Confessions of single mothers
An ethnographic analysis of the survival strategies and the violation of rights of single mothers
in a transition economy
Chapter 1. Confessions of single mothers
1. Larisa (Domodyedovo, Moscow region): Diary
2. Irina (Kaluga): Diary
3. Valentina (Kaluga)
4. Ol’ga (Kaluga): Comments on some of the problems facing single mothers
5. Galina (Kaluga): Essay about my life
6. Nina (Domodyedovo): Diary
7. Lyubov’ (Moscow): Thoughts about my life
8. Lyena (Moscow): Life history
Chapter 2. Single mothers: yesterday, today and tomorrow
Main terminology and analytical approach of the research
More contemporary research
The position of single mothers in the Soviet Union
Contemporary statistics on single and divorced mothers
The economic position of single mothers: do they live better than everyone else?
Single mothers and contemporary public opinion
The attitude of official bodies to single mothers
Chapter 3. The violation of single mothers’ rights and the defence strategies employed
General characteristics of the level of legal consciousness in Russia
Single mothers’ rights
A hierarchy of the position of single mothers and of the violation of their rights
The violation of the rights of working single mothers
The right to the timely payment of wages
Cases of unlawful redundancy
The violation of the rights of unemployed single mothers
The violation of the rights of single mothers in other spheres
The lack of information
Chapter 4. Survival strategies of single mothers
Chapter 5. Research methodology
Conclusions and recommendations
It gives me great pleasure to write an introduction to what I consider to be a very important book. The book is important from both a sociological and a humanitarian point of view. Sociologically, the book is important in showing the value of ethnographic and case study methods of sociological research, of which Marina Kiblitskaya is one of the most experienced and sophisticated exponents in Russia. As Marina explains in her book, these methods make it possible to show the ways in which social pressures and constraints limit the choices of individuals not hypothetically or in the abstract but in the reality of their daily lives. At the same time they make it possible to show the ways in which people struggle to overcome these pressures and constraints to build their own lives. This kind of qualitative research gives a voice to the people being studied, so that they are not mere objects of research but are actively involved in the research and have some control of the research process, as is most eloquently and movingly shown in their writing diaries describing their own daily lives. As Marina's book shows clearly and convincingly, it is only this kind of qualitative research that makes it possible to understand the processes which are more anonymously reflected in survey and statistical data. Marina's book is of humanitarian importance in giving a voice to one of the most exploited groups of Russian society, which has been one of the hardest hit by the processes of reform. Nobody can read Marina's book without becoming aware of the acute material need of women struggling to bring up children on their own, and of their corresponding vulnerability to exploitation. We can only hope that Marina's book will draw the attention of both social scientists and politicians to the urgency of providing support and protection for single mothers in the new Russia, but also of encouraging single mothers to come together and to organise in the struggle for their rights.
Professor Simon Clarke
In these difficult times, it is not easy to raise a child in a two-parent household, as parents face a whole barrage of problems from the financial to the psychological. Even within households where both parents are in work, the raising of a child leads to particular financial problems. We can therefore imagine the extent to which it is even more difficult to raise a child within a household where the entire financial burden for doing so lies on one person‟s shoulders. It is even more complicated again to raise a family without any support from relatives: when the whole burden of raising a child lies with the mother, on whom can families rely? What problems do they face and how do they resolve them? Does this group of women receive any special privileges, or on the contrary do they face additional restrictions on their rights? What is the attitude of society towards single and divorced mothers? And how in general do they survive? This research sought to find answers to some of these questions.
The phenomenon of single mothers raising children alone has unfortunately become a sign of our times. The number of women who find themselves having to raise children on their own is increasing throughout the world. Single mothers significantly outnumber single fathers in all countries. Attitudes towards single mothers in different countries vary: in some countries they are perceived simply as women raising their children, while in others, including Russia, they cannot afford to allow themselves simply to be mothers and to stay home with their children since, as well as being mothers, they are also workers. In some countries, the system of social welfare is developed to the extent that single mothers can survive on state benefits. In such countries as Russia, however, single mothers must work in order to feed themselves and their children. An analysis of existing literature on single mothers reveals that it is mainly concerned with the issues of national policies in different countries and the strategies adopted to provide social assistance to this group of people. Moreover, as illustrated in the book, „Single mothers in an international context‟,
The assumption is that if a social policy stimulus is changed, single mothers will respond in an appropriate and uniform way. For example, it may be presumed that reducing the state benefit levels available to single mothers will force them to take up paid work… Such a simplistic causal approach tends to ignore social processes in local labour markets and neighbourhoods, and to play down single mothers‟ own understandings and capacities 1for social action, albeit within the constraints of gendered and stratified societies.
