Chapter 9: The
Mother Centers are self managed public spaces in the
neighborhood, where mothers and their children meet on a daily basis. The atmosphere
is informal. You join by having a cup of coffee in the coffee shop or by a
visit to the
This chapter introduces the
Mother Centers are
self managed spaces in the community for women, children and families. They
were a totally new concept when introduced to family and youth welfare policy
The research team of the institute created the concept of Mother Centers drawing from their research on the conditions of parenting in contemporary societies. Low income families were interviewed on their coping strategies, their relationship to parent education programs and what they would welcome as support in their daily life. On the basis of the results the team was able to mobilize initial federal funds as start up support for three model centers for the first three years.
During this time public support by municipal and regional funding, by welfare institutions and by private foundations was secured to keep the centers going. The concept of preventive family policy was formed following the rationale that it is cheaper to help families help themselves than to pay the high public costs resulting from dysfunctional family socialization. Many social problems of crime, juvenile delinquency, failure in school or lack of integration into society can be addressed by strengthening the family system and its coping capacities. Rather than targeting the family along the lines of special issues like poverty, childcare, school, or debt management or along the lines of individual members like children, youth, or elders, addressing the family as a whole can build on and strengthen the family as a system. This is especially true in the context of migrant families, where a holistic approach to family support programs can build on family ties and kin networks which form a major component of the coping strategies in migrant cultures. Supporting families in their social interaction is a way to strengthen family relations as well as to prevent social exclusion and marginalization by enhancing their social capital.
Welfare institutions and family support programs consistently report that they are generally reaching a very small segment of middle class families, and that their programs are ineffective with low income and migrant families and especially with families at risk. The research of the German Youth Institute portrayed that the lack of response to institutional parent education and parent support measures is strongly due to the institutional atmosphere, the school-like and paternalistic structures many of these family support and welfare programs convey. The research team suggested a different route. Rather than focusing on problems and deficiencies and what professionals can do to fix these, the focus turned to competencies and capacities of the “target groups” and what can be done to support their potential of helping themselves and each other. Creating peer learning and peer support structures in the neighborhood was suggested as a low threshold alternative strategy. The success of the concept, the daily stream of mothers and children into the centers, the creativity and ideas that were generated there, and the subsequent expansion into the neighborhood soon made people wonder why Mother Centers hadn’t been there forever.
Yet the concept, however natural and obvious it may seem in daily practice, challenges traditional principles and structures of institutional welfare agencies, who may experience the competencies of families as a threat to their professional identity. This can happen, when experts expect contributions from mothers to be either given for free, or on a subordinated “assistant” or “junior” level, or when the interests of children are seen as separate and disconnected from the interests of their mothers. These prove to be deep rooted mental barriers, which need to be overcome in order to effectively implement Mother Centers.
Over time the
success of the centers and their rapid replication created a momentum towards
a change in attitudes and towards further public funding resulting in new
legislation and funding procedures, allowing for funding titles explicitly
earmarked for Mother Centers in family and youth welfare programs. This was
the result of extensive lobbying of the countless
A key strategy responsible for sparking off a Mother Center movement, that has since spread over the boarders of Germany into 15 countries, was the fact that the research team did not publish their results solely as an academic book but facilitated a process where the women involved in the first three Mother Centers wrote down their own stories, creating an authentic and animating book (which has since been translated into English) by which women felt inspired and encouraged to replicate the model for themselves. Currently there are about 750 Mother Centers world wide.
exist in the
Mother Centers have created an innovative shift in the field of social work and social welfare. A shift from families as clients of professional programs to active participants in local problem solving and local governance. They have widened the scope of welfare policies as well as of governance and gender policies.
Based on qualitative interviews of 144 parent education programs and a quantitative survey conducted with low income families, the researchers of the German Youth Institute found, that the hierarchical and institutional culture of parent education programs are a major disincentive for low income families, whose status in society is due in large parts to low or moderate success in the school system and who often experience professional attitudes as stigmatizing or devaluing.
Institutional and professional activities often use a patronizing approach. They want to teach mothers how they can play better with their children, how they can feed the child more healthy, or how they can better support the child’s development. They seldom look at what enabling conditions are needed to put these insights into practice. Women with small children are often hesitant to commit to fixed schedules or ongoing courses, because of the many unforeseeable events of family life, sick children, school problems, needs of elders and other family emergencies. These realities are rarely accounted for within the formal structures of associations and institutions, even those of established women’s organizations.
