Maternal, ITV’s new drama about motherhood and practising medicine, opens with an alarming scene of choreographed chaos. Three female doctors, overwhelmed and hideously underslept, attempt to feed their rascal children breakfast, dress them for day care, and separate them from their overspilling toy boxes in time for drop-off. For each, it’s the first day back from maternity leave, though this hectic fire drill, or a version of it, will recreate itself every morning, just as it does in homes dotted throughout the UK and beyond (my own included). Maryam (played by Parminder Nagra) is a paediatric registrar returning to work after almost two years of continuous maternity leave. She dares to ask aloud the question that can doom a working mum – or any stripe of new mum, for that matter – to crushing guilt. “What if I hate being away from them?” she shouts to her husband across the roof of a car echoing with baby screams – “or love being away from them – that’s worse, right?”
Nagra is joined by Mum star Lisa McGrillis as Helen, a registrar in acute medicine whose cheating husband has been promoted to her boss while she’s been taking time away to raise their children. The last of the trio is Sherlock’s Lara Pulver as Catherine, a ballsy trauma surgeon slash single mum whose support system is so meagre that even her own mother asks to be taken off her list of people to be called in the case of an emergency. It’s hard to imagine that Catherine kept anything in the fridge besides wine and condiments before having her daughter, Elis. I’ve heard motherhood described as walking around the world with your heart outside your body. That’s romantic. What these actors, all three mothers in real life, convey is that the experience can render you as raw and twitchy as an exposed nerve.
The series doesn’t skimp on hospital drama; each episode features life-or-death medical puzzles that don’t always get solved. But Maternal’s central conflict – the one that binds these doctors – is so fundamental to the experience of modern motherhood that it’s almost boring: how to get through the day knowing the next day will be just as stressful. Even getting Nagra, McGrillis and Pulver on video calls together was a masterclass in parental time-blocking, which necessarily didn’t work out because kids can sense when their needs are being massaged into someone else’s schedule. When I talk to McGrillis, my toddler starts calling for me from the other side of the door to beg me to come to soft play – or, as McGrillis, who also has a two-year-old, calls it, “a full-blown cesspit”. My chat with Nagra and Pulver, real-life best friends who live near to each other in Los Angeles, is initially scheduled with a hard stop for Pulver to put her daughter down for a nap. Nagra, whose son is in his teens, is on hand to assure us that it at least gets logistically simpler over time. “But” – until then – “the juggle is real,” she says.
It’s unclear how much history Maryam, Helen and Catherine share besides the fact that they work in the same hospital and had babies at the same time. It’s McGrillis who points out that having babies at the same time is actually profoundly bonding, perhaps especially so for people who became parents against the isolation of Covid, like the three protagonists (as well as McGrillis, Pulver and me). On set in Liverpool this summer, the women and their families ordered takeout together and leaned on each other for car rides and babysitter recs; a cousin of Pulver’s husband – actor Raza Jaffrey, who also plays a doctor in Maternal – became Nagra’s nanny. McGrillis says she’s never brought more of herself to a role, or related to characters more than she relates to these overtaxed women.
Show business can be unforgiving to new parents. After the birth of her eldest, McGrillis went back to work just seven weeks postpartum. “I had an oversupply of milk, so I was so uncomfortable all the time, getting mastitis. I was having to express every two hours.” But in acting, she tells me, “when jobs come up you’ve kind of got to take them”. She’d “push” through the days, then fall apart and cry when she got home. “So I know what it feels like to be trying to be two things at once, and absolutely not really being good at either.” She suffered “crazy” postnatal insomnia after the birth of her second child, Cleo – who plays her baby on the show – and went back to work just as quickly.
The specific demands of working motherhood have lately been a feature of excellent comedy, including Sharon Horgan’s hilarious Catastrophe and Pamela Adlon’s rude and provocative Better Things. But Maternal stands out to me for nailing its relentlessness.
Working motherhood is not just the risible indignity of showing up to a meeting with milk on your blouse, or even the nasty choice between nailing the promotion-nabbing presentation and arriving at your kid’s school in time for the nativity play. It’s a million seemingly inconsequential things every single day. It’s remembering to pack lunch; it’s choosing what to put in it; it’s cursing yourself for running out of apples. It’s deciding what to say to your kid, then immediately wishing you’d said it more nicely. It’s putting the key in the ignition and remembering your phone is still in the house; it’s running to get it, then rushing the kids through drop-off to make up the difference and clock in on time. Because invisibility is the gold standard working mums feel pressed to strive for. “Oh, you have twins at home? I never would have guessed.”
Watching Maternal was sometimes like staring into an unfriendly mirror. Like Helen, I’ve corralled my angry daughter into the car, more concerned with whether my neighbour is watching than with my kid’s feelings. Like Catherine, I’ve taken on a last-minute assignment because it excited me more than the prospect of going home and relieving the babysitter. It’s a cliché to say that being a working mother – or again, any stripe of mother – is about sacrifices. What Maternal depicts so brutally and convincingly is that the lived experience of “having it all” is actually a series of microscopic failures.
Pulver calls the show, which moves at the headlong clip of an NHS day shift, “quietly political”, by which she means it’s more entertaining than it is polemical. She’s right, and yet the longer I sit with the episodes the more political it feels. It’s about the NHS and underfunding; it’s about how the pandemic ravaged a brittle healthcare infrastructure; and it’s about how society is structured so that the burden of parenting falls mostly on mothers – a fact the pandemic revealed, then exacerbated. Even the show’s title – Maternal – surprised me with its fearless willingness to alienate.
At one telling point in the pilot episode, Catherine seeks advice from Becky, a more senior female surgeon with kids, about how she was able to maintain a family while logging enough hours in the operating theatre. Becky bursts spontaneously into tears over the futility of even trying. “You want my advice? Retrain now while you’re still young enough to do something else.” When Catherine insists that she’s only ever wanted to be a surgeon, Becky turns merciless: “Then why did you become a mother?”
Part of what impressed and horrified me about the tranche of episodes available to critics was the unexpected ripple effect of new motherhood. Perhaps some women return to the office in the exact same state they left it, but others – and here I count myself and almost every mother I know personally – do not. When Pulver was still pregnant with her eldest son, the ambitious actor questioned whether she would ever want to perform again. On the series, Maryam’s nerves have been fried by two years of crying babies, and she’s a less confident physician for it. And Catherine is so desperate to resume life as a surgical hotshot that her self-sufficiency becomes an achilles heel. Enough with The Gruffalo already, she says by way of galvanising her colleagues, “let’s use our brains”; when baby Elis is asleep, though, she stares softly at her photo.
More than once during our chat, Nagra reminds us that raising children isn’t one homogenous slog but a succession of phases, each with distinct pleasures and challenges. This series, so far, focuses on the moment a mother begins to integrate who she’s been since the birth of her child with the person who used to wear the same scrubs. One less well documented element of the ripple effect is how the same moment can bond you instantly with strangers who have similar-aged kids – that the pleasures of motherhood can extend beyond the enjoyment of your children. Maternal offers up a richly layered vision of working motherhood as intimately fulfilling, and, for the lucky, community-building. Even when parenting is at its most punishing, there’s the solace of another person reminding you that this phase will pass.
‘Maternal’ begins on ITV on Monday at 9pm