Diane Morgan and Anna Maxwell Martin star in BBC Two's Motherland
Photo: BBC Two's Motherland


Why do single mothers on TV all look the same?

Not all single mums are the stereotypical "hot mess" you see on the telly, says Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

In episode three of Motherland, the new BBC drama from Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe) and Graham Linehan (Father Ted) about the pitfalls of modern parenting, Liz, the single mother of the group, is seen pouring a very generous amount of booze into a punch. When she’s questioned about her measures, she says, “They’re very normal for a school fundraiser!”

No one would laugh at this more than my mum. She, a single parent, but like any parent, understands the part-joke, mostly-truth, that parenting involves a lot of booze to stay sane. She, like any parent, would admire Liz’s bish-bash-bosh job done mentality. She would envy her relaxed attitude and she’d appreciate her cynicism – like all parents do, I imagine. Liz is very likable. I don’t know if my mum is watching Motherland, but I know she’d love *anything* by the writer of Father Ted, and I’m pretty sure she’d be grateful to anything that sticks two fingers up to smug, unrealistic notions of parenthood.

But something rang true about one Twitter response to the show on Tuesday, that called out the slightly dangerous idea of the way we portray single mothers on our screens. More often than not, they are so-called hot messes. A bit like Liz.

Hot mess is a phrase that makes me feel uncomfortable, and forces my upper body into awkward movements as if the label in my shirt still has a tag in it and it’s scratching the back of my neck. With “hot mess” I think of Amy Schumer and too much booze and a skirt that’s been accidentally hoisted too high and its owner is too drunk to notice. A “hot mess” to who, exactly, I always wonder. Who, precisely, is enyoying this sexulised image of a woman out of control? For hot mess read “attractive woman needs to be saved from her own calamity”. Saved? By a man? Really? Haven’t we moved on from that one yet?

The narrative that has served to undermine single working mothers was alive and well when I was younger, and as a consequence, my mum did everything she humanly could to prove otherwise

And I can see how the hot mess narrative slots in with the one we use for single mothers. A careless, reckless woman (often implied just by her status as a single parent alone) is creating havoc, but this time there’s children involved, and as she wipes their sick off her blouse, the world can still notice there are boobs underneath it. And somehow her hot mess levels crank up – because not only is she a chaotic woman, but she’s a chaotic mother who needs rescuing. Oh how we laugh. Oh what a disaster, we say knowingly, whilst the world subtly nudges us to remember that she’s a still a woman, so she’s still fuckable. She’s a hot mum mess.

So, yes, there’s something inherently problematic in a “hot mess” particularly in the context of a single mother. Or at least in my opinion because the very, very last thing single mothers need is a false narrative of slovenliness and chaos to confirm society’s long held belief that they are failing or failures. Single parents don’t want your pity, and yes, they are hot, too, but I’m sure they don’t want an eye-rolling, mockery at their efforts either.

Plus, it’s just not a story I recognise. Of course, no parents, single or otherwise, are the same. But the narrative that has served to undermine single working mothers was alive and well when I was younger, and as a consequence, my mum did everything she humanly could to prove otherwise.

Despite a long commute and a tough, big job, we did spellings on her dressing table every night. She’d make my summer dresses to save money. She still, miraculously, found the time to buy ingredients for my home tech class the next day. She didn’t take a bus for a whole year in order to save for my tuition fees. My brother and I always had clean gym kits and ironed shirts. In between guitar lessons and ballet lessons, she’d introduce me to her love of American literature and I started reading Mark Twain long before I understood it. All on her own. All whilst holding a powerful, demanding job down in central London and doing exactly the same for my brother. But there here was nothing slovenly or slatternly. There was literally no mess, let alone a hot one. Mess was actually a big deal; I wouldn’t be allowed out the house without a made bed and tidy room. I have no idea how unfashionable this is by today’s parenting standards but my mum’s focus on our lack of mess went a long way to helping the family feel in control. And it wasn’t smug motherhood – it was a life lesson, a way of life, a coping mechanism. The world told her there should be chaos. She told the world otherwise.

Now of course things went wrong. Of course there was calamity. That is life. And nobody laughs at those moments more than my mum. She was always laughing. Her moments of calamity were no different than anyone else’s. Believe me, the mess of life did come our way, and she did her very best to clear it up for us. But she didn’t cause that mess; she wasn’t the mess. We’ve got to stop the single parenthood being a either punchline or something we punish women for. Being a single parent is the world’s hardest job. TV writers must endeavour to portray single mothers not as a drain on welfare or the selfish career women or even the hilarious hot mess, Liz – as they so often do. Instead they must show them for the phenomenally hard working, inspiring human beings that they really are.


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Photo: BBC Two's Motherland
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