In Watch This, Vox’s culture critics and contributors tell you what they’re watching on TV — and why you should watch it too. Read the archives here. This week: the Canadian comedy Workin’ Moms. Watch all three seasons on Netflix.
If you’ve watched most series from the past decade that touch on the plight of a working mother trying to do it all, just the title of Workin’ Moms might drive your eyes to the back of your head. TV is already rife with mom tropes: Women like Mad Men’s Joan Harris, Grey’s Anatomy’s Meredith Grey, and Friends’ Rachel Green reclaim their ambition after having a baby by climbing the corporate ladder and knocking back whiskey like one of the guys without missing a beat. Modern sitcom moms like Black-ish’s Rainbow Johnson and One Day at a Time’s Penelope Alvarez seemingly juggle it all, with only occasional screen time dedicated to their personal struggles to be everything at once.
In reality, working mothers in the trenches often feel the pressure to “parent like they don’t have a job and to work like they don’t have children.” But many also feel pressure to balance personal time, female friendships, and a loving relationship with their partner without ever complaining — about how bloody hard it all is, about what weird things are happening to their bodies, or about the fact that all they really want to do is watch TV or take a nap.
Thankfully there’s a growing body of TV shows, movies, and standup specials pushing past one-dimensional portraits of parenting to delve into its realistic, darker side, especially as it pertains to motherhood. Entries like Bad Moms, Brit series Catastrophe, and Australian import The Letdown are showing a fuller picture of motherhood, while comedians like Amy Schumer and Ali Wong are using their platforms to say publically what so many moms have been thinking privately for years: being a mom is really fucking hard. Now, we also have the serialized Canadian comedy Workin’ Moms to add to that list.
The show — which is streaming on Netflix — was Canada’s highest-rated new comedy when it debuted in 2017. In three seasons (a fourth is on its way next year), Workin’ Moms explores themes of motherhood through the lens of a Mommy and Me group, and like a toddler temper tantrum, it can bounce from sunny to real to dark and back all within a 22-minute episode. At its core, the show presents an often scary, cringeworthy world in which women secretly pump breast milk in office bathroom stalls and disappoint their partners by pulling away emotionally or chasing a job promotion instead of racing home to oversee bedtime. And this is all under the gaze of a society that has opinions on what they say (to some, the forbidden “n-word” — at least when speaking to a child — is “no”), do, and even eat (heaven forbid they become “skinny fat”). The workin’ moms of the show’s title aren’t always likable and they definitely aren’t selfless, but they keep going. It’s perhaps the most truthful journey any show about parenting can take.
Workin’ Moms is based in authenticity and thrives under a microscopic lens about the harsh realities moms face
That veracity has everything to do with creator, star, and occasional director Catherine Reitman (Black-ish, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) being a mother herself. When I interviewed Reitman earlier this year, she told me she developed Workin’ Moms after she broke down in front of her coworkers while shooting a movie in Philadelphia; the guys were mostly improv actors who kidded her for missing her first Mother’s Day. That storyline is woven into the pilot when her character, Kate, feels guilty because she doesn’t make it home in time for her kid’s bath on her first day back at work after maternity leave.
By the time the first season was underway in Toronto, Reitman and her husband Philip Sternberg (who also produces and stars as Kate’s husband Nate) had another son. At three months old, he makes a cameo in the show’s second episode when Kate’s babe struggles to latch, something Reitman was experiencing in real life after her body shut down from the sheer exhaustion of running and starring in a TV show.
That real-world experience is always an asset on a set, which is why Reitman also recruited an all-female writers’ room, the first-ever all-female lead camera crew in Canadian primetime history, and a slew of female directors. She also issued a mandate that each new season of Workin’ Moms assign at least one episode to an up-and-coming female director.
As a result, Workin’ Moms isn’t just spilt breast milk or extravagant first birthday parties, although there are plenty of those. In the first season, realtor Frankie (Juno Rinaldi) struggles with postpartum depression and the adverse side effects of the medication she’s taking to manage it, which leads to an increasing distance from her partner, Giselle (Olunike Adeliyi). Although her journey to healing is largely wrapped by season two, Frankie’s story is a rare onscreen look at postpartum depression, which affects one in seven mothers. Reitman herself experienced it, and writes in the very real feeling that Frankie describes of maybe just wanting to be in a coma for a while for a “bit of a brain-dead vacation.”
As the episodes unfold, abortion, the inability to bond with your baby, marital strife, questioning your identity, and the isolation that can come with being a new mother are all topics the show fearlessly tackles. One character feels ambivalent over having a second child when her career is finally back on track, despite her husband’s protests. Another worries she and her partner may never rekindle their flame because everything has become about the baby. Anne (Dani Kind) struggles with a surprise pregnancy and the financial and emotional effects that may cause her current family of four. Jenny (Jessalyn Wanlim) epitomizes new-mother denial when she hesitantly returns to work, only to revert to her earlier partying ways as her stay-at-home husband, Ian (Dennis Andres), picks up the parenting slack.
In that respect, Workin’ Moms incorporates the perspectives of new fathers as well, as the second season mostly ditches Jenny to follow Ian’s story when he joins the Mommy and Me group (which, like a similar group on The Letdown, serves as the introductory vehicle for the show’s main characters and is one of the only things that connects them to each other). Through Ian and others, it’s safe to say the show could serve as birth control for those who aren’t so sure about having children. But Workin’ Moms masterfully weaves in workplace banter, relationship comedy, friendship struggles, and the exploration of family relationships as adults that will appeal to a wider, non-child-rearing audience. At its core, Workin’ Moms remains a comedy by finding the relatable humor in those situations, leaning into physical comedy where it can (again, breast milk) and mining extreme supporting characters like the leader of the Mommy and Me group, Val (Sarah McVie), Kate’s boss Richard (Peter Keleghan), and Kate’s semi-obsessive but sweet assistant Rosie (NIkki Duval).
Where the show stumbles, especially in the first season, is in its limited worldview. Though there is some diversity in terms of LGBTQ representation and a range of careers, the Mommy and Me group exists as a feeder system for one of the best preschools in Toronto, which automatically screams privilege. These parents don’t need discounted daycare and they’ve never had trouble affording diapers, which means they won’t be relatable to all viewers. That disconnect is addressed in subsequent seasons with subtle nods and storylines. “Listening to you guys complain about parenting with partners and full-time help makes me want to throw a desk through a window,” says season two addition Jade (Nelu Handa) in an early episode.
Privilege or not, any comedy that’s willing to showcase the navel-gazing survival strategies of parents struggling to keep it all together while raising caring and decent human beings is a welcome addition to the pop culture landscape. That’s what makes Workin’ Moms worth watching, and also what makes it so damned real.
The first three seasons of Workin’ Moms are available to stream on Netflix.