It should be pointed out that, throughout the world, and in Russia in particular, there is a lack of specific research conducted at the level of informal processes, of women‟s subjective perceptions of their situation and of descriptions of what they do in order to survive. In Russia, qualitative research is only beginning to be developed and it is important that projects such as this continue to be supported by international organisations. This report attempts to show specific examples of situations which single mothers face in their local labour markets, how they cope with being single mothers and simultaneously, with the fact that their rights are constantly violated, and which strategies they adopt to overcome such obstacles and to survive in general.
1 Single mothers in an International context: Mothers or workers. (1997) Ed. by S. Duncan and Rosalind Edwards. London: UCL Press (Page 1)
Gender sociology and qualitative research
It is well known that the trend in feminism which represents women as the victims of patriarchal order and the totalitarianism of men is increasingly subject to criticism. Such a position denies women their actions and their daily struggles by portraying them as the passive „observers‟ of
social and cultural trends, which in turn relieves them of any responsibility for what is happening to them and presents them as powerless and incapable. The other side of this coin, however, which represents women as responsible for their own fate alone, as if everything depends on them alone along the lines of the „American dream‟ or „self-advancement‟ also does not correspond
with the complicated structure of public attitudes (e.g. women comprise the majority of poor and illiterate people in the world). The latest feminist research acknowledges that overcoming this dualism of „victim of circumstance or in charge of their own future‟/ „passive or active‟, is also a serious problem and a complex task in social theory. It is also important for feminism in Russia to overcome this dichotomy, proceeding from the positive and constructive experiences of the lives of Russian women themselves, and not from foisting upon them our notions of their „terrible‟ lives, but rather creating an atmosphere of mutual support between professionals both within the sociological sphere and between them and others. Research which analyses the huge difficulties faced by women (and men) in Russia should not present them as passive or „degraded and humiliated‟, which is contradicted not only by the diversity of their lives, but also denies respondents their strategies of opposition. It is important here to note that the position of a so-called „other Russian‟ migrant from Kazakhstan who has settled in a Russian village differs greatly from the position of a favoured „pure Russian‟ who has a flat and a family to help in Moscow, even though both of them can be defined as „single mothers‟. I am therefore in favour
of recognising and voicing the differences between women in contemporary Russia, which calls into question any analysis that uses the terminology of universal concepts to apply to all women (all single mothers). I would like to stress here that a constructive approach to the problems of Russian women does not mean looking at the situation through rose-tinted spectacles, as illustrated by the „confessions‟ included here. Women‟s problems should be researched and the society in which we live should be criticised, but not for the sake of showing that „Russian women have it bad‟.
The role of qualitative methods in gender research
It is not coincidental that the history of the introduction and development of qualitative methods corresponds with the development of feminism in sociology and the introduction of so-called „gender sociology‟. It was women in particular who began to use these methods in the international sociological arena, focusing primarily on the interpretative and conceptual tradition in the social sciences. This is not the place to analyse the history of this process, but it is important to note that qualitative methods have become widespread in gender research in particular, and that this is how they have come to be used in Russian sociology (the most unstructured interviews were and continue to be used in „gender‟ research projects).
The use of respondents‟ diaries was developed on Russian soil. We are fully aware of the
criticisms that may be levelled at this method from the point of view of continuing what Foucault called the „tradition of confession‟, which is nowadays increasingly used in psychoanalysis
institutes, television talk shows, and by sociological and psychological research. On the other hand, only qualitative research allows for an analysis of power relations at the micro-level required, which Foucault also considered more characteristic of modern society, i.e. the art of confession works strategically, when aimed constructively at reformulating the position of
women, and in this research, for example, at voicing and constructing new methods of resistance and expressing the experiences of single mothers.
In contemporary sociology, attention is increasingly paid to the so called „informal‟ levels of
social relations, which are acknowledged as no less important in power networks and the formulation of specific practices than more formal levels of social relations. Although this division has until now only concerned the „patching up‟ of the classical categorical apparatus, which has clearly long since ceased to function in changing historical conditions, it nevertheless still points to a trend in the social science movement. The issue of gender themes and feminist research is therefore at the forefront of international sociology, as a result of its development of qualitative methodology and its attention to „informal levels‟.
