Against the Struggling Single Mom Trope in Romance Novels
Rosalynn Tyo Picks a Bone with a Subgenre
Every single mother I’ve ever met is the same. In romance novels, I mean. It’s almost as though the authors are working from a shared set of ideas about how a single mother must look and behave in order to earn the bliss of a new relationship.
For starters, she must have just one unplanned pregnancy, in her late teens or early twenties (when her judgement is understandably clouded by hormones). When she discovers that the father (her first love) lacks the maturity to support his child, emotionally or financially, she does not have more children with him. She certainly does not proceed to procreate with another, similarly irresponsible person or (good heavens!) a string of such unsuitable mates.
No, even the most morally conservative readers can forgive this woman her “mistake” because she does not repeat it. Besides, such judgement just seems churlish given how quickly, thoroughly, and solely she accepts the consequences of her, um, action.
She is an engaged, loving parent and breadwinner from the start. She does not leave her child in the full-time care of someone else while she finishes her education, embarks upon her career, backpacks through Europe, or does anything else she had planned for her youth. She either struggles to finish her formal education with a newborn in tow (like Jess Davis in The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren) or else stoically gives up her dreams and pursues paid work that meets the constraints of her new life as a single mother.
She definitely does not rely upon the government or anyone else for the primary source of her income. She may have a little support, such as council housing (like Jess Thomas in One Plus One by Jojo Moyes) or an inherited family business (like Claire Sutherland in Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake). If she’s really lucky, she’s got a friend or some family who help out with childcare.
But she works for her own money in addition to raising her child. Her age-mates, and we the readers, are all suitably impressed by her work ethic, if also a little worried about how sustainable it is. We imagine ourselves trying to do it, and it feels impossible… because it is invariably presented as practically impossible.
The employment supporting her small family hovers somewhere between slightly unstable and extremely precarious. Claire Sutherland “scrimps and saves” to afford her home as well as invest in remodeling the family bookstore, which is hardly a guaranteed money-maker, in this (or any) economy. Jess Davis is a freelance statistician, forever hustling for clients because she knows the loss of just one contract will destroy her delicate finances. Jess Thomas, by far the least fortunate of the three mothers, runs a cleaning business with a friend by day and tends bar by night, but still can’t quite make ends meet.
Moreover, each single mother’s hold upon her just-barely-sufficient income is tenuous because balancing a job with solo parenting is so difficult. This is such an important, defining reality of her life, we learn it right after her name. The Soulmate Equation opens with Jess Davis staring at herself in a public bathroom mirror, thinking about a presentation she gave while wearing her daughter’s sparkly barrettes clipped to her blazer. She envies the immaculately dressed and made-up woman standing next to her—a woman who “probably didn’t have to change outfits after cleaning glitter off a cat and a seven-year-old.” So, we see she’s struggling, but in a cute, palatable way.
As is Claire. She’s at the bar with a friend when we meet her, downing an extra glass of wine because her daughter is spending the night with her ex for the first time in years. Most nights, she is so worn out from running the bookstore while also helping her daughter “navigate the particular kind of hell that [is] fifth-grade friendships” that she “collaps[es] into bed every night around ten.”
Is every single mom romance the tale of a young, gorgeous martyr with one adorable, biological child, who must constantly struggle?
And finally, rather further along the spectrum of single-motherhood-induced suffering, there’s Jess Thomas. In chapter one, we find her spending the few moments she has between her day and night shifts checking in on her intellectually gifted daughter and her stepson, a bullied, gentle, teenaged goth who smokes too much weed. The children are home alone together in her worn-down-but-clean house, as they will be all evening. She wishes she could stay home with them to parentally insulate them from the social ills of their neighborhood, but she must work just to keep their cruddy roof overhead.
Ostensibly, the overwhelming combination of gainful employment and solo parenting is why these single mothers don’t date. When her best friend insists that she should—because she’s still young and attractive enough for casual sex—both Jesses and Claire claim they are too busy or too tired. But really, each one is worried about allowing another person into her life who might break her child’s heart.
A good single mother always, always puts her kid’s heart before her own—even though, of course, she does secretly long for a life partner. Not just to share her bed, or the crushingly heavy responsibility of her household, but to witness the living wonder that is her child.
