When I was 13 or so years old, I sat outside at my all-girls prep school and watched one of the most celebrated sculptors of our time unveil a new work of art. The piece had two figures — young girls — and the rumor that quickly circulated around the upper and lower grades was that her own granddaughters had been the models. The idea that a person’s likeness could be immortalized in bronze — forever — seemed magical. These girls were being presented to us as ideals: beautiful, strong, capable, and with kind and open faces.
What must that feel like to see a statue of your likeness or your family’s likeness?
In the United Kingdom, the town of Birmingham asked its residents who should represent their city as a “real Birmingham family.” The winners would be immortalized in bronze. A panel of judges selected a family out of 372 nominations. The Guardian reports the judges picked the winning family because they were “impressed by their solidarity and commitment to Birmingham.” The city also wanted to make sure the family who was selected “included children and had demonstrably strong ties to the city.”
In a unanimous decision, the selection committee picked adult sisters and single moms: Roma and Emma Jones.
The Jones sisters were thrilled, “We feel truly amazed and honoured to be chosen to represent what it means to be a family in Birmingham. We feel it highlights that family is an indestructible bond between people that is universal and it doesn’t matter how it is made or what it looks like.”
Gillian Wearing, the award-winning Birmingham artist behind the stunning sculpture, wanted to create conversation about family with her piece. “A nuclear family is one reality but it is one of many and this work celebrates the idea that what constitutes a family should not be fixed.”
As a single mom, I think it is a triumph that a family a bit like mine has been celebrated in such a way. However, not everyone has viewed the unveiling of the statue so warmly. Lola Okolosie points out that critics “took it as an irresponsible validation of female promiscuity.” She goes on to expertly break down some statistics of single mothers in the UK and wonders if the outrage might be misdirected frustration over divorce rates. “Single mothers are carted out as the arch-destroyers of the family, when we are actually talking about the traditional family.”
When we think of the visual concept of family, most of us are still trapped in the retro idea of a mother, a father, a son, and a daughter. It sounds balanced.
How many families do you know like that? Certainly not all of them. Of the families who aren’t shaped that way, would you call them any less of a normal family? I wouldn’t.
My family is 100 percent normal. If you asked my kid to describe his family, he would say we have a grandmother, a mother, a son, a cat, and a Prius. Ask him how our family is different from any of his friends’ and he will probably tell you that not all of his friends have a cat.
It’s not unusual for nuclear families to be depicted in works of art, but when a statue of single moms is unveiled in the UK, it makes international news and people lose their cool.
Some are finding it challenging to tolerate a statue celebrating single motherhood. Bobby Smith, a member of a group called New Fathers for Justice, took it upon himself to cover up part of the statue and then insert himself into it. Smith says, “There’s nothing wrong with single mothers but this statue is saying one person can do both jobs, and I believe kids are always better off with both parents in their lives.”
I think it’s a shame Smith felt the need to vandalize a work of art in an attempt to make his point. I think it’s also a shame his point seems to goad families into a one-upmanship. Kids are not “always better off” with both parents. Kids do well when they’re surrounded with love. Ironically, the statue isn’t saying one person can do both jobs. One of the things I love about it is how it depicts the support system some single mothers have in their lives. Showing two sisters makes me think about how my close friends are always there to hold my hand through all kinds of parenting scenarios.
Neil Lyndon feels women have been trying to replace fathers for years and he is tired of it:
“That sort of contempt towards men and marginalisation of fathers rings down the decades of the last half century and it finds non-stop expression and repetition everywhere you look in our mainstream culture — from children’s stories and TV soap operas to mass market advertising, newspaper columns, Woman’s Hour and the rest.”
I couldn’t disagree with either of these men more. The statue isn’t saying anything about the capability or marginalization of fathers. It is, as most works of art are, an attempt to reflect what is right in front of us. The statue isn’t saying single mothers are better or even that some single mothers don’t wish there was a father in the picture. The statue is quite simply a family.
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