I would like to provide an example of such research in Russia which does not claim to provide answers or ideals, but to continue an international trend in sociology that remains as yet underdeveloped in Russia. The main theoretical difficulties facing traditional sociology in using qualitative methodology remain the same - the unavoidable reinterpretation of the object and subject, the hypotheses and the results of the research, the re-interpretative roles and ethical position of sociology as a representative of science, which is clearly in a state of transformation that has gripped the humanities as a whole. This book is not only about single mothers, but is an example of the emergence of a new trend in the development of Russian sociology - qualitative methodology, which is making its existence increasingly felt in Russia.
The confessions of single mothers
One of the most interesting aspects of this research is that the respondents were asked to keep diaries of their daily lives. Qualitative methods offer particular flexibility and, despite the fact that there are specific rules to adhere to in the writing of diaries, a conscious decision was made not to pass these on to the respondents to prevent them feeling confined by a precise formula. Instead, they were requested to write freely about how they coped or survived and the ways in which their rights were violated, where applicable. As a result of this flexibility, the diaries differ from each other: some of the respondents tried to keep a conventional diary over a certain period of time, while others preferred to sit down and write about their lives and the problems that they faced. The author would like to express her gratitude to all of the women who agreed to her request to keep diaries and allowed them to be used in this book anonymously.
Some of the diaries appear below. They are provided not only to show how difficult it is for single mothers to survive in the present day, but also to introduce a new type of ethnographic work in the Russian context. The diaries and essays are presented not only as „evidence‟ of one or other of the hypotheses raised or conclusions drawn here, but as a unique step forward - Russian women‟s experiences of survival while trying to raise children without a partner in post-
Soviet reality. These women were exchanging their thoughts with another woman - the author - and through this medium with other readers. This method of sociological research has long since been a feature of international sociology and it is particularly important to stress that both the pluses and minuses of such an approach are understood, and that we are using it for the sake of creating a field of solidarity and mutual exchange while at the same time providing room for the voices of different women.
1. Larisa, Domodyedovo, Moscow region
I was sacked from the kindergarten of the Moscow railroad when they gave up their kindergartens. What an insult! I’d worked in the same job for many years and you always think that they should treat you better, more civilised. I was one of the first to go. I found a job in another kindergarten. There was no time to look for a different job as this would have led to a break in my work record. But, my work record was probably broken anyway when I
2 While the use of diaries as a research tool is only just gaining ground in Russia, it is quite widespread throughout the world. Diaries are widely used in research on the amount of time spent by individuals and households (see Gershuny, 1983; Marini and Shelton, 1993; Robinson, 1987), on diet (see Charles and Kerr, 1986); consumer behaviour (Jackson-Beeck and Robinson, 1981); and time spent with children (Bryant and Zick, 1996, Nock and Kingston, 1988). A large amount of gender research uses diaries, but not always from a feminist position (see Berheide, 1984; Sandelowski et al., 1991; Tivers, 1985; Elchardus and Glorieux, 1994; Garmanikow, 1983). Cited in Linda Bell, „Public and Pivate Meanings in Diaries, Researching Family and Childcare / Feminist Dilemmas in Qualitative Research: Public Knowledge and Private Lives, Ed. by Jane Ribbens and Rosalind Edwards, Sage, 1998, Pp 72-86.
was sacked. It’s not as if I was transferred (from one job to another). It’s the same institution. It’s bad for the soul. Terrible attack of nerves - nothing but worries. I feel sorry
about the railroad kindergarten. There were good hospitals in Moscow and free train travel.
A new job. No idea what to expect. But it seems there was no need to worry or cry. The staff are good, as are relationships, but the wages are lower. All the nannies are young and some of them are single mothers too. We share our problems with each other.
I’ve fallen ill, and immediately it’s clear how the world has been turned on its head. Its changing. When I worked out of the Moscow railroad, I kept myself together mainly with the help of the hospital. They’re better in Moscow. And the food was the same as in a sanatorium. Attitudes to patients were excellent, they were treated for as long as they needed to be. But now there’s only cold reality.
Our hospital differs greatly from the others. You could say that there is no free treatment. They only provide serious pain relief and that’s all. My only form of tension release is when my daughter comes to visit. So it’s like being in hell. There’s no sanitation or hygiene controls. They won’t let me go home. They’ve even put me in quarantine. They won’t even let me talk to my daughter. In the department which deals with stomach illnesses they provide soup made from tins. There’s no milk or kefir.
(Author‟s comments: Hospitals require some explanation. The Soviet Union was built on the principles of the Gulag, and such attitudes persist in Russian hospitals, where the staff tend to be very rude to patients. On the whole the patients must provide everything for themselves. However, other things are even more striking. When a person is ill, the help of relatives is very important. However, when there is a period of epidemic (flu, for example), hospitals do not admit relatives and friends. They declare a quarantine and the staff will refuse any request to meet with a relative. And woe betide anyone who arrives at the hospital at the wrong time, as hospitals adhere to very strict visiting times: between 4 and 7 on weekdays and between 11 and 2 and 4 and 7 on weekends.)
