Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Sue Innes and Gill Scott (2003) 'After I've Done the Mum Things': Women, Care and Transitions'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 4, <>

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Received: 17/11/2003      Accepted: 17/11/2003      Published: 28/11/2003


Changes in the relationship of paid work, care and welfare have most impact on women, particularly those who are affected by welfare-to-work policies. A study of care in relation to transitions to the labour market made by women with dependent children in Glasgow suggests that women in low-income households face additional difficulties in achieving a balance of work and care. They may have more care responsibilities than other families but fewer material and social resources with which to carry them out. Neither the male-breadwinner model of family arrangements for the care and costs of children nor the adult-worker model that is replacing it in policy logic, takes into account their social and economic circumstances or the need for both formal and informal care to support successful transitions to further education and employment. Care is neither as straightforward to organise, nor as readily substituted for, as employment and welfare policies, in their limited attention to it, imply. The practices and meanings of care must be considered in depth if it is to be adequately understood and not further marginalised.

Childcare; Employment; Family Policy; Gender Culture; Parenting; Poverty; Welfare


Feminist analyses of welfare and employment policies have demonstrated the paradox of demands made on women as carers at the same time as increasing demands are made on them as workers, associated with a re-moralisation of citizenship based on labour market participation (Rake, 2001; Lister, 2000). Changes to the inter-relationship of paid work, care and welfare have most impact on women, particularly those women affected by the welfare-to-work agenda that is a hallmark of New Labour social policy in the UK. How the care of children and other care located primarily within the family is to be understood and supported if women, are no longer in a position to give most of their time and energy to it, is one of the most urgent questions for social theory and for policy (Folbre, 1994). For many years, feminist theorists have argued that the work of care must be recognised and valued, that its subordination is politically significant and that it is constitutive of distinctive social relations (Graham, 1983; Tronto, 1993; Sevenhuijsen, 1998; 2000). Gender and care have been shown to be crucial to understanding welfare regimes (Lewis, 1992) and have an increased visibility in social theory and empirical studies (Sainsbury, 1999; Daly, 2002).

In this article we report on a study of care in relation to transitions to the labour market made by women with dependent children in a low-income area of Glasgow. Their community faces long-standing problems of poverty and low employment in a city that has major problems of unemployment and deprivation, but with a well-established commitment to social and economic regeneration. The women who participated in the study are attempting a life-course transition from full-time caring to labour market participation, supported, in so doing, by an innovative anti-poverty project, Rosemount Lifelong Learning. The study has specific significance for local and national policies and targeted provision to support such transitions, but also addresses wider questions about the changing relations of care, paid work and welfare. We suggest that greater attention should be paid to differences between women and families, to class, social group and location, and particularly to issues affecting women in low-income households making the transition to the labour market. It is valuable to do so, not only to better understand the tensions between work and care, which are highly visible in such circumstances, but because women in low-income families are the main focus of active labour market and anti-poverty policies.

* Care, Poverty and Economics

Women continue to undertake most caring work in our society (Berthoud & Gershuny, 2000). Gender inequalities in the distribution of unpaid care and domestic work structure women's access to employment and particularly to better paid employment and, consequently, to claims on welfare benefits (Fagan et al, 1999). Although changes to women's labour market participation include greater participation in professional employment and increasing participation by mothers of dependent children, the overall pattern continues to be shaped by job segregation and caring responsibilities, associated with interrupted work histories and low-paid and part-time work. The cost of care for carers is a significantly decreased lifetime income and a greater likelihood of poverty, both when engaged in caring and in old age as a consequence of lost earnings and pension rights (Harkness & Waldfogel, 1999; Women's Unit, 2000). Again there is an evident paradox: informal care in families and communities is of considerable economic as well as social importance; if insufficient time and resources are devoted to this 'hidden economy', productivity will suffer (Himmelweit, 1998; (2002). Conventional economic analysis is inadequate to encompass the role of care in society (Folbre & Nelson, 2000; Scott & McKay, 2001).

Despite that, Government policies continue to make a 'rationality mistake' in relation to care. Complex social decision-making, including paradigmatically care relations, exhibits a different kind of rationality to that assumed by the conventional economic and legal model (rational choice theory), yet that model is assumed in family and welfare policies (Barlow et al., 2002). The decisions made in relation to care and paid employment by both lone and partnered mothers, and the meanings and values associated with care, constitute distinctive gendered moral rationalities, which are socially situated (Duncan & Edwards, 1999; Edwards et al, 2002). Meanings accorded to care and its role in maternal identities (Finch & Groves, 1983) shape and are shaped by a 'gender culture' (Pfau-Effinger, 1998) which is socially produced and in relation to local economic circumstances The articulation of their aims and values in relation to paid work and care by the women who participated in the study was its starting point, alongside a consideration of the resources for care available to them and how changes in the women's lives were affected by, and affect, those resources. The relationship between resources available and the rationalities shaping perceived choices is complex and deserves further exploration.

