Going it Alone?, by Martina Klett-Davies

Ashgate, 2007, 166 pp, hbk, 978 0 7546 4388 3, £55

‘The nuclear family consisting of a father, mother and their child or children is declining; divorce and cohabitation rates are increasing rapidly …. women are having their children at a much later age and having fewer children than ever before ….. But the most striking change in family composition has been the escalating number of lone parent families’ (p.1) – and usually it’s mother and child or children.

This book is a study of how lone mothers in Germany (where 20% of mothers are lone mothers) and in Britain (25%) understand themselves as carers, dependents or paid workers in relation to the welfare state, and it reveals a wide diversity of experience, suggesting that to define lone mothers as a single category might not be the best route to understanding a complex situation. The study reveals several contradictions, and in particular that between the welfare state as an instrument of oppression and the welfare state as an escape from both private patriarchy (the male-dominated family) and public patriarchy (in the workplace).

Klett-Davies shows that many lone mothers in poverty engineer rich social lives for themselves and their children, and that many poor mothers end up better off financially when they leave a marriage; and more generally she finds that lone mothers are firmly part of late modernity’s trend towards an individualization in the context of which people create their own destinies and thus a ‘reflexive modernity’.

This book will be of use both to those with a particular interest in lone motherhood and to those with an interest in broader social trends, because each chapter relates to Klett-Davies’ study of 70 lone mothers and also to important concepts, theories and institutions. Chapter 2 rehearses a variety of social science discourses (‘social threat’, ‘social problem’, etc.); chapter 3 discusses late modernity and individualization; and chapter 4 lone mothers’ relationships to the welfare state in Germany and Britain. The author shows how the British Government’s benefits, taxation and active labour market policies position lone mothers as employees rather than as caregivers and at the same time punishes them in the labour market with a severe poverty trap (pp.46ff). Policy on the family has become an arm of employment policy (p.48). Klett-Davies’ solution is 1. a Citizen’s Income and 2. men becoming more competent in flexible paid work as well as in care and family work (p.49).

Chapter 5 records lone mothers’ experience of paid employment (they see themselves primarily as mothers and see employment as both a means to that end and as a preparation for post-childcare employment). Chapter 6 discusses the use of type categories in social research such as this study and formulates variables to enable lone mothers to be categorised; and the following chapters record the experiences of mothers the author has placed in the categories she develops: ‘pioneers’, ‘copers’, ‘strugglers’, and ‘borderliners’. The final chapter discusses differences between the experiences of German and British lone mothers (more changes occur with the age of the child in Germany than in Britain) and suggests policy implications of the research results. The policy suggestions are in the fields of employment, childrearing, and education. The suggestions made in ch.4 in relation to the benefits and tax system are not reiterated here, and they should have been. A final section returns to the notion of individualization as a means to understand a complex picture.

This well-written and thorough book will serve students and researchers well, and it will also be of considerable use to policy-makers.