Mum’s the word when it comes to juggling parenthood and work

Maternal: Lara Pulver stars in trailer for ITV series

It’s that moment every parent or grandparent dreads: the crying baby won’t stop. The more you soothe the child, the more they bawl. Everyone is looking, you’re flushed with embarrassment, sweat is pouring off you…but the screaming continues.

So pity poor actress Lisa McGrillis who was recording this very scene in front of a cast and crew of several dozen – with her own baby daughter.

“There were definitely moments I was thinking, ‘What have I done?’” admits Lisa, 40, who volunteered her own 18-month-old child Cleo to play her on-screen daughter when she starred as A&E doctor and new mum Helen Cavendish in the brilliant new ITV drama, Maternal.

The mother-of-two (she also has an older son) admits it was certainly a decision that came with its challenges.

“Normally, when you are working with a child, you pass them back to their mother when things start going a bit haywire, so that was a bit of a downside when I couldn’t do that,” she says.

“There is a scene where I’m rocking her to sleep, giving her milk and singing a lullaby. It was the end of a long day and she was really tired and started to play up. She was crying, didn’t want me to hold her and then you’ve got the whole crew watching you parenting as you are thinking, ‘Just drink the milk!’

“If it had been another baby, I couldn’t have settled her but because it was Cleo, I knew what to do and she eventually calmed down. But that is partly why I took this job: everyone can relate.”

Lisa – who starred as Kelly opposite Lesley Manville in BBC sitcom Mum, and has also appeared in Death in Paradise – adds: “When I read the script, I thought, ‘This is me, basically’. I am just playing a version of myself which is really kind of exposing in a lot of ways.”

Lara Pulver, Parminder Nagra and Lisa McGrillis star in Maternal

Lara Pulver, Parminder Nagra and Lisa McGrillis star in Maternal (Image: ITV Studios)

The six-part series also includes Spooks actress Lara Pulver – also recognised for playing dominatrix Irene Adler who seduced Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes in a daring pre-watershed nude scene – and ER star Parminder Nagra. It is a no-holds-barred look at the challenges of working motherhood, focusing on three friends returning to the post-pandemic NHS frontline after maternity leave.

Writer Jacqui Honess-Martin was inspired to create the drama after her experience of rejoining the theatre world after her first child.

Jacqui found the juggling of motherhood and work painful and exhausting and wondered what it would be like if the stakes were raised.

In Maternal, which premieres on ITV on Monday, the three new mothers are all doctors working in one of the most stressful environments in the country – an NHS hospital.

All three stars knew something about the struggles of working parenthood – one reason why they all jumped at the script. The children of both cast and crew were welcomed onto the set in Liverpool, even if they did add to the mayhem of a normal film studio. Lara, 42, was the first to be offered the role.

She plays ambitious trauma surgeon and single mother Catherine MacDiarmid, determined not to let being a mum to a nine-month-old get in the way of her job. When a more senior position comes up for grabs, her rival is her sometime-lover, consultant Jack Olivera, played by her real-life husband Raza Jaffrey.

He has the advantage of not taking time out to have a baby – or having to beg the babysitter to stay for a few more hours while he finishes surgery.

Lara says: “Catherine is a trailblazer who feels she can accomplish anything if she puts her mind to it – she’ll just make it happen.

“But over the episodes we see her learning to navigate the pulls of motherhood – that maternal instinct – and how that will work with her career. She is really good at her job and is determined to make it fit around her career but sometimes life gets in the way.” The push and pull of work and motherhood is something Lara knows only too well.

A few weeks after giving birth to her first child Ozias, now five, by C-section, she was offered a potentially career-defining role for the massive Marvel film and TV franchise.

The catch was she would have to start immediately.

Best known for the series Homeland, it was Raza, 49, who also starred in Spooks, although not alongside his future wife, who asked her if it was what she really wanted, telling her: “I’ll support you through everything but you’re loving being an earth mother, do you really want to try and strap yourself into a Marvel superhero suit?”

Instead, Lara gave herself a few months off – going back to work when Ozias was four months old. She now has two children – their daughter Thea was born two years ago – and says that until recently she had deliberately picked small parts so as to not be away from home for too long.

Last year she was in BBC legal drama The Split, playing a psychologist who persuades Stephen Mangan to leave his not-very-faithful wife.

Lara says: “I think I am a better actress for having children – it gives you more life experience.

“I love being a mum – it’s the best thing I’ve ever done – and I like being around my kids. But I was really ready to start balancing that by being around creative minds.

“I worked with a wonderful medical consultant and I asked her, ‘How does life operate at home?’ And she told me, ‘It’s an absolutely s***show but work I can control’.

Lisa holding daughter Cleo, with Parminder, Lara, and young cast members from Maternal

Lisa, left, holding daughter Cleo, with Parminder, Lara, and young cast members from Maternal (Image: ITV Studios)

“She said, ‘It’s when I go home, I don’t have a clue’. I know what that is like; you plan something with the best intentions but kids come with their own fortunes.”

She and Raza live in Los Angeles close to Parminder – the three have been good friends for years and got the job via each other. Lara was doing her audition over Zoom with the producers and Parminder was reading her lines with her.

The next day Parminder, who recently starred in another ITV drama, DI Ray, was asked if she fancied being in the show and she auditioned with Raza. He was given the job of heart-throb surgeon Mr Olivera who Lara describes with a smile as the “Mr Darcy of the operating theatre”.

While filming, all of their kids were looked after by members of Liverpool-born Raza’s family. Parminder, who found fame in cult classic Bend It Like Beckham and later starred in US medical drama ER, has been a single mother of son Kai, 13, since splitting from his photographer father James Stenson.

She is delighted there is finally a drama that reveals the difficulties and complex feelings that come with being a working mum.

Her character Dr Maryam Afridi is a paediatric consultant and mother-of-two who is returning to work after two years.

For anyone who has wondered, even in passing, how new mothers juggle childcare, sleep deprivation and life-or-death decision-making, Maternal provides some uncomfortable answers.

“All those feelings of guilt and anxiety are so realistic,” says Parminder, 47, who took 15 months out of the industry before returning to work after Kai was born.

“There is a moment where my character says, ‘What if I really love being away from them? But what if I really hate being away from them?’ Her mother tells her, ‘One informs the other; your work informs you as a parent and it’s important that you identify as a person to be able to go to work and not feel bad about it’. I can relate to all of that.

“Regardless of the profession you’re in, I think anyone who is a parent, particularly a mother, thinks, ‘How am I going to do my work and not feel guilty?’

“It is not seen in TV shows very often and here we see it with real humour. It features the whole rollercoaster element of it – like a ride at Alton Towers where you are chugging up and thinking, ‘This is ok’ and then there is this huge drop down and you think, ‘What just happened?’

“I remember I spent so much time thinking about how I was going to fit it all in – work and motherhood – that I realised I just needed to figure it out.

“For ages, I thought everybody else had it sorted. But then I would speak to them and ask them how they did it and they would say, ‘Hell no! I don’t know.’

“Now people ask me how I navigate through it all and I can only answer them, ‘I don’t know, I’m learning as I go!’”

  • Maternal will premiere on ITV1 and ITVX on Monday at 9pm

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