Families not reached by institutional social work are not looking for top down educational programs that make them feel “back in school”, inadequate or lacking. They are specifically looking for recognition for what they are accomplishing, despite of their problems and disadvantages. They want to experience themselves with their children positively and with self confidence. They are looking for exchange, knowledge and information on a peer level, for informal structures of learning and communication. And they are looking for practical support and concrete relief in their daily family chores.
At the same time
Mother Centers are public spaces controlled and managed by the participating women. This creates a sense of ownership and supports identification with the center as well as allowing for an open and participative structure. There is a constant flux of new women bringing in both new impulses as well as challenges by which to grow. This keeps Mother Centers alive and lively, and makes them melting pots of creativity, innovations and integration in the community. Discussions, conflicts and negotiations on differing sensibilities regarding order, punctuality, or child rearing are a continuous and integral part of collective self management. Settings where women can meet once a week in a local church or a local neighborhood center, without being able to influence or define the structural conditions, do not have the same effect. Collectively defining and working out how things should be done in the center and what are to be the rules, is a profound way of getting to know each other and of learning to reach out, listen to each other, make compromises and find solutions that work for all.
Contrary to many mother child groups activities in the Mother Centers evolve around the interests and needs of the mothers. This creates a different kind of childcare than in most institutional settings. It creates a public space that is co-inhabited and shared by adults and children, where both sides learn to deal with each other’s presence. Children are an integral part of the centers and their activities, but they are not the center of attention. Nevertheless or maybe just because of it, children also benefit enormously from the center.
They learn to associate and deal with children of different age groups and they learn to deal with a wide scope of adults in public situations. They experience their mothers in responsible roles outside of the family as well as a general public atmosphere that is welcoming, competent and patient towards children.
Tasks in the
Earning money not only contributes to the family budget and serves as legitimization towards spouses or other family members for spending time in the center, it also contributes to a learning process of taking care of ones own needs and taking life into ones own hands. Earning own money means a lot for the development of self value and the awareness of ones skills and talents. It is a strong motivator to further develop life plans and perspectives. Experience shows that volunteer work is regularly contributed in addition to the hours paid, often in equal amounts, which is remarkable, considering that Mother Centers reach women who usually do not engage in voluntary work.
Although not constituting an equivalent or substitute to regular employment, remunerations in the centers constitute an invaluable bridge over the split between family and public life. They contribute to making visible and acknowledging the work mothers do. Paying for activities in the centers creates room for “non-working mothers” to try out their skills, to raise their self esteem and to develop an orientation towards re-entering the labor market.
The facilities of Mother Centers consist of shop window rooms in the neighborhood, harboring a café, a children’s room, a kitchen and space for meetings and activities. Access to a garden or playground is ideal. Opening hours are geared towards family rhythms and are fixed by the participants themselves.
Participants come mainly from the neighborhood and reflect the population of the community. Families from middle class as well as working class backgrounds, single as well as married mothers, local as well as migrant families are reached. During the day women and children dominate the scene, evenings and weekends also include events for the whole family. On average the centers are visited by more than 300 parents and children on a weekly basis.
Activities follow a wide range of educational, recreational and economical interests and are developed according to the needs, interests and skills of the participants.
courses on job training, legal issues or parenting skills, on nutrition,
playing an instrument, using the internet or handling tax declarations, or on
self defense, theatre, or conflict solving. Services like hair cutting,
homework support for school children, eldercare, ironing or repair services
are developed and outings and celebrations, sport activities, family
brunches, children’s games and vacation programs are regular events
organized inside and outside the premises of the
A constant unfolding of ideas, activities and projects are sparked in the drop-in café, where participants gather, where contact, communication and group building takes place. Most of the educational value happens outside of the planned programs and activities, but rather as part of the peer communication and peer learning going on while organizing the daily life in the center.