In their influential analysis, Glendinning & Millar (1992) showed that women's poverty is shaped by the three dimensions of economy, family and state: labour market participation, care responsibilities and benefits. Women are more likely to be poor than men because they pay more of the costs of childcare, directly and through lower earnings (Christopher et al., 2001). The most recent data on poverty in Scotland show the interaction of political, social, economic and personal factors in creating vulnerability to poverty and to remaining in poverty. The risks of poverty depend on factors including: discrimination; inability to meet the extra costs of a child; and those social and economic constraints imposed by disability, unequal access to the labour market, age and gender. As well as being more likely to be poor than men women are also more likely to remain in poverty for longer periods. There is a growing polarisation in women's experience, with those who have benefited from the expansion of education most likely achieve economic independence, and older women and those with few qualifications least likely to benefit in the same way (Brown et al., 2002).

Employment focused policies to address child poverty may be based on a limited understanding of the reasons why many women find it difficult to make transitions from the unpaid labour of parenting to the labour market. Both the persistence of poverty and the availability and success of routes out of poverty are affected by gender and the care of children. There is a lesser likelihood of leaving poverty and recurrent poverty where there are dependent children in the household, particularly children aged 1-5 (Jenkins & Rigg, 2001). The findings of Jenkins & Rigg also draw attention to the relative importance of the labour market providing a route out of poverty for individuals of working age. However, it also suggests that an anti-poverty policy based around labour market measures is not sufficient to help people who are not in a position to take up paid work, which will include some people with caring responsibilities. Although a number of policies are intended to help low-income families engage with the labour market, childcare and 'family-friendly' work arrangements and in-work benefits may benefit middle-income groups more than they benefit the poorest households.

The extension of in-work benefits and associated employment measures may not reach those in the most insecure and low-paid employment and, as Dean and Shah (2002: 78) argue, they cannot by themselves change the precarious nature of the labour market with which low-income families must engage. There is an associated risk, as the same authors emphasise, that benefits for families that are not engaged with the labour market may become relatively less generous and further stigmatised. Employers in large organisations, in the public sector and those in occupations with recognised unions are more likely to offer family-friendly working arrangements (Dex & Smith, 2002). But women in Britain are more likely to be employed in small and medium-sized organisations where, although informal provision for flexibility is not uncommon (Dex & Scheibl, 2002), provision is very variable.

Research on the provision of informal care for elderly adults and those with a disability has concentrated on gender inequalities. Class differences have been subject to very little research (Arber & Ginn, 1992). This is also the case for childcare resources and practices. Although for most women in European countries the balance between unpaid and paid work has changed in favour of the latter, there is a risk that social inequality in employment systems and domestic life has been partly reproduced in a new form, with women more likely than men to be working in casual or short hours employment with poor conditions and benefits and 'atypical' working hours (Bang et al., 2000: 263). That is linked to care giving, not only in the way that domestic responsibilities shape women's access to employment, but in making the affording and obtaining of good, sustainable childcare more difficult.

* The Changing Policy Context

It is particularly important to understand the impact of policies on women in low-income families at a time of policy change. In the UK, as elsewhere in Europe although with significant variations (Sainsbury, 1999), welfare restructuring is increasingly based on the logic that presents paid work as the route out of poverty and as the way to meet the primary Government objective of ending child poverty. Policy is directed towards facilitating labour market participation for a range of socially excluded groups, with a highly visible focus on lone mothers, but with a proposed impact for all family forms. In consequence, New Labour social policy is in danger of losing sight of care within families. The Government argued that its aim in reforming benefits was 'to forge an entirely new culture which puts work first' (DSS, 1998). It does not define 'work' in this context, but it is clear that work for pay is what is meant. Waged labour is also seen as being about fulfilling individual potential, being active, and offering self-respect and social inclusion.

Such arguments privilege an ethic of paid work at the expense of the values and unpaid work of care, which is given no considered attention and which is positioned only as a barrier to paid work, alongside retirement, sickness and disability (DSS, 1998: 23). It reflects a hierarchy of work forms that gives, 'primacy to wage-work, however useless, over other forms of work, however useful' (Leira, 1992: 171). The policies of most direct relevance here include the New Deals for lone parents and for the partners of the unemployed, and funded childcare for vocational trainees and lone parents in FE and measures aimed at 'making work pay', including the minimum wage and the tax credits for working families and children. Training and lifelong learning provision are seen as complementing that policy emphasis, seeking to ensure that entry into work for those marginalised in the labour market does not lead to poverty in employment replacing benefit poverty (Scottish Executive, 2000).

Such policies are premised on a transition from a male-breadwinner model of arrangements for income and care in the family, which was historically most strong in the mid twentieth century (Land, 1980; Crouch, 1999) - and is now seen as out of date - to an adult-worker model (Crompton, 1999; Lewis, 2001). However, its assumptions may be as ill matched to the circumstances and needs of most families, as was the male-breadwinner model. The assumption that all adults have the potential to participate fully in the labour market is also a key plank of gender equality policies, but may be a built-in limitation to them. Changes in women's labour market participation, read superficially, would appear to support that shift. However, as Lewis (2001: 154) argues, policy assumptions, 'have outrun the social reality.' Data does not support the idea of two adult/independent breadwinners so much as the 'one-and-a-half-earner family', while lone parents are treated as an 'add-on'.

