No Mother Is an Island: Dismantling Myths of Self-Sufficient Motherhood in ‘About a Boy’

When millions of school-aged children learned from home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, child care became a point of stress for families with two working parents. In a well-documented phenomenon, many women appeared to leave the workforce to take care of their kids. It’s not that these women necessarily wanted to leave their jobs, but they often made less than their husbands or male partners and felt forced to sacrifice employment by the simple fact of their lesser salary. In cases where both parents remained employed, women working from home reported that the majority of the childcare work still fell to “mom.” They also reported feelings of failure for not being able to “do it all,” reflecting the insidious social and cultural assumption that mothers should be able to do it all – and be happy and grateful about it, too. If it all feels like too much, if you can’t always prioritize your kids, if you alone can’t provide everything they need, well, that’s because you’re a bad mom.

As moms have called out for better support systems, stressing the untenability of their situation, we’ve all been prompted to reimagine what systems of care can and should look like. How do we redistribute the burden of care equitably? In a way that will benefit care providers like single parents who our current system has long marginalized? Or people in need of care who have been marginalized the same way?

Toni Collette as Fiona & Nicholas Hoult as Marcus in About a Boy (COURTESY: Universal Pictures)

Although it came out twenty years ago this month, About a Boy remains one of the best and most sensitive mainstream depictions of a reimagined system of care in support of mothers. This is not a distinction one might expect from a comedy starring Hugh Grant as an aimless womanizer who kicks off the plot by realizing that single moms are great for a no-strings-attached shag. Single moms are perfect, Grant’s Will discovers, because they need the confidence boost of a sexual liaison – but they’ll break up with you before things get serious and their kid(s) get involved. After his revelatory fling, Will concocts a Dennis Reynolds-level scheme to pick up single moms based on lying about having a child of his own. Through a series of unfortunate events, Will ends up bonding with Marcus (Nicholas Hoult), the child of a single mom (Toni Collette) that he doesn’t want to have sex with.

About a Boy’s light touch and deeply British sense of humor make it an easy watch, but it’s what the film has to say that makes it worth a rewatch. About a Boy is one of my favorite films because of its gentle insistence that everyone — including mothers, who are only human, after all — needs a support system. Even twenty years later, what makes the film so refreshing is the shape of the support systems that About a Boy ultimately argues for.

In the film, single motherhood is unsustainable not due to misguided notions about the heterosexual nuclear family’s moral superiority. Notably, About a Boy refrains from feminizing care work and gendering parental responsibility. Will is seen as an important addition to Marcus’s life, but it’s never suggested that Marcus needs a father figure or sees Will as such. Will provides Marcus with what his mother cannot — not because she’s a woman who can’t understand her son but because she’s a human being with her own issues and blind spots. Fiona and Rachel, the single mothers given the most screen time, are treated as fully human characters undefined solely by their motherhood. Just as crucial, the film is remarkably uninterested in positioning romantic love as the sole path to support and care. About a Boy has a romcom element in Will and Rachel’s subplot, but this isn’t what it wants to explore. This, for a movie about single moms, is exceedingly rare. About a Boy stands as a mild corrective to the tradition of films that argue that single mothers are either saints or social problems.

For decades, mainstream media has presented us with a good mom/bad mom dichotomy that doesn’t depict the nuances of many mothers’ lived experiences. Mothers on film are often either selfless superheroes who can and would do anything for their children or monstrous perversions of this ideal. The super-mom stereotype pervades most depictions of “good” mothers on screen, from the unflappable Mary Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life to the tenacious Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blindside to the every-mom Linda Michell (who literally goes into superhero mode when her kids are threatened) in The Mitchells vs the Machines. Conversely, the psycho mom is a staple of horror films, spanning from Norma Bates in Psycho to Scarlet Witch in the horror-tinged Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Recent pop-cultural depictions of “relatable” motherhood can be largely boiled down to super-moms who occasionally complain or who refuse to be perfectionists. Stranger Things‘ Joyce Byers, a working single mother, is an ideal example of what I call the “stressed super-mom.” She doesn’t make the whole motherhood thing look effortless, but she never fails to do whatever she must to protect her kids, through supernatural thick and thin. In the end, stressed super-moms only fail in ways that are, by and large, inconsequential. These characters let go of appearances, often out of necessity, and sometimes they break down in private; but they don’t reexamine the fundamental assumption that a good mother does everything for her children by herself.

