The small screen now regularly plays a central role in dismantling inaccurate and harmful tropes about women, from the 'perfect victim' to the 'bad mother'.


For too long, women have been made to feel like bad mothers for having careers, for struggling with the responsibility of raising their children, or for making any mistakes – the most human of all traits – however small. And recent series such as Expats, After the Flood and Sex Education have all taken the time to examine the vast spectrum of motherhood, in particular the mum guilt that thrives in a hyper-critical, hyper-scrutinised world.

In the former, Nicole Kidman's Margaret berates herself after her youngest son Gus is abducted while out with her new friend and prospective nanny. Margaret wasn't near her son when he went missing, nor did she ever ease up on tirelessly searching for him, and yet, she firmly believes that it is her fault he was taken.

The mum-of-three questions why her innate maternal instinct failed her on that horrific night, as previously she would intuitively know if Gus needed anything, even when she was asleep.

"What kind of mother loses her own child?" she asks, her psychological turmoil offering a glimpse into the immense pressure women feel to intrinsically know what their child needs, wants and feels at every moment, which is, of course, impossible.

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Nicole Kidman as Margaret, stood alongside another woman and looking at something off screen in Expats
Nicole Kidman as Margaret in Expats. Jupiter Wong/Prime Video

Then there's Margaret's confidante and neighbour Hilary (Sarayu Blue), who doesn't want to have children, for which she is shamed by her own mother.

"Society puts so much pressure on women to have children to be whole," she says, but Hilary already feels complete. And yet, her mother's response is to reassure her that she herself wasn't set on having kids until Hilary was born, a moment which supposedly changed her entire stance.

"You never know until you try it," she adds, highlighting how women are so often coaxed into motherhood with the false expectation that they will immediately know how to parent, their maternal nature kicking in when their newborn child arrives. But until that moment, their viewpoints on motherhood are considered irrelevant.

And even when women are pregnant, they're not immune from mum guilt, as seen in gripping ITV drama After the Flood. PC Joanna Marshall (Sophie Rundle) is frequently reprimanded by her family for working while she's heavily pregnant. And sure, Jo throws herself into life-threatening situations, such as wading into a flash flood, but it's to save a stranded mother and her baby. Legendary stuff, really.

She's also shamed for prioritising her career over her unborn child's health when there's the expectation that after her baby is born, she'll take a back seat – perhaps a desk job once her true purpose has arrived: being a mum.

But thankfully, regardless of how many times she's dismissed, or even when she's sent on early maternity leave by her male superiors, Jo doesn't give up on trying to solve the murder hanging over the Yorkshire town in which she lives. She signs up for her detective course, dismantles the corrupt façade surrounding the enquiry, and single-handedly delivers her own baby.

Jo refused to be shamed into submission, knowing full well that she wasn't just going to be a capable parent, but a good officer, too.

PC Jo wearing her uniform and standing outside with her hands on her baby bump.
Sophie Rundle as Jo in After the Flood. QUAYSTREET PRODUCTIONS FOR ITV/ITVX

Similarly, in the final season of celebrated Netflix comedy-drama Sex Education, we see Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) struggle to adjust to life as an older parent with a newborn.

The sex therapist is eager to embrace an opportunity to front her own radio show and reconnect with that seminal part of her identity after becoming a mother for the second time. But inevitably, as it's only weeks after she's given birth to Joy, Jean finds it difficult to juggle two children and her professional responsibilities.

Drifting from her teenage son, struggling to soothe her baby and unable to deliver a high-energy radio show, she starts to feel like a failure. But Jean isn't a 'bad mother' for not knowing how to soothe Joy when she cries, or for going back to work eight weeks after the birth of her child. It's that she's under immense pressure, exacerbated by the fact that she's a single parent.

Realistically, how can anyone be expected to cope with all of that?

A fundamental concern of all of those narratives is to empathise with women who feel intense guilt borne of being a parent, and to highlight the impossible standards placed on said women, which ensures that all mothers will feel the weight of that shame at some point while raising their children.

Those stories also draw attention to the fact that there isn't the same pressure on men to know, instinctively, how to be a father. In fact, allowances are made for those men who struggle with the new, intense weight of what it means to be a dad.

In Expats, After the Flood and Sex Education, we see that the pressure heaped on women to be faultless in their parenting ultimately gives them zero room for error. And every mistake, whether it's within their control or not, feels like a personal reflection of their ability – or inability – to mother their child, which only feeds the toxic shame spiral further.

But by placing stories which dismantle the 'bad mother' trope front and centre, society can go some way towards alleviating some of this pressure while addressing how ridiculous it is to expect women to be superhuman and raise an unpredictable infant perfectly.

In short, there isn't one way to be a mother, but there's countless ways to feel like a bad one when you're not.

Expats is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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