Brow Beat

Workin’ Moms Says It Gets “Real” About Motherhood

But its patronizing truths do more harm than good.

Catherine Reitman sits awkwardly in a car's rear, driver-side passenger seat in this still from Workin' Moms.
Catherine Reitman in Workin’ Moms.
CBC

Workin’ Moms, which premiered on Canadian TV in 2017 but has gotten a major boost from its recent arrival on Netflix, markets itself the way many, many other parenting-focused pieces of media do: as a “real” show that tells the “hard truths.” A press release bills the show as a “raw and honest look” at how its main characters “juggle their burgeoning identities as mothers,” and a tweet from its official account asks “Can we all just be brave adults and admit that adulthood is really fucking hard?” But instead of rawness or honesty, Workin’ Moms offers up patronizing “hard truths” about motherhood in an infuriating, tonally confused, and ultimately harmful way.

The most obvious and glaring problem with Workin’ Moms is the privilege of its main characters, which is blinding, exhausting, and all-encompassing. (I know, talking about privilege was tiresome and old seven years ago, but this show warrants an exception.) The main character is an ad exec who, like Don Draper, understands how to “tell a story” and “connect to the client.” Her main problems in balancing work and family come from repeatedly telling her family she will leave work at 5 p.m., then failing to do so—the main ramification being that people are briefly mad at her. Watching this show, you would have no idea that the lack of affordable day care options is a weight around the necks of millions of parents in both the U.S. and in Canada, nor that such a thing as day care even exists. (The babies are universally cared for by nannies or stay-at-home parents.) You would certainly be unaware of the real costs of being late to pick up your child, including $1-a-minute fines, or the fact that the lack of affordable day care can mire people in poverty.

Kate (Catherine Reitman), who returns to work after nine months of (paid) maternity leave, is somehow able, on her first day back, to fire her nanny for feeding her son formula—even though, five episodes later, she’s somehow fine with doing it herself. Kate’s mother parachutes in to help, then her sister follows shortly after. Both are a little annoying and a little quirky, but also seem to have plenty of time to provide free on-demand child care—something real families almost never have. Each of the four women is partnered with a supportive, if sometimes bumbling husband (or in one case, a wife).

Workin’ Moms continually traffics in stock observations about the compromises inherent in having a career and children, actually having Kate miss her kid’s first word on her first day back at work. The season’s main dilemma is whether Kate should take a promotion that will bring her a 25 percent pay increase but means she has to spend three months in Montreal, far from her family. Her job offers her no middle ground between these crazy binaries, but the show makes it seem like this is a self-inflicted problem that is up to Kate to figure out, with no suggestion that anyone else could help or is in any way responsible.

The closest Workin’ Moms comes to acknowledging how good Kate and her friends have it is the characters’ main foil, Alicia, a woman in their mom’s group who feels like a confusing amalgam of types the writers don’t like—both the overly preppy, far-too-perfect mom and the way-too-hippie Earth goddess mom, a woman who breastfed her older child until he was 4 and a half but also throws an over-the-top princess party for her youngest. Alicia’s twin abilities to spend a fortune on a toddler’s birthday and also out-granola everyone else in her group only highlight how far the Overton window has to shift to make these “real” women seem like reasonable humans.

Workin’ Moms is truly egregious in its depiction of postpartum depression. Free-spirited Frankie (Juno Rinaldi) announces in the first episode that she has “a wee bit of postpartum.” The show bizarrely treats her repeated suicide attempts as The Fun Kind—for example, dunking her head in the pool of a house that she’s supposed to be showing to potential clients. She gets a prescription from Ann, a psychiatrist in the group, which then leads to more hilarity when she has a “bad reaction” to those pills that involves climbing a tree in a princess dress. The woman just seems profoundly mentally ill, not kooky—a view the show seems to come around to when she announces, in a rapid reckoning in the finale of the first season, “I know there’s something wrong with me—not even wrong, but broken. Either way, it’s not going be your weight to carry anymore.” She finds an ambiguous “program” where she’s going to go “as long as it takes.” (What program? The best the show comes up with as a descriptor is that she’s going to take a “course in sanity.”)

Through this character, the show harmfully blurs the distinction postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis—dramatically different conditions. (Postpartum depression is common—as many as 1 in 5 women experience it—and is nearly always treated outpatient through a combination of therapy and medication. Postpartum psychosis, where a mother may be actively delusional and seek to harm herself or her child, is extremely uncommon and may involve a short stint in an inpatient facility and medication management.) The stigma and fear that women will be labeled as psychotic, or willing to hurt their babies, can prevent women from seeking help for postpartum depression. This show perpetuates that myth, and also suggests, wrongly, that treatment for either of these illnesses involves open-ended institutionalization.

And then there’s a half-hearted attempt at representation. Three of the four main women are white. One is a lesbian and married to Giselle, played by Olunike Adeliyi, an actress of Nigerian and Jamaican descent. The show gives Giselle nothing—less than nothing—to do. She is the responsible, stable scold who doesn’t want to have sex post-baby. That’s the entirety of her character. Having this character played by a black actress in a lesbian relationship doesn’t make the character less clichéd.

There are good performances in this show and an occasional funny moment. (“You can’t just walk in and order an abortion.” “But this is Canada.”) The actresses, Reitman in particular, are great—doing fantastic work with beyond tired material. But it is harmful to an important dialogue to pretend that this show is anything approaching “universal” or “relatable.” If these were the struggles that real women faced, there would hardly need to be a conversation at all.

Ironically enough, I found an E! online interview of Reitman—who claims to have written Workin’ Moms based on her own “really vulnerable and shameful experiences as a new mother”—infinitely more moving than the show itself. Reitman talks about how she had her own postpartum depression but still went back to work after three months, and her journey from being an out-of-work actress most of her life to having a successful show in which she stars with her husband. A show with that character and those struggles might move the conversation forward.