Care is marginalised within that model, both through its absence from policy and also conceptually: adult-worker premises depend on conceptual and moral boundaries that position adulthood and individuality as attained through refusing or denying dependence and care (Tronto, 1993; Innes & Scott, 2002b). Himmelweit (2002: 248) usefully describes here a 'transitional situation' in which norms of the breadwinner father and caring mother have begun to break down, but a new egalitarian norm based on equality of caring and financial support is not yet well established. But, she emphasises, children must be cared for, nevertheless.

Recognition of care as a public value (Daly, 2002: 268; Tronto, 2002), and as a necessary adjunct to women's status as adult-workers, is shown in policies for substituting for family care while parents work. The National Childcare Strategy has the potential to remove an acknowledged barrier for parents. However, the focus on market-based transactions wherever possible and on formalising and regulating activity, fails to account of the very varied nature of childcare as a commodity and overlooks - and could militate against - the crucial contribution made by the informal sector (Land, 2002). Increased support for childcare through the disaggregated child tax credit is to be welcomed, but it is too soon, even provisionally, to evaluate its impact. The Government, nevertheless, remains ambivalent in its approach to the relationship between care and employment, providing only minimum, and EC consistent, rights to parental leave and paternity leave and endorsing voluntary agreements for 'family-friendly' policies, with the exception of a highly limited provision in the right to ask for flexible working hours.

Understanding the position of women with children in low-income households is essential to developing effective policy in this area. Not only do they face additional difficulties in managing work and care they are, as noted, the main focus of policies aimed at encouraging women with children into employment. If their circumstances and experiences are not taken fully into account and the resources for care on which they depend are not understood and supported, there may be risks of increasing problems of poverty and insecurity and further marginalising care. We were particularly interested in our research in the experience and daily routines of care-givers because, even in research and discussions that acknowledge the importance of care, it can easily be taken for granted. Care provides considerable analytical and conceptual challenges that must be addressed if it is to be economically and socially recognised.

* The Study: Methods and Participants

The aim of the research was to consider the changing nature of resources for care among women with dependent children making transitions into training and work in an area undergoing social and economic regeneration. We wanted to explore their experiences on a day-to-day level and to look, in an in-depth way, at the economic and moral rationalities for mothers in low-income households who are returning to education and employment. This is in order to understand what is needed for a labour market involvement that enhances, rather than compromises, the well being of such women and their families. We had a particular interest in the role of informal care in the family because a study of family economies in the same area demonstrated the importance of the care economy to families' survival (McKay & Scott, 1999).

The study was a small-scale, qualitative case study with women who were either taking part in a programme of training aimed at 'women returners' or had done so recently. The participants were recruited through Rosemount Lifelong Learning (RLL), an innovative, community-managed centre in Royston, North Glasgow catering predominantly for women and people of ethnic minority heritage. It offers high quality entry-level training with an associated nursery school and after-school care.[1] The centre is funded by the European Social Fund, with a remit to reduce poverty by increasing life chances through lifelong learning; it includes gender equality in its aims. The area it serves has high and persistent levels of multiple deprivation, a high proportion of households with children and the highest rate of unemployment in Glasgow (Glasgow City Council, June 2000). Although the area has a number of problems there is a high level of satisfaction with it as somewhere to live (Adams et al., 1999). It is one of the of 45 Scottish Social Inclusion Partnership areas[2] and is undergoing considerable housing-led regeneration.

The women who participated in the study made up a purposive sample: people whose experience is located at a significant juncture of social change and policy development. The 'transitional situation' in arrangements for care and income in families that Himmelweit (2002) describes, and that is the focus of discussion of the move from a male-breadwinner to adult-worker family, was reflected in the circumstances and experiences of our participants. The group comprised 12 women with dependant children. Most had had their first child in their teens or early twenties, so were younger than is commonly the case for 'women returners'. All have children under 12 and all but one of the women have children under 5, with the most common pattern being a child at the Rosemount nursery and a child at primary school. Most had poor previous learning experiences and only one had left school with any qualifications. Some also had only limited employment experience. All were categorised as unemployed prior to beginning the course (which is a requirement of eligibility), although since all were caring for young children 'unemployed' is not an accurate or a particularly useful description. Just over half the group were lone parents, with continuing involvement of the children's father or his family occurring in three cases. Five of the participants were currently taking a training course at Rosemount and seven had previously taken the course. Of those who were no longer attending the centre, two were in further education, two were employed (one full-time and one part-time) and three were caring for their children at home. All are white and most had lived locally for all, or most of, their lives.