Children are an integral part of the center. Child care is offered throughout opening hours. However, it is also possible for mothers to have their children around during their activities in the center and keep an eye on them themselves.
develop neighborhood services that are geared towards gaps in the local
infrastructure. Babysitter referral services, janitor services, catering
services, pick up and transport services, mending and laundry services,
health care, beauty services and body work are examples. Especially in the
area of childcare a whole spectrum of
Over the years many
Mother Centers have developed a set of rules and agreements that support
positive interaction. In the Dutch centers the most important rule is that
the language spoken in the center is Dutch. Many centers work with the
Leadership Support Process, a method developed in the
Learning happens on a peer level and on an informal basis. It is often not defined as such, but all the more effective. Witnessing how an experienced mother of 3 deals with a child’s tantrum and exchanging opinions and experiences on child rearing over the coffee table are important aspects of “parent education”. Getting information on what has worked for others on health issues, on solving marital conflicts, on how to survive with very little means or on dealing with school problems widens ones own scope of action. Being exposed to different cultures and life styles opens up mental horizons and perspectives. All this happens in the centers without involving diagnostic language, a formalized consultation setting, or a self image as a problem case. Nevertheless a wealth of educational information is transported and tremendous capacity building, personal growth and development is triggered.
Consultation in the
re-entry into the labor market happens directly through job trainings,
qualification programs and ideas and incentives for self employment, but also
by a general boost of self esteem, self confidence and meta competencies that
are generated through the involvement in
In the centers the women discover or reinvent their skills, capacities and resources, they create new balances for reconciling the responsibilities of work and family life and strengthen their courage to plan and build up their future.
Participating in a
The Dutch centers have developed a more multicultural approach and are frequented to a larger extent by the migrant population. As a consequence men are more strongly excluded in the Dutch centers, since that is a major precondition for women with Islamic religion to participate.
approach is reflected in the program and activities of the Dutch centers.
Next to the basics that are common to Mother Centers all around the world
like childcare, handicrafts, drop in cafe, and the second hand shop, the
Dutch centers focus on activities like literacy programs, language lessons,
bicycle lessons or international cooking. Women from the
Mother Centers are experienced as a safe and caring place for families from all walks of life. They have an informal, caring atmosphere often described as “public living rooms”. There is a strong orientation towards personal needs and well being. Relationships are personal, nurturing and non hierarchical. Families that can’t afford public restaurants or commercial recreational and cultural events can find community and contact and a wide range of easily accessible activities in the centers. Most activities in the center are not merely consumptive, but activate own involvement and creativity.
Social bonding is generated by working together as well as by celebrating together. Laughter is shared, as well as tears. In crisis situations and emergencies direct and immediate support is offered in a familiar setting.
On the individual level dimensions gained include support to find employment perspectives, more self confidence, vitality and improved gender equity. Capacities developed include organizing and negotiation skills, communication and relationship skills, improved stress resistance, capacity to work in teams, increased willingness to take responsibility as well as to develop tolerance and flexibility.
Mother Centers have a positive impact on improving family relations, especially when the fathers take part in the family events in the evenings and on weekends.
The longer a
In an evaluation study conducted by the German Youth Institute the following responses were received to the question what effects the Mother Centers have had on the lives of the participants:
▪ 80% of the respondents felt that the Mother Centers enriched the neighborhood.
▪ 75% saw the centers as an expansion of the social and physical opportunities for their children.
▪ 70% learned more tolerance.
▪ 67% affirmed that the
▪ 58% said they learned to participate and raise their voices.
▪ 55% answered that they learned to cope with every day life with more calm and confidence.
centers (Buurtcentrum) were created in the
The Mother Centers differ mainly in their demand driven and participatory approach, in their focus on the needs of (especially migrant) women and in the low threshold character of their open door, drop-in programs. Mother centers appeal to the talents and skills of women and do not focus on their problems and deficiencies. The practice of self management in the Mother Centers counteracts bureaucratic and paternalistic approaches, which have developed in many of the neighborhood centers.
Mother Centers have wide reaching effects on many levels. They benefit the women involved and their families, they benefit the neighborhood and they benefit the community at large. The following list summarizes the effects of Mother Centers on these multiple levels. For the temporary settlement the effects of the Mother Centers on the neighborhood and on the social cohesion of the community are the most relevant.
