"When your kid's starting at a new school, you're kind of starting at a new school, with just kind of layers and layers of hangups." Sharon Horgan is talking about Motherland, her latest show, now on Sundance TV, which focuses on the clique-y world of school moms and should put any notions about "having it all" to sleep once and for all (it is death by absurdity and bugles).
Horgan, Irish creator and star of Pulling, HBO's Divorce with Sarah Jessica Parker, and the BAFTA-winning Catastrophe, is talking to Romper by phone from her backyard in London about season one of the series (also nominated for a BAFTA), and, at the same time, second-guessing her own work-life balance. "I look at my teenage daughter and [think about] how she must see me, sitting in the backyard right now, yacking about my shows on the phone with someone seven thousand miles away," she says.
Her belief in creating these funny, ambivalent shows about motherhood? "I think it's important to see mothers f*cking up and the world not ending." Exactly why I feel better every time I watch one of her characters failing at something or another, forever on the outside of the party.
Sometimes you luck out and you find people who are similar to you, or people you would have chosen, and sometimes you don't.
Motherland's pilot opens with working mom Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) rocking up to elementary school with her two children and realizing, upon seeing scores of little chairs stacked on desks and little coat hooks empty, that it is in fact the school holidays. Her mother performed childcare duties previously but is now best-lifing it — when Julia comes knocking, her mother hides behind the couch, then comes to the door in corn-rows, a palm tree t-shirt and an ungodly tan, fresh from a cruise. This leaves Julia with no option but to confront the moms in their little tribes in Tea Bags, the local cafe, and try to wheedle childcare favors by becoming a "joiner." ("This is one of my nightmares — I'm surrounded by mums at night," Julia remarks at one point.)
There is the Alpha Mom, Amanda (Lucy Punch), referred to as "Cersei Lannister" by another character if that gives you any idea of her vibe, and Amanda's court of admirers. There is Kevin (Paul Ready), a stay-at-home-dad or "SAHD" — pronounced "sad" by a more astute dad who had penetrated the A table, much to Kevin's dismay — and then there is Liz (Diane Morgan), a rough-around-the-edges mom who has no intention of sucking up to anyone and has more wisdom than her broad accent suggests.
In the show, hell is other moms. "I think it's very difficult to be thrown in amongst a group of people who you're kind of told you have to form a relationship with," Horgan says. "Sometimes you luck out and you find people who are similar to you, or people you would have chosen, and sometimes you don't." If all the moms secretly worry that no one likes them, Julia is lucky enough to be been chosen by her eventual friends, Kevin and the winning Liz.
It's a crime that any parent would put another parent through that.
There are moments in the show where I laughed like someone dying watching the various indignities of life as a mom — a birthday party petting zoo that turns out to be just neighborhood cats stuffed into carriers; being caught eating the leftovers off your child's plate; looking at someone else's inspirational wood block quotes; accompanying your child to a pool party.
"It's a crime that any parent would put another parent through that," Horgan says with poison in her voice. "I mean fine, drop them off, but to insist that you need to get into there as well, in essentially your underwear and then have to look [other parents] in the eye the next day at school." She sums up, "I just think it's just unnecessary cruelty."
It is a chaotic world occupied by women who have accidentally become PTA moms, and are forever flapping their children along, late for school or work or both, bargaining for carpool spots, and hoping that no more shingles come loose in their precarious lives. Says a father who drops off a pantsless child while announcing that he must cut back on his custody arrangement, "One shoe's all I can manage and he says he doesn't like trousers."
Expectations are low.
The show, which was co-written with Father Ted creator Graham Linehan, as well as Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, is pitilessly funny. "Kevin!" yells another father from across the swimming pool. "Want to join in the human wave machine? I've wrangled some of the bigger moms!"
Going to work was the fun bit, coming home was when work really started.
I'm waiting for male reviewers to declare once again that motherhood is bleak, and that existential comedy only proves the point, but if Julia is stuck in the limbo of doing her job poorly while raising two kids ("GIVE ME THE BOP-IT" she screams in the car), her mother is a vision of hope — if you can get past hating her.
"We wanted to give that poor woman her life back. She's done the work with her own children and for a good chunk of her grandchildren's life and she's just refusing to keep at it," Horgan explains. "This is kind of her time now... it's kind of a wish fulfillment thing for her."
It's a cruel irony that career opportunities and childbearing years seem to occupy the same stretch of time. Horgan's first big success, Pulling, about a single girl and her friends botching adulthood, came in her mid-thirties, so her career took off at the same time she was starting a family — her kids are now a tween and a teen.
At this point, you might be wondering where Julia's husband is, and the answer is: always at work. He appears only over the phone in the series, wearing a captain's hat on a booze cruise with work mates apologizing that he "cannot get away from work" in episode after episode. "We wanted to expose that guy," Horgan says, recalling the time when her children were little. "Going to work was the fun bit, coming home was when work really started," she says. For working spouses, she deadpans, "Oh wow poor you, you're eating dinner, drinking wine with adults, I feel terrible for you."
The show is notably missing the romantic glue that sweetened Catastrophe and the focus on solo motherhood brings a truth of its own (where does your spouse fall on your list of priorities right now?). Our kids are foremost foremost foremost in our lives. Why else would we volunteer to do the fundraiser thing? Make friends with women we have nothing else in common with than kids?
I ask Horgan if she ever wonders what her kids will think about her.
"Oh my god. I mean I do, really, genuinely," she says, touching on the love and sacrifice she sees in her own mother. "I hope that they have good stories and that they see us as human beings with flaws and stuff but underneath all that understand that [we] love them madly."