Two focus groups were held, the first at the beginning of the study which help draw up a 'care index' and sought to locate our understanding of terms and definitions in relation to the women's views and understanding. The second was held at the end of the data gathering period, and explored issues of transition from training to work or FE. Semi-structured, in-depth interviews were also carried out with participants and included biographical work. These were followed by a short interview six months later to find out about changes in the interim, particularly at the end of the training period for the women who attended the course when first interviewed. All participants were asked to fill in 'care diaries' for three weeks, on their daily activities and those of their youngest child. This intensive methodology generated rich data and enabled specific themes to be returned to and to be enlarged upon. Because the personal development work, which is part of Rosemount courses, encourages reflection on aims and possibilities, the interviewees' own thoughtfulness about the issues raised, and also their willingness to explore them, meant that considerable depth and detail in analysis was made possible, even for such a short study.

* Unpacking the 'Black Box': the Experience and Meanings of Care

Even in work that recognises the centrality of care to society and in the lives of caregivers, care in the family is commonly treated as a 'black box': a building block of society and the economy, but not one whose internal workings need to be considered (Himmelweit, 2000: xv). The women's accounts of care in their daily lives and how they managed to fit together their, and their children's, timetable show that care-giving is a complex social practice, relationship and orientation (Sevenhuijsen, 1998). Their account of care is at marked variance from the limited and manageable role implicitly allocated to care within the policy model.

Daly's definition of care as 'looking after those who cannot take care of themselves' (Daly, 2002: 252) is usefully straightforward. But unpacking it is also to recognise that this entails the multi-faceted practice named by Elson as 'provisioning': 'the activity of supplying people with what they need to thrive, including care and concern as well as material goods. At the heart of provisioning is looking ahead and making preparations' (Elson, 1998: 207). This emphasis resonated with many of the women's accounts of care. It is about, as one put it, 'thinking forward':
'[I]n the morning, soon as the weans have finished their breakfast and the plates are in the sink, that's history. You need to start thinking forward. As soon as the dishes have hit the sink, that's it, you need to start thinking right, dinnertime, what are we gonnae make for their dinner the night? You're always thinking forward.'

The conceptually complex nature of care is recognised in the idea of 'caringscapes' as a way of theorising the routes that parents negotiate through a 'shifting and changing multi-dimensional terrain' of caring possibilities and obligations and combinations of paid work and care (McKie et al., 2002).

* Specifying Care

The study suggests that close examination of the experience of care giving can do much to specify what care consists in and to delineate its many dimensions. Also raised in the study was children's input to the care they receive: how they shape what is possible because of what they, themselves, are able to cope with or happy to participate in - which also changes - perhaps because they have special needs. Sociological work on relationships and intimacy has paid little attention to relationships between parents and children (McCarthy & Edwards, 2002) and in work on childcare children are more often positioned as subjects than recognised as actors.

The classic analysis of the time costs of childcare (Piachaud, 1984) makes a division between basic tasks/life-support activities, educational and entertaining tasks, and indirect supervisory/on-call responsibilities. Basic tasks are sub-divided into activities directly involving the child, and servicing activities that can be done without the child, mainly housework and shopping. All of Piachaud's categories were included in the women's accounts of everyday care, but other important aspects were added. These were: behavioural and moral guidance, presented as distinct from education and as a family responsibility; overall organising and planning, characterised in discussion by the phrase 'making sure that...'; and emotional engagement - the consideration of feelings of children and other family members and the resolution of problems. Caring for children requires thought and understanding as well as a willingness to put your own feelings aside. Care is not always 'being nice', as the word 'care' implies, but included firmness and discipline.

Although most of the research focus was on practices of 'caring for', this was not distinguished from, or seen as meaningfully different from, 'caring about' (Ungerson, 1987). For example, providing warm, waterproof clothes in winter was presented by participants as a way of expressing love. 'Caring about' was supported by the material resources that enabled 'caring for'. The Rosemount women also pointed out that the 'servicing activities that can be done without the child' listed by Piachaud more often must be done with small children, making it difficult to complete domestic work. The women's accounts also highlight the indivisible connection between the practices that the work of caring for children consist in and the women's identities and sense of self as mothers.

The concept of provisioning acknowledges that all of the aspects of care listed by Piachaud (1984) require managing or 'scripting' and that this is of considerable, and sometimes onerous, importance in the daily experience of care giving. This is intensified when care is managed alongside other activities of training, education and employment and is particularly demanding at times of change or transition from one set of arrangements to another. One instance illustrates this and other key themes. The woman concerned was unable to come at a previously agreed time for the interview because of an unexpected demand that day and was trying to figure out whether she would be able to talk to one of the authors the following day. Because schools were closed for an in-service day only her youngest child would have care, in the Rosemount nursery. Her primary-age son could go to his grandmother's but could her two older children be safely left at home?
W: 'There's just no other way - I can't send them all down tae ma Mum's, it's a small apartment. They would just start all the carry on wi her, so I'm gonnae have tae leave them. I'm gonnae have tae sit them doon, like tonight, and go - 'Right, no carry on - I'm warning ye - ye'll be kept in if I find out there's been any carry on in the house and you've had people in.' It's pressure! Always pressure...'

