Single mom movies: The 10 best and worst of single moms on film

10 must-see single mom movies



Guest post by Marc Levenson

Everyone loves a single mom character because she makes an easy heroine. Historically, in movies she’s also made an easy victim — a one-dimensional victim to be saved from her ability to function in a two-parent society. As a divorced dad who was raised by a single mother myself, I’ve developed a shoulder chip from watching so many single moms portrayed pathetically on film. When one appears on screen, I find myself transforming into Lloyd Bentson calling out Dan Quayle for comparing himself to JFK: “Hollywood, I was raised by a single mom. I know single moms. Single moms are friends of mine. Hollywood, you don’t know single moms!”

How do I evaluate a single mother?  She has to be a fallible human, one who at times is hanging on by a thread. After all, that’s the reality of single parenthood.  However, in those times of need, the best single mothers of the world (mine being at the top of the list) may lean on others, but she never acquiesces to the White Knight. She’s smart, having already been burned and learned from that show.

Here’s a breakdown of quintessential single mom movies:

good as gets single mom

Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) from “As Good As It Gets”

Carol Connelly is the 1990s version of a 1950s single mom Hollywood stereotype: down and out, harried and hanging on by the skin of her teeth — every day. Even Hunt’s wardrobe even looks like it was stolen from a cobwebbed RKO building. A New York City waitress who lives with her mom and chronically ill son, it’s only by the assistance of the gay artist and the socially abrasive OCD writer/love interest (Jack Nicholson) that she figures her shit out. The only ray of hope for a jolt of modern reality is Carol’s own single mother, Beverly (played by Shirley Knight) who finally tells Carol in a moment of delirious exasperation at the lack of normal people to date that, “Everyone wants that, dear.  It doesn’t exist.” Hollywood fail.

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karate kid

Lucille LaRusso (Randee Heller) from “The Karate Kid”

She moved her kid from Newark, N.J., to Reseda, Calif., for a job with management potential.  She’s ballsy and knows how to delegate responsibility.  She’s positive, upbeat, fearless and never even mentions wanting or needing a man to take care of her.  She does luck out when the apartment maintenance man turns out to willingly in the blanks of her hands-off parenting and her kid’s absentee father.  Of course, she’s real;y nothing more than a plot device to provide backstory of the main character, but when you really think about it, isn’t that what parenting is?

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sell engagement ring



ET single mom

Mary (Dee Wallace) from “E.T.”

E.T. is an autobiographical story Steven Spielberg wrote about being a kid while his parents split.  Mary (Dee Wallace) is a recently divorced single mother with three kids. She’s wounded and afraid but she’s not petrified into inaction. She makes it up as she goes along and isn’t afraid to be alone. That kind of empowerment in a single mother was rarely, if ever, seen in film. The fact that she’s oblivious to an alien living in her house speaks volumes about her post-divorce state of mind. I give this a thumbs up for realism and relate-ability.

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little man tate single mom

Dede Tate (Jodie Foster) from “Little Man Tate”

This 90s drama charges Dede Tate (Jodie Foster, who also directed), a wannabe dancer turned waitress, with raising a child prodigy.  She is torn between her wanting to give her kid a normal childhood but simultaneously worries about falling short of providing an environment suitable for a kid who writes operas and takes apart telephones to improve their efficiency. Dede is tough, even militant, about being a good single mother. In fact, there is never any mention of a father at all. Ultimately, she reluctantly concedes some control of her son’s education to a child psychologist who promises to — again– fill in the parenting gaps in Foster’s struggling single-mom character. This move is depicted as an empowering win for all involved. After all, kids do need more than one adult in their lives, and the single mom who recognizes this is the single mom who wins … some alone time.

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 Sarah Connon single mom terminator

Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”

Sarah Connor is the best kind of single mother to have if humanity is threatened by a race of intelligent cyborgs. Relentlessly protective and tenacious about preparing her son for the future, she transforms herself from a stalked library mouse into a ripped gun-wielding bad ass who takes on the baddest ass of the 80s: Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this context, Sarah Connor is  the single mom of her time. In today’s post-arms race reality, she looks like a gun-loving, doomsday zealot of a parent. Sarah Palin, anyone?

