13 movies and TV shows about divorce and single parents

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Long gone are the days when only nuclear families  could appear on small and large screens. Today’s TV shows and movies are all about representation — and that extends to single motherhood.

Here are some of the top TV shows and best movies that shine a light on divorce and single parenting.

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Top TV shows about single moms:

Gilmore Girls (2000 – 2007)

The ultimate ode to single mom-hood, Gilmore Girls invites viewers into the fast-talking world of teenage prep-schooler Rory (played by Alexis Bledel) and her young single mom Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham). The show provides a look at the close bond Lorelai and Rory share and how their sister-like relationship at times undermines Lorelai’s ability to be taken seriously as a mom. It also stars Melissa McCarthy as Lorelai’s best friend Sookie, in her breakthrough role before she became a comedy movie legend. 

Lorelai was a groundbreaking example of a single mother—fierce, fearless and determined to do it all on her own. When she became pregnant as a teen, Lorelai refused to marry her boyfriend and ran from her cushy upper-class life to do it on her own.

Eventually, Lorelai has to put aside her pride to ensure top student Rory receives the best education possible—and that means crawling back to her parents to ask for help paying for prep school. It’s an excellent show that still holds up decades later. Even if you didn’t like the 2016 Netflix reprisal, do yourself a favor and go back and watch the original.  

SMILF (2017-2018)

SMILF had a cult following for its scant two seasons, thanks to the raunchy, honest character of Bridgett, a young single mom living in blue-collar South Boston, asking past lovers for reviews of her post-baby vag, scrounges to make ends meet, navigates co-parenting while facing her own absent father and other raw, tender and hilarious realities of single motherhood.

How to comfort a friend going through divorce or breakup

Parenthood (2010 – 2015)

Based on Ron Howard’s successful 1989 film of the same name—and another great show on parenting starring Lauren Graham—Parenthood looks at parenting from a variety of lenses through the extended Braverman family. Each of the four Braverman siblings have children and are navigating family life as best they can:

Graham’s character Sarah Braverman is a divorced single mom navigating life with two teenagers and a rocker ex-husband who refuses to go to rehab for his substance abuse problem. Sarah has to deal with resentment from her children for their dad not being around, while they have no idea how much she does to keep it all together for them.

A thorough and honest look at parenting through multiple family dynamics, Parenthood never shies away from the realities of raising children, on your own or with a partner. 

Modern Family (2009 – 2020)

One of the longest-running network TV sitcoms, Modern Family was beloved for its zany portrayal of different family configurations. While Claire and Phil remain happily married throughout the show, Claire’s father Jay is long divorced from her and Mitchell’s mother.

When the series begins, Jay has just married much younger single mom Gloria and is navigating life with her son, who is the same age as his grandchildren. The show is funny, heartwarming and always makes the point that life after divorce is a positive, not a negative, for both the parents and the kids.   

One Day at a Time (2017 – 2020)

One Day at a Time looks at the life of newly single mom Penelope, as she handles raising her two kids on her own with some help from her very traditional, old-school mother (played by the brilliant Rita Moreno). It’s a funny, sweet and smart sitcom that updates the original 1975 version of the show with a modern take.

As she navigates dating for the first time, alongside her career as a nurse, the show centers on how she handles it all with class and a sense of humor that holds her family together.

Single Parents (2018 – 2020)

Single Parents centers around the life of a group of single parents who take care of each other as they try to navigate life raising kids, while still having a life of their own. When they meet Will, a single dad who has completely lost sight of any semblance of a life outside that of raising his daughter, they band together to try to get him back into the dating world.

Throughout the series, Will realizes that he can indeed have an identity beyond just dad, while still being a great dad. This funny and charming series will remind you of the importance of taking time for yourself, and finding friends that understand and relate. 

Better Things (2016 – 2022)

Better Things follows Sam, a single mother of three daughters as she navigates her career as an actor. Created by and starring Pamela Aldon, it is loosely based on her own life and career as a single mom living in Hollywood, taking care of her kids and her mother (who happens to live across the street).

Never afraid to take on the less than glamorous parts of parenting, this FX series gives a realistic look into the struggles and glories of being a single parent, and the work that goes into trying to have it all.

Dead To Me (2019 – 2022)

Dead To Me stars Christina Applegate as Jen, a widow raising her two sons alone after her husband died in a hit and run. Determined to find out who killed her husband, she finds a support group to help her deal with the grief of the loss so she can be there for her kids. There she meets Judy, who has recently suffered a loss of her own. The unlikely pair, polar opposites in personality, become fast friends—but season one soon reveals all is not as it seems.

Perfectly cast and performed, this series takes an honest look at parenting after a loss and how challenging it can be, without losing its humor. 