S: 'But J. will go to your Mum's, will he?'

W: 'He will go tae ma Mum's - he's off as well. So, when I get up, it'll have to be planned - I'll have to go over to ma Mum's wi' J., come back, catch the bus, be here for half past nine, put L in, do ma course in the mornin, go back, make - well they'll obviously make their own lunch, maybe not such a good idea - maybe keep them out the kitchen altogether til I come back. Maybe make lunch and just the usual, or, naw I won't be - I'll be goin over to ma Mum's and I'll be pickin' J up and I'll be doin' ma Mum's shoppin'. Tomorrow's Thursday, I'll be doin' ma Mum's stuff and then I'll get home at some point tomorrow.'

This childcare issue was raised as an organisational problem but it is equally about attention to feelings and judgements based on such arrangements. It illustrates one of the main management problems of care: its changeability over time and location, particularly in relation to the 'common emergencies' created by school and nursery closures, children's illnesses or hospital or other appointments. Such disruptions, by their very nature, are not easy to plan for. Most of the women found common childhood ailments or medical and related appointments for children and school closures frequently disruptive, requiring the very difficult task of making arrangements that 'anticipate the unpredictable' (Backett-Milburn et al., 2001: 21).

These dilemmas, from one day, illustrate how care needs in families depend on the age of children and age distribution in the family and on family and institutional arrangements. Although the needs of four children (as in that example) may be harder to synchronise, except in the case of multiple births or children born very close together, children's daily locations are likely to differ according to their age. The one woman in the study whose three children were at an integrated nursery, primary school and after-school centre emphasised how very valuable that fact was, for both children and their parents.

The woman quoted above also had to factor in her regular commitment to do her mother's shopping, raising a further issue that was significant for several participants, namely that their caring responsibilities were not only for their children but involved older adults, both as providers and recipients of care. This interviewee had depended on her mother to look after the children, but could no longer do so:
'She's ma support, Sue, she's ma main support, ma Mum. I was never able to do (unclear) anything without ma Mum. But she's not fit enough now, Sue. She had an operation that went badly - although she would never say 'no', then I know her good days an' her bad days and I would never pressurise her intae, you know, if she was really unwell that day, then L [nursery age child] wouldnae've been goin' over and I wouldnae've been at work, it's as simple as that.'

Although usually studied separately, childcare and other caring roles may co-exist. Caring for young children is a different experience if it is accompanied, as it was for two of the women during the course of the study, by daily tasks of also caring for their own mothers following periods in hospital, and that could also disrupt the woman's attendance on the training course. For just over half of the women in the group there were adults, for whom they are regularly caring. Ill health and disability show class differentials and are associated with social exclusion. North Glasgow's high levels of poor health showed in its impact on the health and mental health of the grandparent generation.

That could mean, as well as additional care work, a loss of care, as grandparents who may have played a key role in informal care were no longer in a position to help. Sometimes these responsibilities were ongoing and considerable; for others they meant unpredictable demands. The increasing need for care for older people and increased reliance on families suggest that this is a growing issue for working-class women (Arber & Ginn, 1992). Although childcare was the predominant concern of the women in the study, a too strongly drawn distinction between types of care can create a false picture of the women's experience and the complex role of care in their daily lives.

* Time to Care

The dimensions of time and location were highly relevant to understanding how care and other activities intersect or are in conflict (McKie et al., 2002). Time was presented as a pressure, with life as a daily race to make everything fit together. It was also a resource to be managed through routine and structure. The women's accounts of familiar dilemmas made clear that there are aspects of care that are simply non-negotiable. Most had points in their days where time and location demands must be met, with very little margin, primarily when collecting children from school or nursery. That creates tensions in managing other uses of time, particularly if unreliable public transport is used. For example, one woman said that the need to leave Rosemount in time to pick up her son from primary school in time to get back home to meet her daughter's school bus looked 'like nothing' in the entry in her diary, but any disruption in meeting those deadlines - for example, being held up at the end of class or if the little boy dawdled coming out of school - would mean not meeting her daughter's bus from special school, something which was inconceivable. For women in employment there were similarly inflexible demands, as the work they were able to obtain did not usually offer much control over time or flexibility. That work available, for example in social care, demanded shift work over the entire week and that childcare was usually available in 'office hours' (or less) from Monday to Friday was a particular problem, especially for single parents.

Finding time to fit in the interviews, it soon became clear, was an additional problem since the time to participate in the study could be taken neither from class time nor from childcare time - and what else was there? Even the time needed to fill in the 'care diaries' included in the research - although we did not ask for extensive detail - was difficult for many. It meant staying up late and it could conflict with care of children. One woman described trying to finish the diary while ' in dialogue' with her child, who would not settle down:
'"I promise I'll be good, I'll stay in ma bed, stay in ma bed..." Then later it's "He, he" - the wee laughing face roon the door. "I'm warning you - bed, now." An I dae try, like, I was tryin tae dae these [diaries] and [pause] and you just mair angry with the weans because you're, you're no even getting it done...'

