Maid’s car crash is all too relatable for young mums

Georgia Booth on how Maid nails the struggle of juggling motherhood with everything else

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Hi, I’m Jared Richards, editor of Netflix Pause, and while watching Maid, I couldn’t help but think a really blaringly obvious thought: having a young child really shapes every single waking moment of your life. 

Inspired by Stephanie Land’s 2016 memoir, Maid has been celebrated for capturing the abuse and poverty many young mothers experience The show starts as Alex (Margaret Qualley) leaves her emotionally abusive boyfriend in the middle of the night, with $17 to her name and no job or home to go to. There’s never a second where Alex isn’t doing something for her two-year-old daughter Maddy. Even when they’re (briefly) apart, she’s making money (yes, as a maid) as an inroad for their future. 

The pressure to provide both security and happiness is relentless, and in episode 1, Alex makes a mistake. After Maddy accidentally drops her favourite doll out the car window, Alex parks on the freeway late at night to go find it. While parked, her car is totalled, as someone crashes into it while Maddy’s still inside. (Thankfully, she’s fine).  

For this week’s Scene & Heard, editor, writer, and mother Georgia Booth explains to me exactly why Alex would go to such extreme lengths for a doll (!!!), and how Maid perfectly captures the way having a child impacts your sense of self completely.

JR: You've picked possibly one of the most stressful scenes in all of Maid, which is saying something considering how tense things get. Pulling over on a freeway at night is so, so dangerous! And for a doll?!

GB: My heart was in my throat in this scene. It’s a bit of a TV trope: a kid loses their favourite toy and all hell breaks loose. I never really got the big deal – just give them another toy? – until I had a kid myself. You will risk life and death, including pulling over at night on a four-lane highway, to prevent a meltdown. 

Especially when you’re having one of those days where you simply can’t afford for one more thing to go wrong. 

In this scene, Alex is on the phone to her new boss, fighting to keep her job. It’s late, she doesn't know where she’s going, she’s trying desperately to act like everything’s in control for her two-year-old daughter Maddy. When Maddy drops her mermaid doll ‘Shmariel’ along a highway, she lets out a particular type of scream – the familiar sound of a kid about to lose it. Alex pulls over to find her decapitated head on the ground, and it’s the last straw. She crumbles. And I get it. 

On our first long road trip, Olive was in a real state and we had to pull over in an industrial zone in Bathurst, on a boiling hot day, with semi-trailers thundering past us to try and calm her down. We got back in the car and played ‘The Happy Song’ by Imogen Heap (IYKYK) 34 times in a row to get her to sleep, then didn’t talk for the rest of the three-hour journey in case we woke her. Good times. 

My situation is very different to Alex’s – I’m in a stable, loving relationship – but Maid captures the tug-of-war of being a parent so beautifully. The love you have for your kid and your desire for them to be happy is a crazy, powerful thing. I can make myself cry thinking about how much I love my 16-month old daughter, Olive (although maybe that’s post-lockdown fragility talking). In the early days, it’s especially intense. When Olive was tiny, two random women peered into the pram and told me how cute she was, and I immediately teared up – my boobs started leaking too! You’re just a blubbery, damp mess in the newborn days. 

Along with this all-consuming love comes a new resilience. You need it when shit hits the fan, or you haven’t slept well in weeks, or you’re trying to meet a pressing deadline and be a present parent. You have to keep a big smile on your face because you’re the adult now and they rely on you for everything. 

'You're the adult now' must be a sobering realisation: do you remember a particular moment when it really hit you for the first time?

We went to visit my sister-in-law in Canberra earlier this year, and had a raucous time catching up over a few bottles of wine after we put Olive to bed. But we were a little too loud, and Olive woke up and started screaming. Nothing is more of a buzzkill than a crying baby that’s meant to be peacefully asleep for the next 12 hours. We got her back to sleep, but the party was over. Olive woke the house up the next morning at 6 am (the walls are thin) and my sister-in-law, who was pregnant at the time, said “wow, it really is a 24-hour thing, isn’t it. I didn’t realise there were no breaks”. 

It sounds obvious, but you don’t realise how constant it is. Becoming a parent splits your life into BB (before baby) and AB (after baby). It’s all-consuming in a way that’s like nothing else I’ve experienced. For the first few months, you’re a feeding, rocking, swaddling machine. If you’re breastfeeding, you can’t even be away from your baby for more than three hours at a time. You have no idea what you’re doing, and you’re constantly terrified that your baby is going to overheat or roll off the bed, or you’re going to accidentally leave them behind in the supermarket because you’re so tired. Keeping this kid alive is your number one task, and there’s not much room for anything else.  

As they get bigger and a little sturdier, you start to slowly piece your identity back together, and figure out how your role as a parent co-exists with the other parts of yourself. Through the series, there are moments when Alex, who is an aspiring writer, reads her work in progress aloud. I found these scenes really moving. There is such a beautiful vulnerability to them, her face is totally transported as she recites. 

