still a significant lack of work which corrects the oversight noted by Bell and Ribbens, that which aims to understand lone mothers maternal worlds on their own terms and "not through the prisms of social policy agenda, public-world language and implicit public-world evaluations" (1994: 254-55). In this paper the aim is to make the first steps towards correcting this by exploring the place of home in the accounts of twenty lone mothers living on a peripheral housing estate in south-west England.

The Research Project

2.1 This paper is based on fieldwork undertaken as part of doctoral research into the lives of lone mothers. At the beginning of this project, the empirical work was very much structured by a social policy agenda. At the time the project was proposed, attention had been drawn to a contradiction at the national level between the New Deal for Lone Parents (NDLP) which sought to pursue the social inclusion of lone mothers through participation in paid work and the Sure Start programme which stressed the importance of parenting (see Levitas 1998). A research proposal was constructed which would explore these competing pressures as articulated in the accounts of lone mothers of their experience of these two schemes at the local level and their own beliefs around mothering and paid work. So some attention to the social worlds of lone mothers was encompassed by this project, but in the context of the relationship between paid work and mothering, not on their own terms.

2.2 During the course of the interviews and the time spent analysing them, it emerged that all the accounts contained a story about the place of home. Although the interview schedule was developed to capture the paid work/motherhood orientations of the lone mothers, in the context of their interactions with the NDLP and Sure Start programme, and perceptions of the local area (e.g. in terms of labour market opportunities) the schedule was loosely structured. This was based on a feminist approach to interviewing which recognises the power imbalance between interviewer and interviewee. The interview schedule was then based around four areas: motherhood and childcare; local services; paid work, training and education; and living on the estate. Within each of these topic areas I had questions listed that would be asked if appropriate, but most weight was placed on following the account that each lone mother wanted to give on these areas. This meant that there was a space for each participant to define what was important for her and for the stories of home to emerge. In what follows, the significance of the home in the lives of self-defined lone mothers is examined, drawing out various experiences of home and the meanings these had for the lone mothers concerned. At times the stories move beyond the boundaries of the home, into the wider social worlds of extended family, friends and neighbours.

Stories of Home

Home as symbolic of a transition

3.1 It is perhaps not surprising that stories of the home were such a consistent theme. Keeping or trying to find a home is often the first problem that lone mothers face, either on separation from their partner or with the birth of their first child (Hardey 1989: 125). Along with this often comes the problem of decorating and equipping the house, the cost of which presents a difficulty for many lone parents, perhaps particularly for younger mothers (Hardey 1989: 129, Rowlingson and McKay 2002: 203). About half of my interviewees were younger mothers, here taken to be those under 25 years old at the time of the interview. For these women particularly, but also sometimes for the older mothers, creating a home emerged as a symbol of their transition to motherhood/adulthood or as a new stage in the life of the family. This was the case for Donna, aged 28 and white, the mother of two children who are mixed race. A theme repeated many times in her interview was the need to "get my house sorted", for example:
Donna: I've had to cancel a lot of the stuff at the moment because I'm trying to sort my house... I look at my kids and they've been through a lot, I've been in refuges, bed and breakfasts and that, I had to move out of my other flat because of race harassment I was getting and I don't think my children need to go through that, they deserve better and I want them to have a nice place. Do you know what I mean? Yeah, they've got a roof over their head which is the main part, I want them to have nice things, I want them to feel they can be comfortable in their home

3.2 For Donna "getting her house sorted" means redecorating and repairing her home to create a comfortable, calm and stable environment for her children, marking a new stage in the life of the family which will be settled and certain. Zoe, aged 22, had completed the project of decorating her home and described it in positive terms, "lovely, it is a maisonette, I got it up to how I want it". Getting her home to how she wants it marks a contrast to the early years of her daughter's life -

Zoe: it was a bit upside down cos I kept on moving and everything... like I was living in boxes for the first three years
Zoe moved house frequently in the early years of her child's life as she was living in "bad areas" and got into "the wrong company". By settling into her present house and spending money on it, like Donna, she is establishing herself in a permanent and stable home and life.

