“Let’s go and get our brains back!” So starts the ITV drama Maternal, with three doctors – one surgeon (played by Lara Pulver of The Split), one paediatrician (Parminder Nagra), one Registrar in acute medicine (Lisa McGrillis) on their first day back after maternity leave.
Directed by BAFTA nominated director James Griffiths, responsible for the first series of Episodes with Matt LeBlanc and Tamsin Greig, this has similar wit, but in a grittier, less glowing set-up of a post-pandemic, grossly overstretched NHS. On this first morning back, babies (of varying ages) are dispatched to nursery, and the three women head for the hospital where they have all been given a soft return, in order to acclimatise before the real work begins, in a series of dull IT lectures. That, both inevitably and to their delight, does not last. Thrown back into busy hospital life, there is a seesaw between insecurity (can I really still do this) and overwhelming relief (I think I can).
But what used to be straightforward, is no longer. Catherine’s steamy, table-clearing session with her ex ends in “OUCH. Ouch… I haven’t… since Ellis was born”. In another scene, she is sitting on a park bench with another ex, revealing to him that he has a child he knew nothing of five minutes ago. That it was delivered so casually is either typical of surgeons (a job which is always, on screen, cheerfully referred to as one for psychopaths) or the result of a clunky script.
The three women’s frustration in this opening episode is deafening. In proving to themselves and others that they did not stop being capable when they became mothers, they will neither start slowly nor admit any weakness. Underneath this facade they are plagued by doubt. When Maryam is accused of forgetting to tell her junior about an essential test he needed to give a sick child, she looks at him in horror, not yet confident enough in her rebooted brain to say damn you, I bloody did ask – and you forgot.
What’s disappointing is that the people holding them back are often the people around them – partners (“we agreed to boundaries”), and colleagues: “You’ve been out for a year, you can’t expect just to waltz back in”.
There are heartbreaking moments. Helen’s raw, desperate phone call to her unimpressive husband Guy, to say that he can sleep with other women if it will help save their relationship – is tragic. “Do you have any idea how humiliating it is to be back at work?”, she asks. “The little wife, mother…”
He digs deep and manages to find a compliment for her, at the last second remembering that it is his job to be cheerleader, something this programme’s B-Team struggle with. And he’s not the only one. There’s a grandmother furious that her ceramics class was interrupted to pick up the baby at short notice. “You wanted to be a mother. It demands sacrifice”.
There are poorly hidden traumas, hints at barely concealed mental anguish, perhaps grief. Yes, it’s a little heavy-handed sometimes. I could have guessed that one of the marriages was in trouble without seeing “Cost of divorce” on a google search page. But – what a joy to watch women going back to work after having a baby and not being portrayed as harassed lunatics covered in baby vomit and unable to run an efficient diary (Motherland, I’m looking at you).
When they are at work, they are at work. When they are at home, they are at home, whether that’s sitting with a glass of wine scrolling through pictures of the babies or frantically tidying as the babies bumble around noisily and messily in their nappies. They are knackered. They are completely imperfect. Normal, say. This entire separation of home and work is something we see in men at work, but rarely women. I know these women, and I like seeing them on screen without judgement. I hope none comes.
Maternal will air on ITV at 9pm on Monday 16 January