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Netflix’s ‘Maid’ shows what every mother wants

“Maid” should have a warning label for moms: “Proceed with caution.”

It’s not that the recent Netflix miniseries portrays motherhood negatively. But the 10-episode drama about the life of a working single mom strikes at hopes and fears that only a mother can know.

“Maid” follows Alex Russel (Margaret Qualley), a young mom who leaves her alcoholic boyfriend Sean Boyd (Nick Robinson) to fend for herself and her 2-year-old daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet). Without Sean’s income and housing, and without any reliable family members to turn to, Alex must hold down a backbreaking house-cleaning job while struggling to care for Maddy and secure custody.

Although the series is set against this dire situation, each episode flashes scenes of joy and pain that will tug at any mother’s heart: the laughter while playing together, the hugs and kisses at bedtime, the concerned look when a cough develops, and the effort to maintain a cheerful voice amid a cloud of anxieties.

I will confess: The first few episodes kept me up at night. I couldn’t help but look at Alex squeezing her daughter and see myself holding my 1-year-old. And although I am lucky enough to be spared the problems she faces, I felt our worlds converging. As a mother, I absorbed her cares and concerns as if they were my own. It struck a nerve.

This reaction strikes at the heart of the popularity of “Maid,” which surged to Netflix’s Top 10 U.S. list this fall: It captures the experience of motherhood in a way that can resonate with anyone.

One scene in particular drives home this commonality among mothers. It is a conversation between Alex, who has spent all of Thanksgiving Day cleaning a mansion, and Regina, the wealthy lawyer who owns the place. Feeling alone and hopeless, Regina suddenly confides in Alex about her unsuccessful attempts to have children and the strain it has put on her marriage.

In this scene, the walls of socio-economic status come crumbling down. No longer is Regina the aristocrat and Alex the maid. They are two women who dream of a happy family life and carry burdens that threaten to crush those dreams.

Regina has poured thousands of dollars into fertility treatments and now a surrogate pregnancy, only to find herself isolated and unfulfilled in her quest for motherhood. “After all this time and all this money,” she confesses, “I don’t feel love. I don’t feel loved.”

Meanwhile, Alex’s only source of joy is her daughter, but with no sense of security in either finances or relationships, she lives in constant fear of losing Maddy.

Although they live in different worlds, both women feel the same inner tension: the eagerness to care for a child and the agony of having to do it alone.

In other words, Alex and Regina both crave the same thing: the security of motherhood within a family.

“Maid” highlights a number of popular social issues, from the shortcomings of government-assistance programs to the wide income gap. But this series does more than echo refrains of social justice; it digs beneath the surface of these problems and gets at an underlying and often overlooked issue: the breakdown of marriage and family life. And “Maid” shows us the consequences of that breakdown: stranded and neglected women fighting to be good mothers outside of marriage. As Alex’s experience makes clear, it’s a noble fight, but it’s also a brutal one.

In their broken situations, both Alex and Regina try their best to patch together a loving family environment — Regina by “making a baby” for herself and her husband, and Alex by trying to make even a homeless shelter feel like home.

There’s eagerness and love in both situations, but there’s also great sadness, because the absence of a loving husband and father leaves a hole in their family lives that is not easily filled. 

In a society that glorifies professional achievement as a measure of self-worth and encourages women to seek fulfillment in a career rather than motherhood, Regina and Alex’s stories expose what is missing in that supposed ideal: the maternal instinct. Regina longs for the sense of motherly connection from which IVF and surrogacy were supposed to liberate her, and Alex’s role as Maddy’s mother does not hinder her but rather defines and motivates her.

In a world that presents motherhood as at best an accessory and at worst a hindrance to a woman’s happiness, “Maid” presents it as something else entirely: a treasure. 

As painful as it is to watch Alex’s struggle, her love for her daughter is a streak of light amid the darkness of her story. Surrounded by relationships fraught with abuse, neglect, and coldness, Alex’s motherhood is the one relationship that is good, pure, and hopeful in this series. It is what makes her heroic, and it’s what makes “Maid” worth watching.

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