Mother­land: all whine and no heart — so is this all it is?

Yes, we all get that moth­er­hood can be a har­ried af­fair — but where is the heart, writes Sarah Caden

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - VIEWPOINTS -

‘THE un­cen­sored truth about par­ent­ing,” was how the BBC in­tro­duced the first episode of Mother­land last Wed­nes­day night. “So is this your world?”

To a great ex­tent, yes, the world of Mother­land is my world. I ex­pected to watch the tra­vails of Ju­lia, its chief pro­tag­o­nist and re­late ut­terly. Much like me, she’s a mid­dle-class work­ing mother of two under-10s, do­ing all the 21st-cen­tury jug­gling, the jig­saw of child­care and the pres­sure to keep up with the Jone­ses.

Mother­land, writ­ten by Sharon Hor­gan, Gra­ham Line­han, Helen Line­han and Holly Walsh, is con­cerned with Ju­lia, an events or­gan­iser who is do­ing her best to make ev­ery­thing work and make ev­ery­one happy. She falls short most of the time and hates her­self for it and is, well, pretty an­gry with the world. Her hus­band is a fairly use­less boy-man. Her friends are dry-wit­ted Liz, who likes a drink and takes a that’ll-do ap­proach to life, and Kevin, an emas­cu­lated stay-at-home dad.

Ju­lia’s neme­ses are the al­pha-mums, led by Amanda, a coiffed, al­ways-made-up bitch who likes to point out Ju­lia’s fail­ings to the amuse­ment of her al­pha-un­der­lings.

The friends mat­ter, of course, but in Mother­land, the en­e­mies mat­ter more, be­cause this is a sit­com about how ev­ery­thing about be­ing a par­ent — ac­tu­ally, specif­i­cally, a mother — is aw­ful.

Sit­ting down to episode one, I fully ex­pected to re­late and re­joice at be­ing recog­nised, but in­stead, as it rolled on, I felt over­whelm­ingly an­noyed and, ul­ti­mately, sad. I laughed a few times, make no mis­take, but the sense of grim­ness was more pow­er­ful.

In the first episode, Ju­lia stum­bles into host­ing a birth­day party for her daugh­ter Ivy, in her home and for tens of chil­dren. At the episode’s start, she’s plan­ning a small gath­er­ing at a pizza restau­rant, but Liz’s sug­ges­tion that she’ll get quid pro quo play­dates if she has a drop-off party at her house, plus some al­pha-mum peer pres­sure, sees Ju­lia blun­der into invit­ing all and sundry to her house. Which goes hor­ri­bly wrong as she for­gets to tell the moth­ers that they’re to drop and go — stay­ing in­stead to nas­tily as­sess Ju­lia’s decor — and Ivy falls ill on the day. Oh and Ju­lia’s hus­band is at a foot­ball match.

The laughs at the party are to be had from the aw­ful en­ter­tainer Ju­lia has hired, the hor­ri­ble Min­ion cake she tried to bake, the near-miss as a bowl used for puk­ing is then used for crisps. Ju­lia hates her­self for fail­ing. She hates her child for be­ing sick. She takes so­lace in re­sent­ment and white wine. She scowls and sweats and sees no good in any­thing. I felt my­self see­ing why the other moth­ers found her un­like­able and if I was mar­ried to her, I’d have pre­ferred to watch paint dry­ing rather than en­dure the party with her.

Ju­lia is the vic­tim of pretty much ev­ery­one. The other moth­ers, her hus­band, her own mother who wants a re­spon­si­bil­ity-free grand­par­ent­hood, and even her chil­dren. Ivy’s ill­ness, like ev­ery­thing else in Moth­er­hood, is just sent to thwart and test Ju­lia, who may once have had a per­son­al­ity set­ting that went be­yond har­ried and put-upon, but there was no trace of it last Wed­nes­day night. The cred­its rolled and I hated Ju­lia and ev­ery­thing she stood for and it took me a cou­ple of days to pick apart this pow­er­ful re­jec­tion of her and of Mother­land.

