Lone mothers and work: everyday experiences of social reproduction and economic production in the London Borough of Barnet

Rosemary Gillman, University Of Nottingham

3-year PhD studentship, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council

Disciplinary background(s) Geography

When did the research take place? April 2012 – May 2013

Aims of research To articulate the everyday work experiences of lone mothers in a specific locational context, drawing on both paid and unpaid work, specifically that of childcare, and the negotiations which facilitate their practice.

Description of creative research method

My research took place over a thirteen month period, during which time I recruited eleven participants, all of whom were lone mothers and lived or worked in and around the London Borough of Barnet. The mothers represented a diverse range of socio-economic backgrounds, religions and ethnicities and thus provided a fascinating insight into the heterogeneity of this often-homogenised demographic.

I used two qualitative methods during the course of my research; in-depth, semi-structured interviews, and an innovative creative methodology called Conceptual Care Mapping. This latter method was developed in order to gain greater insight into the everyday practices of work, which was considered as encompassing both social reproduction and economic production. Each participant was asked to draw a sketch map of their home, labelling each room and detailing which activities pertaining to childcare they undertook in each room. These domestic Conceptual Care Maps provided insight into the ways in which the spaces of the home are negotiated and utilised to facilitate both economic production and social reproduction, for example the dual use of rooms for home-working and family leisure time (see Figure 1).

HOME JPGFigure 1. Example of a domestic Conceptual Care Map

In addition, the participants drew a sketch map of their daily routines in their local area, detailing journeys to and from places of work, children’s schools or nurseries, as well as leisure and social activities. These local Conceptual Care Maps provided a geography of the participants’ everyday routines and emphasised the role that mobility (such as owning a car) has on individuals’ ability to manage their often-competing responsibilities as both employees and mothers (see Figure 2).

LOCAL JPGFigure 2. Example of a local Conceptual Care Map

Participants were asked to complete the Conceptual Care Maps at their third and final interview; I had chosen to conduct repeat interviews over the thirteen month research phase in order to track any changes that occurred in the participants’ lives. Due to participant drop-out, only eight participants completed the Conceptual Care Maps, which were analysed as individual pieces of data and cross-referenced with participants’ interview material in order to draw out key observations.

Why did you choose to use this method? 

I developed the Conceptual Care Mapping method to facilitate the aims of my research; to articulate the everyday social reproduction and economic production experiences of lone mothers. By developing my own methodology, I was able to identify minutiae details from the participants and frame these within the broader framework of their verbal responses to interview questions. Moreover, I feel that the method enabled the participants themselves to play an active role in the research process and produce something that not only reflected their lives in the way they viewed it, but also to articulate their experiences visually rather than just verbally.

What did you learn from the research process? 

The research process as a whole taught me a tremendous amount about perseverance and persistence! Recruiting participants for research was, in my experience, a challenge and one which required a certain about of thick skin and willingness to cold-call and accept rejection. Specifically with regards to the Conceptual Care Mapping method, I have learnt that creative methodologies can be extremely effective in drawing out details which may get overlooked in more conventional verbal methods such as interviewing. I believe the method has great scope to be reworked and reformed to compliment other research questions, specifically those whose focus is on small-scale case studies.


Doucet, A. (2001) ‘”You see the need perhaps more clearly than I have”: exploring gendered processes of domestic responsibility.’ Journal of Family Issues 22: 328-357.

Gabb, J. (2009) ‘Researching family relationships: a qualitative mixed methods approach.’ Methodological Innovations Online 4(2): 37-52.

Further information

For more information regarding my research, please visit: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/geography/research/currentresearchstudents/rosemarygillman.aspx