A similar conflict could be created by the need to find time for preparation for class. It was hard to manage when children were around and class work often meant late nights. The title of this paper comes from one woman's explanation of when she got studying done:
'After I've done all the mum things. You know, so it could be frae ten o'clock at night till maybe three in the morning, or I've done four in the morning...'

The unending responsibility and long hours could be exhausting, both for women at home full-time and for those combining paid work or education and care:
'That is continuous, that, from when I get up in the morning. It's ten past eight their [children's] day starts - ends nine o clock and then it's like, you can actually sit down. But then there's always somethin' else. You think, well, if I get that done - an it's usually another washin' an' a dry. So, it just keeps going.'

Women who had combined care with full-time further education described feelings of overload:
'Last year was just, oh God, it was a pure nightmare. I still sit an' I go like - how did I get through that? How did I dae that?'

The accounts mixed affection and ambivalence. In the first focus groups, discussing what was involved in care, the positive and negative aspects of care giving were listed fairly indiscriminately. The pleasures and satisfactions of caring were interwoven with its difficulties and frustrations:
'Even though, you know, you've got your moments when you're tired and you're: 'Please, just go into your room, just go away'. Or,at the end of the night, when you're physically exhausted. But I do enjoy being a mum... I like when you see them laughin', when they're not fightin'.... That makes me feel good.'

The pleasure involved in care could also be linked to the new directions the women were taking:
'I got a buzz goin' tae college, cos J [her eldest daughter] used tae tell everybody, 'My mammy's at college.' She thought it was great, so that was positive. She got a buzz oot it an I got a buzz oot it, and we were kina - she'd come in and she'd go: 'Have you got homework?' an' I would say, 'Aye'. 'So have I.'

* Work and Care

As well as a financial necessity, paid work was linked to self-esteem and work and training was described as being ambitious for your life and a good example to your children. All of the women took for granted that they would return to paid work, although two of the women decided, following the course and a problematic move to full-time FE, to postpone doing so until their children were older and all at school For further discussion see Innes & Scott, 2002b). A particular dilemma was whether further training or education would be possible or worth the time and investment, as loss of earnings and costs associated with study could be considerable in relation to a family's low income. Participants' understanding of motherhood as requiring of them both paid work and care reinforces the findings of an East of Scotland study with low and medium-income women in employment: that both paid work and parenting were valued and the dilemma that mothers faced was how to manage that fact, rather than decide whether or not to work outside the home at all (Backett-Milburn et al., 2001). The work of Backett-Milburn et al. is unusual in recognising a 'new motherhood' in which caring and providing were integral aspects of maternal identity, rather than seen as opposing preferences. The women in our study described care as demanding time-consuming emotional and physical inputs, but also enough money, both to meet children's basic needs and for what can be described as 'ordinary extras':
'Financially, it's the big thing for me, because I feel it's unfair for J.... If you've no got the money ye cannae dae it. Whereas, if I've got a job, she's at least got half the chance of getting' that wee bit more than what I can gie her the now. Go on a holiday, get a wee motor - things that people take for granted. D'ye know what I mean? That's what I'm workin' towards. A good wage.'

This woman went on to emphasise what that meant to her also in terms of independence and self esteem:
'Gaun tae the social an' sayin' tae them - here - there's ma two books back - I don't need them, I'm workin'. I cannae wait tae the day I can dae that.'

* Formal and Informal Care

Although the family circumstances of the women under study varied, the mother was, with one household exception, the main carer. In every case she was the 'default carer' (Saraceno 1987), in that if other care was not available, she had to give up whatever else she had planned in order to look after the child. That awareness shaped participants' sense of what was possible for them. Although formal and informal care are often seen as alternatives, the study shows that both are needed to support successful transitions to further education and employment, and that it is important to map their complementary relationship. Detailed attention to the experience and daily routines of care-givers demonstrates that substituting for much of what mothers do is not as straightforward as policies on formal care suggest. If parents are to enter the labour market, or pursue other opportunities, substitute care is essential, but it may not be sufficient. However, that recognition is not a negation of the importance of good quality, affordable formal childcare, which was in every case the provision the women described as most helpful to women in their situation and what they wanted to see more of. It was valued as much in meeting children's social and educational needs as in enabling opportunities for the mother. What was needed was a 'jigsaw' (Wheelock and Jones, 2002) of formal and informal care, although ensuring that the edges of the puzzle all met was part of the organisational load the women carried.

Informal care, where available, tended to be given by other family members. The involvement of non-family members was not usual and several of the women were not sure that it was appropriate. It was considered that things could be legitimately asked of families that cannot be asked of other people. The study indicates the complexities of managing and retaining such support - and also its vulnerability. Informal care could, as well as providing alternative carers for the children, make an important material contribution to the family's well being including, for example, funding holidays and outings the children would not otherwise have and buying clothes, including school uniforms. These findings support those of a study of family economies in the same area on the crucial role of a 'social economy of care' (McKay and Scott, 1999).

