Work and family life in rural communities

Natasha Mauthner, Lorna McKee and Monika Strell

Drawing on detailed interviews with mothers and fathers from different social, economic and occupational backgrounds, this study investigates how families living in rural areas are combining paid work with raising children.

The study was based in and around three diverse rural communities in Scotland and northern England. Taking part were 52 two-parent households with at least one earner and with one child aged 12 or under. The research explored parents' views of the countryside as a place to raise their family, and the nature and structure of their working life. Families combined breadwinning and caring in different ways that evolved across the life cycle.

Parents placed a high value on parenthood, and many had adjusted their paid work to meet the demands of raising children. The research found that although parents faced problems specific to country areas, for many, the advantages of living in the countryside outweighed the limitations. The report concludes with an exploration of the policy implications of these findings



This research explores how families living in rural communities combine paid work and family responsibilities against the backdrop of changes in rural economies, the nature of work and family life. Researchers at the University of Aberdeen conducted an ethnographic study based in and around three distinct rural communities in Scotland and Northern England. The study focuses on 52 two-parent households, with at least one earner and one child aged 12 or under. In-depth interviews were conducted with both mothers and fathers. The researchers found that:

  • Many parents felt that a rural community provided the ideal environment within which to raise their families (advantages included: access to nature, freedom and safety for children; community neighbourliness and trust; patterns of reciprocal help; high quality schools and health services). At this stage in their lives, they felt the advantages of living in a rural area outweighed the limitations.
  • Families combined breadwinning and caring in different ways that evolved to reflect changing needs and preferences for the balance between paid work and care.
  • Despite differences in the local amenities and infrastructure, the way households combined work and family life were similar across all three rural communities.
  • Parents placed a high value on parenthood, and many men and women adjusted their paid work to meet the demands of childcare and childrearing. Their ability to fit their paid work around their family commitments was influenced by the flexibility of their jobs.
  • Most men had been in continuous full-time employment. Women's employment histories were more fragmented, as they had tended to respond more to changes in their family's domestic and employment circumstances.
  • Many parents felt it was important to look after their children themselves, particularly during the pre-school years. Informal childcare was popular because of its flexibility.
  • Many of the rural jobs, especially among the fathers, were insecure. This influenced some mothers' decisions about what paid work they needed to take on.


This study brings together two issues that are at the forefront of current research and policy agendas, but which have largely been treated separately: the reconciliation of work and family life, and the changes affecting rural areas. Rural research and policy have focused on the economic and social fragility and disadvantage of rural areas. The recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (which occurred after this study was completed) has heightened the Government's concern with the social and economic sustainability of rural areas. The challenges of balancing the demands of paid work with domestic, family and community commitments have also been an area of concern.

Living in three rural communities

Parents from all three communities emphasised the qualities of rural life for young children and families. These included: freedom, safety and independence for children; a sense of neighbourliness, trust and community spirit; patterns of reciprocal help and support; proximity to relatives, for those with family locally; high quality schools and health services; and the adequate range of activities provided for pre-school and primary school aged children.

Parents recognised some of the limitations of their rural location. These included a lack of activities for teenage children, limited public transport, restricted employment opportunities and limited access to specialist health services. None the less, many parents felt that a rural community provided the ideal environment within which to raise their families. They attributed this to the slower pace of life, the less pressured working and living environment, cultural tolerance for different lifestyles, and the presence of mutually supportive social networks. Several families had relocated to a rural community in order to reduce their work commitments and to prioritise their children and family life.

Working in three rural communities

Most of the men took for granted the financial necessity of paid work and the role of economic provider. Most were in full-time work, in a range of employment sectors. Many had non-standard patterns of work, such as self-employment, casual and multiple jobs, and work which varied seasonally. Many had local work and jobs which were flexible in terms of the timing and hours of work, Although these were often insecure, they could be fitted around their family commitments. The majority of men in the study placed a high value on their parenting roles. Despite working full-time in most cases, men were actively and directly involved in caring for their children.

Women's work included casual, multiple, and seasonally variable jobs. Many women worked non-standard hours; several worked exclusively 'unsocial' hours. Women's employment histories were more fragmented than were the men's. They had tended to change their work patterns more to reflect such things as the age of their children, financial necessities, family illness, partners' work schedules and demands, personal values and beliefs about childcare and childrearing, as well as practical issues such as the availability of childcare, employment and transport.

Women's reasons for not taking on paid work included combinations of personal choice, wanting to be with their young children, illness or disability (either their own or their children's), restricted labour market opportunities, and the demands of unpaid work within the family business:

"I think that those that go out to work must miss an awful lot. Because I'd hate it if my kid was at a childminder all day and they walked for them. Or they spoke for them. Knowing that you missed that... I think dads miss that out as well ... . No I'm glad I stayed at home with them ... I think they need the stability as well." (Mother, former shop assistant)

Women in paid work valued its personal, social and financial rewards. Many favoured part-time and local work because it was compatible with family commitments and their desire to 'be there' for their children. However, part-time jobs tended to be low-paid, below women's levels of skills and qualifications, and in some cases had to be combined to earn an acceptable income:

"The work is hard going and you moan a lot but it's fine because you've got somebody different to speak to and it's away from the kids and ice lollies and crisps ... It gets you out of the house." (Mother, cleaner)

Most of the women stressed economic necessity as the reason for taking on full-time paid work. This was often related to partners' low, intermittent or insecure incomes. Half of the women in full-time paid work wanted to reduce their hours. These women felt a lack of balance between their paid work and family life, felt they were missing out on their children's lives, and felt the combined demands of two full-time jobs and family life were stretching them and their households:

"I would probably like to reduce one of the businesses ... It's just I feel I have to commit myself a little bit more than I want to the business ... Probably working part-time is the ideal ... I don't think I could see myself completely at home ... I think it's important that you're there to listen ... This is how I see myself as being here for them coming home from school to get the hour of stories before they're lost, you know. Having time just to listen." (Mother, owner of small business)

Ways of combining work and family life

The study identified four distinct but related ways in which families combined work and family life:

  • 'traditional' (father in full-time paid work, mother not in paid work)
  • 'new traditional' (father in full-time paid work, mother in part-time paid work)
  • 'downsized' (father in part-time paid work, mother either in part-time, or not in, paid work), and
  • 'work rich' (both parents in full-time paid work).