“It is intercultural cooking day, 10 women take turns in letting each other enjoy the smells and tastes of their cooking. The kids are at school or in the day care room. Nothing is in the way of a nice and inspiring morning. We exchange ways of cooking and basic recipes. I have never heard of a turnip. What can you do with it? A timid one very soon gets a potato peeler into her hand, and she participates too, very happy, she can take part so quickly. Mieke says she cannot contribute much to cooking. But she knows Dutch and makes use of that. While cooking we talk about our lives, our children. We understand one another, we have the same issues we face in our everyday dealings with the children.
The kids get picked up from school or from the day care, the table is decked and it is time for communal eating with all that are present that morning in the center.
At the end of the cooking
course we will have a party, in which everyone can invite 5 people of their
choice. That way there will be enthusiasm for the next course. The party will
involve all kinds of dishes, music, dancing and a lot of laughter.” (Malle Molen,
“I must stay busy, if I sit at home I become crazy. I must meet people, that is why I am so active here in the
“Mother Centers support women, so that they can grow, gain self confidence and make something out of their lives. Women develop greatly during their time in the center. They move on to get education, then to paid jobs. This is a place for development and growth in every possible way.
The women have a lot
of talent and potential. The center is a very dynamic, buzzing and alive
place, and also very caring. You can always find a woman there who has time
for you. You are personally seen in the center, not as a case. People see you
for who you are and the talents you have, regardless of what education or
school certificates you have or not have.” (Malle Molen,
“Mother Centers are a very unique approach to integrating migrant women, often the only public place they can access and the only public contact they have with the host society. We offer language courses, but we also offer creative activities, that all women can participate in, regardless of their language abilities. That creates a non intimidating and low threshold atmosphere. Our language lessons are also more popular than elsewhere, because you can learn Dutch here, by applying it too. You can meet women in the same situation, you learn the language by speaking and doing things together.” (Alida, Den Haag)
“In the center,
people get to know each other from different nationalities more than anywhere
else. Elsewhere segregation is a big issue. People stick to their own ethnic
groups. This has become even stronger since the attack on the world trade
We celebrate the
holidays of all religions. And we celebrate international women’s day.
Being together in the
“Basically we are the same. The one from Marrocco might wear a scarf, but she doesn’t have to keep her mouth shut. We make the same kind of jokes.. We talk. We have met. I know now why she wears a scarf. We are comfortable with each other.” (Mother Center Initiative Leidse Rijn)
“It enriches the center to have women from different cultures. We learn from each other, from other cultures. It broadens our view. We talk about things. How do you do things in your culture? We talk about Ramadan. What is the meaning of it? We learn to respect each others traditions.
What we have learned from the women from other cultures is that there is more togetherness in their culture. Everybody stands up for each other. The other cultures have added a sense of togetherness to the center. A certain warmth has been added to our group. When you are ill, when something has happened, the women really are concerned and take interest.
Women from other
cultures have also learned from us. When there is a disagreement or an
irritation, they have learned to talk about it. They might ask for coaching
first, but they have learned to speak up. Dare to speak up, dare to have
ideas. Also dare to ask for help. There is also a lot of humor,
things are talked about with humor. And it has become easier to get ideas
through. To look at the positive side of things, not only seeing that things
won’t work, or can’t work.” (Luna,
plays an important part in the neighborhood. For instance when the streets
needed to be changed, the municipality wanted to ask the opinions of the
people living on the street. Usually it is very difficult to get any response
in low income neighborhoods. People don’t answer written questions, they don’t come to citizens hearings. The
The same happened when
the municipality wanted to change the playground. Civil servants always
complain that it is difficult to get participation of the population. They do
not really know how to connect to the people who it really concerns. It needs
a place like a
“The centers are often a kind of last resort for people who are excluded in society and who fall through the safety net of institutions. In many instances they have become a recruiting place for institutional programs. They often operate as important partners of other programs. Throughout these partnerships they have also started influencing the way institutions work, bringing their approaches down to the ground. Now also other institutions shape the language courses more to the needs and life styles of the women, they now include childcare, or offer transportation support, or are conducted closer to the residential areas to give easier access.” (National Association of Dutch Mother Centers)
“In the Mother
Centers you can first learn how to crawl, then you walk and soon enough you
have learned to run and to get to wherever you want. You start with the
basics of life and then you realize that the world is open to you. A
VI) Added Value of a
It supports community building by creating a meeting space and opportunities to get to know each other along the lines of shared everyday life activities, common interest groups, festivities, and excursions.
