What Can The Idea Of You Teach Us About Single Mothers?

The hit Anne Hathaway age-gap romcom does plenty to shift the narrative around what it means to be a single mother in 2024, but the overarching moral message remains the same: your children must always come first. 

The Single Mother Project: The Idea Of You

It’s been out of action for quite some time, but I’m reviving The Single Mother Project (a review of single mother characters on TV and film) for smash Amazon Prime hit film The Idea of You, in which Anne Hathaway portrays a separated 39-year-old single mother of a teenage girl, who gets swept up in a romance with a 24-year-old boyband mega star (the film is an adaptation of an enormously popular Harry Styles fanfic that I completely missed the memo on but have been convinced to read by this article on Vogue). 

The film has been getting a lot of press for the age-gap relationship that it portrays, with a lot of conversation around the nuances between older-woman-younger-men duos, and how fame and fortune shift the power dynamics when there is a dacade (or almost two) separating a couple. But for me, the most interesting thing about this film is the evolution of the representation of single mothers on screen, particularly in a romantic capacity. We’re used to seeing single mothers as lost, chaotic, quite slutty, and desperate to be saved. Here, we are presented with a single mother who, at 39 (which happens to be the average age of a single mum), is in a great place, looks incredible, lives in a gorgeous home and runs her own business. She is a capable, desirable romantic lead. So far, so good, right?

(Let’s not delve into the economic reality of single motherhood that is clearly not represented in The Idea Of You; this is a love story and poor people don’t deserve love. Which is why I’m single.)

So, in Solène we have a single mother who is also an absolute catch. So much so that she attracts the attention of one of the most desired men on the planet in the form of Hayes, star of pop sensation August Moon, who happens to be 24. Hayes immediately starts pursuing her, and at this point we see Solène grappling between the urge to follow her heart and the parental urge to stay home, be responsible, and read books until her daughter returns from summer camp. This, in a nutshell, sums up the dating experience of single mothers. 

The Idea Of You, while doing wonders for certain aspects of single motherhood in terms of the evolution of stereotypes, is an accurate representation of the blessing-and-a-curse situation of finding yourself single when you have kids, and are slightly older. In one sense it is enormously freeing to be able to rediscover yourself through dating, learn what you like and dislike, get to know new sides of yourself and feel wanted and desired as you find your identity as a single mother. But the flipside is that you do all this while feeling an enormous pull to stay still, be steady, and at all costs protect your child/ren from any hurt or harm. (Which means protecting yourself from harm too, since they depend on you completely.)

Solène is battling with the challenges faced for generations by single mothers when it comes to romantic relationships, and the societal expectation that they should only seek happiness if it is appropriate for their children. 

The parental responsibilities of single dads looking for love, meanwhile, are not viewed through this lens at all. Indeed, the father portrayed in The Idea of You has left Solène for a younger woman, following his heart with seemingly very little consequence. Women, on the other hand, are often left feeling that they should put their love life completely on hold until their children reach adulthood (as Solène ends up doing) to do the ‘right’ thing as a mother. 

Of course, single mothers can, and do, go on to find love. They form blended families, or have more children with new partners. But I think the appeal of The Idea Of You as a single mother, who feels that I have changed almost beyond recognition in the last few years, is that Solène is seeking a love that is solely about her. It is a love that exists despite her motherhood, her age, her responsibilities, not because of them. And anyone who has tried dating as a single mum knows that the world simply doesn’t work like that. 

When you’re thinking about whether to start dating as a single mother, you have to ask yourself, are you dating for yourself, or your kids? The obvious answer would be for yourself. Happy parents make for happy kids, we all deserve love, etc etc. But in truth, if you have kids under 18, who are with you a significant amount of the time, any serious relationship you have is going to involve them. As a single mother, you deserve to have an identity outside of motherhood. You deserve to explore your sexuality, your desires, your hopes and your dreams for the future. You deserve to fall head over heels in love with a 24-year-old pop star who can fly you across Europe in a private jet. 

However, your kids deserve stability, security, and having a parent who is present with them and not wrapped up in relationship dramas. And to grow up in a household not surrounded by paparazzi, of course. The overarching message I took away from The Idea Of You is that women are still carrying the burden of being the ‘perfect’ mother, at the expense of their own romantic happiness. How many single mothers have given up on potentially beautiful romantic relationships because they didn’t believe they would enhance the life of their children? How many women have walked away from their own Hayes because it would have made her less of a mother to fight for her own happiness harder, in her own eyes and in society’s? 

As mothers, we’re allowed to resent the fact that women are consistently expected to put their children first, to prioritise their happiness over our own, while knowing in our hearts that it is the path we’d walk regardless. 

In truth, Solène probably wouldn’t have got the guy if she had walked away for the sake of her daughter. But any single mother watching The Idea Of You will know that the pain of losing a potential love, even THE potential love, could never match the need to do the right thing, as you see it, for your baby. She wouldn’t have got the guy. But she wouldn’t have lost her girl. 

Before you go: There’s a whole chapter (two actually) on Dating in How To Be A Happy Single Parent, the book. Check it out here, please and thank you

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