Overlooked, overburdened and undervalued

The series Maternal holds a mirror up to a public sector which is straining at the seams, but also to the women who keep everything running in the face of impossible demands.

maternal itv


This blog is not written by ChatGPT…yet. There has been a lot of news about ChatGPT in the last month or so, especially about it interfering with learning [especially homework]. Today education faces a different challenge as schools in England are hit by strikes – something which make life more difficult for many parents. Some are reportedly keeping open to offer a sort of giant childcare facility – doing art sessions and drop-ins, which helps parents, but doesn’t address the issue of lost learning. The Government says the majority are open, for instance, for vulnerable and key worker children – as in Covid, but, without a lot of the teachers, many are effectively closed for most children.

Striking teachers – the vast majority of whom are women – argue that a few days of disruption is worth it to address the everyday disruption that schools are facing due to teachers leaving, falling budgets and the like. Parents know all about this, but many of them are under huge pressure at work and, in the midst of a cost of living crisis, those who can’t earn if they can’t get to work can’t take much more. Our recent pop-up poll showed many parents are facing unsympathetic responses from employers over sickness absences – will they be understanding about the school strikes? And employers are stressed about keeping their businesses going amid all the various forms of turbulence around them as the UK economy faces multiple stressors.

None of these stressors came out of nowhere, although Covid has undoubtedly made it worse. All the signs have been there for some time. We’ve known for years that family finances are overstretched, that people have been living on credit and that just one small household problem, for instance, the fridge breaking down, can push them into arrears. We’ve known that school budgets have been cut, teaching assistants have been sacked due to lack of money, hospitals have been short of staff and so on. It’s like those fairground machines where the pennies are all teetering, ready to fall. Covid and the cost of living crisis have tipped many people over the edge.

I watched Maternal at the weekend. It’s about three doctors going back to the NHS after maternity leave. The exhaustion that we all feel after the last few years is no doubt worse in the NHS as people battle trauma from the Covid period as well as rising demand and huge staff shortages. Imagine returning to work from maternity leave in that atmosphere.

One mum is up before a panel after a boy dies in her care – a boy she had to try to resuscitate after on her first day back at work because there were no other staff to do it and to help her ease back in gently. It’s draining just to watch it, let alone live it. The messages of the programme, apart from concerns about the parlous state of the NHS, include the importance of female solidarity in the face of absolute chaos and impossible demands, unfairness [one single mum is passed over for promotion because her baby is up all night while the male surgeon with no ties is promoted to management, but appears to have little understanding of people, except when it comes to exploiting them when they are at their most vulnerable] and the profound questioning of identity that comes when you become a mother [feeling both your body and who you are have been fundamentally changed].

But perhaps the most central thing for me was when one character asked the other: have you ever thought that being a mum makes you a better doctor. So many of us beat ourselves up because we feel guilty that we are not living up to our and others’ high expectations of who we are supposed to be as parents. Even if we don’t feel it, we are stronger and wiser as a result, despite all the discrimination and the being made to feel lesser. Indeed the mums in the series come across as fantastic doctors. It’s an absolute waste that one has to take time out because of panic attacks caused by the nature and intensity of the work pressure she is under. They all look battered. The series shows clearly how much the system – all our systems – are propped up by people who are overlooked, overburdened and undervalued. That has to change.

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