Zoe Desmond on launching an online network for like-minded single parents
Zoe Desmond launched an online network for single parents and it became a real-life community. Here she talks to Liadan Hynes about what it is really like to be a single mother
Zoe Desmond's son Billy, now three, was one when she and his father ended their relationship. Originally from Donnybrook in Dublin, Zoe was living in London at the time.
"Obviously break-ups are hard, and it's not the greatest time, especially when there's a child involved, but I just found the loneliness on the weekends so stark, and overwhelming," she says.
"I just felt like I was pushing the buggy around and seeing happy families everywhere. It made me feel like 'God, is this it now? Is this what my weekends will be like, walking around by myself?'"
Newly a single parent, Zoe recalls how isolated she felt. "I didn't want to impose on friends - I just didn't want to feel like I was a burden on anyone. Sometimes when I would hang out with them, the heartbreak of seeing another family, that unit together, almost made me feel worse about my situation, and Billy's situation. Sad for me, sad for Billy. And then I started to wish that I knew other people in this situation."
At the time, she knew one other single mother, an acquaintance, whose kids were much older.
And as any mother knows, what you need are people with kids within six months of yours, in the same situation, who can provide a sort of mutual support group. Unable to find that - a supportive network of other single parents - Zoe created one herself.
"I thought, 'there have to be other single parents around'. Then I started to look into it, and realised one in four families in the UK is a single parent," she says. She bumped into a neighbour after yoga class one day, a woman with a son the same age as Billy, someone she always stopped to chat with whenever their paths crossed.
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"This time, the conversation went a bit further, and it transpired they were both single parents.
"It had been three years that we'd been saying hi, and we literally lived around the corner from each other, and neither of us knew that the other was a single parent."
Zoe took this as a sign. "It showed me, well no-one is really shouting about it from the rooftops. No-one's doing a status update on Facebook, going 'hey, I'm a single parent'. It's just not the kind of thing that you do. Probably because there is a feeling of shyness, and a bit of shame around it. So I thought, there's no way that my area is a single-parent-free zone. I started to dream up this idea of Frolo, of a way to connect with other like-minded single parents in your area."
Frolo, which will launch in September of this year, will be a location-based app for single parents.
A community creator, it will match each person according to where they live, shared interests, and their children's ages. "So it's not just whoever is a single parent is automatically going to get on," Zoe explains.
The name Frolo came from combining the words friend and solo. "It's about making friends with other parents, and feeling that sense of community."
Now members refer to themselves as Frolos: "It just has a much nicer ring to it than single parent."
There will be messaging and chat functions, a newsfeed, advice and recommendations. Originally the app was set to launch earlier this year.
Shortly before the planned date, Zoe, who co-parents with her son's father, launched the Frolo Instagram account, @frolo_app. Much to her surprise, this has taken off hugely in its own right. Zoe uses the 'stories' function on Instagram to post messages from members.
It's essentially like a large WhatsApp group. Advice and reassurance are exchanged, everything from how to deal with a partner who has had an affair, to legal issues, to suggestions around employment, to emotional cheerleading.
Zoe has created a community for single parents where before there was none. "I didn't see the Instagram account turning into what it has," she says with a smile. "I actually thought 'how am I going to keep enough content going here until the launch?'
"But it just took on a life of its own."
The interactions have given rise to in-real-life outings: coffee mornings, meet-ups at events. It is, she believes, the sense of not being alone in this experience that has meant so much to the followers of @frolo_app.
Last week she launched the Frolo podcast, a monthly podcast which will discuss life as a single parent.
Speaking out wasn't easy for Zoe. For all our openness now to discussions around mental health, loneliness is still something of a taboo - it's not a feeling most of us like to admit to.
"It actually doesn't come easily to me at all," Zoe admits of the public nature of her work. "It is quite scary, putting yourself out there.
"But the bigger picture, and the purpose of what Frolo is about, is that it's trying to break that stigma, create something that's really needed. It was really scary sharing my story on social media. But the response that encouraged in people, being able to say, 'I felt really lonely too', I'm glad I've done it.
"Loneliness is such a vulnerable feeling," Zoe says. "It's not an easy thing to admit to. It feels scary to talk about it. When they saw my story, I think people could go 'that's it'. I think people could relate to it."
She would also like to reframe how we view single parents. When you have a child, taking to the bed during a break-up simply isn't an option.
"Obviously, you're trying to be a strong mum and a happy mum, and give your child the support and love and attention they need. That's why I have so much respect for anyone who is a single parent. There are so many challenges that go along with it.
"We are such strong people, because we have to be. There is such strength and courage and resilience in single parents.
"It has completely transformed my personal experience," she reflects now of the Frolo community she has created. "I'm part of the community as well, I'm a Frolo too. I'm getting so much out of it. Just knowing that you're not alone. That there are all these people that you can relate to.
"And everyone is so kind, and supportive of each other."
An open account, Frolo is so far that unicorn among social media platforms - a troll-free, no negative comments zone.
"There's no badness," Zoe says. "I'm not filtering anything out at the moment."
