Date Approved


Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department or School

Teacher Education

Committee Member

Valerie Polakow

Committee Member

Paul J. Ramsey

Committee Member

Joe Bishop

Committee Member

Marjorie Ziefert


The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore the lifeworlds of low-income, single student mothers in two contrasting welfare regimes, the United States and Germany, to understand how their individual experiences as students and as mothers at the micro-level were shaped by policies regarding childcare and financial support at the macro-level. As single mothers represent a marginalized constituency, the capabilities approach in combination with the concept of defamilisation was used as an analytical framework that focused on their individual and social well-being. The objective of this cross-national study was to provide a deeper understanding of how the issues of childcare, higher education, and work are handled within each society with the overarching goal of promoting public dialogue, informing policy, and improving the quality of life for this marginalized population. A small sample comprising eight single student mothers enrolled at two different universities and three different community colleges in Michigan, U.S., and eight single student mothers enrolled at three different universities and three different vocational schools in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, were selected. Semi-structured, in-depth interviews were utilized as a method for understanding their lived experiences. Their narratives revealed that the capability to pursue a higher education degree is complicated, precarious, time consuming, emotionally draining, and shaped by daily contingencies. Their contingent lifeworlds are influenced by types of employment, the availability and access to high-quality childcare, encounters with the welfare bureaucracy, and support within higher education institutions, all of which are embedded in national and state policies and underlying gendered discourses. Truncated health, the inability to connect and participate in social life, stigmatization, and tragic choices were prominent themes in the narratives of the participants. Findings indicate that the major difference between these two countries lies in the affordability and equitable provision and quality of childcare. In the United States, childcare is viewed as a family and private responsibility, whereas in Germany childcare has shifted from the family towards a public responsibility with the implementation of childcare as a right. In addition, the affordability of higher education and federal financial support emerged as critical and distinctive findings.

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