In the end, I re­alised that I hated the de­pic­tion of Ju­lia as a vic­tim of moth­er­hood. Ju­lia is a woman who seems to have a good ed­u­ca­tion, a de­cent job, nice clothes, a fairly well-turned out house and a good ad­dress. She has a lot go­ing for her and the only thing spoil­ing all of it is those pesky kids, whom, we can only as­sume, she ac­tu­ally chose to have. And, per­haps, though Mother­land gives no real in­di­ca­tion of this, she prob­a­bly loves.

I wanted to love Mother­land, specif­i­cally be­cause I think Sharon Hor­gan is a bril­liant writer with a re­ally orig­i­nal per­spec­tive. I also love Catas­tro­phe, which she wrote with Rob De­laney and through three se­ries of which they play a cou­ple who get preg­nant af­ter a one-night stand and some­how fash­ion a life and a fam­ily from that point. It’s a com­edy about the messi­ness of life and love and how catas­tro­phes aren’t the end of the world and how love is a cat’s cra­dle of con­tra­dic­tions.

If you can’t com­mit to all three sea­sons of Catas­tro­phe, let me di­rect you to the fourth episode of the first sea­son as proof of the above. In it, the char­ac­ters, Sharon and Rob, are told that there is a onein-50 chance that the baby has Down’s syn­drome. In the fol­low­ing 20-odd min­utes, there’s the in­evitable dis­tress at the prospect of hav­ing a child with a dis­abil­ity, but there’s also in­cred­i­ble heart and hu­mour.

Rob tells Sharon his un­cle has DS and how he loved hang­ing out with him. She points out that Rob prob­a­bly doesn’t have much to do with his un­cle now that he’s an adult. Sharon cites the mother whom she would see in the su­per­mar­ket look­ing “old and re­ally tired”.

“Who whis­tles their way around the su­per­mar­ket?” Rob coun­ters. “Maybe they went home, watched Judge Judy and had a great time.”

In the penul­ti­mate scene of that Catas­tro­phe episode, Sharon gets a call from her doc­tor, af­ter which she tells Rob that ev­ery­thing is fine. We don’t hear what the doc­tor says or know what’s “fine”. That am­bi­gu­ity con­tin­ues in the fi­nal scene, when, on the street, she sees a lit­tle girl with DS. Sharon waves at her, she com­pli­ments the child to her mother, she looks at them and smiles and cries.

It’s not pity. Or maybe it is, a bit. It’s not re­lief. Or maybe it is, a bit. It’s not re­gret. Or maybe it is, a bit. It’s all of those things and the am­bi­gu­ity is in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful and real and not just pow­er­ful to some­one like me with a child with DS. It’s pow­er­ful be­cause it’s about the deeply con­fus­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of want­ing to be a par­ent, be­ing a par­ent, be­ing pulled in op­po­site di­rec­tions by the need to be needed and the re­sent­ment of that need. That was Sharon Hor­gan’s skill with Catas­tro­phe — it cap­tured the messy mean­ing of love and how it can live side by side with hate with­out be­ing oblit­er­ated by it.

Love is un­nerv­ingly ab­sent from Mother­land. Maybe, in the writ­ing, there were too many cooks. All four of the writ­ers are par­ents.

Per­haps they all brought their gripes to the table and thus the show ended up be­ing an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of carp­ing with­out room for any­thing else.

Yes, there is too much pres­sure to­day on par­ents — women in par­tic­u­lar — to do ev­ery­thing and to do it per­fectly, but this trend into which Mother­land taps, that of be­ing ‘hi­lar­i­ously’ crap at ev­ery­thing is just as bad. Chil­dren are in­con­ve­nient and life-sap­ping, most fa­thers are use­less id­iots and moth­ers are moan­ing, show-me-thewine, mess­ing-up mad­women. There is truth in these char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions, of course, and hu­mour to be cranked from them, too. But, as the song goes, Is That All There Is?

‘I laughed a few times, but the sense of grim­ness was more pow­er­ful’

WHERE IS THE LOVE? From left, Philippa Dunne, Diane Mor­gan, Anna Maxwell Martin, Paul Ready and Lucy Punch in ‘Mother­land’. Be­low, Sharon Hor­gan

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