Informal family care was valued for a number of reasons, including practical and emotional support. For example, one woman described how her own Mum recognised that she was at the end of her tether and so did the washing up, allowing her weary daughter to sit down. Such support could also be called on at short notice, which is what is needed in 'common emergencies'. It was also valued because other family members had established relationship with the children. Some grandparents were better off and able to offer material benefits to the children and (a function of recent housing policy) they were more likely to have gardens in which children could play. However, no participants saw informal care in the family as an alternative to formal care; rather, they saw these different forms of care as offering different aspects of what children and their parents need.

The main distinctions made in informal care were between having someone who was regularly involved in caring for the children - someone who could be phoned and who would usually make themselves available - and occasional babysitting. The geographical area in which the study took place has relative stability of residency and all of the women had close relatives living nearby. For all but one of the women reciprocity of care within the family was part of their expectations and informal care was highly valued, irrespective of whether or not they had such support. Half of the group, all of whom were single mothers, had no regular support in their caring roles. They might have baby-sitting, when they asked for it - and often they did not find it easy to ask. Two women had no one to baby-sit and the only support they received in their caring roles was from formal nursery care.

Informal care also has costs (Land, 2002). Informal care provision was conditional on the considerable effort of keeping relationships in families going, particularly after separation, the dependability and trustworthiness of other-caregivers, and on reciprocity (Finch & Mason, 1993), which has its own time and energy costs:
'As far as my sister's concerned, if she was to babysit for me, I know that that would be something back, that I owed her, and I don't really like to put myself in that position where I owe her a favour. Because she's got three kids and I've got three and I just don't know when, or if, when I could sort of be bothered with six kids in the one go. Especially with the baby, it's a handful.... It's probably sounding quite selfish, but I value my freedom, as well, and I don't get a lot of time for myself when, I mean, being away from ma kids...'

Both formal and informal care are needed if women with dependent children in low-income families are to make successful transitions into the labour market, but informal care can make additional demands on already overstretched family resources. The social and health costs that characterise areas of long-term deprivation can mean that family relationships can be difficult. Among the reasons why relatives did not participate in informal care in our study were: health and mental health problems; estrangement; and problems in relationships, including abuse. The emotional weight of inter-generational relationships in families can be a source of strength and support but it can also create difficulties, that were often played out via the availability or withholding of informal care. That was sometimes linked to the changes the woman was making in her life. In some cases, the woman's aim of moving into further education or paid work risked the loss of the support she needed to achieve that end. In others, relatives gave additional help in the new situation. Changes in reciprocal care relations could not be straightforwardly related to the transitions to training and employment the women were making, but the study suggests that the possible impact of changes in the women's aims and activities on family care economies should not be overlooked and would reward further research.

* Issues of Transition

Some concerns associated with the period of transition, given support over that period, might be short term. The management of care is particularly demanding at times of change from one set of arrangements to another. The main factors identified as affecting actual and preferred transition to education or employment were: finding local, good quality, affordable childcare; managing other family/domestic roles and responsibilities; the job opportunities available, their hours of work and locality; social pressures and pressures and support or discouragement from a partner and/or other family members. Childcare was seen as the main thing that had to be taken into account because what was possible depended on obtaining it.

There was a 'catch 22' here of employment and childcare: it was not possible to arrange or begin childcare until you had a job, since you could not know what hours you need, or be in a position to pay for it. But unless you had childcare set up you could not realistically take a job. Financial issues at transition were not included in the study because a further study focussing on income and benefits is planned. However, financial considerations were a major worry for many women, especially the cost of childcare and housing costs. Findings of the income study confirm that costs at transition and delays in changes to benefit are a significant problem, as is the cost and availability of childcare (Gillespie et al., 2003).

There were considerable commonalities for lone and partnered mothers in the experience of care, the dilemmas they faced, and their motivations for moving into the labour market. Although the pressure to work and earn is perceived as directed at lone mothers, the study suggests that it is also felt by mothers in other low-income families and that it is experienced as being about family income and the need for income support rather than family form only. The social pressures on mothers in poor communities to go into employment - especially on single mothers - were mentioned by most participants. Women with partners also felt pressure to add to the family income. That social pressure was seen by some participants as unrealistic, in that although mothers are encouraged to go out to work, the jobs available to them usually do not pay enough to make paid work worthwhile, even taking into account in-work benefits. Lone mothers in the study had less access to informal care than other mothers.

Because of the challenges posed by the successful transition to employment, especially sustainable employment, the idea of a linear transition oversimplifies what can be a longer term, and less than straightforward, process. Transition is affected by a range of factors and is very variable. The model that informs policy is of women taking 'time out' to care for young children and returning, perhaps via a period of training, to the labour market. That model can be misleading, over-looking the social and personal factors involved and the added constraints on low-income families. Recognition of the role of care and other factors and support over a longer period are needed, as part of a more fluid movement between care, work and learning over the life course. (For further discussion see Innes & Scott, 2002a).