It reminded me of the renewed appreciation I had for my work after having Olive. I had an urgent compulsion to write about my experience of motherhood, to try and record and process some of what I was going through. You have so much less time for yourself as a parent, so I treasured the moments I could snatch while she was sleeping to write for myself, or to work. I felt more creative, more insightful, and also way more driven. When the opportunities to inhabit that part of your mind shrink, you’re suddenly very hungry for them. 

Major studies by neuroscientists have actually found that the brain undergoes a significant remodelling from the moment a woman falls pregnant until two years after birth. The brain starts to shrink, pruning irrelevant neural connections, making it more adaptive and open to change. You really do feel like a different person – that's kind of proof. 

Alex has moments where she's allowed to feel that joy and sense of growth, but there are a lot of obstacles in the way. She's often only able to rest or piece herself together through acts of kindness by others, usually only when they realise she has a daughter. While your circumstances are (thankfully) very different, do you also find people treat you differently when they learn you're a mum?

Yeah for sure, and it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s like joining a non-exclusive, extremely expensive club. It means other parents cut you some slack or are willing to help you out (not even just parents, most people get it to a degree). You can see it when social worker Jody tips her off about the maid service, or when Nate lends her his car (although he’s also trying to get in her pants).

But it can be stifling. There were difficult moments for me when I was on maternity leave, spending every day doing laps around my neighbourhood with a pram, feeling completely invisible. Friends would look embarrassed for me when they asked what I had been up to and I didn’t have much to say. Others would ask things like, “so what do you even do to fill your day?”. I’m more comfortable with it now, but I would try really hard not to be too focused on Olive/parenting around certain people at the start. I felt I had to prove I hadn’t become ‘that’ kind of mum, which is shit. What does that even mean? You can’t change and lean into this new role? 

Alex gets the delectable opportunity to create a new identity when she invites a booty call over to her client’s house and for 20 minutes, gets to be just the budding writer, no dependables. It’s a sexy moment. 

In the doll-chasing scene, we see how Alex will go to any stops to make her daughter happy. But it's also a moment others, like her ex, use to judge her as an unfit mother. Tell me if I'm wrong, but I feel like Alex's sense of shame of doing something dumb so publicly almost outweighs that 'what if' fear around the crash? I mean, I started this conversation by judging her parenting! 

Nothing is worse than the ‘what if’ fear, but you’re right, there is a lot of pressure to get it right, and a lot of shame when you feel like you’re failing. 

I felt especially tender towards Alex in the crash scene. When my daughter was around six months old, I was on my way to meet a colleague and was feeling really flustered: it had been a hellish week and I was out-of-my-mind tired. I got a call in the car, was distracted trying to keep Olive from crying and heard this metal-on-metal scraping noise – I had drifted into the other lane and swiped a ute. It was on Olive’s side of the car, and there were a few awful moments of silence until I realised it was only a superficial scrape. I was so exhausted that when the police called me later and asked if I had been in an accident, I said no! I had forgotten that it happened. 

I felt like a terrible parent and I know if more people saw it happen or I had to face them, it would be even worse. There is so much judgment around parenting, so many different ways to do it, and everyone thinks they know best. The worst thing is, even if I don’t agree with someone’s criticism, it’s really hard not to internalise it because I'm always questioning myself and trying to be better as I’m figuring it out. Being a parent isn’t just keeping your kid alive, it forces you to hold a mirror up to yourself and ask, ‘Is this what I want to be teaching them?”. It makes you want to be a better person, but it sucks when you feel like you could be doing better. 

It’s particularly tough for Alex. The assessment of her actions have legal implications and could see her daughter being taken away from her, so the pressure is multiplied. Of course, a child has to be safe, but the most important thing is they have someone who adores them and makes them feel secure.

And then is the flip-side that when you’re working or even just being yourself without Olive with you – socialising, living – you kind of feel guilty too? Which, to be clear, is ridiculous!

So ridiculous! There was a scene in the first episode where Alex spent the whole time at her first cleaning job checking her phone. That was me on my first day back at work. I was so excited to go back and when I got there, I was an anxious mess and checked my phone every five minutes for updates from my daughter’s daycare. 

Maybe it’s the Jew in me, but I’m always feeling guilty! That she went to daycare too early, that she goes too much, or when I drop her at her grandma’s for no reason other than I need a break. Alex wrestles with this in Episode 5, when she drops Maddy to daycare with a bad cough – you can see the anguish on her face when she has to make this decision. I’ve dropped Olive to daycare with a cold many times so I could work, and felt terrible. 

No matter what your circumstance, navigating parenthood is not easy. Shows that depict the struggle of the juggle as authentically as Maid does are so important – it’s a pertinent reminder that everyone’s just trying their best, and that’s all you can do. And to ask for help! It really does take a village.

Georgia Booth is a writer and editor with an interest in food, culture and travel, living on Cammeraygal land.

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