Mom (2013 – 2021)

The long running CBS hit sitcom starred Anna Farris as Christie, a newly sober single mother and Allison Janney as her passive-aggressive recovering alcoholic and estranged mother, Bonnie.

Throughout the series the mother and daughter reconnect,  grow close and Christie learns to forgive her mother for the unhealthy way she was raised. At the same time, Christie is navigating a relationship with her married boss, and trying to include her irresponsible ex-husband in the lives of her children. While it sounds dark, it’s a network sitcom so the tone is light and funny—and the two leads carry the show with grace and ease.

Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce (2014 – 2018)

Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce was inspired by the popular “Girlfriends’ Guide” book series—and looks at the life of Abby, successful author of the popular self-help book series on successful marriages, as she and her husband separate—bringing her career to a screeching halt.

Suddenly no longer everyone’s favorite girlfriend, Abby must learn how to navigate how to be a single mom in her 40s and sharing custody of her children with her ex. She turns to her friends for support, laughter and dating advice. With plenty of laughs and a lot of drama, the series brings about a humorous look at the ups and downs of leaving a relationship, reinventing a torpedoed career and moving forward with life in middle age

Top movies about single parents:

E.T. (1982)

E.T. is the autobiographical story Steven Spielberg wrote about growing up while his parents were divorcing. Mary (Dee Wallace) is a recently divorced single mother of three. Yes, she’s wounded–but she’s not petrified into inaction. Mary 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 on film in the 1980s. The fact that Mary's oblivious to an alien living in her house speaks volumes about her post-divorce state of mind. E.T. provides an accurate portrayal of life as a single parent, in a time when strength post-divorce wasn’t the dominate narrative. 

Spanglish (2004)

Director James L. Brooks does single parenting justice in Spanglish. Flor, an immigrant single mother, is torn between instilling the conservative Catholic values she grew up with in Mexico, and allowing her daughter the freedom to grow into an independent woman.

The climax forces Flor to make 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.

As Good As It Gets (1997)

James L. Brooks gets things a little less right with an earlier film about single motherhood–As Good As It Gets. Helen Hunt plays Carol Connelly, a 1990s version of an unfortunate 1950s single mom stereotype–down and out, harried and hanging on by the skin of her teeth. Even her wardrobe is depressing.

As a New York City waitress who lives with her mom and chronically ill son, it is only with the assistance of her love interest–Jack Nicholson as Melvin, the socially abrasive and OCD writer–that she finally figures her life out. As a movie it is a gem that won many Oscars–but as an accurate portrayal of life as a single parent, it shows just how long it took for stereotypical gender roles on screen to change. 


Best single mom movie: Bad Moms (Emma Johnson's take on why it is a feminist revelation)

I saw Bad Moms on its promise of cheap laughs. On that, it delivered. Proud to say, I cackled so hard at all the dick/drinking/SAHM jokes that two moms (wearing wedding rings, gotta point out) gave me dirty looks and left the theater. 

What I didn't expect was the shocking, envelope-pushing array of pro-women messages that this Hollywood comedy delivered by the heaping sandbox-shovel-full:

From the first scene, stay-at-home moms are mocked as privileged, sanctimonious, and/or dependent and powerless. When the harried protagonist, Amy Mitchell (Kunis), drops her kids at middle school, and bumps into the coiffed PTA mafia trio (Bad Moms' antagonists), who admonish: “I so admire you for working all day! Don't you miss your kids? You are so strong!” To which Amy replies: “Um, yeah. I work because … I … need the money.” Which, of course, the hugely vast majority of moms get, because the hugely vast majority of moms work, because nearly all of them need the money (and large portions of moms who don't work, want to work. Because they need the money, surveys find.) The evil trio, we see, fill their over-supply of SAH time with PTA power-mongering.

One of the protagonists, Kiki (Kristen Bell), is a frazzled SAHM of four, with a domineering husband who demands she iron his underwear and admonishes her for taking time for herself, treating her like a child, and she deferring to him as a daddy. Bad Moms wants moms to have power. When, late in the film, Kiki screams over the phone to her husband, home with the kids and whining about being overwhelmed: “Just fucking DEAL WITH IT! STOP BEING SUCH A FUCKING PUSSY!” the audience in the New York City theater where I was viewing Bad Moms, burst into applause.

Full bush is hot. Worried your husband is jerking off to bald, pre-teen pussy porn while you're putting the kids to bed? In Bad Moms, Amy finds her husband having a digital affair with a beautiful blonde, with a big, bushy bush. An adult woman's bush. Full, grown-ass-woman bush is hot in Bad Moms.