3.3 Other women drew on these ideas of "getting your house sorted" and also saw this as an important stage in the life of the family and for creating stability and security in their own lives. In the account of Isabelle, getting her house sorted (which seemed a long way off) is constructed as building the foundation for sorting out the rest of her life:

EH: so there is not enough help to get your house started?
Isabelle: no, there definitely isn't and that is one of the worst things I would say. Once you've got your house in order, everything else falls into place, you know, and you can cope with things better... I haven't even got half the furniture I need yet, you know

3.4 There was wide variation in the level of help the women reported receiving in setting up their homes. Some had managed to receive grants from a local charity, others had received loans of various amounts from the social fund, or borrowed money or received second hand goods from family. The level of debt accrued in building up a home was the negative side of making the transition to a new way of life. Based on his research in the mid 1960s, Marsden, in Mothers Alone (1973), comments that for women without capital "a decent home would be built up only at the expense of an adequate diet and clothing" (1973: 39). The hardship and poverty suffered by many lone mothers and their children in contemporary Britain is well documented (Rowlingson and McKay 2002) and, as Marsden noted, there is still a price to be paid for having a decent home. For Zoe the consequence is not being able to afford to pay her heating bills:

Zoe: I haven't got no gas at the moment
EH: no -
Zoe: so I am freezing
EH: is that because there is a problem or you because you haven't got heating?
Zoe: I haven't got no money,
EH: so is that going to get better do you think?
Zoe: no, cos I'm only on 77 a week and I pay out a lot of money, cos of what I wanted basically [to sort out her house]

3.5 At the same time "getting the house sorted" can be experienced as celebratory of a new stage of life, but also as oppressive, as an ever-present reminder of the burden of debt it has generated. When talking about debt and furnishing their home, some women would look round the room and relate where each piece of furniture came from, and whether money was still owed for it. Where all the furniture had been paid for, this was usually when the house was quite sparsely furnished. A number of interviewees also talked about putting their children first when it came to redecorating and furnishing, so that their own bedroom remained unimproved. These points are reflected from the following exchange with Kate and her five year old son:

EH: and how did you get the furniture and stuff when you moved in?
Kate: ...everything in here is paid for, well there isn't much in here (laughs)
Kate's son: mum, you aint got nothing
Kate: that's cos I give you everything!

The captive lone mother? Social networks and the experience of home

3.6 The previous section began to explore a more negative dimension of the place of home in the lives of lone mothers in terms of the debt and financial worries it can create and represent. In this section, I consider accounts where the oppressiveness and isolation of home and full time mothering emerges and discuss the relationship between these experiences and whether lone mothers have 'insider' or 'outsider' status in the area. 'Insiders' refers to the women who have lived on the estate since childhood and usually have family members living in the same area. 'Outsiders' refer to the women who have been moved to the area through the allocation of social housing.

3.7 Both 'insiders' and 'outsiders' alluded to experiencing their homes as oppressive in some way. Perhaps the most simple expression of this came from Helen, an insider,

EH: do you got out everyday?
Helen: yeah, I can't stay in
Kate is an outsider and has one child in school full time and one aged two years old, who has learning difficulties. Her feelings about being at home are similar to Helen's and she has devised a timetable which means that everyday she is able to get out of her house and have some activity to go to or service to use:
EH: what sort of things do you do during the day?
Kate: playgroups
EH: what ones do you go to?
Kate: I go to the Monday group [a playgroup], Tuesday, my youngest goes to the childminders, Wednesday I go to computers at the nursery, Thursday we goes to playgroup and Friday we goes to computers and we go to Friday drop-in down the centre. So everyday I'm doing something, cos I can't stay in, I find it hard to stay in with them to be honest
EH: for what reason?
Kate: I find him hard work, at least when he's at playgroup, he's mixing, I'm mixing. I just find it boring, sat in, the both of us together... he goes and mixes with other children which he finds hard anyway and I find it easier, like having a normal conversation with someone, talking about the same things - that don't make you feel so isolated
Like Kate, a number of women noted the importance of the local services for families and children in enabling them to get out of their homes and to ease their feelings of isolation and boredom. However, this strategy appeared to be more rewarding or successful for some women, usually the 'insiders', than others.

