Experiences of lone and partnered working mothers in Scotland

Kathryn Backett-Milburn, Sarah Cunningham-Burley and Debbie Kemmer

Work and family are core values within current UK government policy.

Two strands stand out: paid work as the route out of social exclusion, poverty and dependency on welfare and an emphasis on family values, parenting skills and parental responsibility for the behaviour of children.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with 30 women (15 single, 15 partnered) working in non-professional and non-managerial occupations and with children at primary school, this small-scale, qualitative study explores the views and experiences of working mothers. The authors set the women’s accounts of the complex balancing acts they perform to manage their daily lives against the wider backdrop of changes in society.

The study was supported by focus group discussions with a range of policy-makers and practitioners. Interviewees saw themselves as mothers and workers, with caring and providing inextricably linked. If both work and parenting are valued, how can policy and practice help working mothers balance their competing demands? How can diverse individual needs be supported? How can schools, workplaces, fiscal and employment policies and family members be encouraged to change not just their attitudes but their practices? The authors stress the importance of a holistic approach to policy and practice, one that supports flexibility and choice, and one that listens to mothers and their children.



A range of government policies have been promoting paid work for mothers whilst continuing to emphasise traditional family values and parenting skills. Qualitative research by a team at Edinburgh University examined the everyday experiences of combining parenting and paid work of 15 partnered and 15 lone mothers in Scotland, in non-professional/managerial jobs, who had children at primary school (aged 5-12 years). It found that:

  • Mothers valued work highly, not only for its economic contribution, but also for personal identity, social contact, and as an important message for their children. For the lone mothers, being in paid work was important because it meant that they were not perceived as 'on benefit'.
  • For many respondents, their choice of job was constrained by family responsibilities. They required flexibility in hours and working practices, and for many this meant taking low-grade work. However, being seen as a reliable worker, who seldom needed time off for family or health reasons, was important to them.
  • Childcare arrangements and needs, whether formal or informal, changed according to parents' perceptions of children's changing needs and preferences, the availability of care and alterations to working hours. Informal arrangements were often described as fragile, but were valued for their quality and flexibility.
  • All the mothers valued time actively spent together as a family, but found this hard to achieve. They strove to accommodate and prioritise children's activities and commitments within busy schedules and limited budgets.
  • Many found managing domestic life alongside paid work onerous and tiring. Lone mothers, in particular, said sole responsibility for both home management and parenting could be stressful.
  • Paid work was described as both positively and negatively influencing health. Negotiating time off for their own or their children's sickness was often difficult, but many respondents encouraged their children to keep going when 'off colour' as part of promoting a strong work ethic.


In the UK a focus on paid work, as a means of both curtailing welfare expenditure and providing a route out of poverty, is being promoted alongside a continued emphasis on traditional family values and parenting skills. The New Deal for Lone Parents particularly encourages those with primary school age children into the workforce. This qualitative study interviewed, in depth, 15 lone and 15 partnered mothers who were themselves in non-professional/managerial occupations, as were any partners. It examined their views on, and their day-to-day experiences of, combining parenting and paid work.

The meaning and experience of paid work

Respondents felt that caring for and providing for their families were inextricably linked, and valued both roles highly. Work was valued for four main reasons: economic considerations; personal identity; social relationships, and appropriate messages for children:

"The money, the talking to adults bit, that's good, that's nice. Getting out, having a bit of a social life." (Partnered mother)

"The best thing's, I suppose, because I have got a life apart from Ian. I'm not a mother in the work, I'm an individual, if you like. I am earning, I'm paying my own way. I can do things for Ian, I can buy him things now and again." (Lone mother)

Most interviewees worked part-time and were on low incomes, with limited opportunities for training or promotion.

Balancing working hours and practices with family demands seemed crucial. However, achieving and maintaining that balance was far from straightforward. For instance, mothers might take a less demanding, and therefore more easily circumscribed, job or work shorter hours. While many seemed to accept this compromise, several said that they were working below their ability or capacity. Very few women had jobs that fitted in with the school day.

Few respondents knew of any 'family friendly' policies in their own workplaces; the implementation of any such policy or informal practices appeared to depend on the goodwill of supervisors, managers and co-workers. Respondents strove to build up a reputation for reliability so that they would feel able to take time off in the event of unavoidable family demands, such as child sickness.

Childcare decisions and dilemmas: meeting changing needs

Respondents felt themselves to have the main responsibility for organising acceptable and appropriate childcare; these arrangements were often both complex and changeable. They spoke of a range of interrelated concerns underpinning decisions about childcare: place; locality; cost and value.

For a number of reasons, interviewees used a range of formal and informal childcare. Some felt that relatives provided the most trustworthy care. They often described informal childcare as more flexible, especially when care was required outwith standard after-school club or childcare centre hours, or occasionally when children were ill or schools closed. Many also preferred it because children were looked after in domestic settings. However, informal childcare usually entailed complex systems of reciprocity, and arrangements were often more tenuous or subject to change.

"It basically comes down to my in-laws. I don't know where I would be without my in-laws ..." (Partnered mother)

Other mothers preferred formal childcare because it was more reliable, did not need reciprocating, and children had activities and other children to play with. However, such reliability could mean less flexibility and increased cost. Some also reported that provision was patchy.

Childcare arrangements changed frequently, for many different reasons. Respondents described difficulties managing school holidays and closures. Often existing childcare routines, whether formal or informal, could not accommodate this extra time; respondents' jobs seldom allowed long holidays, paid or unpaid. Moreover, the length of school holidays meant that even two parents might use all their leave for childcare and not have any for family holidays. Lone parents only had their own holiday allowance to use.

