Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: The Single Parent

Bottom line: Do you like the Single Parent Trope?

Erin: I don’t dislike it, and sometimes I even find myself drawn to blurbs because of it, but I also typically start yelling at the characters for being ridiculous about it, too.

Holly: Meh. Sometimes it’s sooo saccharine. Saccharine is not part of my brand.

Ingrid: I have liked some, but I will admit that it’s not usually my first choice.

What makes a Single Parent book a Single Parent book? What are its defining characteristics? 

Erin: The parent/child relationships need to be central and part of the conflict in the book. For example, technically Tack is a sort of single parent in Motorcycle Man, but he just has kids that Tyra needs to care about; their relationship together is not something keeping Tack and Tyra apart or pulling them together. Those kids are older teenagers, but I wouldn’t say the age of the children matters, either, because often you’ll see a single parent trope with a younger teen or tween who has an attitude problem, and the new partner comes in all Mary Poppins to save things, but you’ll also see plenty of single parents of very young children who need to work things out in different ways and have all the frazzle of children without much functional independence.

Holly: I don’t know that I agree with Erin. I think it’s enough if there is a kid who plays a significant role in the story. Not so much in terms of conflict or plot, but is the child a real character. Yes, sometimes single parent books really hinge on the three-way relationship between the parent-child-new partner, but there are also some single parent books out there where the parent-child relationship is important, but not central to the plot or the main conflict. 

Ingrid: I’d have to say that a strictly Single Parent book needs to have a fair amount of the tension stemming from one of the main characters figuring out how a new partner would fit in with the life they’ve built around their child. I don’t think it necessarily needs to be the sole focus of the book, though.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: Parents need a HEA, too! I think I’ve generally connected with this trope because when I was younger I knew I wanted to be a parent and now I am a parent, so it’s not about a lifestyle that’s foreign to me. Also most of these protagonists are not in their early 20s, which is nice. Also also, most of the time single parent stories value the existence of children, recognizing that they have a place in our culture/society.

Holly: I do like reading stories about people who are older. And sometimes the single parents are just killing it and finding a partner who loves them and loves their kid and that’s just the icing on the cake. 

Ingrid: Honestly, I feel so appreciative when I see romance novels involving people who have a little mess and a few extra years under their belts. In real life, it seems like women who have kids are completely written off as future marriage material, which is just such utter bullshit. Men with kids are virtually saints and should be snapped up immediately because of their adorable children and how BRAVE THEY ARE, but women should consider themselves lucky if someone is willing to take on their “baggage”. So when I read a single parent book and they nail it? I LOVE IT.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: Lordy, what’s not? 

  • Many of them get into this absolutely terrible “but a child needs both parents!” space that makes me totally furious. Either because it’s frustratingly heteronormative or because the ex becomes part of the reason that the protagonists are kept apart (barf). 
  • Sometimes they get into a sort of “I need to sideline my own life and happiness because I need to take care of my child,” which, okay, but also that is a recipe for a potentially messed up codependent relationship that should not be put on a child. 
  • They tend to glorify parenthood, making it harder for parents IRL to accept that loving babies might not be instantaneous or that it’s okay to get frustrated and fed up and need a break after the 5th bowl of chili gets dumped on the floor after a long day. Another way this manifests is that a parent who chooses to leave, making the other parent a single parent in the first place, is typically villainized.
  • I don’t think that I’ve ever read a single parent book in which a child who is not in need of Mary Poppinsing acts like a normal child. Obviously the Mary Poppinsing children are seeking attention in not good ways, but like, I know my kids are not calm and demure little angels, but also there are a lot of kids like my kids, and sometimes they have epic meltdowns. I have never read a normal child meltdown because little Taylor had to get a new toothbrush or was told “no” when they were tired and hungry and didn’t want to hear it in a single parent book ever

To summarize: it’s really hard to balance this narrative. 

