Netflix’s recently launched series “Workin’ Moms,” about a group of four mothers returning to the workplace after maternity leave, is the latest in a line of portrayals of motherhood that also includes “The Letdown” and “Catastrophe.” As the working mother of a 1-year-old, I was excited to see this underexplored territory mined for the screen. The show isn’t perfect, but it does get closer than most shows I’ve seen to reflecting my experience.
There are some missteps. Main character Kate’s first day back at work includes several tropes: Look, she’s pumping in the bathroom! Oh no, she spilled the pumped milk! Ugh, leaking through a blouse at a work meeting! Yes, having adequate space, time and support to pump at work continues to be an issue, despite laws requiring workplaces to accommodate nursing mothers, but the comedy of pumping errors that befalls Kate comes across as almost cheap pandering, and it doesn’t address deeper structural issues. It’s (mostly) easy for bosses to support a mom who needs breaks to pump and to give them a place to do so. But that compassion dries up quickly when the conversation turns to systemwide changes, such as flexible hours, capped workweeks or teleworking — things that would help working parents far past the breast-feeding stage.
Some other mom cliches pop up. Kate and her friends (Anne, Frankie and Jenny) attend Mommy and Me classes, where they engage in clique-ish behavior. They mock the overachieving Pinterest mom for throwing her daughter a first-birthday party and making her own diaper bag. What could have been a terrific opportunity to explore the competing societal pressures of motherhood — to not be the mom who loses herself to motherhood while at the same time being the perfect mom who follows all the parenting guidelines — ends up being another judgmental pile-on about mothering choices.
And the show has major blind spots in terms of class and race. All the characters have nannies or stay-at-home partners. Day care, a costly necessity for many working parents, is never mentioned as an option. And despite a cast that includes mothers of color and an LGBTQ mom, the first season never addresses the intersections of race and motherhood or sexual orientation and motherhood. Instead, it creates an odd utopia where minority moms never experience overstepping judgments or backlash about parenting, despite the proliferation of so many horrifying real-world examples.
But there are also some progressive moments. The show depicts the quiet death-by-a-thousand-cuts reality of being a working mother. In one scene, a boss casually reschedules a meeting for 4 p.m. (not a problem unless you’re trying to make it home for bath time or day-care pickup). In another, a coveted promotion requires travel, which means leaving baby behind. These are the things that weigh on working parents, and it was refreshing to see them portrayed with the heavy emotional weight they carry in real life.
And a postpartum depression story is done with candor and honesty, and, refreshingly, it’s not solved with a single therapy session. One of the moms, Frankie, tentatively announces at her Mommy and Me group that she thinks she has the “teensiest little drop of postpartum” (depression), then immediately clarifies, “I’m not suicidal!” The statement reveals the fear of the stigma attached to admitting that you’re struggling in what’s supposed to be the joyous postpartum period. Episode 3 ends with the group eating Chinese food after Frankie has a depression/medication-related meltdown and falls out of a tree. She radiates the awkward, but not uncommon, embarrassment of addressing her struggles with other moms, something I dealt with during my own postpartum depression.
The season ends with Frankie acknowledging she needs more help than a supportive partner or mommy friends can offer, and more than even weekly therapy sessions or medication can provide. Something is wrong — or, as she says, “broken” — and she has to go away to fix it. The decision by the show’s creator and star, Catherine Reitman — who struggled with postpartum depression herself — to leave Frankie’s mental-health outcome unresolved after 13 episodes is a welcome and necessary choice. It’s far from the quick fix so often showcased in other pop-culture portrayals of postpartum depression.
But most welcome was the frank discussion about abortion — a topic still largely considered taboo on television. The show tiptoes into this subject (“You know you’ve got options, right?” Kate says after Anne reveals an unexpected and unwanted third pregnancy), but the conversation doesn’t stay subtle for long. By the end of the season, Anne openly declares that she’s contemplating abortion, and she and her husband have a conversation about the practical (not emotional) considerations, including money, time and even how many kids will fit in their car. They spend the day making a pro-con list in which only “T.L.B.” (“I’m a huge fan of tiny little babies,” her husband says) and “Family Band?” end up on the positive side, leading to the decision to terminate the pregnancy. Showing abortion not as an overly dramatic, emotionally fraught option but instead as simply a choice within a woman’s reproductive health journey is a huge, progressive step in how television thinks about the complexities of when, how and why people choose to become mothers.
Being a working mom is all-encompassing, but the experience varies wildly from one person to another. It’s impossible for a single show to cover all the nuances. But the takeaway from the first season of “Workin’ Moms” is universal to working parents, both for its simplicity and its reality: This gig is hard. Your attention, your energy and your time will forever be pulled from two sides, and you will feel as if you are never quite giving enough to either. It’s about time television reflected this.
Elizabeth Skoski is a freelance writer living in Irvington, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @LizSkoski.
Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter. We tweet @On Parenting and have a Facebook discussion page about parenting and working. Join us.