3.8 Fiona, aged 27, is an 'outsider' on the estate, having moved to the area when her son (two years at the time of the interview) was a baby. She talked about feeling "really lonely" and of only having one friend who lived nearby, also an 'outsider'. Fiona reported finding it difficult to make friends with local women and described the experiences of her friend,

Fiona: no one would talk to her for ages, she felt really, you know, closed in and that and then I moved in and starting chatting to her and that and she started telling me that no one - you know - just cos she weren't from the area
Fiona has the same experience and describes how difficult she finds this:
Fiona: it is hard cos I'm a really bubbly person, really friendly and that and I think they think you shouldn't go over and talk to em [other women, at playgroups], they think "she's a bit mad, why's she talking to me, you know?"... [A]nd I'm not used to that, I'm used to being friendly, not being closed

3.9 The experience of isolation for 'outsiders' and these difficulties in making friends might suggest that mothers without family members nearby are likely to be more isolated (Phoenix 1991). However, it did not always appear to be the case that contact with family was experienced as integrating in some way, or that it facilitated the making of wider social contacts. This is the case for Rebecca, she is seventeen years old and grew up in an area next to the estate. In her interview, Rebecca's grandmother emerged as the person who gives her most support; she has lent Rebecca money and sometimes brings her food, and visits regularly:

Rebecca: my nan comes up and she sits and plays with him while I tidy up... well Monday, Wednesday, Friday she comes up and helps, so it's not too bad

3.10 Although this is an important source of adult company and help for Rebecca, in one way it does seem to further confine her to her home in which she already spends a great deal of her time. All in all, Rebecca's story is rather bleak; she has substantial debts, does not have a good relationship with her neighbours and there have been several attempts to break into her flat. In addition to this she has a sense of long-term confinement in a home which she doesn't like:

EH: so do you want to move out?
Rebecca: I won't ever get out, never ever, if I had another baby - I'd have to have another two babies to get out of here, but nobodies wants one of these... nobody'll want to come here, I wouldn't have thought
EH: so do you think you will be living here till [your son] is grown up?
Rebecca: probably - until I can get my own place I will be living here, they will never move me now

3.11 In previous studies of motherhood and housewives, the negative dimension that has been afforded most attention has been the isolation associated with these roles (see the classic studies by Gavron (1966) and Oakley (1976)). Hannah Gavron, in her study of mothers caring for young children, called motherhood "a kind of captivity" (1966: 150). These studies influenced later research around motherhood (see Devine 1989) but have been criticised for working with an analysis which equated 'mother' with 'isolated housewife' and may therefore have overlooked some of the complexities of mothers' social relations (Bell and Ribbens 1994: 228, 231). Evidence from research studies by Bell and Ribbens suggested considerable involvement of mothers in social networks which led them to raise questions about the nature of exclusion from social networks and the experience of isolation which could not be answered by their data: "What are the sorts of characteristics that help to shape mothers' contacts, how do women select some women for sociability or close friendship? Do some people get particularly excluded from these networks and on what basis?" (1994: 255).

3.12 Elsewhere the idea of 'isolation' has not had such a thorough consideration, and the idea that lone mothers are isolated in some way persists, though the basis for this isolation seems difficult to determine. For Hardey (1989: 136) isolation is linked directly to the living conditions, "Living in dilapidated accommodation on an 'undesirable' estate increases the problems of isolation and reinforces the sense of hopelessness faced by many lone parents". Allan and Crow argue that "the circumstances of many lone mothers... can lead to a high level of social isolation" (2001: 143). However, they note a wide variation in the experience of isolation, even when individuals may be living in similar circumstances:

"Some [lone mothers] are extremely isolated and feel very alone. They have few friends and relatively little support from family. For them, the home can become a prison. Others, though, are happy to be relatively inactive socially and do not experience this as oppressive. For whatever reason, they do not feel lonely but derive satisfaction from their apparently limited domestic and familial environment. Still others, while being in a similar material position, are able to use their resources to construct a much more active social life with friends and wider family" (ibid.)