We have come a long way from a time when being a single parent meant social ostracism, but to be one is still to feel a sense of otherness, even if it is just to be the target of unwanted pity.
"I do think there's still a stigma around being a single parent," Zoe acknowledges.
"I think people might not realise what it's like to be a single parent - it does not feel like a positive thing.
"That's another goal with Frolo, to change it from a negative into a positive. The term Frolo makes me feel proud. I think the term single parent has this negative connotation. 'Oh, you've failed', or 'something didn't work out', or 'you've been irresponsible somehow', or 'you didn't try hard enough'."
Which is, of course, not the case. Typically anyone leaving a relationship with children involved has given that decision more thought than any other move they have made in life.
"It's such a heartbreaking thing to go through. It's not done lightly," Zoe says.
"We've grown up in a time where it was a case of you stay together, and that's what you do, no matter what. That's what's best for the kids. But actually, a lot of the time, it's not what's best for the kids."
Zoe hopes that Frolo will also help children of single parents to see that there are "normal, loving families" of all shapes and sizes. "A loving home is a loving home," she concludes.
Now 38, before moving to London in her 20s, Zoe, who is the daughter of businessman Dermot Desmond, studied acting at the Gaiety School of Acting. Later, she worked in fundraising and events, fields she continued in after her move to London, where two of her brothers and a group of friends were already living.
In recent weeks, there has been a certain amount of online 'knickers-in-a-twist' over parents in a relationship using the term solo parenting when a spouse is away.
A debate has arisen over the difference between solo parenting, and single parenting. Zoe looks at the internet kerfuffle with equanimity, but agrees there are differences between an often-absent spouse, and being on one's own.
"The differences are the emotional support. The burden of carrying a whole household. In the evenings, it's often not Netflix and chill - it's working, paying bills, getting stuff organised. There's the financial burden. And then it's all the really obvious things that people might not think of - Christmas, Mother's Day, Father's Day, doing nice family things at the weekend."
There is also the guilt around the effect a split is having on a child.
"There's no question all mothers understand the concept of guilt.
"But I think as single parents, that's a bit of a tricky one because you're constantly analysing, 'is this because of the situation that we're in?' When they're having a tantrum you go straight to, 'this is because...'"
The new Frolo community has been hugely helpful in this regard.
"It's so reassuring - somebody else has gone through that as well," she says. "Maybe I don't have to automatically freak out every time Billy cries that he's scarred for life. He's just being a normal three-year-old."
Last week, Zoe hosted a group of 30 Frolos in London, a dinner in celebration of Mother's Day. "Last Mother's Day, I was just rocking around by myself, with Billy," she recalls.
"In the playground, lump in my throat, feeling a bit sorry for myself. Just thinking 'oh my God, is this it?' So it's lovely, it really is. The majority of women who attended I have never met before. Everyone came on their own, no-one was in a pair. They are all from Instagram.
"I feel so much stronger in myself from the Frolo support. And I have so many more options."
To anyone who has just come out of a relationship and found themselves newly a single parent, her advice is to be gentle on yourself.
"This is going to be one of the lowest points that you're going to be at. Just try not to think about the rest of your life right now, or what that looks like, because that will definitely overwhelm you.
"So just take it day by day, and make sure that you take the pressure off yourself in any way that you can. Take support where you can get it. Try and get enough sleep. Try and look after yourself. Try and do whatever you can do to make yourself feel supported and mentally strong. Get on to the Frolo Instagram for immediate access to a bunch of people who get it, and who are there to offer support, and reassurance that it's all going to be OK. And it will be OK. It will be OK."
The loneliness, the thing that first inspired this project which has grown so quickly and impressively, has gotten easier, in large part thanks to the Frolo community.
"I almost feel like I have this tribe around me," says Zoe. "It definitely gets easier. It really does. I'm in a different place than I was two years ago when we broke up.
"I think that was almost accelerated by what's happening with Frolo, and my excitement over creating something like this. Having access to other people in the same boat, it's a game-changer for me.
"It does get so much better and so much easier. And life becomes good again."
For more information, visit Frolo.co.uk
Mothers who’ve done it by themselves
On becoming a single mother of two girls, Lily Allen looked to her own mother as an example of a woman who pulled it off. "I think that I would've been a lot more nervous about walking away from my marriage if I hadn't seen her do it - and do it so successfully."
The Harry Potter author famously said that she was prouder of her years as a single mother, during which time she began writing her famous series of books, than she is of any other achievement. She also revealed she was shunned at church for being unmarried. Full body eye-roll, everyone.
Formerly married to Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes is a single mother to daughter Suri. She has spoken in the past about wondering if she was doing enough for her daughter, but revealed the support of a close group of friends provided reassurance.
Charlize Theron adopted two children on her own. During publicity for her movie Tully, a film about the difficulties of motherhood, she shut down questions about a possible third child, saying "as of right now, as a single parent this is what I can handle and I think it's a good thing to know what you can handle". She credits her "village" of close friends for their invaluable support.
Mother to Lila Grace, Kate Moss once revealed that she is stricter than most parents, telling a magazine "you have to scare them".