“Being a single mother is twice the work, twice the stress, and twice the tears but also twice the hugs, twice the love, and twice the pride.”
Stories about single mothers have always existed, from ‘scroungers’ to ‘superheroes’, the representation of single mothers within fiction has shifted over the years, along with society’s changing attitudes.
In the UK, there are an estimated 1.8 million single parent families, 90% of which are headed by women.
Therefore it’s no surprise that fictional portrayals of single mothers have spanned across every generation; from Mrs Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) to Marmee in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868) and The Bolter in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (1945).
At the time those books were written, single mothers were punished by society for having children on their own.
The Bastardy Acts and Affiliation Orders Acts discriminated against children born out of wedlock, giving them fewer legal rights than those born to married parents and making it difficult for unmarried mothers to obtain maintenance for their children from the father.
Single mothers were shamed, shunned, and pushed to the side of society. Children born outside of marriage were twice as likely to die than those born to married parents – in part due to the fact that people were reluctant to provide homes for single mothers and their babies.
In 1987 the Family Law Reform Act removed all remaining legal distinctions between children born to married and unmarried parents – but up until that point, the stigmatisation of single mothers was part of legislation in this country.
Beth Morrey, author of Em & Me, a novel which centres on devoted single mother Delphine, said: “In general, I think single mothers get a bit of a rough ride – either portrayed as psychos, sex-crazed, or sloggers.
“There aren’t that many who are well-adjusted, happy, successful and devoted. But, I guess, that wouldn’t make a great story – flaws and mistakes make more interesting and compelling characters.”
There are many reasons as to why someone becomes a single parent. Sometimes it’s not a choice, sometimes it is, but either way it’s not something that should be shamed – in real life, or in fiction.
Above: Beth Morrey
So what’s better – to bring up a child in a loving household by yourself, or remain in an unhappy, and sometimes potentially dangerous, household?
Whilst attitudes have changed, partly due to campaigning by single parent charity Gingerbread, as recently as the 2000s there has been an outpouring of hostility towards single mothers in the media.
Social policy emphasised ‘family values’, which promote heterosexual, married, white middle-class families as an ideal, and blamed single mothers for a range of social problems, including poor education outcomes and crime.
The portrayal by the media of single mothers as ‘scroungers’ resulted in moral panic – encouraging the blame of certain sections of society, single mothers included, for social problems.
And so the stereotypical version of a single mother was created – no thought given to the struggles and disadvantages her family would face.
More recent, and positive, fictional portrayals include Jess Thomas in JoJo Moyes’ One Plus One (2015), Mia Warren in Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste NG and Delphine in Beth Morrey’s Em & Me (2023).
Lynsey Pollard, co-founder of Little Box of Books
Lynsey Pollard, 44, who found herself as a single mother ten years ago, said: “There are old tropes which have been put out there and different parts of the media will represent single parents as they want.”
After embarking on her journey as a single mother in 2014, Lynsey set up the Little Box of Books four years later. The book subscription service aims to help diversify children’s book shelves.
“When I became a single mum I looked back at children’s stories and I discovered that while society had moved on, books hadn’t.
“So there I was, a single parent, not seeing myself and my son represented in stories at all.”
Lynsey, from Northumberland, realised if she wanted her son’s bookshelves to be diverse, with representations for all types of families, she was going to have to source them herself.
“All children deserve to see themselves represented in stories,” she explained. “Seeing a lack of representation for single mums was the way I came into it.
“I didn’t want my son, who was a baby at the time, to feel like our family was lacking in any way or that it wasn’t normal or enough or that other people had a family and he didn’t.”
And her experience isn’t a one-off; a new research project launched by The University of Cambridge is set to analyse the often-unconscious role that children’s literature plays in kick-starting the “casual marginalisation” of single mothers.
The study, being conducted by Dr. Dmitrii Sergeev, aims to understand how attitudes towards single mothers have filtered down into children’s literature, potentially influencing children’s attitudes.
