Motherland gave me a panic attack. And, as unlikely as it would be to recommend a programme that had such an effect on me, here we are.
BBC2’s new sitcom about middle-class motherhood comes with award-winning writing credentials: Sharon Horgan (one half of Catastrophe); Graham Linehan (one half of Father Ted); Helen Linehan (a writer and actor, and one half of Mr and Mrs Linehan); plus comedian Holly Walsh. Like both Father Ted and Catastrophe – and, in fact, like motherhood – it lures you in by looking comfortable and familiar, but then floors you with a series of brutal truths and, just when you least expect them, moments of pure "Is this actually happening?" surreality.
The bit that gave me a panic attack was the first scene in the pilot (aired in 2016; now available on BBC iPlayer). It wasn’t a graphic war scene or a gut-churning moment of peril, but a very simple tale of a working mother – the incredibly sympathetic Anna Maxwell Martin – trying to drive her kids to school.
But every frame of the scene was so deeply etched with the familiar creeping dread of snowballing inconveniences on a bad parenting day that my own amygdala took the scene as real life and flooded my own body with cortisol. Negotiating squabbling children, general lateness, a dwindling list of childcare options when she needs to be somewhere and totally avoidable traffic jams, Maxwell Martin’s Julia ends up impotently squawking, “Baby on board, arsehole!” out of her window. I ended up in the toilet, doing deep breathing.
Motherland is The Handmaid’s Tale for sleep-deprived mums
It’s the show’s reality, largely, that makes it appealing – in exactly the way Bad Moms wasn’t. I enjoyed watching Bad Moms, because my brain occasionally likes powering down for 90 minutes while I’m still awake, but it didn’t strike any chords. Not with its bro-style maternal hoedowns in supermarket liquor aisles, and not with its hokey, underwritten characters.
Motherland, on the other hand, has characters many modern mums will have encountered. The bullying mum-clique you can’t quite believe exists, but somehow does. The mum whose parenting style you can’t decide is criminal or genius. And the evil-but-enviable Perfect Mum you love to hate – with her stain-free cream cashmere sweater and spotless monochrome house. They’ve even thrown in a stay-at-home dad who, despite being wafty and a bit ineffectual, doesn’t feel too token.
TV mums are generally written off as sidenotes and punchlines – the batty mum or the mum who keeps everything together, a bit like a human noticeboard. Or, they’re tragic figures dealing with some massive struggle or the confines of society/the patriarchy/their offspring/some Terrible Secret. So, rarely are they depicted as just people in stupid situations.
Motherland is refreshingly different and, as much as they may be preaching to the converted with me (I wrote this amid a household mess while trying trying to calm my baby, counting down the minutes to when my son came home from childcare, eating my lunch with one hand and pumping milk with one boob – and, before you congratulate me, I wound up with breastmilk ALL OVER ME), I shall be watching the full series with relish.
Motherland is The Handmaid’s Tale for sleep-deprived mums. And what, instead of “nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, is our battle cry?
“Baby on board, arseholes.”