• Katy Rigg

Polly Braden's 'Holding the Baby' – a celebration of single parents

It occurred to me recently, after a brutal round of Norovirus took us all out one by one, how completely unrelenting it must be to parent on your own.

I came down with the bug on a Friday evening, when Rene was out on a stag do. It struck me when we were right in the throes of bathtime, which at least meant that the toddler could be self-contained for a short time whilst I lay on the cold bathroom floor, but I still had the bedtime battle to come.

I kept thinking, “If I can just power through until he’s asleep, everything will be okay. I can take care of myself once he’s asleep.”

But he didn’t go to sleep, not until 9:45pm, probably because he knew that something was deeply amiss. He kept saying, “Mummy sick! Mummy sick!” as I threw up into his potty during bedtime stories. I kept having to leave him to cry, something that I never do, and by the time I eventually pulled him into my bed, he had gone slightly delirious and was rolling around on the mattress and singing Wheels on the Bus whilst I died a slow death bedside him.

It was several hours of hell of Earth, but that’s all it was. Rene came home and tagged me out. He took care of the child and took care of me, until I was feeling vaguely human again.

I want to be mindful not to speak on anyone else’s behalf here, but this lack of reprieve for single parents must be so incredibly exhausting. Who steps in when you’re up to your eyeballs? When you’re ill? When you’re held up at work? When you just don’t want to parent for a while? As soon as I felt better, I wanted to roll out a fanfare for all the single parents, and then go round to do their dishes.

It was a coincidence then to see this beautiful exhibition by Polly Braden at the Museum of the Home yesterday. It’s called Holding the Baby, and it’s a celebration of single parents – of their optimism, their resilience, their strength and love and ambition that sees them through a myriad of difficult situations.

It highlights the stigmas and prejudices single parent families face; not being eligible for certain family discounts, landlords who won’t rent to people on benefits, inflexible working hours, and the greater risk of furlough and unemployment throughout the pandemic,

These facts are sad, and hard to swallow, especially as single parents make up one quarter of all the families in the UK, but hardship is not the overarching takeaway from this exhibition.

There are huge feelings of triumph and relief and liberation; mothers who took up and left their partners without looking back; mothers who don’t feel it’s especially hard being a single parent because they were doing everything alone anyway; mothers whose old selves wouldn’t recognise the successful people they are today; fathers who don't want the ‘halo status’ they're awarded just for sticking around.

It’s a beautiful exhibition, and it’s FREE so well worth a trip to Hoxton if you happen to be in London. It’s also going on tour and will be at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool in October 2021, and to the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol in February 2022.

You can see part of this exhibition, along with Polly Braden’s other collections, on her website.

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