Especially in regard to childcare the center can develop a wider range of more customized family services: These include for instance childcare in the evenings, at irregular times, before school, after school, lunch tables for school children, help with homework, games and sport activities in the afternoons, as well as pick up and transport services for cultural and recreational after-school activities.
are pointing towards the need for more eldercare. Family resources for the
care of dependants are diminishing, while professionalism often lacks genuine
care quality. The greatest structural problem of professional care work has
proved to be the lack of personal involvement, that
can not be repeated over and over again outside of personally motivated
Especially for two
income families the provision of childcare, household and eldercare support,
is a strong factor in the decision making process of where to settle and
where to obtain property. The
Initiators are a
core group motivated to create a
Information about the project must be spread widely, both inside and outside the temporary settlement, targeting both potential visitors and participants as well as the media, businesses, founders and institutions in the neighborhood.
Finding allies among politicians, welfare agencies, equal opportunity commissions and among municipal departments and local authorities is an important step along the way. Partners need to know about the structures of the local administration, about funding programs and current trends in social, integration and gender policies as well as have good contacts with local decision making structures.
Mother Centers depend on rooms that are at the full disposal of the project. These rooms need to be central, easily accessible, affordable, have high public visibility, and be spacious enough to allow for the activities of both the mothers as well as the children.
The minimal space needed includes a café, the children’s room, a kitchen, a toilet and a room for projects. Optimal facilities include an additional room for children to have an afternoon nap, a bathroom including a table for diaper change, an atelier room for creative activities, a room for a second hand shop, a small office space, a garden for the children to be able to play outside and a big meeting room for celebrations and general assemblies.
Dealing with public space and different groups of people including children calls for security nets in form of insurances for the building, for accidents as well as for the people engaging in activities in the center. Insurances that offer packages for self help groups need to be identified and contacted.
open to all who are interested need to be conducted from the start, where
participants are involved from the beginning. Renovations, furnishing,
activities, programs and schedules as well as the operating rules and agreements
are developed along the way, together with the participants and according to
their needs, interests, ideas and competencies. This allows for a maximum of
participation and contribution of the participants in the shaping and running
of the center and a sense of identification, ownership and belonging can
develop. Out of these meetings a
Daily life in the
Funding and Remuneration
The Mother Center need funds to pay for rooms, for furniture and equipment, insurances, for the remuneration of daily tasks and activities, for publications and publicity and for personnel development and training. Since the core concept of the center is to offer support and budget relief to families, the prices of services and consumption in the center are kept low. As a rule of thumb the money raised by the activities in the center can cover about 20% of the yearly budget.
Funding can come
through the Savings and Loans division of the Nest! Local Economy
Organization or from outside sponsors. The core activities in the
Integrating the Surroundings
The development of
In her article “Domineren of Faciliteren” Joyce Hes analyses the situation as a “political governance paradox”, arising out of the fact that governmental top down welfare approaches do not fit the needs and parameters of bottom up self help initiatives, so that the very formula that creates the success of the Mother Centers generates resistance from the institutions and organizations, where the money, recognition and support should come from.
Hes identifies the following factors as major barriers:
▪ bureaucratic orientation that allows for little or no flexibility, autonomy, or consideration for context
▪ manageralism, the attempt to align social development to the cost and effect principles of the free market, including an increasing competitiveness of welfare organizations for ownership and credit for successful initiatives
▪ segmentation and specialization
▪ centralization in large welfare institutions, top down steering from a distance
In order to support self help initiatives another governance model is needed, one that fits better the work on the ground, one that can enable rather than block and hinder bottom up solutions.
In the following we
present lessons from the
A weakness of the present welfare system is the degree of specialization and segmentation that has developed in delivering support and services. Increased professionalism has resulted in the slicing up of life into social issues, target groups, specialized themes and funding titles.
Much of the success of the Mother Centers is due to the fact that they follow more of a family than an institutional approach. Addressing the family as a whole, rather than children, youth, women, the elderly, in separate approaches, reflects and builds on the synergy of the family as a system. Especially in the context of migrant families an integrated approach is crucial in order to build on and enhance self coping energies and strategies, which are very much linked to family and kin networks.