Jess, Jess, and Claire each have one daughter, and each girl is a precocious, healthy, all around “good kid”—a testament to the excellence of her single parenting. (As we all know, everything about a child, from her appearance to her behavior, reflects directly back upon her mother, and that goes double for single moms, so of course these girls are adorable and generally well-behaved. If they weren’t, they’d torpedo their mothers’ chances of finding a new mate, as opposed to help her attract a good one.)
Because each girl is the lemonade her mother has squeezed out of the lemon (the child’s irresponsible, absent father), the experience of raising her alone is a bittersweet one, at best. She takes so much joy in her daughter, in her achievements and abilities, but it is always adulterated by sadness and yearning. If only she had a decent co-parent to share in these delights, they would be fully sweet… but no, the potential risk to her child’s well-being is just too great.
Maybe she’ll treat herself to a one-night stand, but a good mother does not go out actively looking for a serious relationship. Readers, let us all take a moment to silently contemplate her self-sacrifice, the definitive characteristic of exemplary single motherhood.The problem I have with the struggling single mom trope is that her situation is presented as both heroic and inevitable.
But of course, she does meet someone. Just, you know, organically, while going about her regular, intensely challenging day-to-day life as a single mom. Her initial attraction to this person is strengthened, or else her initial dislike of this person is overcome, when they help her out of a tricky, kid-related situation she can’t quite handle on her own. When Claire’s daughter Ruby shows up to a wedding brunch in casual clothes, having refused to don the fancy dress she was supposed to wear, Claire is mortified. She doesn’t know what to do, so she just stands there, blushing adorably. Luckily, love-interest Delilah is there to make some impromptu modifications to the dress, much to Ruby’s delight and Claire’s relief.
When Jess Davis finds herself unable to be in two places at once and has no one else to call (a classic single parent conundrum), her handsome-but-standoffish potential beau swings by the school to pick up her kid and take her to a dance class.
And Jess Thomas? The beat-up car she “borrows” from her ex breaks down on a very long trip to a mathlete competition that could change her daughter’s life. Guess who happens to be driving by in his immaculate luxury sedan? He’ll take it from here. Jess is a terrible driver, forever missing her turns and getting lost. Such an endearing, feminine failing in a generally capable woman. Sigh.
As the events of their novels unfold, Jess, Jess, and Claire fall head over heels in lust with their respective partners, while also worrying about the potential impact of their increasingly serious romantic attachment upon their offspring. They all feel appropriately guilty about forming a relationship with a fellow adult, and carefully refer to their crush as a “friend.”
Ultimately, though, each potential mate displays genuine affection and ability to care for the child, should the relationship get that far, and these moments are what finally allow her to feel, then openly acknowledge, her love. Claire melts while watching Delilah teach her daughter about fine art photography. Jess Davis swoons while watching River help her daughter with an intricate school project. Ed not only gets Jess’s daughter to the math competition on time but gets her everything she needs to succeed. He also shows up for Jess’s stepson by giving him an artistic outlet for his angst and by helping him deal with the bullies.
Such moments underscore their partners’ fine character—clearly, anyone who is willing to bond with a child who is not theirs biologically is a noble human being, worthy of love. But also, these sweet scenes offer these single mothers a glimpse of what their lives might be like as partnered parents. They’re falling in love with the person, yes.
But also, we can’t blame them for also falling in love with the idea of no longer struggling on alone. They have done so, valiantly, for long enough, haven’t they? They have earned it, the sexy and romantic solution to the exhausting problem of their single parenthood. Partnered parenting is clearly easier and therefore better, provided you choose the right person to do it with, which she has. Huzzah!Why do we admire single mothers for accomplishing, alone, the work of two parents? Why don’t we help her instead?
To be fair, I’ve only mentioned three single mom romance novels—the only three, actually, that I’ve ever read. And enjoyed reading, for that matter, right up until I started thinking about how much they had in common. I began to wonder: is every single mom romance the tale of a young, gorgeous martyr with one adorable, biological child, who must constantly struggle, independently, to remain sane and solvent until she is rescued by a sexy-yet-stable mate who also loves her kid? Because if that’s the case, I have a serious bone to pick with this subgenre.
I don’t disagree with the depiction of single motherhood as difficult, because of course it is. The struggle is real, and it’s intersectional. (Incidentally, the heroines of these three novels are all young, white, able-bodied, and conventionally attractive.)
The problem I have with the struggling single mom trope is that her situation is presented as both heroic and inevitable. Why do we admire single mothers for accomplishing, alone, the work of two parents (which by the way, used to be done by an entire village)? Why don’t we help her instead? By that I mean, why are there so few resources available for single mothers, and why is there so much stigma involved?