* Discussion and Conclusions

Women in low-income households face additional difficulties in achieving a balance of work and care[3] because they have few material resources with which to compensate for any resulting tensions or disjunctions and they are unlikely to compete for the sort of wages that will significantly alter that fact. Women with children in the UK experience a 'mother gap' in income, over and above the gender gap in lifetime incomes between all women and men. That gap is widest for women like many of those in this study - women without educational qualifications and recognised skills and women who have their children in their teens (Women's Unit, 2000). If such women are to be enabled to move into the labour market without increasing insecurity for them and their children, there are questions that must be addressed.

Are their difficulties in reconciling work and care similar, but more intense, than those faced by other households with children? Or are there aspects here that are qualitatively different? What are the possible losses to low-income families consequent on pressured and insufficiently supported moves by women into paid work? The assertion that changes in employment patterns and gender arrangements within households have primarily benefited 'women of the urban middle-classes' (Bang et al., 2000: 264) cannot be tested in a study which made no such comparisons, but this research suggests that it is at least an important concern to raise.

Neither the male-breadwinner model of family arrangements for the care and costs of children, nor the adult-worker model that, as discussed, appears to underlie the general trend in welfare and employment policies, takes into account the social and financial circumstances of low-income women with children. The implication of potential economic independence in that model remains to be demonstrated for large numbers of women. Understanding how that shift is affecting families and the lives of women, and what changes in managing care result from it, calls for further research.

Women in low-income families may have more care responsibilities than do other families and they have fewer material and social resources with which to carry them out. They are likely to have greater care responsibilities because of health inequalities, affecting their children, and also grandparents and older relatives. If there are tensions between paid work and care, they are less likely to be able to pay for short-term solutions; for example, a taxi rather than the bus, occasional take away meals, or domestic help. Because paying for help with childcare is less of an option, there can be a greater dependence on informal care from family members, despite problems in accessing it. Issues of 'time and location poverty' are intensified by poor services and decaying local environments. For example, a journey to nursery with young children before going on to class or workplace is more difficult if unreliable public transport is used. With limited qualifications, there is also a greater probability of being in work with limited control over time. Such problems are exacerbated by insecure, low-paid work, yet this work option is more easily secured by women with children because it can fit with children's schedules - and it is local.

The study confirms that the practices and meanings of care must be considered in depth if processes of care are to be adequately understood. Care is neither as straightforward to organise, nor as readily substituted for, as employment and welfare policies - in their limited attention to care issues - imply. The accounts given here show that care cannot be considered simply as a barrier to other activities, even if policy and analysis questions focus on care only in terms of its substitution to enable labour market participation.

The views of the women who took part in the study express a 'gender culture' (Pfau-Effinger, 1998) shaped by local economic circumstances and a history of women's centrality to family incomes. Here, mothers' earnings are needed for family survival and advancement (in both lone and two-parent families) but mothers also retain primary responsibility for the family economy and for organising and carrying out care and domestic work. Although many of the characteristics of care discussed here and the real difficulties in finding the right fit between paid work and care are familiar problems to women with dependent children in most income groups, those tensions and difficulties are exacerbated by tight or non-existent financial margins. In understanding their responsibilities for children as entailing both work and care, the women interviewed here articulate a view of 'responsible mothering' that includes recognition of the material needs of children and the mother's role in family finances. It acknowledges her needs as an individual, although often those needs have to take second place to those of children, as a matter of practicality because of the nature of children's demands, but also perhaps as a matter of habit. Women with children have multiple roles; the problems in fulfilling those roles were perceived to be created by institutional barriers and lack of understanding and support, rather than by any inherent incompatibility.

In the absence of sufficient regard to the value, characteristics and social locations of care, and to differences between families in their arrangements for care and work, welfare-to-work policies may lead to greater insecurity for some families. Adult-worker assumptions may mean new costs for women in low-income families. If policies are based on an oversimplified account of the relationships and resources that support care, there is a risk of reinforcing inequality and perpetuating the marginalisation of care and caregivers. Policies sensitive to care, gender and class inequalities would support, not welfare to work but welfare and work, recognising the role of care in welfare. This is to be understood not in the narrower North American sense, as benefits, but as a wider social well being.

* Notes

1 The main training course offers National Certificate modules in computing or social care (ratified by the Scottish Qualifications Agency), on a part-time basis (each weekday from 9.30 to 1.00) over 46 weeks.

2 SIPs are similar to Neighbourhood Regeneration Areas of England and Wales.

3 Recent policy discussion uses the shorthand work/family or, more recently, work/life balance. Those formulations are of course not equivalent, although often discussed as if they mean the same thing. A more appropriate formulation, which emphasises the crucial tension, is work/care balance. Neither version, however, recognises that 'family' or 'care' which are positioned oppositionally to 'work' also involve considerable, work, albeit unpaid.


This research was funded by the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships and the Scottish Poverty Information Unit, Glasgow Caledonian University


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