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Normalising abortion on The Letdown

The Letdown. Audrey (Alison Bell). Image supplied: ABC.

The Letdown is a comedy of errors about first-time parenting, the first season of which aired on ABC in 2016 and has found further success on Netflix in the years since.

Protagonist Audrey (Alison Bell) and her partner Jeremy (Duncan Fellows) navigate the highs and well, “let-downs”, of new parenthood, along with Audrey’s friends whom she meets at parent group: older, career-driven Ester (Sacha Horler), yuppie but well-meaning Sophie (Lucy Durack), hands-off mum Barbara (Celeste Barber), and gay single mum Martha (Leah Vandenberg).

The first season was a realistic portrayal of the black hole that new parenthood can sometimes be, at once providing a touchstone for those who’ve been there before and validation to viewers like myself who’ve chosen to opt out of the merry-go-round that is late nights and the eponymous letdown. The show’s title is not only a play on this, but also the let-down reflex, the breastfeeding body’s response to suckling.

Season two is concerned with this very predicament (choosing not to have kids, not lactation!). Hints are dropped throughout the season that Audrey has undergone an abortion at some stage after the birth of her first child, Stevie, now a toddler. She is largely left to unpack the aftermath alone, as Jeremy has relocated interstate for work. The Letdown allows Audrey to feel all of the feelings, from shame and guilt to empowerment and righteousness in her choice. 

It is only once she starts reaching out to her friends, family and trusty maternal health nurse Ambrose—played by Aussie Gen Xers and millennials’ favourite childhood mother figure and Play School host Noni Hazelhurst—whom she has kept at arm’s length in the wake of the new developments in her life, that Audrey begins to heal from the negative emotions and gravitate towards the positive ones.

Midway through the sixth episode, season two, Audrey’s friend Sophie’s second pregnancy is classified as high risk. She discusses what this means for her body with Audrey and Ester, who also had high risk pregnancies, with the former nearly “hemorrhaging to death” with Stevie, Audrey deadpans.

“Or you can terminate,” she offers after the three run through the list of truly terrifying things that can happen during pregnancy.

Sophie responds with the bumbling outrage that so many people do when the topic of abortion comes up. She’s adamant that abortion is not for her. “I would never,” she states, and then suggests that Audrey has PTSD, which would not be surprising.

Audrey plays the conversation off as a joke, and then rattles off some facts about abortion and motherhood as she shamefully wolfs down a red velvet cupcake to keep from saying more. Audrey feels she already divulged too much in a failed attempt to gauge how receptive her friends would be to her abortion.

Ester, who’s just found out that she won’t be able to have any more kids herself, offers Audrey a ride home. As soon as they get in the car, Ester perceptively asks Audrey when she terminated. Audrey backtracks. She’s not ready yet to discuss her experience, especially after testing the waters with Sophie went so horribly wrong. Later in the season, though, Audrey blurts out to the group at a “no lights, no lycra” party (where Sophie later gives birth!) that she had an abortion, in an episode entitled “Shameless”. They each have a different reaction, but this season of The Letdown is concerned not so much with others’ feelings about Audrey’s abortion, but about her own journey towards acceptance of and confidence in her own decision. 

This is not the only way The Letdown positions abortion as compatable with motherhood. Audrey’s relationship with her own mother Verity (Sarah Perise) is strained due to their chalk and cheese approaches to raising children. This season sees Verity help with childcare duties while Jeremy is away, and results in Verity providing Stevie with her first solid foods and her first screen time, while Audrey frets from the part-time writing of the local council newsletter she’s taken on as she returns to the workforce. 

Audrey’s contention with her free-spirited mother comes to a head when Audrey confides in her about her abortion, and Verity empathises: “It’s a very solitary experience,” she says, in her no-nonsense manner.

Audrey’s first reaction, as so many of ours can be when spending extended periods of time with our parents, is to regress, articulating her childhood desire for a sibling, but immediately checks herself. “I feel better just for telling you,” she says, which is another example of The Letdown letting Audrey realise that she needs to come to terms with how she feels about it without the outside influence that has caused her so much grief, but with the outside support that she eventually receives.

In the final episode, Audrey belatedly attends that long-procrastinated appointment with the other maternal figure in her life, nurse Ambrose (Hazelhurst). In her typically bumbling way, Audrey confesses that she had an abortion and hasn’t told anyone. “I don’t know why. I’m very pro-choice. A political feminist…” she trails off.

Ambrose knows why she hasn’t told anyone. “You’re a mother, and mothers don’t do that,” she grimaces, picking up on Audrey’s gradually shedding shame. “Except they do.”

The Letdown never prosthelytises as to which response to abortion is the correct one. It also recognises that a person can hold two competing ideas in their head simultaneously, as is illustrated in Audrey’s shock at Verity’s abortion, and her willingness to dismiss another character’s desire not to have kids. Abortions aren’t just for kid-hating crones as we’re so often lead to believe about women who choose not to have children. They’re for everybody.

Scarlett Harris is a Melbourne culture critic and the author of A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler, forthcoming in March. You can read her previously published work at her website, The Scarlett Woman, and follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris.