Grotesque, paranoid, frazzled: why the mum is TV’s most compelling character

Plastic plates, damp washing, stretched vaginas, nursery drop-offs, felt-tip knees, tepid baths and the constant, unfinished lists. We are experiencing a boom in popular culture right now that celebrates and interrogates motherhood in all its yoghurt-smeared, sleepless, Technicolor glory. From television shows such as Motherland – which returns this week – The Letdown, Workin’ Moms, Trying and Better Things, to podcasts such as Zombiemum, Scummy Mummies and Mother Tongue, you can hardly swing a cot without hitting a mum these days.

Of course, there have been varied depictions of mothers on screen for decades. Some, such as Roseanne or Nora Ephron’s film Heartburn, were even written by mothers themselves. There were the long-suffering, or straight-faced mothers such as Barbara Royle in The Royle Family or Pam Shipman in Gavin & Stacey; eye-rolling mothers such as Karen in Cold Feet or Sue in Outnumbered; the lovelorn single mums of Birds of a Feather; the formidable matriarch Peggy Mitchell in EastEnders; or the animated cottage loaf that was Ma Larkin in The Darling Buds of May. But lately more complex portrayals of motherhood have emerged, serving as sweetcorn-like nuggets of honesty in the nappy contents of popular culture.

“I think the hunger is to hear from mothers. Because I think most depictions of motherhood have been at one remove,” says the comedian Josie Long, whose most recent standup show, Tender, was a beautiful look at labour and early motherhood. “There is a hunger for a first-person narrative, showing you what is happening while it’s happening,” she continues, her little daughter chatting in the background. “All my life, I had been told that as a woman comedian I should avoid ‘women’s experiences’. I was sick of it. This experience had completely changed my life, my body, my brain, everything. If that isn’t the thing to write about then I don’t know what is.”

The hunger is not just for stories of motherhood, but stories that can reflect the imposter-syndrome, peanut butter-encrusted, lonely experience of motherhood. What characterises this new era of parental representation is the conscious move away from the soft-focus depictions of mothering found in advertising and on a particular type of social media, towards the dirty, the desperate, the hilariously deranged.

“I think it was initially a reaction against something that started with that whole ‘domestic goddess’, ‘yummy mummy’ idea,” says Clover Stroud, the author of My Wild and Sleepless Nights, a memoir about birthing her youngest and fifth (fifth!) child as her elder son crashed into the everyday delinquency of adolescence. “When I joined, Instagram presented this really idealised version of what motherhood should look like, which in no way equates with what it actually feels like,” says Stroud, as I watch my own son slowly but deliberately put a rock in his mouth, while also kicking at someone’s greenhouse. “It was very curated; cashmere-wrapped, caramel-coloured and glossy.” I instantly think of Katherine Ryan and Sharon Horgan’s incredible wardrobes in The Duchess and Catastrophe. What Stroud wanted to make, watch and listen to was more complicated and more messy than that version of motherhood. “From the grinding boredom of it to the off-the-scale, cosmic, spiritual enlightenment,” she says. “And those two feelings are simultaneous. You will feel like you’ve been turned into a jigsaw puzzle and totally euphoric. I wanted to capture that strange dichotomy.”

There have been some attempts to puncture the #blessed #cherisheverymoment culture of social media motherhood, of course. Grazia’s recent Instagram parenting community called The Juggle was designed, in the words of Grazia editor Hattie Brett, to give practical advice, offer light relief and remind parents that they’re not alone in feeling as if life is hanging by a very thin thread. “We knew parents needed help,” Brett writes over email, as my son stands naked at the window, shouting at a bin, “but also humour.”

In the hunt for humour, the swing of the pendulum can sometimes go quite far the other way: painting parenting as a joyless, unrelenting task enacted by resentful, often inebriated adults towards their wholly monstrous offspring. If Jenny from Cold Feet had been on Twitter back in the day, she would almost certainly have been posting about her crap husband, moaning baby and desire to dump both in a supermarket and run away. “There was a time when it felt like there were a lot of people saying they were fed up with their kids. And I get that,” says Sarah Turner, the author of The Unmumsy Mum. “Despite being in the camp of baring all to make each other feel less alone, there was a moment where it felt, particularly on social media, that everything had become very ‘wine o’clock’.”

But that sort of self-deprecation is not the same as representation. As Hannah Gadsby has argued in standup, it’s not equality if you always have to be the butt of the joke. Equality would mean presenting motherhood with the same nuance and attention to detail that people talk about their football teams or relationships or jobs. You need the love, the passion, the loneliness and the humour, too. Which is where tender-yet-hilarious shows such as Better Things or The Letdown, films like Tully and a thousand mum-centric podcasts step in.

“All my friends are grotesque but not grotesques,” says Motherland’s co-creator Holly Walsh, who sounds a little like gravel rolling off a spade after picking up the lurgy from one of her children. “I don’t think there was a single one of us when we were writing it who would profess to being a good parent, but I also think we’d never say we didn’t love our children with all our hearts and want to do the best for them.”

The new-found popularity of the motherhood narrative has presumably been partly spurred on by the last year of lockdown. “Lockdown has given everybody a taste of what it feels like to have a newborn baby,” argues Stroud. “You are isolated, can’t go anywhere, can’t buy any new clothes; you’re bored, paranoid. All those things.” There has also been, for some households at least, a cold, damp confrontation with just how much work goes into parenting while the other partner is out of the house. As Walsh puts it: “I bet you a lot of men watch Motherland now through new eyes. That work all had to be done before the pandemic, during the pandemic and will carry on being done after the pandemic. But it will be interesting to see how a lot of partners will now see the nature of that labour and responsibility.”

Parents, particularly mothers, may have finally seized the means of production and be able to tell their own stories of joy, fury, passion and chaos. But they are still having to fit that in around the full-time, 24-hour-a-day, less-than-minumum-wage job of being a parent. “We have always described our show as a workplace comedy but the work is mothering,” says Walsh. “What’s interesting about our little group of writers and performers is that most of us are in it, doing it. We are balancing writing and making shows around children with looking after our own children. I don’t think there are many TV shows where people come home from a day of writing about, say, Goldman Sachs and then have to do an evening shift on the trading floor of a bank.”

Sometimes culture is a window, sometimes a mirror. Whether you have children, want them, had them decades ago, or are still trying to grow out of being one, parenting and motherhood is relevant to you. It should, if presented properly, be interesting, funny, painful and shocking. Which is why writers, performers and broadcasters are drawn to it. There is a long way to go, of course: we need more non-white, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender, non-London and non-wealthy mums in popular culture – both featured in it and making it.

After all, becoming a parent is possibly the most universal human experience there is, after birth and death. “There are so many versions of motherhood and so many different ways of relating to it,” says Walsh, as Alice in Wonderland blasts out from my front room and my son throws himself off the sofa on to a hard wood floor. “People are being brought up in so many different ways, by different people and it’s a really inclusive thing. Also, my children are tax-deductible now.”

Motherland returns on Monday 10 May at 9pm, BBC Two and BBC iPlayer; Nell Frizzell is the author of The Panic Years.

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