New photography projects by Polly Braden and Harry Borden celebrate the complexity and beauty of being a single parent
The image of the single dad is often distorted by out-of-date notions of masculinity: the strong and resilient backbone of the family, the working father, the emotionally distant dad.
In a book published this spring, portrait photographer Harry Borden – himself a separated father with four children – reveals the tenderness and vulnerabilities of 48 single dads. Each has suffered a loss of some kind and has struggled to adjust to being the main carer, but with the help of their children they have found a renewed sense of purpose.
In the photo above, Neil Young is pictured with his children Kiwa and Ngaire. He became a solo parent when his partner, Jeng, died in 2015.
“I got through the first two years on adrenaline and bloody- mindedness,” Young said. “I kept getting floored but I’d get up again, even though a voice said: ‘Stay down, you’re beat!’”
The pandemic has been challenging for parents in general, but for single parents, it’s been near on impossible. While Borden’s book casts light on single fathers, up to 90 per cent of single parent households are headed up by women.
A new photo exhibition by Polly Braden, Holding the Baby, aims to show what life is like for single parents of both genders. It showcases “the imagination, determination and pride of single-parent families; unique bonds between parent and child, forged by freedom, love, adventure – and exhaustion,” read a review in The Guardian.
The exhibition features stories such as Jana’s: a mum-of-two who fled an arranged marriage with her two children. “I took Yaana’s car seat, milk bottle and some of their clothes, and called a taxi at one in the morning,” she said. “Two years ago, if someone had told me I’d be living in London by myself, taking care of my children by myself, and had a place at university, I would have never believed it. My old self would have never recognised who I am today.”
UK campaign group Single Parent Rights recently released a report that found 80 per cent of single parents had experienced some type of discrimination, with nearly 60 per cent experiencing employment discrimination.
“I’ve had some wonderful, compassionate employers, but not always,” said Young, the single father in Harry Borden’s portrait. “In the workplace, you worry that you will be seen as weak if you let on that you’re not doing so well. But it doesn’t mean you’re no longer capable of doing great work; it’s just that you need a little support and understanding.”
While research around the experiences of single parent households doesn’t generally make for cheery reading, Ruth Talbot, founder of Single Parents Rights, sees the pandemic as a turning point in breaking down the barriers they face.
One of the report’s key recommendations is to add single parents to the Equality Act as a ‘protected characteristic’, something supported by 96 per cent of the 1,083 single parents they surveyed. It also makes recommendations to tackle discrimination, such as making flexible working the default in all jobs.
On Single Parents Day in March, a day of recognition that was newly minted in 2020, the group wrote an open letter to the Equalities minister Liz Truss, requesting “an urgent meeting to discuss the ongoing discrimination single parents face”. Moreover, their report was ‘welcomed’ by Caroline Noakes, the chair of the Commons women and equalities select committee.
While campaigners continue to eye equal rights, making the lives of single parents more visible through art projects should go some way toward increasing awareness, not least empathy.
In Young’s children’s favourite film, My Neighbour Totoro, the mother is in hospital and there is a sense she might not come back. Young described the film’s outpouring of surreal, wild beauty as a response to unimaginable loss. “It’s a reminder that there is still beauty and joy in this world, waiting for you,” he said. “I dreamed once that Jeng was a bird. I was alone on a ship with the kids, beating through the waves. We’ve had to let her go but she is flying above us.”
Holding the Baby will show at the Museum of Home in London from 12 June to 29 August 2021, followed by the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool and Bristol’s Arnolfini. Single Dad by Harry Borden is available now, published by Hoxton Mini Press.
Main image: Harry Borden