Going It Alone?: Lone Motherhood in Late Modernity
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This book attempts to make an intervention in debates about experiences of lone motherhood in contemporary modern society. Methodologically, it draws on interviews with seventy lone mothers distributed evenly between the UK and Germany. The book follows a neat and easy-to-follow structure. It begins with an investigation of discourses around lone motherhood in the two national cases that are the focus of a comparative analysis – the UK and Germany. Here are two different societies with different social welfare institutional histories and consequently different discourses about welfare state recipients. Negative 'social threat' and 'social problem' and positive 'alternative lifestyle' discursive constructions are identified by the author and it is claimed that the 'alternative lifestyle' is the dominant framing in Germany. However, this is asserted more than it is empirically substantiated. It is not clear how the author established the dominance or not of one discourse over others in each of the empirical contexts examined. More could also have been said about how different discourses circulate in different communities of discourse rather than treating the public sphere in singular terms.
Having discussed competing discourses around lone motherhood, the author goes on to introduce and elaborate on the central concept guiding the book – the concept of individualisation. This is employed as a sensitising concept throughout and the interview data as a 'test' of its application to experiences of lone motherhood in the two societies. Following the work of Beck, Bauman and others, ambivalence and uncertainty characterises this concept. On the one hand, it suggests that mothers are increasingly living out greater freedom than before, are less and less subject to structural blockages but are subject to increasing risks. However, the analytical purchase of this concept is not completely supported in the fascinating narratives of the lone mothers. Lone mothers talk of their desire to be themselves but face difficult constraints – some more than others – as a result of negative public sentiment and structural factors like poverty and unemployment. Class, gender and race differentiation still matter in modern society or at least a good deal more than the individualisation concept allows for. 'Altruistic individualisation' might be more useful here – many of the mothers spoke of their duties to their children even if this meant heavy sacrifices for themselves. They spoke not as self-interested, freedom maximising actors but as concerned parents doing their best to raise their children in often very difficult circumstances. Lone mothers, it seems, are mothers first and alone second.
Of course, as this book makes clear, lone mothers are not a homogenous group. Different mothers report different experiences mediated through their varying levels of human and cultural capital. The author's classification of lone mothers as pioneers, copers, strugglers and borderliners is novel and interesting. Curiously, their relationships to partners do not feature (even though it is identified as one important domain), along with work, parenting, and state dependency – in what it means to be a lone mother. A full chapter is devoted to each of these 'ideal types' and the author does a very good job of concretising the classification in her use of the interview data. I felt however that more could have been said about how the macro institutional histories mapped out earlier influenced the micro worlds of these lone mothers. Can the weakness of the male breadwinner model in East Germany, for example, help explain higher levels of pioneering among East German lone mothers than among West German lone mothers? Another 'road not travelled' has to do with how each additional child influenced experiences of lone motherhood. Some of the lone mothers – Cordelia, for example – related that their private selves infiltrated the public space of the job interview. However, this private self-public self nexus and how lone mothers integrated difficult life experiences such as alcoholism, domestic violence, child abuse or long spells out of work into their autobiographies could have been explored more particularly in situations like the job interview or a first date where one's identity is up for grabs.
The book ends with a series of well-thought through social policy implications fueled by the empirical data. It succeeds in debunking myths about lone mothers as 'welfare spongers' and state dependent lone motherhood as a disabling experience and relates the stories of these often resourceful mothers to a wider audience while at the same time bringing useful analytic and interpretative tools to bear on their life histories.
National University of Ireland, Maynooth