Other writers have notably been turning to fiction recently to portray motherhood in its most animalistic form – from the woman who metamorphosises into a dog in Rachel Yoder’s Nightbitch (now being made into a film with Amy Adams) to the half-bird-half-human inspiration for Megan Hunter’s tale of family life and adultery, The Harpy. Or they have gone dystopian, as with The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan which examines the “bad mother” stereotype via the tale of a mother losing custody of her daughter and being sent to an institution in order to dwell on her failings.
A question that has been raised is: are all these depictions going too far toward the negative side of motherhood, to the exclusion of the positive? After all, there is, of course, a whole range of joyful experiences that mothers may have as well. However, Levy counters the idea that culture is becoming too negative about motherhood by questioning what is truly a “negative” depiction in the first place: “For me, the negative depiction is that of the perfect mother; the traditional image of a woman brimming with endless tender love who never entertains a moment’s negativity (or, indeed, personality)… We seem to have removed the space for women to speak freely and openly about their experiences having and raising babies and children. The result is tremendously harmful. The consequences, for maternal mental health, the mental health of our children, and wider societal health, economics and equality, are appalling.”
As Levy mentions in her book, in 2018 Dr Catriona Jones, a lecturer in midwifery, warned of “fearmongering” among women frightening each other about childbirth on online forums such as Mumsnet: “All you have to do is Google ‘my experience of childbirth’, and you are met with a tsunami of… women telling stories about childbirth — ‘it’s terrible, it’s a bloodbath’,” she said, in a speech at the British Science Festival. “I think that can be difficult to deal with”. But arguably Jones’s warning reinforces the dated notion that women are too delicate to be told the truth about some people’s maternal experiences. Instead, they are asked to become complicit in a silence around mothers’ pain and anguish – from that very first post-birth cliché text message “Mother and baby are doing well”, which Levy calls “a lie”.
The recent BBC/AMC adaptation of Adam Kay’s bestselling medical memoir, This Is Going To Hurt, which follows Kay’s real-life experiences as a junior doctor on an Obstetrics and Gynaecology ward in a British hospital, also came under fire for its traumatic scenes of women giving birth, as well what “positive birth” expert Milli Hill called the “paternalistic, misogynistic attitude” of Kay towards his female patients. But others argued the depiction of the maternal experience was creditable for being uncomfortably real. Times journalist Alice Jones wrote that she “didn’t feel angry watching This Is Going to Hurt, I felt glad that someone was telling the truth. Birth can be beautiful, but it’s also brutal. What are we going to do about that?”
Culture exploring the darker side of motherhood may also now have an extra resonance at a time when, in the US, some states are intending to remove the constitutional right to an abortion, after the Supreme Court overturned the case of Roe vs Wade. In one harrowing episode of The Baby, we see how the titular child’s biological mother – Helen (Tanya Reynolds) – is held hostage and forced to give birth, in scenes reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale; Robins-Grace explains how differently that scene hits home for her now. “It’s sobering to realise that we were naive to believe, in a legislative way, that [abortion] was off the table.”
More generally, the fact that current films, TV series and books might shock us and shatter our collective illusions about motherhood is only a good thing, says Levy. “Popular culture finally seems to be waking up to the idea that mothers can be interesting, dynamic characters in their own right, front and centre to the story, with all the foibles and flaws and fascinating facets exhibited by the rest of humanity.”
The Baby is available on HBO Max in the US now, and airs on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV in the UK from today; Don’t Forget To Scream by Marianne Levy is out on 21 July on Phoenix.
Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.