These are questions that single mothers—that all of us, really—should be asking. I’m not suggesting that romance novels are the right venue for this discussion, but by presenting the status quo in this appealing, entertaining way, they do help to reinforce it. As readers, we accept the protagonist’s view of her situation. Jess, Jess, and Claire don’t interrogate the fact that they live in a society which allows an unmarried father to take zero financial responsibility for the child but expects the mother to bear it all, along with the caregiving responsibilities, unless he deigns to participate.
Their willingness to unconditionally accept this bizarre double standard, to struggle along without expressing resentment, is part of what makes these women such sympathetic characters. Bitterness is such an unattractive quality. You attract more flies with honey than vinegar, they say.
Readers of single mom romances need to both like and pity the struggling single mom—without feeling any indignation or obligation to help her out—because our role is stand back and applaud as her love interest swoops in to do just that.I just can’t accept falling in love with another person as an appropriate solution for all of a single mom’s practical and financial difficulties.
This is really the heart of my beef with this trope. Given that a single mother’s problem is largely socioeconomic, I believe it deserves a socioeconomic solution—a radical rethinking, perhaps, of the patriarchal, capitalist systems which have put her in the precarious situation of working full-time to support her family, in an unstable field, that just barely fits around her full-time caregiving responsibilities. But nope. Not in these novels, anyway. She just needs to fall in love.
Now, I’m not opposed to romance. I wouldn’t read these books if I were. But I just can’t accept falling in love with another person as an appropriate solution for all of a single mom’s practical and financial difficulties. Jess Thomas “borrows” a bunch of money from the wealthy cleaning client she later falls in love with, and later accepts his financial assistance on the trip to the mathlete competition, but only because her daughter needs the academic opportunity so badly. They almost break up when he discovers her theft, but he forgives her because it happened long before they got together.
In perhaps the most egregious example, Jess Davis gets paid to date her man, in the interest of building buzz around his science-based dating app before it goes public. But it’s not prostitution, because the contract specifies that she’s not obligated to sleep with him… and again, she’s doing it for her child. She just lost a big freelance contract by taking the moral high ground and refusing to distort her data. She needs the money, for groceries and dance class fees. Kids are expensive. At the close of the novel, River tells her he’s buying a big house. She, her daughter, and her grandparents will all go live there with him. One big, happy, ultra-wealthy family.
Only Claire, who falls in love with a young female artist (who therefore has her own financial difficulties) escapes this particular resolution. Delilah does directly contribute to Claire’s business with a grand romantic gesture; she installs some of her fine art photography in the bookstore as a surprise, a way of declaring her love.
But even though Delilah’s career is on the upswing at the end of the novel, it’s obvious that her role in Claire’s future is an emotionally supportive life partner, as opposed to a benefactor. Which is all Claire really needs and wants, because Ruby’s father also grows up and meaningfully supports his daughter, by the end. They’re all in it together, now. Which is just… lovely. Full stop.
On the whole, though, I can’t help feeling that the struggling single mom trope does us all a great disservice. It encourages single mothers to keep wistfully longing for an attractive mate to wander into our difficult lives and make them easier, and encourages unhappy married mothers to stay married rather than accept the risks of independence.
However, as all mothers who have been both single and married well know, the idea that coupledom is unilaterally superior to singledom is a radical oversimplification—romance is a form of fantasy, after all. Co-parenting is easier than single parenting in some ways, but harder in others, no matter how much you love the one you’re with. Jess and River’s story, for example, ends before they move in together and start fighting over whose turn it is to stay home when Juno gets sick.
The single mom romance I want to read stars a woman who is genuinely happy and at ease in her life—and not because she’s thin, beautiful, young, and independently wealthy. Maybe she’s none of the above, but she and her children are just fine all the same. They have found a way to work around the systemic barriers to their socioeconomic security—or maybe the story is set in the future, when we all get equal pay for equal work, and caring for young children has once again been taken up by the village. She isn’t secretly yearning for a romantic relationship; maybe she even actively does not want one—not because she’s worried about the impact of her love life on her offspring, but because she likes her life just the way it is.
And then she meets someone, hilarity and sexy times ensue, and their happily ever after does not involve marriage, or even cohabitation and co-parenting.
Dear readers, does such a book exist? I sincerely hope so, because it’s the one I want to read next.