Motherhood for the urban middle classes is so homogenised that an Australian show written and filmed 9,000 miles from London has nailed my life. The Letdown, Netflix’s comedy about a group of new mums in Sydney, makes me feel like a cliché, but it also makes me feel understood.
Although, take heed expectant parents; I’m on the fence about whether you should watch it. I want you to go into labour excited and I think The Letdown might put a dampener on things (pun intended). Like the first few months of parenting, the show is a relentless bombardment of drudgery, anxiety, areolas and crying babies. Watch it once you’ve had a baby and it will seem more like a comedy and less like a warning.
Audrey, the show’s Carrie – if Carrie wore pyjamas under dungarees – is a new mum who has lost her words, is losing her old friends and now spends her days at mother and baby groups. Like all shows about new mums, The Letdown runs with the cliché that no one has time to brush their hair if they’re breastfeeding. While matted heads and leaky breasts are strong visual metaphors for just how discombobulating the first few months of motherhood are, I wish new mums weren’t always reduced to stained jersey on screen.
I like Audrey and I feel sorry for her – these two things are definitely interlinked, there’s no denying the show is kind of a pity-fest. In the first episode Audrey heads to a mother and baby group complete with name tags and a representative from every mum tribe going. There’s the working power-mum who has left her baby at home; the perfect mum who questions those breastfeeding with their actual breasts, asking "How do you know they’re getting their 60ml at every feed?" – classic perfect-mum judgment disguised as a question. There’s the donor-baby-mum, who seems the most normal and, to complete the list of stereotypes, there is earth-mama who believes in raising her child genderless and had a home birth. Notably earth-mama is sporting a waist-length fishbone plait, which belies her nonchalance regarding looks; we all know how long a fishbone plait takes.
It’s not just in The Letdown that I’ve seen mum tribes competing; it seems society is obsessed with categorising mums by their parenting style and then pitting them against each other. We see it with the firm line drawn between ‘working mums’ and ‘stay-at-home mums’. I see it on the bus when a Wotsits mum parks her pram next to an Organix mum. Those two snacks are essentially the same, and both are used as a moment of respite for the mum – "please be quiet and eat your snack". Yet they also determine your mum tribe, and those mum tribe labels are so loaded they create divides between women essentially going through the same experience at the same time.
A few episodes in (don’t worry, there’s no plot as such to spoil), Audrey gets some freelance work to write a speech on the gender pay gap; nice gig if you can get it Audrey! Of course she leaves her vocabulary at home, annoys her co-workers and has to ask what a 401k is. I remember that first day back at work, my brain shrunk after six months of talking to a baby and day drinking. I felt dumb and exposed; when I spoke it seemed my words just wafted ineffectually around the boardroom. The Letdown captures that feeling perfectly, but I do have an issue with constantly showing new mums to be drivel in the workplace. It’s how many of us feel, yes, but is it how we appear? I’ve worked with mums as they returned to work and have never actually seen them flap about and cry while humming "Baa Baa Black Sheep".
The Letdown meticulously ticks off every frustration of the new mum. The dad who calls being a dad "babysitting"; that sex chat becomes "ouch my haemorrhoids"; that it’s always someone else’s baby who sleeps through; just how hard it is to do cry-it-out; that your breasts become public property… Right now there is a deluge of mum-related content. 2017 saw mum books consistently top The Sunday Times bestseller lists, Channel 4 had Catastrophe and the BBC brought out Motherland, and, just last week, Jacqueline Rose released her book Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty. Mums are evidently looking to be understood and The Letdown definitely holds a mirror up to middle-class mumdom, bodily fluids and all.
You’re not meant to moan about how hard it is to become a mum at 32 once you’ve established quite a lovely, selfish life. It’s as first world as problems get, but it’s real and, as The Letdown shows, it’s a universal feeling.
There is a scene in the first episode where Audrey takes her baby out to dinner with her non-baby friends. She then finds herself on a night bus home, bawling her eyes out, her 2-month-old strapped to her after an evening of stilted conversation and feeling left out. I experienced exactly that just after my son was born – that first outing with friends where all you crave is familial chat with people you love, but the night leaves you with nothing but anxiety. Two glasses of prosecco in, you realise that your friends don’t understand what you’re going through and that you’ve fallen, momentarily, out of rhythm with their lives. The Letdown doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that friendship, as you knew it, is a huge loss to new mums. Not to mention the greatest, most traumatic loss new mums have to face: Uber.