Discharged. Very strange that with a ulcer of the colon, you are kept in hospital for 21-24 days. Naturally it did not help. Now I’ll have to spend more money. Medicine is so expensive. And then there’s my child to feed. Just to make ends meet would be something. It was pointless to stay in hospital; everything hurts.
My daughter is having problems at school. She’s not interested in the programme. I got myself together and went to see the director. I thought we’d just talk, that she’d at least give
me some advice, but no. The meeting was difficult for me. The director criticised me, shouted at me. I was told that I should spend more time with my child. I was accused of not being able to provide the necessary education. Again there were tears, although I think she’s a normal child. Only because of the poverty, she keeps herself apart from everyone else.
My daughter doesn’t want to go to school. I racked my brains trying to figure out why. When I found out, I started to cry. My conversation with the director had been passed on to a teacher, who had passed it on to the children. Children are hard. They’d started to tease her. I only just persuaded her to go. You have to study. It’s difficult for her. She comes home and she cries, which makes me cry. But to go back to the director. They humiliate you and prove nothing. The children at the school are dressed up as if it’s a holiday. The other girls won’t let her into their circle, they say she’s a ragamuffin. I try to explain that it’s not a matter of clothes.
Yet another difficult decision: the child psychologist.
I thought they would give advice. I tell them that I was sent by the school. My child is upset. The response was to shout loudly in front of my child that I am stupid, and what do I expect? I should have sent her to a children’s home before. They told me to do what I wanted with her. She said that I’d ruined the child’s life. I cannot count on a children’s home now. She just wrote a prescription for some medicine. The doctor herself appears to be a sick hysterical woman.
I left there in hysterics myself. My daughter told me that if she’d known they’d humiliate me
that way, she’d never have agreed to go.
I didn’t want to live. Again the nerves, the tablets and the hesitation. How can we go on? Sometimes my daughter becomes a burden. I didn’t go back to the director. What’s the point? To be humiliated again? I decided that what would be, would be. So that’s how hysterics make life ugly. My daughter has had to face so many problems already in childhood. She seen the most genuine of poverty.
They’re collecting money at school again. There’s a holiday soon and the teachers have to
be congratulated. But where will I get the money? If only I had a wage at least. I have to repay the money borrowed to buy medicine. And then we have to live. In general they’ve started to collect money quite often at school for this and that. But where to find it?
My daughter didn’t go to school but I didn’t protest. They’ll congratulate the teacher and the girls and they’ll point the finger at my daughter for not giving anything. But they’ll still
say it later anyway. She stayed home and she appeared calm enough on the outside, but she was in turmoil on the inside with the injustice of it all.
I had to give my boots to my daughter as hers split. I make our blouses from a pattern, but they look excellent. She growing up. And life is becoming more difficult. I’d like to buy fruit. I buy it sometime, but very rarely. Benefits are low. I’d like to feed her everything that she wanted until she was full.
Spring has arrived. Soon it will be time to change our footwear, but the boots have split. So I’ll have to do the job of the cobbler myself. I’ll sew them and stick them, making narrow tops. I’d give her my own shoes but we’re not the same size. If there was money… She stays home more and more often. She’s become withdrawn and sad, not sociable. I feel sorry for her but nothing will help. What can I give her and what am I doing wrong?
We went to visit my sister and when she saw what my daughter was wearing on her feet, she gave her some shoes. My daughter was happy, which is good. But this weighed heavily on my soul. You see, my sister has two children of her own, who also have to have shoes. My sister is annoyed that we don’t come to visit often. But it’s not cheap to get here, so we can’t afford to come often. I try not to take the allowance, but it doesn’t work out. My wage is low.
It will soon be the May Day holiday. This is good on the one hand: lots of days off work and I have to go to the allotment. But on the other hand, how will we get through these days? What will we eat? I have to buy potatoes to plant, but the price of seed potatoes has increased so much - enough to make you give up the allotment. We planted marrow and herbs. I’ll have to buy potatoes in the autumn, when they’ll be cheaper.
During the holiday we planted the allotment, our neighbours provided some seeds. You water the ground and the buckets are heavy. My stomach hurts, it all takes its toll on your health. So many problems. I’m thinking of where I could send my daughter for the summer, where she’d have good care and food...