When comedian Catherine Reitman was in the throes of postpartum depression after the births of her children, she struggled with feelings of darkness, desperation and hopelessness. But she also found reasons to laugh.
“One of the few things that brought me relief in these moments of darkness was my ability to imagine sinister things and then laugh at them,” Reitman wrote in Glamour. “I often look back at this period and wish someone had told me that I was experiencing a temporary hormonal state of depression and that by choosing humor, I was in charge of my own off-brand treatment.”
Reitman started writing about her experiences with depression, and eventually converted her pain into comedy with “Workin’ Moms,” a darkly comedic series produced for the Canadian network CBC. The first season of the show is now available exclusively on Netflix, and moms across the U.S. are watching it for the first time and shouting, “Preach!”
The series follows four main characters — Kate (played by Reitman), Frankie, Anne and Jenny — as they navigate the many challenges, joys and bafflements of new motherhood — and particularly the rockiness of returning to work after having a baby. Most of the episodes begin with the characters at a support group, with all the new moms and their babies gathered in a circle to discuss everything from how breastmilk should smell to what kinds of porn they’re into.
After the scene at the support group, the main characters’ stories unfold as they grapple with their new identities as mothers who work outside the home. Kate returns to her office and learns that her maternity leave might have cost her opportunities. Both she and Jenny struggle to find private (and hygienic) places to pump at work. Anne, a therapist, has a tween daughter and an infant … and then she discovers (to her dismay) that she’s pregnant again. And Frankie is a real estate agent who finds herself mired in the kind of postpartum depression that inspired the series in the first place.
Moms in all stages of the parenting journey will find plenty of relatable stuff in this show, as it tackles issues of motherhood with frank honesty and humor. For many of us, the tremendous love we feel for our babies is accompanied by feelings of overwhelm, frustration, loneliness and even sorrow. We mourn the loss of our old identities, even as we recognize that our “new lives” are rich and fulfilling in a different way.
Despite how common these emotions are, many moms feel guilty for having them. That’s why it’s so validating to see these stories played out in “Workin’ Moms.” For moms who might be feeling isolated or down, this show provides comedic relief and the reassurance that they’re not alone.
The series is not without its flaws, however. As Slate writer Sarah Jaffe points out, there is no acknowledgment of how privileged these characters are, especially in regard to childcare, which, for many of us in real life, is one of the most financially debilitating aspects of modern parenthood. In the world of “Workin’ Moms,” it seems to be of zero real concern to anyone.
Worse, Jaffe writes, is the show’s depiction of Frankie’s postpartum depression, which is closer in its severity to postpartum psychosis, and for which Frankie ultimately gets help by entering some kind of vague “program.”
“Through this character, the show harmfully blurs the distinction postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis — dramatically different conditions,” Jaffe claims. “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.”
Nevertheless, at least “Workin’ Moms” is trying to acknowledge the many complexities of motherhood — the good, bad, ugly and hilarious. For many viewers who are moms (whether they’re workin’ outside the home or not), it’s a breath of fresh air.