Top 10 Fictional Single Moms | Books
Ssingle mothers struggle with it, both in life and in fiction. Often they are portrayed as unhinged psychopaths, sex-crazed hoydens, self-sacrificing saints (often widowers), or ground thumpers. I can’t think of that many happy, successful, yet dedicated SMs in the books – but maybe that wouldn’t make a good story.
My second novel Me and me, centers on a single mother called Delphine, whose life was derailed as a teenager when she became pregnant with her daughter Emily. I have long been concerned about the state of single parenthood, perhaps ever since I had my own children and realized the backbreaking effort it takes to raise them. The idea of doing it alone seems unimaginable, so I wanted to imagine it; to write a story that reflected the struggle but also allowed my protagonist to fulfill her ambition and potential.
Along the way, I’ve been inspired by these lonely mothers of literature, in all their crazy, complex glory:
1. Euripides’ Medea
It might seem odd to start with a drama about a barbaric witch who kills her own children when her husband leaves her for a princess. But kudos to Euripides for featuring a female protagonist who dominates the action, a chorus of Corinthian women, and a scot-free exit. Medea murders her sons in cold blood to annoy her ex, Jason. But Jason is infuriating – a shameless social climber who rubs salt in the wound by suggesting Medea stay as a mere mistress. Medea has the last laugh, escaping with the bodies of their sons in Helios’ chariot, hinting that the gods are on her side. She’s a despised woman who regains control and gets away with it. The Athenian public did not react favorably to the idea, awarding the play third place (out of three) at the Dionysia festival of 431 BCE. I’m sure Euripides would be comforted to know that Medea #1 in my top 10.
2. Mrs. Dashwood in Reason and Sensibility by Jane Austen
I still consider Mrs. Dashwood an old timer, but at 40 she is four years younger than me. It may be because she is in the SM category of noble widows that she looks older. She is nameless, known only as “Mrs. Henry Dashwood”, subsumed in the personality of her late husband, who failed to support herself or her daughters. Like many Austen mothers, her main goal in life is to find suitable partners for her daughters, who continue to sprain their ankles, contract fevers or be self-destructively suppressed. It’s a sad ordeal for Mrs. Dashwood, but she gets there in the end, and can happily retire to bland Barton Cottage to wait for her grandchildren.
3. Armed in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Mrs. March is the archetypal holy single mother. Technically, she’s not single, but her husband’s absence elevates her to an SM sister. Margaret March Senior is maddeningly perfect. As a child, I remember being very upset at the thought of only having a Bible for Christmas and blaming Marmee, feeling that she could have spent her pennies in a nicer way, rather than signal virtue. Alcott alludes to dark depths when Marmee confesses that she was once as brash as her daughter Jo, but has learned to control her temper. I would have liked to see a tiny sliver of it, the glimmer of original sin.
4. The bolter in The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Another unnamed Bolter is one of my favorites because it is everything sin – unrepentant, without the slightest trace of maternal instinct, “too beautiful and too gay to be burdened with a child”. I find his casualness extraordinary, radical, inspiring and frightening. The family turns their hedonism ‘into a joke of sorts’ to avoid hurting their daughter Fanny’s feelings, and it’s Mitford to a T – just because it’s funny doesn’t mean it’s not serious .
5. Annie Lee in Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
Mother Lee is noble and self-sacrificing but not as irritating as Marmee. She’s more messy and endearing. “Messy, hysterical, loving…confused and mischievous,” Annie talks too much and hangs out, can’t cook or make beds, but her mothering skills are rich and varied. And, like many SMs, she stays when the father is long gone. In this tender and evocative coming of age, it is not Rosie but Annie who wins my heart.
6. Pauline Mole in Adrian Mole’s Secret Diary 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend
Adrian’s world is densely packed with detail and full of warmth despite his family’s failures. His mother Pauline is a runner who uses child benefit to buy gin and cigarettes, locks the dog in the coal shed, sings My Way at 2 a.m. at the top of the stairs and flees to Sheffield with another man. Ruthlessly feelingless unless she’s drunk, on the rare occasions when she reveals her maternal streak, it’s very special. When she shows up at Adrian’s bedside before he has his tonsils removed, he dispassionately notes how old and haggard she looks. The love is there; he’s just locked in the coal shed with the dog, only comes out occasionally.
7. Fiona Brewer in About a Boy by Nick Hornby
Hornby’s skill makes this chronically depressed and extremely serious woman engaging and likeable. What Fiona does at the start of the book is surprisingly selfish on some level, but also a painful reflection of the pressures of single motherhood and the crushing flatness of depression. Fiona is devastated by it all – being a mother is not enough, being a single mother is not enough, and that is the problem.
8. Jess Thomas in JoJo Moyes’ One Plus One
A moving example of the long-suffering slogger, Jess juggles jobs in an effort to keep things together for her children, sometimes Skyping Marty, their father, to suggest he help with their upkeep. When it’s later revealed exactly what Marty has been up to since leaving the family home, I savored Jess’ demented rage. In the end, Jess gets a worthy plus-one, as she deserves.
9. Mia Warren in Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Mia’s reserved quality makes her fascinating, both to the reader and to her landlady, Mrs. Richardson. Mia is Pearl’s mother, attentive and observant, intuitive and empathetic, but also distant. Elena Richardson’s rebellious daughter, Izzy, recognizes Mia’s subversive spark and reacts to her subtly provocative challenge – “what are you going to do about it?” – ultimately resulting in a conflagration. An enigmatic figure, Mia’s magnetism places her at the heart of the fire, even if she is not there to see it.
10. Desiree Vines in The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The story of light-skinned black twins who take very different paths forces you to look one way and then the other, confusing expectations. Shy and introverted, Stella boldly passes herself off as white. Désirée, the headstrong extrovert, returns to their sad hometown with her daughter to escape an abusive relationship. But it’s Desiree who has the dignity that Stella craves and fails to find in her hopeless fake marriage. Yin and yang, when Stella disappears, Desiree stays – because that’s what single mothers should do. They stick around.
Em & Me by Beth Morrey is published by HarperCollins. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.