The single moms of Downton Abbey


Am I the only one who notices that the whole show is essentially about single moms? Because it is. It is about women and money, and nearly all of the women are moms — SINGLE MOMS.

Here's a recap of Downton Abbey's single moms and what these characters say about the institution of single motherhood — then and now:

Lady Edith. Now, this ugly duckling middle child seems to have been raised in direct competition with her prettier, wittier older sister Mary — both titled young women vying for the same wealthy men to secure their futures. Remember that in the early episodes Edith's genuine love for the (possibly?) deceased heir Patrick was severely threatened by Mary's tepid interest in the young man.

Then we watch Edith take a secret lover– the married but otherwise honorable Michael, who owns a successful publishing company. When she gets pregnant, Edith is whisked in secrecy by an aunt off to Switzerland to have the baby, who goes on to live with a local farmer and his wife as a way for Edith to be close to the girl without compromising her family's name.

It is only in later episodes when Michael is is killed and leaves the publishing company to Edith that the young and desperate mother takes the girl back to live an independent life as a single mother. It's looking like a contemporary best-case-scenerio — a smart, progressive mother in full control of her family and financial destiny. But Edith's emotional pull to her family has her returning to a life of shame and conflict in an effort to raise her beloved child close to her loved ones.

Takeaway: Money gives women choices, including to be independent mothers. But the need for family, belonging and community can be stronger than the need for autonomy, though these lines are rarely clear.

Takeaway 2: By way of a survey of the moms at my bustop, it is agreed that one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of this entire series is when Edith, full of determination as well as gratitude, literally rips her young daughter from the farmwife who raised the girl, but is unaware that Edith is the mother, or the circumstances in which she came to be raised by the woman. The lesson here is that when there are secrets — and the shame that forces those secrets to be made and kept — hearts break. Edith felt she had no choice but to rely on another woman to mother her child. Then she felt she had no choice but to rip the child from her caring adoptive family. It is heartbreaking, and I am grateful I live in a time when I have the financial independence and do not face the social shame of times past.

Lady Mary. Oh, Mary. You are so lovable – yet such a pain in the ass! This alpha female appears to hold all the cards. By virtue of being the widowed mother of the heir apparent of Downton, she is set financially and struggles with none of the social scorn Edith faces as being an unmarried mom. Aside from a few passing scenes with her young son George — in which she appears to be an adoring mom — this English princess doesn't exhibit much in the way of maternal concern.

Her romantic life is another story. Mary has choices, and she exercises them. Even before she met the beloved Matthew, she succumbed the the passionate advances of the gorgeous Mr. Pamuk who literally died in her (naked) arms. With her modern bobbed hair cut she flirts openly with eligible bachelors, including the sweet and handsome Tony, with whom she spent a hotel weekend of lovemaking for the sole purpose of determining if they were sexually compatible, before giving her answer to his marriage proposal.

Takeaway: Mary is horny, and she owns it. She seems to have zero shame about being a sexual woman and a mother, and while she has a habit of keeping men hanging on in a bit of an ego play, she does seem to enjoy the chase much more than she laments being single.

In other words — she is an evolved woman, enjoying her new freedom (no matter how tragically she arrived there) and before risking commitment and heartbreak, is happily exploring her options. Go on with your bad self. If only she'd be a bit sweeter to Edith, I'd be totally enamored with her.

Ethel Parks This young and ambitious housemaid sees opportunity in one of the majors being treated at Downton, which served as a hospital during the war. Despite being caught in the sack by the senior Mrs. Hughes, she continues her affair until she finds herself pregnant. Oldest story in the world, including that the young man dismissed any notion of responsibility to the woman or child. Through only the help of Mrs. Hughes, Ethel manages for a time to get by on her own, but ultimately single motherhood proves impossible, Ethel turns to prostitution and eventually relinquishes her young son to the boy's paternal grandparents, who are people of some means, and agree only to care for him under the condition she give up her contact with the boy entirely.

Takeaway: You can't trick a man into marrying you or being responsible for his kids (especially in a pre-paternity test era!). Also: Money makes all the difference in the world.

The Dowager and Isobel Crawley. Now, I'm not sureI consider these women — both likely in their 60s and 70s — to be single moms. Both are widowed grandmothers with adult children. But they are single, and they are hot. Both have suitors — the earthy middle-class Isobel has two gentlemen sword-fighting over her smart self! — and both consider their options with both a tempered thrill in unlikely romance in their late age, and English pragmatism that ultimately renders both still single (at least at the end of season 5).

Takeaway: It's never too late. And, considering Isobel has no real money of her own, money doesn't matter. Sometimes.

Single motherhood is the oldest story in the world Mentions of unmarried mothers pepper the episodes, and usually the message is: Without money, single motherhood is rife with destitution and forced, unpleasant decisions. To wit:

Mrs. Hughes reveals in secret to Mr. Carson (so loving this new romance!!!) that her widowed mother cared for her mentally disabled sister, who has for years been Mrs. Hughes' charge — leaving her penniless in her old age.

Anna reveals in secret to Mr. Bates that her widowed mother remarried a man who sexually molested her, and despite learning of the abuse failed to leave him because she had no other financial options.

When our glorious and token single father Branson discloses to Edith that he knows about her secret child, the working-class Irishman comforts her by saying that children born to unwed mothers and cared for by others is common in his home country. I so love him for sharing that truth. Because it as it does Edith, his acknowledgement that single motherhood is as old as time, and that it can be embraced without shame, is exactly the message that that young single mom needed to hear 100 years ago — and one we can all stand to hear once again today.


About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list. Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Tonya Rapley on March 3, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    I loved this post! I love this show. Your characterization of Mary is absolutely hilarious and accurate.

    • Emma on March 4, 2015 at 12:02 pm

      I just love her. I love all the characters – even the evil ones are dynamic and human,

  2. pragati on March 11, 2015 at 9:56 am

    Hello Emma..came here via Twitter and loving the blog and the post..You put it so well..Mary is the ultimate snotty upper class girl, who is also modern enough to own up to her needs.
    I think the older ladies’ romance angle was a bit of a surprise as far as the plot is concerned. But it added a nice twist. Ethel is just under appreciated. I keep thinking that Ethel might be paired off with Tom.
    As you say, and as shown in the series, single moms have existed since time immemorial. Women are much stronger than they are given credit for. Right? :)

    • Emma on March 11, 2015 at 10:05 am

      could not agree more!!

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