Holly: There are a few directions this trope can go that I don’t love. First, sometimes the kids are just too much. Like, author! Have you ever interacted with a child? Second, sometimes there’s this problematic undercurrent of “my child needs a mother / father” as if a hetero-romantic partnership is the only stable way to successfully raise a child. And third, there’s the Governess trope, which is kind of a sub-category – where the new partner teaches the parent how to love again. Now, I’m kind of a sucker for governess books (maybe it’s my love of The Sound of Music coming through), but if you look at them closely there are frequently all kinds of unaddressed issues with power and consent and people being utterly terrible parents and utterly terrible romantic partners. 

Ingrid: I mean, Erin and Holly have really unpacked this nicely, but my main beef is when someone swoops in and fixes the single parent’s problems because they’re just so strong and capable, when in reality if that single parent had some money and a full-night’s sleep they probably wouldn’t need anyone to rescue them at all. Single parents are tough as hell, man. Quit making them look so weak and fragile.

Do you think that you respond to this trope in a different way now that you’re a parent? 

Erin: I mean, I like the idea that there’s a hopeful romance space that I could imagine if I were to be in this position. But mostly now I see how romanticized the parent-child relationships are, which I couldn’t understand before children, and they frustrate me a good deal more. 

Holly: The idea that your life isn’t over just because your spouse died or you got divorced or you had a child out of wedlock is so so important – and sometimes it’s hard to remember when I’m in the weeds of hanging out with my (very young) kids and feel like all the fun in my life is in my past. 

Ingrid: I have a much harder time suspending my disbelief with these books because I worry about the kids. Like, I get that you fell in love in two weeks but this hunk should not be babysitting your kids by week three. And don’t be asking her young child for permission to marry her, kids don’t need that kind of responsibility. And why is the ex always such a terrible human? I don’t know, maybe a few sessions with a nice family therapist would be a wiser way to happiness than a new man with a magic schlong who knows how to order take out. (Although, obviously I can see how that might be a tough call. I LOVE take out.)

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: I’ve read plenty, and enjoyed most of them (even though I probably sound like a curmudgeon above), but one that’s always stuck with me is To Sir Phillip, With Love by Julia Quinn. It’s drama, drama, drama historical romance, but it’s also sort of a hybrid between a governess book and a regular single parent book. Phillip is widowed and lonely and has twins who act out constantly, so after a correspondence he asks Eloise to marry him because he needs a partner and his kids need a mother (slash someone who’s not paid to care about them who might up and leave). She runs away from her family to see if that’s something she wants to do, and helps everyone get back to good. So it has some of that governess book flair without the iffy power imbalance of the employer/employee love story. 

Holly: If we’re going straight on Single Parent, I have to say Rafe by Rebekah Weatherspoon. Sloan is a doctor, so she has this really intense job, but she also is a great parent with a loving relationship with her kids, and she’s really careful about the way she integrates Rafe into their lives. Also, it’s about a woman banging her hot male nanny, and that is a fantasy I can 100% get behind. 

But like I said, I also am such a sucker for Governess books, where the parent is not such a great parent (let’s be real, not such a great dad) and learns to connect to his kids by opening his heart. And I said saccharine wasn’t my brand! Ha! Anyways, The Governess Game by Tessa Dare is pretty fun. It’s got the standard Marry Poppins thing going on, but Dare writes great comedy, which balances things out a bit. 

Ingrid: Fall into Temptation by Lucy Score is really well done, I think. I loved that she set up the situation so they’re in a forced proximity type situation, which allows for the kids to interact with the hero a lot earlier on and in a relaxed way. She kind of sidesteps the whole landlord/tenant power dynamic situation, but they do discuss it. I loved that it really painted the heroine as a well-adjusted, balanced, powerful woman who makes the right decisions for herself and her kids and isn’t timid or afraid to love again. She doesn’t need saving and she’s going to build a life for her little family come hell or high water, and it’s what the hero loves about her. It was really amazing and funny!

Do you like the single parent trope? What’s your favorite romance featuring a single parent? Let us know in the comments!

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