We spoke to the hit TV show’s creator about the anxieties, absurdities and inequalities that working mothers face – and how to shoot TV scenes with toddlers.
Jacqui Honess-Martin is the creator, writer and executive producer of Maternal, a new ITV show about three women returning to their jobs as NHS doctors after maternity leave. The show has won widespread acclaim for its realistic portrayal of mothers going back to work, capturing the anxieties, absurdities and inequalities that this juggling act often involves. Maternal launched last month and the final episode aired on Monday.
Workingmums.co.uk spoke to Honess-Martin, who has two children aged five and two, about why she chose to write about returners. These quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
I wanted to write a show about mums returning to work because I found it really hard when I went back after my [first child] in 2018. He was six months old and I went back to working in theatre full-time and I found it really challenging. I realised very quickly that the experience wasn’t unique to me – there were lots of people who were struggling. And I thought: if this is a universal experience, then it’s probably worth trying to write about it. I wrote a play initially, which then became Maternal.
I went back to work in theatre, which is demanding, but it’s certainly not [a life-or-death situation]. I had a friend who I’d done NCT with, who’d had a baby at the same time as me and then went back into [a medical career], and I was so in awe of her. The idea that she was coping with frontline medicine on top of everything else. I thought that extreme was really worth writing about.
It was both. My first baby didn’t really sleep so I was exhausted. I also came back to a very different job in a very different situation – the organisation that I’d stepped away from was undergoing a lot of change when I stepped away. And suddenly the hours [that you can work] become very rigid too – a big part of my job used to be going to see other people’s shows in the evenings, but I couldn’t do that anymore in the same way.
And I think, as Maryam says in Maternal, it was about ‘all the pieces of who you are being thrown up in the air’ – that’s exactly how I felt. How does your job fit into the new person that you are? It’s really challenging if you’ve got a job that you care about or you’ve given a lot of yourself to, and you simply can’t prioritise it in the same way anymore.
We had three incredible medical consultants – doctors who volunteered their time to advise us. We had one from each of the specialties that the women do in the show [acute medicine, surgery and paediatrics]. These consultants are a fundamental part of the show now and huge parts of them have gone into the characters – they’re all parents too. I also read medical textbooks, medical biographies, and watched a lot of ER.
For general research on working mothers, I read a brilliant book called The Mother of All Jobs. And I spoke to a lot of people, a lot of my friends.
Yes, I did. And it felt important to me to include it, if we were going to create a show that represented a real experience of working motherhood. My kids are two and five, and [I know that] the amount of interruption and the noise levels are so acute!
But there’s a reason why the children [in many shows] are always ‘asleep’ or ‘playing in another room’ – it’s a nightmare! The number of shots we lost, the hours it takes to get a two-year-old to do what you need them to do, the amount of bribery – mums running around behind the camera with lollipops to get kids to do their thing, and they still didn’t do it. Or they only do it for 10 minutes. I wrote those scenes, quite naively, thinking: “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” And then, when we got on set, we went: “Oh this is why.”
But, bless them, the directors were determined to capture that spirit of it. All of our directors were like: ‘We’ve lived this, we know this, and we want to capture it.’ They were all able to [change plans quickly] and I tried to be on set when we had a lot of kids’ scenes, so I could go: ‘Let’s cut this, change this, lean into whatever they’re giving.’
A lot needs to happen at a systemic level. We should have longer, fully-paid maternity leave. Childcare should be free and universal. It beggars belief that that stuff isn’t there at the moment.
On a micro level, if you’re a manager, I think it’s important to use someone’s “Keeping In Touch” days proactively during maternity leave. Don’t just let them sit in the corner and then go home again – think about how you can structure those days to keep them up to speed. And it’s important to have a meeting before they come back to work, [to discuss] how they want to manage their return. Ask them what they need.
Yes and no. Hopefully, we’ll have a second season of Maternal, we’re still waiting to hear. I’ve certainly got a lot more to say about those women and their situations. But I don’t want everything I write to be about women with children, partly because most of my close friends don’t have children and I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that [motherhood] is the only right choice for a woman. But I think I will continue to write stories that are female-centred. I don’t think there are enough of them out there.
You can watch Maternal on ITVX.
Photo credits: United Agents, ITV