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Dazzling, raucous, rarely alone: a history of single mums in books

From 'tough cookies' to 'bad mothers' to modern day heroes, depictions of single motherhood have always reflected society's shifting attitudes. From Yuko Tsushima to Jacqueline Wilson and Sophie Heawood, Arwa Haider traces the story.

Mother’s Day is traditionally conveyed through pastel shades and frilly scripts. It suggests a politely muted state, rather than the actual colour, noise and hot mess of motherhood – or the rude awakenings of single motherhood.

Single mother stories have always existed, though they certainly haven’t always been heard. Still, the ways in which single mums have been portrayed on the page (and subsequent screen adaptations) has definitely evolved – becoming increasingly emphatic and empathetic, interplaying with mainstream societal views.

Fiction has long established a notional hierarchy within single motherhood, spanning “good” examples (industrious, devoted, middle-class, ideally widowed, with children born within wedlock) and “bad” (promiscuous, unapologetic, working-class). A classic “good” example is the titular heroine of James M Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941): a tough yet tender cookie who crumbles under the pressure of her spoilt, haughty daughter, Veda. Mildred is lively and flawed yet blameless – and her maternal force is almost hypnotic.

'For female novelists, the act of writing sympathetically about single motherhood was a daring gesture'

By the 1960s, there was undoubtedly a pivotal point in society’s awareness (as well as censure) of single mums. Some of the views birthed in that period still linger: the self-righteous “come-uppance” for female sexual liberty; the idea that single mothers and their kids are disruptive and emasculating, simply by existing.

For smart female novelists, the act of writing sympathetically about single motherhood was a daring gesture. It could also appear voyeuristic; Nell Dunn’s Up The Junction (1963) and Poor Cow (1967) have an incredible vivacity, but also a fetishistic quality to their depiction of working class and multicultural lives (Dunn had left her own privileged background to immerse herself in impoverished South London). In Up The Junction, one brief yet unforgettably brutal vignette (Sunday Morning) depicts the treatment of “black Moira” at a home for unmarried mothers, presided over by a callous Matron (“You Coloured girls should be grateful to be here at all with what goes on out in Africa”).

For the middle-class protagonists of Lynne Reid Banks’s The L-Shaped Room (1960) and Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone (1965), single motherhood becomes an impressively defiant standpoint, yet also a kind of portal into an underworld: in the former book, it is the “gone-to-seed” lodgings (and exoticized neighbours) of the title; in the latter, it is the “foreign” clamour of NHS clinics. These stories retain an emotive power; as Drabble remarked in 2011, The Millstone evokes how maternity “changes you into something fiercer than you were before”. They cast a light on the hardships that countless people endure, but also make a spectacle of it. There is an unremittingly grim edge to their realism; The L-Shaped Room’s protagonist Jane Graham continues to raise her son and chase her dreams through a trilogy: The Backward Shadow (1970) and the bluntly titled Two Is Lonely (1974).

The contemporary US academic Jane Juffer points out in her book Single Mother: The Emergence Of The Domestic Intellectual (2006), “Single moms put together everyday life at a complex conjuncture of social, economic, political, and cultural forces. And there are more of us everyday.”

This is also true of the UK, where I grew up, and where there are now an estimated two million single parent families, with 90% of these parents being mothers. I never envisaged that I’d become a statistic. Despite my respect for single mums, the “broken family” stereotype must have seeped into my consciousness. Yet I would leave an abusive marriage when my child was a few months old, and find that single motherhood is relentless but never isolating: the steepest, most joyously rewarding learning curve of my life; the opposite of “broken”.

