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Working mother

Internal News - 16 April 2008

What does being in work mean for lone mothers & their children?

Two Bath academics have recently completed research into how lone mothers – and their children – are affected when they return to paid work following a period of time out of the labour market.

There are two million lone-parent families in the UK, with some three million children, and government policy is increasingly focused on encouraging lone parents to work, on the grounds that this will promote well-being and reduce child poverty.

Professor Jane Millar and Dr Tess Ridge (Department of Social & Policy Sciences) carried out ESRC-funded research which explores how starting work affects family life and living standards.

The research also looked at how mothers and their children handle the everyday challenges of working life on a low income.

Professor Millar and Dr Ridge studied lone mothers who had recently switched from out-of-work benefits to paid work, who were receiving tax credits, and who had at least one child aged eight to 14. They interviewed 50 mothers and 61 children in the first half of 2004, while a second round of interviews, in late 2005, included 44 mothers and 52 youngsters.

When the lone mother starts work, her life changes in various ways, but so do the lives of her children.

Sustaining work over time means that being a 'working' family must become part of their everyday and regular practices. Both the mothers and their children play an active role in this 'family-work project'.

Achieving stability in employment was not an easy or quick process, and not all families managed it.

Feeling better-off in work was not simply about the women’s financial situation, but also involved relative judgements. Compared with Income Support, there was a general feeling that employment did mean being better-off financially.

However, there were factors which could easily undermine this sense of wellbeing, including debts, health problems, insecure jobs, relationships at work, and unstable incomes.

Tax credits played a very important role in enabling work, but could also be a significant source of insecurity and anxiety, when payments were delayed or wrong, or when overpayments had to be paid back.

There were also trade-offs between material gains and time. For example, there were changes in the type and quality of time that the women spent with their children, which affected how young people experienced their mother’s work.

Working during school hours and terms had the least impact on children’s time, and so was the most popular with them – especially younger ones.

Usually there were alterations in the time spent with other family members, who often provided regular or ‘school holidays’ care. For some children, this meant enhanced family relationships, especially with grandparents and, in some cases, fathers.

A key finding was that children actively contributed to the 'family-work project' in many ways. This included caring for themselves and siblings, taking on extra domestic responsibilities, giving their mothers emotional support, and not making too many demands on her time.

Children also moderated their own needs, and some accepted and tolerated adverse situations, particularly regarding inappropriate care.

This support from children can easily go unnoticed and unacknowledged in policy debate, even though it may have far reaching implications.

While family members often played a significant role in childcare, friends and work colleagues were important as role models and in giving practical support and information.

Personal Advisers were very supportive when mothers first left Income Support, but rarely used after that – even when job changes were involved.

Flexibility at work was essential to enable the mothers to manage work and care, and employers and managers played a key role in this.

Staying in work, especially at the lower end of the labour market, requires a commitment from the family as a whole and the capacity to draw on a range of resources.

Professor Jane Millar said: “Our research has provided a rich source of data to explore these issues. It has also generated considerable interest, not least in the context of Government targets to increase rates of lone-parent employment to 70 per cent, and to end child poverty.”


The project has led to funding from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for a third wave of research. There will be a report on this, published by the DWP, as well as presentations to it and other relevant Government Departments, and at key events including the Social Policy Association annual conference.

The researchers have addressed conferences in the UK and abroad, and are in contact with researchers in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA who are carrying out similar studies.

Published papers include: Millar: ‘Making work pay: making tax credits work’, International Social Security Review 2008; and Ridge: ‘It’s a family affair: low-income children’s perspectives on parental work', Journal of Social Policy 2007.

Forthcoming is Millar & Ridge: ‘Relationships of care: working lone mothers, their children and employment'.