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Mrs doubtfire single mom

Miranda Hillard (Sally Field) from Mrs. Doubtfire 

In 1993, Mrs. Doubtfire nailed the successful single mother. Maybe literally, too. I don’t know, you can’t really tell at the end. Miranda Hillard is at the tail end of a marriage in which she was the primary breadwinner. The divorce is bitter but she’s not a battered woman.  She embraces divorce as opportunity and keeps ahead of the game at all times. She wants to hire a nanny, not because she can’t deal with all the work, but because she doesn’t have to.  She dates a successful and handsome British expat, not because she needs a man to get by, but because she’s attracted to him. This single mom is one all single women should try to emulate. Well, except the part about her being completely blind to the fact that she accidentally hired her cross-dressing ex-husband to clean her house. So there’s that.

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One fine day michelle pfieffer single mom

Melanie Parker (Michelle Pfeiffer) from One Fine Day 

If Miranda Hillard is the one to emulate, then Melanie Parker is the one to avoid.  On the one hand, she’s a successful New York City architect trying to make partner at the firm. She’s convinced herself she doesn’t need anyone’s help. Period. But she realizes can’t be everything to everyone. This is an accuracy in single motherhood that frustrates the type A single mom. She’s got all these balls in the air and she juggles them herself. That’s where Melanie is real and respectable. But then George Clooney comes around and suddenly she’s juggling his balls, too.  At the movie’s critical climax, she has to choose between her career and her son.  She chooses her son only after he whores his cuteness out to her through the window of her uber-important client meeting.  It’s just dumb luck that the clients actually like her more for prioritizing the kid while her boss is ready to toss her to the curb. The morale? Oh yeah…grab onto George Clooney’s balls and everything will be ok.

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mommie dearest single mom

 Joan Crawford (Faye Dunaway) from Mommie Dearest

No list about single mothers in the movies would be complete without Mommie Dearest. Faye Dunaway’s hauntingly hysterical portrayal of Joan Crawford is that which lurks beneath the skin of every single mother.  For some, it is deep down and barely recognizable; others, unfortunately, let it all hang out. A single mother might feel herself channelling Joan when the guy she’s seeing stopped calling her and another late notice arrived from her electric company and her ex just posted a picture with his new girlfriend and their new puppy and her mom left another voice mail about how she never sees her and THEN her 6-year-old son comes crying to her after he and his friend unwound wire hangers to sword fight with. I’ve seen the Mommie Dearest eyes in my own beloved mother once or twice and believe me … it’s horrifying.

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alfre woodward single mom

Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard) from Scrooged

 Charles Dickens’ Bob Cratchit was reimagined in 1988’s Scrooged by Alfre Woodard.  She plays Grace Cooley, an executive assistant to Bill Murray’s Xavier Cross, the maniacally frugal network CEO.  She has like 5 kids, including her youngest who hasn’t spoken since seeing his father murdered.  There is none of the weakness in Grace that exists in so many other movie single moms.  Her kids seem happy, and of course the immortal words “God bless us every one” are spoken by her own kid….which must mean something.

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spanglish single mom

Flor Moreno (Paz Vega) from Spanglish

She’s the most realistic single mother in movie history…so far. Director James Brooks gets it right with Flor, the illegal alien single mother who is torn between instilling the conservative Catholic values that govern her, and allowing her daughter the freedom to grow into an independent American woman. When climax begins to settle, Flor makes a decision that she knows will destroy her daughter.  The best thing about Flor is her resolve in the face of the desperate objections of her heartbroken daughter.  She’s able to see beyond her own insecurity to do right by her daughter, something all parents, single or otherwise, should aspire to.

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Marc is my single dad bestie.


What’s your favorite single mom movie? What is the worst? Share in the comments!  

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9 thoughts on “Single mom movies: The 10 best and worst of single moms on film

  1. Thinking of TV shows, I like Lauren Graham’s character in both Gilmore Girls and Parenthood (the latter is a bit more realistic). In both cases, she’s smart and talented, but obviously scrambling and trying to keep up with the juggle. There’s plenty of comic relief as well.

  2. I was waiting to see Susan Sarandon iin Step Mom as the divorcee with two kids who learns she has cancer and has to turn to the new woman in her ex-husband (Ed Harris-he is such eye candy) life played by Julia Roberts. She is Carol Brady without Alice. She does it all and with such style and a sharp tongue you fall in love with her. Those “go to hell” looks she gives her ex and his fiance are really what make the film for me.

  3. I loved Dee Wallace in ET. But they DO mention the father ONCE when she tells Elliot “Why don’t you call your dad & talk to him about it!” Elliott replies that he can’t because his Dad is in Mexico with his new girlfriend. Thus updates his Mom & his older brother chastises him for being an idiot.

  4. …. been a single mum for 17 years and counting… got 3 kids and was just loosing a bit of strength… you just made me smile again…. will print and plaster all over my flat… :)

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