To be a single parent – especially a single mother – in Cameron’s Britain is to have your and your children’s income hacked at ruthlessly by men and women with six figure salaries, is to find the support systems you rely on snatched from you at every turn. It is, in short, to be pilloried for your own family life.
What’s the solution? Well, first of all we need the government to see single parents as people. We need more empathy for single parents, and since books have a time-honoured tradition of allowing readers to walk in someone else’s shoes, we’re taking a look at the fictional ups and downs faced by five of the best single parents in literature.
He’s honest, principled, intelligent and Gregory Peck. No-one has ever read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird without falling head over heels in love with Atticus.
Father of Jem and Scout, Atticus is a widower attorney who, against the wishes of his neighbours, chooses to defend a black man – Tom Robinson – against false charges of rape.
Throughout the novel we see him struggling heroically between the choice of keeping his children safe and doing the right thing morally, eventually concluding that not defending Tom would be a far bigger wrong to demonstrate to the children.
He treats Jem and Scout the same and talks to them as equals, as all good fathers should. And he’s less than impressed when Aunt Alexandra tries to reign in Scout’s tomboyish behaviour, letting her be herself.
Sephy Hadley, one of the main characters in Malorie Blackman‘s Noughts and Crosses series, is moulded from the same stern stuff as Atticus Finch.
A black woman bringing up her mixed-race daughter Callie-Rose in a society where whites are second-class citizens, Sephy doesn’t just have to worry about putting food on the table, but about ensuring her daughter isn’t battered down by society’s prejudices.
Like Atticus, she has a support network around her: her sister, her mother Jasmine and Callie’s grandmother Lynette. Unlike Atticus, that support network isn’t always up to scratch, and their judgemental, interfering actions portray achingly how a single parent is really, when it comes down to it, on their own: Sephy has no-one to back her up in the decisions she makes but herself.
The bond between parent and child is one of the strongest and most fundamentally important bonds in the world, and when it's not nurtured, all hell breaks loose. Helen Graham, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
One of the first portrayals of a single Mum in the novel was Anne Bronte’s Helen, the survivor of a violent and abusive marriage. She attempts to reform her wayward husband Arthur: a notorious rake who tricks her into believing he’s a decent sort, manipulates her into marrying him and then goes hell for leather with gambling, drinking, and loose women as soon as the honeymoon’s over.
It’s becoming a mother which gives Helen the strength to leave: when Arthur deliberately corrupts their son and feeds him strong alcohol she flees, taking the child.
When Bronte wrote the novel, this was illegal, and the novel is credited with being one of the first feminist narratives thanks to drawing contemporary attention to the plight of the abused wife.
A sharp contrast is drawn between Helen’s struggle to leave, the prejudice she encounters afterwards, and the ease at which one of her male friends rids himself of a cuckolding wife.
Jacqueline Wilson is well-known for using her pen to portray the plight of the outcasts of society, and Marigold is exactly the sort of hated-by-the-Daily-Mail characters we love her for.
A single mum with two children by two men, she lives in a damp flat with her daughters: Dolphin, the narrator of the novel, and Star, a thirteen year old glamourpuss embarrassed by her Mum’s tattoos and mental illness.
Marigold is so heartbreaking because however desperately she wants to be a good mother, she simply can’t be. Bipolar, poor and heartbroken, she crumbles with no support around her – and in the end it’s the state, in the form of a mental health team and social services, which come to the rescue. Want to know why we shouldn’t pull support away from single parents? Just read this book.
One of Carol Ann Duffy’s most famous collections, The World’s Wife teems with hard-done-by women, angry ex-wives, and Red Riding Hoods who fought back.
They all have a point to prove. After a hundred or so pages of pure anger, Demeter, which closes the collection, is a breath of fresh air. Completely empty of rage, it’s full instead of love.
In the Greek myth, Demeter, the mother-goddess and goddess of the harvest, had her daughter Persephone snatched by Hades, the God of the Underworld.
Her despair meant the world became cold and barren, and Zeus forced Hades to release Persephone for six months each year if she promised she would return.
Both Duffy’s poem and the myth itself are perfect portrayals of the power of a parent’s love. Demeter wants Persephone back so badly her world begins to die.
The bond between parent and child is one of the strongest and most fundamentally important bonds in the world, and when it’s not nurtured, all hell breaks loose.
Are there any fictional single parents that deserve a place on our favourites list?