Photo credit: Matt Barnes
I never get starstruck. If I met Ben Affleck, George Clooney or Brad Pitt, I probably still wouldn't swoon. Who cares, I'd think.
But I recently met my hero, Catherine Reitman, writer, creator, producer, director and star of the hit CBC comedy Workin' Moms. From the moment the first episode aired on January 10, I knew she was my idol, that I'd have to meet her, and that I'd probably babble on and on and have sweaty armpits when I did.
In case you aren't one of the 1.2 million Canadians who tuned in during her show's premiere, Workin' Moms follows four friends as they grapple with their new identities as mothers, facing challenges with relationships, parenthood, postpartum depression and their career ambitions or lack thereof. There's nudity, sex, breastfeeding, an unwanted pregnancy, a menacing bear, even, and somehow it's all funny. So funny that this show attracts not only a female audience but men, too.
At the centre of it all is Reitman, an L.A.-born 35-year-old with family ties to Canada via her French-Canadian mother and her immigrant-Canadian father, director Ivan Reitman. Her husband and Workin' Moms production partner, Philip Sternberg, acts as her husband on the show, too. (No actual sex took place during their sex scene in episode 11, she is clear to point out, but she would like to carve out more boyfriend-girlfriend time and talk less shop in their private lives next year.)
Reitman isn't just a genius writer, creator, producer, director and actress who's out to shatter "the cult of mom." She is also a regular workin' mom to two boys, ages three and 10 months. And she's not afraid to talk about the ups and downs of friendships, marriage, parenthood and careers in a way that's raw and real. Her show reflects not just the fears and realities she and her team experience, but what actual parents face every day. In fact, the show is based on the scary and honest stories she and her almost-all female cast and crew struggle with as humans.
The concept for Workin' Moms arose out of the postpartum depression Reitman experienced after returning to work six weeks following the birth of her oldest son. It was just too soon to have returned, but rather than wallow, she chose to see the humour in her pain. She began writing funny scenes that came out of early motherhood. Reitman and Sternberg created an eight-minute tape and sent it to producers at CBC. The show got the green light one day after learning she was pregnant with her second son.
I watch Workin' Moms every Tuesday night at 9:30 and in every scene of every episode I see myself and my friends reflected back at me through my flat screen TV in a way that feels too bang-on to actually be seen on TV, never mind the CBC, which I associate with Hockey Night in Canada and Murdoch Mysteries. All of the characters combine elements of Reitman herself. Reitman plays Kate, who has Reitman's blind ambition. Jenny's character (played by Jessalyn Wanlim) is vain and worries she isn't sexy or pretty anymore. Reitman embodies the anger of her Workin' Mom's best friend Anne (Dani Kind), but she also resembles the lost puppy inside Frankie (Juno Rinaldi). As the show is also filmed on location all around Toronto, I'm proud to see my hometown on TV, rather than the show takes place somewhere else.
When I met Reitman (who happens to be very pretty, for what it's worth) for our interview at the Workin' Mom's downtown Toronto production studio, I was excited, I babbled, I got a little sweaty, but only because I was trying to be professional while also feeling like I could tell Reitman anything; like she already understood whatever angst was in my heart. (She gets that a lot from fans, she says.)
But she's funny and disarming and swears and she's exactly like she is in the show--vulnerable, ambitious, charming, empathetic; a whole mixture of qualities that resembles, well, everyone. I tried to babble a little less and just take notes (minus the swear words) on every piece of wisdom she had to offer about motherhood, having a career, and how to balance it all. It's something we all strive toward and then feel guilty about when we never quite achieve it on a consistent basis.
"The show has been a cathartic experience for me," says Reitman, who admits that being a mother can make you feel estranged from the rest of the world. "There's been times I've been paralyzed by guilt when I've had to work crazy hours or miss a parent-teacher interview. The biggest lesson I've learned throughout the first season of Workin' Moms is that you have to give yourself permission to forgive yourself."
There's often so much we feel we need to be forgiven for. "You're supposed to have it all and not be vulnerable and not become hardened because of judgement," says Reitman. "We should go after our dreams and not be apologetic about it, but it's scary. Whether you want to work or not, you have to do what makes you a fuller person. You have to love yourself."
Reitman hasn't necessarily figured out how to have it all herself, but she is trying. "There are quite a few days when I'd say no, you can't have it all, but then you have a day where you get it all right and that makes up for 20 bad days where you didn't manage to work out or be the star of every meeting. There are definitely moments when you have it all."
The key, she believes, is to get comfortable with sacrifice, forgive yourself, let go of the guilt and see things through a different lens. "You can have a career and kids who love you. But you have to nurture yourself and find a way to be fulfilled so you're not resentful."
In essence, that's what the show is about, and she felt the CBC would be the perfect network to take on the grittiness required to explore such heavy topics.
"There's a general happiness in Canada, a security in our lifestyle, an openness that affords us the chance to talk about these issues in ways that you can't in the U.S.," says Reitman, when I asked why she chose to send her tape to the CBC rather than an American network.
"If we dealt with abortion on American television, I'd have protestors outside my door. I've not gotten a single complaint here," says Reitman. "We're willing to embrace these issues in an honest way even if it's scary." She attributes this, in part, to the amazing number of working-mother executives at the CBC who embraced the series from the start.
"I feel like the show is supposed to be here now," says Reitman. "Soon enough the rest of the world will take notice."
The season finale airs Tuesday, April 4 at 9:30 p.m. on CBC.
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