“Motherhood ideology certainly encompasses multiple contradictions. Mothers are romanticised as life-giving, self-sacrificing, and forgiving, and demonized as smothering, overly involved, and destructive. They are seen as all-powerful – holding the fate of their children and ultimately the future of society in their hands – and as powerless – subordinated to the dictates of nature, instinct and social forces beyond their ken.”

(Glenn 1994, 11)


Whilst there is no question that mothers play an important role in society, that role is not without contradictions or contestation. Motherhood has historically been defined by various cultural norms and beliefs around gender, child-rearing, the value of domestic work and what are appropriate spaces for women. The assumptions behind these beliefs are increasingly being challenged by women. This process of contestation has been accelerated by social and economic forces, including financial pressure in households for dual incomes, the breakdown of social and familial relations due to migration and mobility, and the increasing aspirations for professional careers by
many women.

The days when the expected place of mothers was at home raising children are gone. Now more than ever, women are engaged in multiple spheres of work, home, education, community and politics. Straddling these various realms, mothers are increasingly active ‘users’ of a diversity of city spaces. However, how exactly mothers navigate the city by traversing these spaces in order to fulfil their multiple roles is not well understood. That is not to deny the important role of fathers or to fail to acknowledge that they too have a specific geography. It is simply to argue that deep empirical research into the spatial patterns of mothers in South African cities is
sorely lacking.

This Occasional Paper speaks to this ‘gap’, by exploring the spatial dynamics of mothers in Johannesburg. It investigates how women who self-identify as mothers navigate their own and their families’ daily lives in the city in facing a variety of challenges
and obstacles.

Methodologically the research involved studying the everyday practices and experiences of 25 mothers in the city, who agreed to in-depth interviews and mapping exercises. The participants were a diverse group in terms of geographic location, income, race, age, and family situation. The women narrated their daily lives and the routes they took through various places and spaces that made up their everyday experiences of the city. They discussed their decision-making around the choice of home, work, school, shopping and recreation and detailed the social and spatial dynamics of their support networks. Exploring these ‘moral geographies’ of motherhood provides valuable insights into a group of people who engage the city extensively in ways that are under-recognised. In turn, understanding the spatial negotiations that typify mothers’ lives exposes the depth of spatial inequality and poor urban management of our city-region in new ways.

This Occasional Paper is the result of a partnership between the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning (SA&CP) and the GCRO, and specifically involved a collaboration between researchers Yasmeen Dinath, Margot Rubin and Alexandra Parker. The insights presented here reflect results from a first phase of research that will be deepened through a larger study in 2018.

Report