Hugh Grant as Will & Nicholas Hoult as Marcus in About a Boy (COURTESY: Universal Pictures)

Precious few mainstream films imagine what a better, less gender-essentialist system of care might look like. Even fewer envision a system of care and support outside of the (implicitly heterosexual) nuclear family. And many of the films that can envision such a thing don’t involve mothers as main characters, instead usually revolving around childless people or adolescents discovering their found family. Think of Dominic Toretto’s crew in the Fast and the Furious movies (fascinatingly, one character who becomes a mother is sidelined for several films, and the other one gets killed off), or the orphaned Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts.

About a Boy actually does imagine what an alternative system of care and support might look like for its mother characters. Although it wears its politics lightly: I return to the film often because it is, first and foremost, a comedy. As Will, Grant is at the peak of his powers, his dry line delivery making the running voiceover an essential part of the film’s comedic appeal. Hoult, in his film debut, proves himself an immediate star by embodying Marcus’s odd blend of child-like unselfconsciousness and adolescent awareness of reality. (Hoult’s Marcus might be one of the few onscreen portrayals of a twelve-year-old I’ve ever seen that captures this unique quality of tweens.) The script leverages for laughs Will and Marcus’s initially mismatched expectations, but About a Boy‘s emotional core is decidedly sweet. Although Will gets in his snarky observations about Marcus and his “hippie” mom, neither of them becomes the true butt of the joke. For every initially snide thought Will has about Marcus and Fiona, the script — adapted by Peter Hedges and Chris Weitz from Nick Hornby’s novel — flips at the perfect moment, turning Will into the punchline.

About a Boy aligns us mainly with Will’s perspective, but doesn’t necessarily endorse his cynical worldview. By the end of the film, Will has come to understand how his fear of being sincere has kept him isolated, lonely, and unhappy. He’s let the extremely sincere Marcus and Fiona into his life, along with Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and her son. Keeping us with Will for the majority of the film likewise keeps the tone pretty breezy; because Will lets almost everything roll off of his back, About a Boy can’t linger too long on any of its story’s darker elements. One of my main criticisms is that while the film is not disrespectful in how it handles Fiona’s clinical depression, its depiction is perhaps a shade too casual. This attitude makes a bit more sense, however, in light of the film’s point(s) of view: almost to the end, Will has the emotional depth of a puddle, and Marcus is just a kid.

The comedic nature of About a Boy perhaps obscures for some viewers its quietly radical ideas about motherhood. The idea that “no man is an island” recurs like a refrain. This phrase, written by the poet John Donne, serves as the thematic core (and as a running joke where characters repeatedly misattribute it). About a Boy reminds us that everyone needs a support system to make it through life, and the film includes its mother characters in this assessment without any judgment. Mothers aren’t held to a different standard than any other “man.” 

Rachel Weisz as Rachel and Hugh Grant as Will in About a Boy (COURTESY: Universal Pictures)

In fact, About a Boy seems uncomfortable gendering parental roles from the get-go. When Will decides to pick up more single moms, he joins a group called Single Parents Alone Together (SPAT). The gender-neutrality of this assembly is certainly a plot convenience — Will could not join a single mothers’ support group — but something interesting happens when he arrives.  It takes only a few abandoned women’s stories for Will to muse, in voiceover, “I’ll tell you one thing. Men are bastards. After about ten minutes, I wanted to cut my own penis off with a kitchen knife.” Then, in an attempt to impress the one conventionally attractive mom in attendance, Will improvises his own story of single parenthood. He positions himself in alliance with the abandoned mothers by inventing an ex who left him for his best friend, after which she no longer sees their two-year-old son, “Ned.” Not once does the phrase “single father” come up. None of the women in attendance appear to treat Will  any differently because he’s a man. In essence, Will doesn’t get bonus points for doing what “should” be a woman’s job.

As Will develops a real relationship with Marcus, the film similarly avoids the word “father.” It’s clear that Will and Fiona have no romantic designs on each other, despite Marcus’s ill-fated attempt to set the two up on a lunch date; whatever arrangement the three characters eventually make, it won’t be a step-family. It’s implied that Marcus gravitates towards Will because Will was there the day that Marcus came home and found his mother unconscious after a suicide attempt. Will is not mature enough to discuss this with Marcus in any meaningful way, but it seems to be enough for Marcus that Will knows what happened without having to be told about it. He understands what’s going on in Marcus’s house, just as he understands, to some extent, that Fiona’s struggles with mental illness have prevented her from being completely attentive to her son.

