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Mothers in the city (2022)

This project explored the spatial dynamics of mothers in Johannesburg: how mothers navigate their and their families' daily lives in Johannesburg; the challenges and obstacles that they face; their routes, supports and efforts that typify their lives. Mothers, through their own multifaceted roles, and through the care and provision of their children, intersect and use the city in an intensive and demanding variety of ways. In some cases these activities are all confined within a single neighbourhood but most often mothers are accessing these needs and resources across many areas of the city. Due to the nature of motherhood as both a relationship of care and a role constructed in society, the burdens that mothers carry in unequal urban conditions are financial, temporal and emotional. Exploring the spatial geographies of the ‘muthahood’ provides valuable insights into a group of people who engage the city extensively (far more than the ‘traditional’ suburban construct) and understanding these spatial dynamics exposes the depth of spatial inequalities and poor urban management in new ways.

The research shows that the spatial injustices of the past as well as new inequalities in the city impact the everyday movements and practices of women as well as the choice of home, work and school in the city. In addition, the spatial practices of mothers are influenced by a form of moral geography, which, when overlaid on current spatial inequalities in Johannesburg, result in compromises and sacrifices for both mother and child. Thus in many ways, constructing a hostile and difficult space, which mothers are forced to navigate and sometimes transgress, social, spatial and legal boundaries using a variety of spatial and social tactics in order to survive and assure the best for their families.

The literature on parenthood, globally, has not focused on the spatial footprints and patterns of parents in the city more broadly. Whilst scholars of feminism have discussed the cultural construction of the role of mothers and spatial isolation within the domestic realm (Hay 1996). Other studies have examined changing dynamics in the workplace and how women (and men) negotiate both the home and the workplace (Maqubela 2013). There has also been exploration of the provision of pre-school care and education in different neighbourhoods (Holloway 1999). Of late there has also been a focus on the study of masculinity and fatherhood, and urban environments, internationally (Lemay, et al, 2010; Edin, & Nelson, 2013) but also within the SA context (Madhavan, & Roy, 2012; Van den Berg, & Makusha, 2018) however few studies have examined the range of activities and facilities that parents engage with for and with their children and the trade-offs that parents make regarding choices of schools, work, recreation, medical needs, shopping and community commitments. Thus this research examined the uniquely urban negotiations and navigations that people caring and looking after children have to make in complex urban environments. A topic that has received little scholarly attention.

The first phase of research focused on mothers and was conducted in 2014 and 2015. The study examined the everyday practices and experiences of 25 mothers in the city, through in-depth interviews and mapping exercises. This has been published as an occasional paper, Motherhood in Johannesburg. The pilot study provided valuable insights into the lives of these diverse women and also highlighted some important aspects that need to be accommodated in a larger study.

The second phase of the research expanded the study to include mothers, fathers and other primary carers of children. The research is located in 5 neighbourhoods with 8-10 participants in each neighbourhood. The fieldwork was concluded in early 2020 and provided data from new methods of mobility tracking through a mobile application, auto-photography and audio journaling. Several journal papers have been written and are in the process of being published.

Originally conceived by Yasmeen Dinath at the Johannesburg Development Agency, the project was a partnership with Dr Margot Rubin at SARCHi in Spatial Analysis and City Planning.


Forthcoming academic publications

Parker, A. ‘Spouse in the house: Child care and life satisfaction in the Gauteng City-Region, South Africa’, under review Southern African Journal of Demography [February 2022].

Rubin, M. and Parker, A. ‘Many ways to care: mobility, gender and Gauteng’s geography’, under review at Gender, Place and Culture [February 2022].

Rubin, M. and Parker, A. ‘Mobility intersections: Gender, family, culture and location in the Gauteng City-Region’ submitted to editors for special issue in Urban Forum [February 2022].

Rubin, M., Parker, A. and Howe, L. ‘“She’s here and I’m not”: Presence, Power, and Constructing Masculinity in the Gauteng City-Region’ [February 2022].

Occasional Paper

Alexandra Parker and Margot Rubin (2017) 'Motherhood in Johannesburg: Mapping the experiences and moral geographies of women and their children in the city'. SA & CP GCRO Occasional Paper no.11, November 2017.

Map of the month

Alexandra Parker and Margot Rubin (2017) Spatial footprints of mothers in Johannesburg, GCRO Map of the month, November 2017.


The Mothers in the City research was featured in Wits' Curiosity Magazine in an article called 'Parenting in the city', in February 2022.

Alexandra Parker wrote an article 'Mothers in motion: mums navigate cities with their kids’ needs in mind', The Conversation Africa, 17 April 2018. She also spoke to Kwena Moabelo on PowerFM about the research project on 19 April 2018. The article was republished on a number of online news platforms including Huffington Post.

Parker, A. (2018) 'Mothers in motion: mums navigate cities with their kids’ needs in mind', The Conversation Africa, 17 April 2018.


Margot Rubin and Alexandra Parker (September 2021) 'Mothers in the City: Household mobility in Gauteng', Ideas@Gautrain, Online seminar for Gautrain Management Agency, 10 September 2021.

Margot Rubin and Alexandra Parker (April 2021) ‘Many ways to care: mobility, gender and Gauteng’s geography’, AAG virtual conference 2021, Online presentation, 9 April 2021.

Margot Rubin and Alexandra Parker (October 2020). 'The mobility of children and their carers in the Gauteng City-Region', Children as Urban Citizens, online seminar, 12 October 2020.

Margot Rubin and Alexandra Parker (September 2020). 'Intersections in gender roles, spatial location and transit provision', Southern Africa City Studies Conference, 4 September 2020.

Alexandra Parker (September 2020). 'Spouse in the house', Southern Africa City Studies Conference, 3 September 2020.

Margot Rubin and Alexandra Parker (March 2020). 'Mapping household mobility: reflections on studying parents in Gauteng', Micro-dynamics and Macro-processes workshop 1, University of Eduardo Mondlane, Maputo, 12 March 2020.

Alexandra Parker (September 2019). ‘Inequalities within and with-out: how gender dynamics within families impact spatial footprints’, Feminist Explorations of Urban Futures Conference, Toronto Canada, 26 September 2019.

Alexandra Parker, Margot Rubin and Lindsay Howe (August 2019) 'Inequalities within and with-out: How gender dynamics within families impact spatial footprints', State of the Art: Gender and Urban Research Colloquium, University of the Witwatersrand, 30 August 2019.

Alexandra Parker (June 2018). 'The Moral Geographies of Mothers in Greater Johannesburg', Sonke Gender Justice public transport and safety seminar, Cape Town, 26 June 2018.

Alexandra Parker and Margot Rubin (April 2017) 'The Moral Geographies of Mothers in Greater Johannesburg'. Faces of the City Seminar Series. Wits University, 25 April 2017.

Last updated: 23 February 2022.


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