Moms are horny. Every single mom in Bad Moms is an unapologetic horn dog. Carla (Kathryn Hahn) veers firmly into cliche territory as the sex-craved (“I used to walk down the street, and it was raining dicks. Dick, dick, dick, dick. Cock everywhere.”), boozy single mom who refuses to attend her kid's boring baseball games (“The last game I went to was six hours long! And the score was 1-0!”), while prim Kiki complains about the weekly scheduled coitus  with her husband's semi-hard erection that she is forced to fold and “stuff it in my vagina.”

Even the PTA Nazis unabashedly lust after Jesse, a.k.a. “hot widow,” one admitting she'd let him “go to town” on her backdoor, and later announcing her new lease on life after her husband “50-shaded me.”

In fact, as Amy emerges from her sexless, longtime marriage, her friends admonish her Mrs. Doubtfire wardrobe and utilitarian bra. The chaste mom is the weirdo in Bad Moms.

I'm not sure I've seen such guiltless sex drive in moms in media like this. Collectively, society is warming up to the idea that the Lena Dunams and her 20-something peers are entitled to casual sex and hookups in all in its frisky varieties, but the same freedoms are never extended to mothers — much less unmarried ones. In Bad Moms, we do see Carla as an actual bad mother who also happens to be super-slutty, but we also see Amy character settle into her new single-motherhood, and enjoy the heck out of sex (with cunnilingus-loving Jesse, of course).

Kids aren't that interesting to moms. There aren't many kids in Bad Moms. Sure, we see them in the background at the morning school dropoff, and Amy's tweens play minor roles in the plot. But in Bad Moms, mothers are not all-encompassed with their offspring, as moms often really aren't — despite pressure to spend copious amounts of quality time nurturing parental bonds, and celebrating the blossoming lives that have been bestowed into our responsibilities.

Kids are boring, and dating sites, school politics, and interesting careers often occupy our minds and adult conversations far, far more than our children. Bad Mom frees women from the pressure to orbit around our children, sacrificing ourselves.

Kids thrive when moms are happy. Once Amy ditches her unhappy marriage, stands up for herself and gets a big raise at work, gets laid and rebels against the alpha-mom status quo, her kids start thriving: Her previously spoiled son does his own homework and makes breakfast, her angry children turn forgiving, and she connects in a new and better way with her daughter.

Again: Bad mom frees women from the pressure to orbit around our children, sacrificing ourselves.

How to be a successful single mom

Women are real, dynamic, nuanced human beings. Pat as it may be, the big theme in Bad Moms is: We are all trying so freaking hard to be perfect, convince everyone else we are perfect, and instead making ourselves, our kids and our families insane — alienating ourselves from everyone. This is actually a very powerful and relevant message, as Gena Davis and her feminist cohorts take on sexism in Hollywood, and it's simpleton cliched, one-note female characters.

This message begs to be screamed to moms everywhere, as we stalk each other's Pinterest and Instagram feeds, denigrating ourselves and each other for less-than perfectly stylized Tuesday morning breakfasts, casual-yet-hip getup for running Saturday errands, and family vacays to St. Martin with the perfectly behaved children, and fit, successful husband who, we presume is-not-having-semi-hard-erection-stuff-it-in-once-weekly-scheduled-sex.

No. Bad Moms wins for its celebration of imperfect motherhood. That is:  Amy's character literally wins the PTA presidency on the platform of being an imperfect mother, one often full of doubt, disinterest, mistakes made and priorities unclear. In her humility and vulnerability, she connects with the mothers in her community, and moms and women in the audience.

Bad Moms tells women: You are a person. A failable, strong and messy human.

On Amazon.


What's your favorite single mom movie? Single mom on TV? What is the worst? Share in the comments!  

Lisa Lagace is a Toronto-based freelance writer covering the entertainment and lifestyle beats. Her words have been featured in NPR, USA Today, Marie Claire, The New York Post, Paste Magazine and more.

When she’s not busy writing about the intersection of entertainment and finance, she can be found with friends seeing live music (when there’s not a pandemic raging), hanging out with all the dogs in the dog park, or binging her latest TV obsession—which is probably true crime related. She highly suggests watching the latest season of Succession for a unique look at the way trauma is passed down generationally. She taught herself everything she knows about finance after graduating with significant student loans and realizing her expensive education taught her nothing about the intricacies of money. Today, she uses that knowledge to help others who find themselves in similar situations.

14 Comments

…. 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… :)

The new series Maid on Netflix shows quite a few realities of being a single mom (while also dealing with domestic violence). It can be a little dark at some points but there’s also some good to it :) The book is even more amazing (Maid by Stephanie Land).

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.

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.

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.

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