Single motherhood encompasses a multiplicity of situations; these are still regularly sidelined, from political institutions to commercial “family deals”. At the same time, literature has delivered resonant voices, more so with a swell of authors drawing from their own experiences of single motherhood. In Yuko Tsushima's wonderful Territory of Light (1978-9), a nameless woman adjusts to newly single motherhood, as she moves into a Tokyo apartment with her two-year-old daughter. The novel captures the most mundane details with a startling beauty and a powerful disquiet. We are carried with the woman, managing her toddler’s tantrums and her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s whims, experiencing frustration, desire, guilt, exhaustion and tenderness, fretting about whether unpunctuality will reveal her as that most unacceptable creature: an “unreliable mother”.

'Sometimes, the child’s eye view of the single mother works to fantastically exacting, evocative effect'

Modern fictional single mothers have often transferred from page to TV or movie screen (where neat narratives and “happy endings” are preferred); given starring roles, they might become aspirational heroines, or intriguingly vulnerable damsels in distress. In Paula Daly’s British thriller The Mistake I Made (2015), a struggling single mother is offered an “indecent proposal” that proves cataclysmic; in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (2017), single mother Mia Warren initially appears as an interloper in a wealthy Ohio neighbourhood, but she is also the spark that causes secrets to unravel and bonds to be forged.

Sometimes, the child’s eye view of the single mother works to fantastically exacting, evocative effect. In Emma Donoghue's incredible Room (2010), an extraordinary trauma is somehow related with absorbing tenderness by the five-year-old son whose world is effectively his mother. As adult readers, we process the horror of the situation (his mother was abducted, and they are incarcerated by her rapist) through the innocence of the child’s routine: the games and meals his mother concocts to create some kind of normality for him. It is an image of “instinctive” maternity, yet it certainly never feels affected.

Single mothers also increasingly emerge in kids’ and YA fiction, with recent lively highlights including Jacqueline Wilson’s My Mum Tracy Beaker (2018), brightly narrated by the nine-year-old daughter of one of Wilson’s most-loved heroines (whose own care home childhood was depicted across a series of bestsellers). Meanwhile, Angie Thomas’s On The Come Up (2019) is crisply related by talented teenage rapper Brianna, and captures the reciprocal protectiveness between her and her bereaved mother Jay: “Jay’s still in her ‘Church Jay’ look that’s required as the church secretary: the ponytail, the knee-length skirt, and the long-sleeved blouse that covers her tattoos and the scars from her habit”.

Authentic single mother narratives are never going to be confined to a sole genre or generation, and numerous real-life accounts remain vital reads. The brilliant Sue Townsend brought a distinctly incisive wit and deep compassion to her fictional works, but also her own recollections of being a young single mum of three, in the 1989 commentary Mr Bevan’s Dream: Why Britain Needs Its Welfare State – which frankly deserves revisiting more than ever.

Sophie Heawood’s excellent real-life account The Hungover Games (2020) involves a succession of boisterous trippy sequences and sharply poignant realisations. At the beginning of the tale, Brit journalist Heawood has settled in LA, covering the woozy glamour of its entertainment industry. When a fling at Chateau Marmont results in her unexpected pregnancy, we are drawn intensely close to her inner thoughts (and physical processes). As she returns to East London, we feel the draw of her loved ones, the heat of the dancefloors that have been her natural habitat (and where she observes: “They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it does. It’s just that my village was pissed”), and ultimately, the “republic of two” that she forms with her young daughter. Heawood does not present single parenting as a gendered concept, but as ever-dynamic, and all-encompassing: “both structure and playground, walls and soft landing”.

If motherhood entails multi-tasking, and single motherhood an additional dimension of that, then one of my favourite portrayals appears in Pussy Riot punk activist Maria Alyokhina's memoir Riot Days (2017). Specifically, it is the scene where Alyokhina rushes from Pussy Riot’s infamous guerilla gig at a Moscow Cathedral to collect her son from nursery. This is multi-tasking on the loudest scale, too dazzling and raucous to be erased:

Right after our ‘Punk Prayer’ performance, I took the metro to my son’s kindergarten – it was noon. I rushed inside, flying past the security guard. Green tights, raspberry coloured dress. The balaclava sticking out of my pocket.

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Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

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