Sole Mothers, Work/Life Balance and Wellbeing: Understanding Constraints and Finding Pathways to Empowerment
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Researchers have been increasingly interested in the tensions between paid work and unpaid work since the 1960s. Recently, the term ‘work/life balance’ has gained attention and even political interest, with the Australian Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, announcing it to be a “barbecue stopper” discussion item in 2003. Research has found that work/life conflict impacts upon businesses, families, individuals and communities in terms of lost production, increased health care demands and diminished quality of life. Despite the complexities of work/life balance being intensely interesting to researchers, few have considered the experiences of one of the most time-pressured and socially disadvantaged sub-cultural groups in society in regards to work/life balance: sole mothers. Sole mothers are often constrained by ‘multiple barriers’ and are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, social isolation and a decreased ability to cope with day-to-day pressures and stressors. Such issues affect an increasing number in Australian society as sole mothers have nearly trebled since 1971 and, it is estimated, are set to increase by a further 30% to 60% by the year 2021. This study aims to examine key life domains in the lives of a group of sole mothers to investigate whether the term work/life balance is a useful construct in understanding their lives and wellbeing. Study aims were achieved through utilising a research design aimed at producing grounded theory, enabling the challenging of currently held perceptions regarding work/life balance. At a theoretical level this study adopts social constructivism and feminism as base frameworks, supporting a four-phase data collection strategy which combines in-depth interviews and reflexive ethnography. The domains of paid work and unpaid work have typically featured strongly in regards to work/life balance and recent theorists propose that models should be extended to include health, financial resources, friendships and leisure as key factors. Findings in this study support this assertion, but go further in challenging and extending the debate on work/life balance in society. The findings of this study highlight the many constraints facing sole mothers, the complex nature of ‘balance’ in their lives and the strategies they employ to cope and juggle their many responsibilities. The external life domains suggested by work/life balance theorists all featured in the mothers’ balancing, each offering up constraints and/or opportunities for agency and empowerment. Additional themes of control, choice, sleep and life expectations also emerged strongly in relation to balance and wellbeing. These new themes highlight a view of balance which could be about either ‘juggling’ life domains or experiencing a subjective feeling, giving rise to the identification of two kinds of balance: outer and inner. This thesis proposes that outer balance is reliant upon external domains such as paid work and unpaid work as well as key relationships, financial resources, health and leisure. A sense of inner balance, reliant upon a subjective assessment of the attainment of outer balance in terms of one’s life expectations, was also a key aspect of these mothers’ experience. Inner balance is connected to the experience and attainment of choice and control. Leisure time provides opportunities for reflexivity, assisting in creating and maintaining a sense of self and guiding life decisions, offering opportunities for the attainment of both inner and outer balances. This holistic representation of balance challenges and broadens our understanding of the work/life balance debate by combining external and internal factors and by proposing that balance should not be an end unto itself but, instead, a means to an end: the attainment of a life worth living.
Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Department of Tourism, Leisure, Hotel and Sport Management