Recommendation for enabling Policies:
A more organic and holistic approach to social welfare needs to create programs and funding titles that allow for non-segmental, integrated bottom up approaches. Channeling state support and public subsidy directly into the system of family and community self help networks can increase the range and quality of social policy by including and enabling the problem solving capacities and resources of the target groups themselves.
A big issue that
hinders the development of innovation and creativity in social welfare is the
tendency towards centralization and large welfare institutions with
increasingly bureaucratic structures. The further away decisions are taken,
the more likely it becomes that they are not in tune with what works on the
problem is that our center cannot get independent funds, only channeled
through our host welfare institution. They get all the subsidies and pass
them on, so we always need to convince this big and rather bureaucratic
institution of our work. We cannot do our own business, grow and expand as it
is happening in our own process. The welfare institution divides the money
evenly among all the projects, regardless if they are equally successful and
expanding or not. This is an advantage for unsuccessful projects, but for the
Mother Centers it blocks our development. It would be better if the Mother
Centers could get subsidies directly, on their own.”
Recommendation for enabling Policies:
Decentralization can be enhanced by creating legal and financial procedures by which grassroots projects can become direct partners with founders and social welfare programs. This constitutes an important step away from bureaucratization and a patronizing approach in social welfare and an important step towards improving the effectiveness of social welfare programs and how the increasingly limited money available is spent. Through more direct communication channels between decision making, funding procedures and the implementation level, funding can be more fine tuned to the real requirements on the ground, which more often than not also reduces costs.
Innovations are often difficult to fit into a very regulated and bureaucratic system of rules and requirements. When the effect of rules and regulations is no longer evaluated against the basic intentions for which they were originally formulated, they can become a barrier and a block to good social policies.
In the case of the
Mother Centers this is true in regard to regulations and legislative plans
concerning childcare. The
“Plans on new
childcare legislation threaten to centralize responsibility for public
childcare and to submit informal childcare settings to the same regulations
required of formal public childcare. This can make the practice of childcare
in a community and neighborhood setting like the
We are therefore
negotiating to receive a specific
Recommendation for enabling Policies:
Working with wider norms and wider margins that leave room for context orientation, innovation and decentralized initiative and responsibility appear more suitable to ensure that services, in this case childcare services, are offered in such a way that they are accessible to those who most need them, while at the same time ensuring the standards of quality that the rules and regulations are intended for.
The European public welfare system is targeted towards public solidarity and state responsibility in those areas that are least ensured by market forces. The third pillar on which society rests is civic engagement in the form of voluntary work and citizen’s initiatives. In times of a shrinking labor market a redistribution of tasks and responsibilities between the market, the state and civil society needs to be considered and there are currently many debates, political initiatives and proposals that attempt to do that.
Enabling structures for the kind of civic involvement and social services generated in projects like the Mother Centers therefore require “a new welfare mix”.
Barriers in existing legislation include the tight limits in regard to the remuneration of tax free voluntary work (€700 per year), the limitations to engaging in remunerated work while receiving social welfare, the practice of limiting subsidized work to labor market programs.
The practice of subsidizing work programs as labor market re-entry incentive has been introduced to counteract unemployment rates. Such programs cannot solve the issue of the structural decrease of employment due to post industrialization. They have, however, successfully introduced the concept of subsidizing work, of creating a “second labor market” outside of market forces.
The lessons coming out of the Mother Center experience point towards carrying this redistribution, or re-balancing of state, market and civic forces one step further to include subsidies for work and services provided in the context of neighborhood and community engagement.
“Because of the complexity and ambition of our project we need partners in politics. We need help in getting financing innovations, in getting recognition, also for the transfer of the model to the whole region, as basic infrastructure for families.
There needs to be a
good co-operation with public policy makers to make the necessary legislative
changes, both national and municipal” (Luna,
Recommendation for enabling Policies:
Creating direct funding titles for family and community self help initiatives, increasing the margins of tax free remuneration for civic work and creating opportunities and incentives to supplement welfare subsidies with paid work in the community, constitute strategies of a new welfare mix, that can both counteract negative effects of unemployment as well as generate stronger civic involvement.