Families moved between these groups, reflecting changing needs and preferences for the balance between paid work and care. Mothers and fathers worked at the integration of work and family life over time. Both parents reduced or increased their commitment to paid work or caring for the family according to the age of their children, their partners' employment situation, and the needs of the family as a whole. There were also examples of fathers and mothers changing their employment and working hours in order to accommodate children's and partners' needs. Most men were supportive of women's paid work and recognised the financial, social and personal benefits this could bring:

"When [my wife] had Peter and got into training ... I was very involved with the children then and wound the business down so that I could spend more time with them, half terms, going away, leaving her here working away ... I did the school run, cooking, washing, sorting the house ... to and from school, school fairs, disco, cubs, piano lesson, guitar lesson ... So our work is changeable so that sometimes she has definitely said 'Look I want to go for part-time so that you can do more work' and it would change perhaps when she finds more work, when it just suits her and when she wants to put more energy into it. So I think that will be forever fluid that one." (Father, carpenter)

Some flexible types of jobs tended to be insecure but parents valued their compatibility with caring for and raising a family. Non-standard hours of work also enabled many to spend time with their children:

"It suits me. It's just three minutes walk from the house. It's pretty well paid. It's handy. The shifts suit us the way we work with the kids ... I see a lot more of my kids than a lot of fathers do because they're working 8 to 5. Well, I'm working 2 to 10 so I've got them all morning and [when I'm on] night shift, I've got them all evening and all afternoon. I've got them different times of the day and the weekends I'm usually at home then so I'm quite pleased with the way it's going there." (Father, distillery worker)

A wide range of factors influenced parents' decisions about what and how much work to undertake, and how to distribute it within the household. Parents considered not only their own needs, views and preferences, but also those of their partners and children. The community context and practical support available influenced decisions. Equally influential were parents' beliefs and values about appropriate childcare and childrearing, and associated notions of 'good' motherhood and fatherhood. Parents consciously or unconsciously weighed up these various elements in different ways, leading to different individual and household decisions.

Looking after the children

Many parents were committed to keeping childcare within the household and, where possible, to providing it themselves, in 'shifts' if necessary. Many saw parental care as important, particularly during the pre-school years:

"Personally I think that it's up to parents to look after their children ... I tend to start struggling with the concept when both parents go out to work and then the children are with a childminder from seven o'clock in the morning until seven o'clock at night and get to see their parents at weekends. Somehow to me it just doesn't fit with my concept of a family in that you are not seeing your children when they're awake, you are not seeing them develop, you are not living through the joys of the things that they do. And you know, I guess you're not shaping their future and I think that's quite important." (Father, IT consultant - holds two jobs)

Some families did use formal childcare or combinations of formal and informal childcare. However, there was a heavy reliance on, and preference for, informal care provided by family and friends. Many saw informal care as an extension of parental care and valued its flexibility highly. Overall, parents emphasised the need for childcare (whether formal and informal) that took into account flexible working patterns and was itself available on a flexible basis.


The researchers conclude that policies aimed at improving the 'work-life balance' need to recognise and support parents' diverse values and preferences as revealed by the study. They suggest the study raises the following implications for policy:

  • Parents attached a high value to direct parental care and were prepared to prioritise family life over paid work at certain stages in their lives.
  • Rural jobs tend to be casual, flexible, seasonal, part-time and low-paid; rates of self-employment are also high. These jobs can be flexible and family-friendly but could benefit from greater security and protection. The popularity of part-time work amongst this sample suggests that parents would benefit from an extension of their entitlement to work part-time and further enhancement of the conditions of part-time work.
  • Parents valued and made use of formal workplace flexibility. Equally if not more important was informal flexibility with employers and colleagues, particularly in small rural businesses, which tended to be characterised by informal family-friendly practices, based on relations of trust.
  • Self-employment and working in small businesses were popular among the families. However, self-employed parents are currently excluded from many formal parental and other family-friendly policies; policies also do not address the impact of family-friendly policies and practices on small rural businesses.
  • There was a common pattern of packaging formal with informal childcare, seasonal variations in usage and parental preferences for flexible and ad hoc usage. Combined with the small numbers of children in a given area, this suggests that the viability of formal childcare services in rural areas remains a key issue. This raises the question of whether government should be looking to subsidise rural childcare provision or find other ways to sustain these smaller schemes.

About the study

This study was carried out by Natasha Mauthner, Lorna McKee and Monika Strell at the University of Aberdeen (Arkleton Centre for Rural Development Research and Department of Management Studies). It was based in and around three communities in North East Scotland, Northumberland and South West Scotland. An ethnographic approach was adopted involving two-month stays in each community, focus groups, and over 200 individual face-to-face interviews with mothers, fathers, community figures and employers. Public feedback meetings were held in each community in autumn 2000 to discuss preliminary findings and policy implications. The report draws on all the fieldwork but focuses specifically on the accounts given by mothers and fathers in 52 occupationally and socially diverse households.