“It’s a really complicated moment, as a parent”
Catherine Reitman is a workin’ mom — in all senses. Not only is she the star and creator of the hilarious CBC sitcom (which also streams on Netflix) Workin’ Moms, she and her husband are also raising two young boys. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Reitman and her family moved back in with her parents, where she has been hard at work writing a new season of the show.
Catherine spoke with Wake-Up Call’s producer Emily Pinto about working full time while trying to homeschool, what life has been like living under the same roof as her parents again, and how she’s tried to explain to her kids what’s going on in the world right now.
Wake-Up Call: You are, of course, a “workin’ mom” yourself. How did you come up with this idea?
Catherine Reitman: (laughs) Well it came from being a Workin’ Mom! I went back to work just a month and a half after I gave birth to my first son Jackson, who’s now six. I didn’t realize it until much later, but I was experiencing postpartum depression. It wasn’t until my first Mother’s Day occurred — I was on set in Philadelphia, I was away from my kid, I was with this group of funny actors, and they were teasing me. That was our dynamic — it was nothing I usually couldn’t handle. But in this particular moment, hormones raging, I broke down and cried.
It was humiliating! You could have heard a pin drop — it was so quiet in the room. Later on I called my husband and told him what had happened, and he said, “You have to write this down. What’s happening to you must be happening to other mothers. You can’t be alone in feeling this.” So I wrote about eight minutes worth of scenes, and I shot them with a bunch of friends, and we sold the show to the CBC in Canada. Five years later, I’m currently writing season five on Zoom! I don’t know when we’re shooting it, but here we are.
Your real life husband, Philip Stenberg, plays your husband on the show. Did you make him audition?
Can you imagine! No. Phil and I always laugh because I think we’re both very jealous and possessive of each other, in a way that really keeps the marriage alive. He was like “Nobody else is gonna be kissing on you, or doing sex scenes with you. If we’re doing this, I’m playing your husband.” And I think he’s such a natural. Whenever I watch him on the show, I’m like, “You’re amazing!” I already have to expose so much on the show, and vulnerability is not my strong suit. So being able to do those scenes with my husband makes it a lot more comfortable.
Your kids are four and six years old — are you homeschooling? How’s that going?
It’s a nightmare. The four-year-old isn’t in school yet, so it’s actually harder with him, because we just have to keep him busy. He doesn’t know how to write, read, or do anything yet. There’s no Zoom meetings for him to check into! So that’s been challenging, especially as I’m trying to work in the writers room every day. But my older guy is on Zoom every day, and he’ll come and ask me questions like, “how do you read a clock,” or “how do you subtract,” and it’s wild. I feel like I’m learning again with him.
You’re living with your parents too, right? What is that like, especially given the pandemic?
My parents are in their 70s, and I realize that I am the control variable. We can’t do things like order takeout, the way my friends can. I’m really hyper vigilant. Both of my parents have medical issues, so we’re on full lockdown over here. Add in that I have two young, very high-energy boys who want to watch cartoons when my dad wants to watch the news… It’s really challenging.
When it’s just you and your kids, you sort of let more stuff fly, because you’re like, “Ah, let ’em be kids,” but I want my kids to be on my best behavior in front of my parents. So there’s a lot more pressure, both with Covid and just being the parent of two young kids.
How have you explained to your kids what’s going on in the world right now?
It’s funny you should ask that, because we hit another hiccup the other night. For the most part, for the three or four months (years?) since we’ve been in quarantine, we’ve been pretty transparent. I mean we’re not talking about the death toll, but they’re smart kids. They understand there’s a scary virus going around that’s invisible and sometimes people don’t even know that they have it, which is why we have to stay home. So we’ve explained the virus. We’ve explained that it’s dangerous to people particularly like Amma and Apa, which is what they call my parents. But we haven’t spoken about the deadly nature of it.
Now the news is covering this racial reckoning that’s happening across the country. So my dad was watching the news the other night, and I found Liam, my four-year-old, watching next to him. And things are on fire, and there are people standing on the freeway, and he was like, “Is this the coronavirus?” And I was like, “No! No. Everything is just so messed up right now!” I had to try to explain to him that there’s also racial injustice in this country.
It’s a really complicated moment, as a parent. I keep dancing this line of respecting my kids enough to be transparent about the challenges that we are facing and their generation will have to face — racial inequality, climate change, viruses — but also, that there’s hope! That we can make change, if we work together. The same way that my four- and six-year-old are fighting over Legos, out on the streets there are officers and protesters who have to learn how to work together and communicate with each other. We find ourselves at a really interesting moment, as parents. To figure out how to make what’s happening in the world a teachable moment, but in a child-friendly way.
Has your relationship with your parents evolved, particularly with your father, director Ivan Reitman, now that you’re spending so much time with them as an adult?
Oh for sure. In some ways, it’s extraordinary. My father and I have developed a relationship now that we’ve never had. Especially since moving in with them, I feel like I have this ally in the house who really understands the business that I’m in. He’s a director, and I’m now a director and show-creator. While he doesn’t totally understand what it’s like to do this job and be a full-time parent — he was never a “working mom,” so to speak — I can see him opening up, God bless him! They say “old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” but my father has really put that phrase to rest. I see him growing and learning and having compassion for me, all while guiding me and mentoring me in a way that I’d never felt in my youth, or even before I moved in with him. So in that way, he’s still really parenting me.
But on the other hand my parents are much older, and they’re fragile. I’m nearing 40 and I’ve got a lot more energy. So I’m the one who is arranging dinner every night. I’m the one who takes care of a lot of the small stuff. In some ways I feel like I’m parenting my parents, but I also see that my father has wisdom beyond my years, and I lean on him all the time.
What advice do you have for new moms, who may feel particularly alone during this period of time?
Having a child, particularly your first child, can be such an isolating experience, even if you’re surrounded by people. You feel broken. You feel like you’re not yourself anymore. I experienced a pretty severe identity crisis after having both children, and I had postpartum depression with both children — and potentially postpartum anxiety, which is something that they didn’t diagnose me with at the time.
To think that mothers are out there giving birth alone and then having to stay home, it’s so painful. So my advice to them would be: use that phone! Call people. Text people. The burden that so many mothers carry is that if they feel anything other than the pure bliss of motherhood all the time, that it’a a dirty secret that they must keep to themselves, because nobody could possibly relate. That’s just not true. The moment I started talking about my feelings, I realized they weren’t a dirty secret. That lifted the weight off of me, and I felt like myself again — or some new version of myself who was more tired, and who had more responsibility, and whose body had changed. But at least I didn’t feel like I was losing my mind. Talking makes a huge difference.
Also, the second you are physically capable and your doctor approves it, try to do a little exercise. That did a lot for me. And being creative. Being creative in small ways — write in a journal, paint, do your nails. Do something that makes you feel like you’re expressing yourself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.