3.13 In the accounts of the lone mothers in my study the dynamics of some of the interviewees' social networks emerged in ways that both support the findings of Bell and Ribbens and begin to answer the questions they raise. The accounts of some interviewees did reflect the "high level" of social isolation that Allan and Crow identify, while a few women seemed satisfied with a limited social network. As we have seen, one factor that was important for the experience of isolation was the status of the lone mothers as an 'insider' or an 'outsider'. Changes in housing policy in the 1980s and 1990s mean that local authorities cannot give priority to lone parents to be housed near family and friends (Land 1999: 134). In general it appeared that the outsiders reported feeling more socially isolated than the insiders, though this relationship didn't always work in a straightforward way and sometimes interacted with other factors, such as age. In common, the insiders and the outsiders talked about the importance of local services for enabling them to 'get out of the house'.

Home as a refuge and a trap: Donna's story

3.14 In this final section of stories of home, Donna's feelings about home are explored in more depth. Above, the importance to Donna of 'getting her house sorted' was discussed and the accomplishment of this would represent a new, settled and stable stage in the life of her family. Donna's account of home is an interesting one as it brings together a number of our themes and she articulates the way that home can be experienced in contradictory ways, sometimes as a refuge and at other times as boring or isolating,

Donna: at home it's boring, I know I've got my kids but it's nice to go out and meet people and meet different people, you can't do that at home - just feels like you're locked in and you can't do nothing, it's like hard to go out when you got no money, cos you can't go out nowhere with your kids when you've got no money, cos they always want something

3.15 As in the previous section, Donna's experiences of home are related to her identity on the estate, she is an 'outsider' in the area, but doubly so on the basis of the ethnicity of her children. In an area where only 3% of the population are from an ethnic minority background, Donna is 'racialised' as the white mother of mixed race children (Alibhai-Brown 2002, Olumide 2002), and this is something that she describes:

Donna: if they have got something to gossip about, you'll be the one and where I've got mixed race children... I stand out a lot, I even caught some of them saying in the shop - they were chatting about black people and they were saying horrible things, and as soon as I come in they stopped and I says 'oh carry on if you've got something to say, don't stop cos of me'
For Donna home is sometimes presented negatively in her account but it also offers a refuge from the sometimes hostile world outside,
Donna: sometimes we have days when I say, 'okay, we're having no one round', we sits down, we close the curtains like it's in the cinema and we gets a quilt and sit on the sofa and watch a film like this [the tv is on in the background] cos they like things like this

3.16 Home is also a place where Donna and her family can create the kind of leisure activities that she finds too expensive to access outside the home. Here she describes how she turns her living room into a mini-cinema where the family cannot be disturbed. So for Donna at different times home is experienced as a symbol of a transition to a better life, as an isolating and boring place to be and as a refuge or escape from the outside world.


4.1 In this paper the stories of home in the lives of lone mothers have been explored. The participants in this research articulated a range of meanings that their homes held for them and the sometimes contradictory feelings they had about them. In the literature on women and housing, the question of whether women experience the home negatively, perhaps as a site of oppression has been debated (see Gurney 1997). The research in this paper supports the finding of Mallett in her review of literature on the meaning of home, "It [home] can be associated with feelings of comfort, ease intimacy, [sic] relaxation and security and or/oppression, tyranny and persecution" (2004: 84).

4.2 In this research establishing an adequate home was understood as an important part of being a 'good mother' and could be symbolic of a new stage of life for the family. However, this positive meaning of creating a home also generated some negative feelings and experiences for the lone mothers in terms of the debt this home-making caused and the work involved in making a home. Contradictory experiences of home were also voiced regarding the place of home as a refuge or as a place of isolation, loneliness and boredom. Home was a place where the family could be together away from the influences of the outside world, but could also be experienced as oppressive and as a place to escape from. In research with lone mothers their experiences of home are an area that is often overlooked and the findings here suggest there is room for further research as home remains an important site in the lives of women (McKie et al 1999).


I would like to thank Ruth Levitas, Jackie West, Ros Edwards and the two anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. This research was funded by the ESRC (award number: R42200034184).


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