As Will and Marcus get to know one another better, Will realizes that Marcus is getting bullied at school for being weird. He begins a campaign to make Marcus “invisible,” buying the boy a pair of cool new shoes to help him fit in with the other kids at school. (In a perfect example of the reversal I mentioned earlier, Marcus promptly gets his new shoes stolen by the bullies.) To this point, Marcus has visited Will without his mother’s knowledge or permission. After the shoe incident, Fiona finds out about Marcus and Will’s after-school hangout sessions, and is furious at first. But when Will agrees to stop seeing Marcus — who, after all, kept showing up uninvited in the first place — Fiona changes her tune.

She refuses to let Will waltz out of Marcus’s life, if, as Marcus puts it in his own voiceover, Will has it right and she has it wrong.  “Let’s say there’s this whole world going on for Marcus that I don’t understand, and somehow, miraculously, you do,” Fiona tells him. “Well, what are you going to do about it?” Fiona acknowledges that maybe Will provides Marcus with something that she can’t, but she never puts it in gendered terms – nor do Marcus or Will.

Will actually seems incapable of doing so. Later, when Rachel forces him to explain his relationship to Marcus, Will can say that he’s not Marcus’ father, not his step-father, and not a father figure. He sputters and equivocates, trying to figure out a name for the relationship without looking like a liar or a creep. He can’t, ends up insulting Rachel, and gets walked out on. I love this scene because it’s a wakeup call for Will, who has been an unrepentant liar to this point and needs a little comeuppance. But the scene also underscores just how little vocabulary we have, as a society, for alternative systems of care. Will is an important part of Marcus’s life, and eventually a support for Fiona because of it, but, since he has no romantic relationship with Fiona, the relationship seems too strange to explain to an outsider. 

Toni Collette as Fiona, Hugh Grant as Will, Nicholas Hoult as Marcus in About a Boy (COURTESY: Universal Pictures)

Toward the end of the film, Will and Marcus get in a fight in which Will tells the boy, “I’m not your family, mate,” and refuses Marcus’s request to talk to Fiona about her worsening crying jags. Will has a change of heart at a SPAT meeting, confronting Fiona about how she needs to take care of herself and her mental health so she can be there for Marcus. Fiona hears what Will is trying to tell her, but ends the conversation because she has to hear Marcus sing “Killing Me Softly,” one of her favorite songs, at his school talent show. Will, horrified, tells Fiona that Marcus didn’t choose the song to express himself: “He’s expressing you, okay?”

Fiona, suddenly understanding that Marcus is putting himself in a vulnerable social position for her attention and approval, frets that her inattentiveness has “wounded” her son irreparably. Fighting back tears, Fiona asks, “Will, am I a bad mother?” “No,” Will replies. “No, you’re not a bad mother. You’re just a barking lunatic.”

His reassurance, while characteristically flip and insensitive, epitomizes About a Boy’s forgiving portrayal of its mother characters. Fiona is never portrayed as a bad mother when her own struggles make it hard to be present for Marcus. Rachel is not depicted as a bad mother for prioritizing her own desires and pursuing a new romantic relationship, even though her maladjusted son doesn’t want her to date anyone. The mothers in About a Boy are just people, and the film doesn’t judge them for acting like it.

Similarly, the film makes clear that the unconventional, non-familial support around Marcus – the arrangement between himself, his mother, and Will, as well as the moms from SPAT who help Fiona out – set an example for him and model what healthy support systems can look like. Marcus doesn’t expect Fiona to do it all. He doesn’t seem to need a conventional two-parent family to feel loved and supported. And he doesn’t appear to prioritize romantic love as the only way to let people into your family.

Nicholas Hoult as Marcus & Hugh Grant as Will in About a Boy (COURTESY: Universal Pictures)

What makes About a Boy’s portrait of motherhood so compelling is its acknowledgement that moms need help. Being biologically capable of giving birth doesn’t make you a superhero. The film also recognizes that help won’t always, and shouldn’t always, come from inside a nuclear family unit. Most beautiful is its refusal to villainize single mothers for the impossibility of being everything to and providing everything for their children. What helps make them better, more present mothers is those alternative systems of care, necessary because no one person –not even your mother – can give you every single thing you need.

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