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1st March 2023

Maternal review: A moving exploration of medicine, motherhood, and misogyny

Maternal examines what it’s like to be a working mother in today’s NHS
Maternal review: A moving exploration of medicine, motherhood, and misogyny
Photo: ITV

ITV’s new medical drama Maternal follows three female doctors returning to frontline medicine at an NHS hospital after maternity leave. Maryam (Parminder Nagra) is a paediatric registrar, Helen (Lisa McGrillis) is a registrar in acute medicine, and Catherine (Lara Pulver) is a surgeon hoping to secure a job as a consultant. The series examines how they balance motherhood with work and personal relationships within a patriarchal, overstretched system in dire need of reform.

Ambulance staff and nurses are striking over pay and working conditions, and 40% of NHS doctors and dental professionals are looking to resign or retire in the next five years due to feeling overburdened. Maternal’s release is undeniably timely, serving as a powerful reminder of the tireless efforts of public sector workers – and the need for appropriate support in high-stakes working environments.

The series opens with Maryam having a nightmare where she is sprinting down the paediatric ward in pyjamas, reflecting her anxiety about being unprepared for work after taking two years off to have children back-to-back. Being pushed into joining the on-call rota immediately after her return, due to staff shortages, sees her dealing with life-or-death emergencies on the labour ward. Her hopes of a gradual re-introduction to hospital medicine are dashed.

Though McGrillis and Pulver give nuanced performances, Nagra is given the bulk of the emotional heavy-lifting – which she executes with acute sensitivity. Maryam’s entry into motherhood has made it easier for her to relate to her young patients, deepening the emotional impact that their circumstances leave on her. The emergencies on the ward play over and over again in Maryam’s head, prompting anxiety attacks in the hospital toilets.

Helen, a mother-of-three, returns to working in close quarters with her consultant husband Guy – and their 24-year-old trainee who he had an affair with during the pandemic. Guy and Helen struggle to show up for one another both physically and emotionally – with devastating consequences. 

Catherine’s pregnancy came about unexpectedly from a one-night-stand. She initially parents the baby alone but has some difficult decisions to make when the father, fellow surgeon Lards, asks to be involved in the baby’s life. With surgery being a male-dominated field, Catherine has to work twice as hard to receive recognition – and even then is prone to being overlooked and undervalued.

There are striking parallels between the three women’s storylines. Maternal highlights how managing childcare is typically a responsibility that burdens working women more so than their male partners – who tend to have a more hands-off approach. Maryam has concerns about having another child due to work stress and the physical and emotional toll that her recent pregnancy took on her; her husband, by contrast, is considerably more open to it.

When Guy becomes unreachable, Helen is left to look after three young children alone – facing judgement for leaving work in the middle of a shift to do so. Catherine considers changing her surgical specialty to allow more time to raise her child, while Lards’ wife is able to take on that responsibility for him. Similarly, Helen and Catherine’s partners are both in positions of seniority because of advances they were able to make while the women, who are equally qualified, were on maternity leave.

Maternal’s women are expected to coddle their male colleagues, both junior and senior, or else face the fallout from their emasculation. Maryam is scapegoated for being on-call during her first week back. Helen is accused of undermining Guy when she proposes a supportive management plan for a patient where he intended to enact a medicalised solution. 

Nonetheless, it is not always higher-ups or colleagues that fail these women, but family members too. Maryam’s husband complains after her first day back that “we agreed to boundaries” and Catherine’s mother, annoyed about having to babysit at short notice, tells her that being a mother “demands sacrifice.” But how much can these women reasonably be expected to give up to be afforded the same opportunities as their male and non-medical counterparts?

The friendship dynamic between the three women is refreshingly well-written and acted. It is a genuine support system – where they treat each other with compassion and understanding even when tensions at work are high. Their dialogue is witty and naturalistic; when doing nursery drop-off on their first day back Maryam asks, “What if I hate being away from them? Or love being away from them – that’s worse, right?”

Besides the occasional comment about being underpaid, Maryam, Helen, and Catherine all seem financially secure – a circumstance which is not reflective of many healthcare staff, especially those living off a single income. However, it is understandable that the series cannot be all-encompassing. Overall, Maternal is an honest, quietly political look at the lives of mothers with demanding careers in medicine.



Maternal is available to stream on ITVX.

Sumayyah Khalid

Sumayyah Khalid

Winner of Writer of the Year (The Mancunion) (SU Awards 2023) | Highly Commended for Best Newcomer (The Mancunion) (SU Awards 2023) | Shortlisted for Best Newcomer (Rising Star) in the UK (SPA National Awards 2023)

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