"Well, there's the Easter holidays coming up and the Childcare Centre, I've not got worked out what I need him in. Like, if I was putting him in all day every day, I mean, it wouldnae be worth my while working. While he's at school it's fine, because it's only before and after school but my neighbour says she would take him for a couple of days during the holidays and my sister-in-law says she would take him. So I maybe put him in for a couple of days during the holidays which suits me." (Lone mother)

Values about what was appropriate for children in general, such as security and stability, influenced decisions about childcare. Respondents also talked about taking into account their children's own needs and preferences: particular arrangements were described as suiting particular children at specific times, often age-related. This meant that childcare could be constantly changing to accommodate such demands.

Managing family life

Both partnered and lone mothers' accounts indicated their strong sense of overall personal responsibility for managing and co-ordinating family life, including paid work, childcare, domestic work, education and leisure. Although attitudes to housework varied, interviews suggested that mothers weighed up the importance of domestic work against other aspects of family life, such as spending time with children and partners and ensuring that individuals' basic needs were met. Prioritising the physical and emotional needs of children seemed to be particularly important.

Those with partners described them as being involved to varying extents in the everyday rounds of cooking, shopping and housework, as well as having a considerable involvement in looking after children. Most respondents felt reasonably positive about this. Some said that their partners' involvement and support made a crucial difference to their ability to manage. However, only a few respondents said they could rely on their partners to organise domestic and childrearing responsibilities without being asked to do so.

Most respondents felt sharing with another resident parent eased stress. Lone mothers spoke of how they only had themselves to fall back on:

"I think everybody at some stage thinks 'I can't cope with this any more'. It's just that when you're on your own there's nobody that you can say 'look, I cannae cope with this' ... so you've not got the time right until the kids are in their bed." (Lone mother)

For mothers in the sample an important aspect of parenting meant actively spending, rather than just passing, time as a family or with children. However, the time taken up with paid work and other domestic and personal commitments meant that some families seemed to have very little time to spend together.

Respondents talked of children needing attention, time, and social activities, and of how they strove to accommodate and prioritise these needs. This could place considerable demands on parental time, energy and finances; mothers often spoke of dilemmas around spending time and giving children attention, leading to feelings of guilt and overload. In particular, lone mothers described a lack of financial resources to provide for their children's social needs, and the increased responsibility of being the sole carer.

"... at the end of the day I've got to work. And I think this is probably the best for the children. It's not necessarily the best for me, like you say with my time, but to me they come first. And I've got to try and work round what they need rather than the other way about, rather than them fitting in with what I want to do all the time." (Partnered mother)

Health and well-being

Respondents described positive and negative effects of work on their health and well-being but many felt the stress of combining caring and providing had made them ill at times. Many said they felt tired and overloaded but had 'to keep going'. Many also found it hard to relax because they were constantly 'geared up':

"... it's not so much the tiredness that makes me crabby. It's trying to keep on top of stuff ... You're trying to, as you say, take them to their clubs, make their tea, make sure the washing is done, the ironing, and then go out to work." (Partnered mother, working nights)

This notion of keeping going under strain also seemed to underpin how respondents dealt with work. Interviewees were keen to portray themselves as reliable employees who took very little time off sick, so that employers did not see personal or family issues as impinging on work. Respondents felt they should go into work even when unwell. Many spoke of informal understandings and expectations amongst workmates or unpleasant incidents (observed or experienced) with superiors which acted as deterrents against 'going sick'.

While some had limited access to paid sick leave for themselves, for many, taking time off to look after sick children was difficult. This might be deducted from annual leave, made up by working extra hours, or taken out of wages. However, almost all respondents stated that it was important that they were 'there for' their children at times of illness; this seemed to be a base line for assessing their adequacy as mothers. Although most women said they had little option when their children had minor illnesses or symptoms but to send them to school, they also seemed to feel that it was important for children to learn to accommodate feeling 'off colour' and get on with going to school.

Policy implications

Three key areas of government policy in which improvements should be made emerged as important in this study:

  • more childcare provision. Such provision needs to be flexible in order to accommodate working hours (including evenings, early mornings and weekends), school holidays and closures, and the changing needs of children. In addition, these respondents highlighted the value of informal childcare to them.
  • greater flexibility in the workplace. This must support women's roles as workers and mothers. More specifically, all parents need access to 'carer's leave' and any change in formal policy needs to filter down to informal practice and workplace culture. This suggests not only legislative change, but also education and training of supervisors and managers.
  • more money. While all respondents valued work, many were in low-paid jobs, and some, especially the lone mothers, experienced little economic benefit from paid work. The Working Families Tax Credit was being introduced during the second stage of this project, but responses to this were mixed.

The researchers conclude that wider strategies which improve both work (better pay, more family friendly policies) and family life (affordable, accessible and flexible childcare provision, financial support for childrearing) are needed. In this way, the most stretched resource of working parents - their time - can be less stressfully spread across these interrelated but separate areas.

About the study

This study was carried out between 1998 and 2000 by Kathryn Backett-Milburn and Debbie Kemmer, Research Unit in Health and Behavioural Change, and Sarah Cunningham-Burley, Public Health Sciences, University of Edinburgh. (From January 2001 all three researchers will also be based at the Scottish Centre for Research on Families and Relationships, University of Edinburgh.) Two in-depth, semi-structured interviews, six months apart, were carried out with the women who lived in and around Edinburgh. Seven focus groups were conducted with policy-makers and practitioners to discuss the implications of the findings for policy and practice.