About The Project: ‘Evolving Attitudes toward Single Motherhood in the UK and Russia’

The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 101020077.



Single motherhood has become a widespread phenomenon within contemporary societies, but some politicians and mass media keep on using outdated and thoughtless language to describe single mothers and their children. Single mothers are often described as scroungers, benefit-seekers, and welfare dependent, and their children as ill-raised, ignorant, and aggressive.

In order to dispel some of these myths and labels this project aims to understand how single mothers are portrayed in contemporary children’s picturebooks and illustrated journals, young adult literature and adult non-fiction. This may seem like a strange place to address the problem, but children’s literature is where many people start to develop their earliest ideas about motherhood – and those impressions may have a lasting effect. Unfortunately, picturebooks, young adult literature and non-fiction unabashedly reproduced stereotypes about single motherhood.

There are two main devices (or ‘cultural languages’) which construct these impressions of single motherhood: words and images. Representations through these devices are then used, and re-used, across culture and an endless range of texts, cementing our ideas and attitudes towards single mothers. Through this, we develop our sense of who single mothers are, and how they should be treated. In other words, culture is essentially continually supplying us with different language, or representational codes, to express contradictory attitudes towards single mothers – whether we are aware of this or not!

This study compares how sociocultural attitudes toward single mothers have evolved in two societies with an opposite political development – the UK and Russia. Whereas the UK is a country with a long history of upholding people’s rights, valuing diversity and challenging intolerance, contemporary Russia is witnessing revision to an authoritarian regime. The invasion of Ukraine, as well as amendments to the Constitution with a firm statement about marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman; the decriminalization of some forms of domestic violence; and the restrictive legislation on the discussion of non-traditional sexual relations among minors, reaffirm a stance of the aggressive virility of Russian society. Russia persists in its patriarchal ideology and brings about another stage of neo-traditionalism. This means that a variety of underrepresented social groups, including single mothers, becomes even more hidden from public discussions.

Scholars and critics have only recently begun to position children’s and young adult’s books alongside texts for adults to consider how they challenge traditionally accepted family models and parent-child relationships. The inclusion of children’s and youth literature in discussions of single motherhood deepens our understanding of how society and culture work and how visual imagery and storytelling reflect, establish and reinforce cultural norms. Young people’s literature is often conscious of its important role in shaping cultural attitudes and encouraging progressive thought. At the same time, children’s books cannot move too far out ahead of what already exists in society; they can push, but not be radical because in this case parents are unwilling to buy books and book industries will eventually lose profits. Therefore, they offer the best chance of tracking how attitudes about single mothers change in society over time, especially in current, complicated political contexts.

This project aims to involve different parts to initiate rethinking cultural repertoire in presenting single motherhood visually and verbally. Ideally, this fellowship must become a save space for different stakeholders to initiate conversations about single motherhood’s cultural issues. As an example, this study is expected to produce a series of practical, downloadable and advertised guidelines on single mothers’ visual grammar and ways to interpret oeuvres depicting single mothers for main stakeholders such as publishers, experts, members of prize and award committees, writers and illustrators. Similar brochures in Russian will be proposed to leading publishing houses in order to bring up a concern over a complete absence, or insignificant numbers of literature portraying single mothers. Every step of the project and resulting report aims to increase further awareness of single mothers’ issues.

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