He said: “Too often it is assumed that these women are benefit-seekers and scroungers – and that their children are ill-raised, ignorant and aggressive.”
Beth, 45, explained why it’s important our books offer a different side to the narrative: “When I worked in television, I designed a show (which never got made) called ‘Britain’s Best Single Mum’, about inspiring women who just happen to be lone mothers.
“For example, single mums who got really impressive degrees, started booming businesses, became politicians, or did amazing work for charity – and, on top of that, they raised children on their own.
“The stereotype sometimes isn’t very kind or helpful – they’re sometimes depicted as failures, downtrodden, lazy, or people to be pitied. But the reality is far more varied and complex, and popular culture should reflect that.”
Lynsey agrees it’s important that this representation is more common: “The single parent narrative is changing but we need representation that’s incidental.
“Simply being a single mother shouldn’t be the whole story because there’s a lot more to it.”
Whilst the media and fiction are too quick to label single mothers as “benefit scroungers”, or a “burden of society,” 2019 figures showed single mothers in the UK are just as likely to be in work as women who have no children.
More than two-thirds (67.8%) of single parents, 90% of which are women, are now in employment, up from 43.8% just over 20 years ago.
By comparison, the percentage of women without children, or who have grown-up children, and have jobs sits at just one point higher (68.6%).
And in a society where the nuclear family has been romanticised and idealised for so long, single parent families haven’t always been portrayed as ‘normal.’
“Seeing representation helps things to feel more normal when we come across them,” Lynsey explained. “In society there are very diverse family set-ups but books still don’t reflect that.
“My son gets picked up from school by his step-dad (he doesn’t call him that) but you won’t find a positive representation of a parent in many children’s books.
“That’s got to change in order for us to recognise that families look different and stop perpetuating those stereotypes.
“I think for so many people, especially kids growing-up, you have to understand that your normal isn’t the only normal.
“And to make that a reality, you first have to understand your normal isn’t normal for everyone. There is no such thing as a ‘normal family’, so the sooner we can break that down, the better.”
Single mothers have often been given a rough ride in fiction and the focus has been taken away from how difficult raising children alone can be.
Beth was inspired to write from the perspective of a single mother in Em & Me after having her first child, when she realised just how difficult it must be to do the job alone.
The book focuses on devoted single mother Delphine who is fighting to make ends meet as she seeks to find a safe place for her and her daughter – all the while hiding a very big secret.
“As a mother with a supportive partner, I’m overwhelmed and humbled by the idea of raising kids alone,” Beth explained. “I find motherhood really tough, so the thought of doing it by myself is very daunting, and I wanted to imagine how that might play out.
“The most recent fictional single mother I’ve admired is Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist in Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry. She’s great! And the fact that she’s a single mother isn’t the central thing about her – it’s just one thing. This suggests we’re all moving on from the notion that being a single mum is the thing that defines you.”
But when it was ingrained in the law to shame single mothers for generations, it’s no wonder that it’s taking years to undo the stigmatisation of single mothers in society, the media and fiction.
While a nuclear family is something many of us will dream of and strive for, sadly it doesn’t always work out that way. And that doesn’t mean your family is “broken”, or that it’s worth any less.
Single mum’s don’t have to be struggling, scrounging or superheroes. They’re family.
If you liked this post then read How storybooks have failed British Chinese Children or Why our books need more Black female leads, and five novels that do it well next.
Beth worked as a TV producer before transitioning to be a full-time writer. She has worked on numerous productions including The Secret Life of Four Year Olds on Channel 4 and devised 100 Year Old Drivers for ITV. She is author of the Sunday Times bestseller Saving Missy and her second book Em & Me is out now in paperback (HarperFiction, £8.99)
Yasmin is a third year journalism student at The University of Sheffield, specialising in feature writing. She has previously written for the Sheffield Tribune and women’s magazine Pick Me Up! She is particularly interested in how mental health issues are portrayed in fiction.
Favourite genres: Romance, Crime and Thrillers.