Catherine Reitman Spills All
The creator of Workin’ Moms celebrates the comedy and tragedy of modern parenting and relationships.
Catherine Reitman is stressing about the snacks. This week, the actor, writer, and producer behind Workin’ Moms is in charge of wrangling sustenance for her son’s basketball team, and in today’s era of organized sports, simple orange slices will not suffice. “I had to get one protein and one vegetable and put them into individual brown sacks,” she says over lunch at Bettina, a cozy Italian restaurant in Santa Barbara, fresh off a grocery-store run to Vons. “I also got Gatorade, but now I’m worried they’re all going to think that’s a sugary drink. Do you think I f*cked up? It doesn’t have to be organic, but I don’t know. I grew up on Oreos and Doritos!”
This is Reitman’s real life, but it could easily be a storyline ripped from Workin’ Moms. Reitman, 41, created the show, now in its seventh and final season, after she had her first son in 2013 and discovered that the realities of motherhood rarely lined up with what she saw on screen. Where were the moms pumping in their cars and office toilets? Where were the leaking boobs in boardroom meetings, the boredom and frustration of entertaining toddlers, the ups and downs of marital sex, the swearing, the wine, the undermining colleagues, the smug mothers ready to judge your every move?
Reitman, the daughter of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman and sister of Juno director Jason Reitman, had found motherhood isolating from the jump. “I actually had really bad postpartum depression,” she says of giving birth to Jackson. (She and her husband, actor-producer Philip Sternberg, also welcomed son Liam in 2015.) “It just wasn’t an instant connection with him. I know you’re supposed to have that immediate mama-bear instinct that makes you not want to leave them in the woods and move onto the next hunter or whatever, but that didn’t happen for me. Instead, I just felt responsibility, fear, and inadequacy.”
When she tried opening up to other women about what she was going through, she felt worse. While meeting up with one moms group, “I told them that sometimes when I was driving, I would fantasize that a car would hit me — not to kill me, but just to put me in the hospital for 10 days so I could stop worrying about everything.” The confession was a fail. “They stared at me like I was an alien.”
“But on the walk back to my car,” she continues, “one of them came up to me and said, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’ I was like, ‘Well, why didn’t you say something back there?’ She told me she’d been prescribed an antidepressant for her postpartum depression, but she didn’t want to tell the group in case they got angry at her for breastfeeding — even though you can breastfeed on those. Anyway, I wasn’t alone, but I was alone.”
“We all feel such terror that if we're not the first eyes they see in the morning, or if we don't breastfeed for 16 years, we’re failing them.”
At that point, it didn’t occur to her that she was sitting on an idea for TV gold. Prior to her pregnancy, she had been acting here and there, booking unglamorous parts in movies or one-off TV gigs — the kind of jobs where “I’m allowing others to dictate my future,” she says. But while shooting a film in Philadelphia in 2015, she had an accidental breakthrough. “It was all guys — I used to roll with a bunch of improv dudes, which, hell yeah, super fun — and they were making fun of me because I was missing my first Mother’s Day. Instead of laughing, I just burst into tears,” she says. “I went back to my hotel room and called my husband, who said, ‘I don’t think we’re seeing this in any of the things we’re watching. You need to start writing it.’”
Reitman and Sternberg shot an eight-minute sizzle reel, drawing from real-life conversations with friends, that Canada’s CBC soon greenlit. Suddenly, her slow career trajectory made sense. “When I was auditioning a ton, I wasn’t booking anything, and I realized it was because I kept trying so hard not to bring myself to the role,” she says. “Because I didn’t trust myself. So this was the first time I was like, ‘I have to bring myself to this. It’s the most relatable thing I could do.’” (“Some of the best lines in the series are from her improvising,” Sternberg says. “One of my favorites was when she said, ‘Do you ever wish you were on that show The Leftovers and you went out to your car and your kid was just gone?”)
On Workin’ Moms, Reitman plays Kate Foster, a first-time parent struggling to keep up with the high-pressure life of her PR job, and Sternberg stars as Kate’s husband, Nathan. But the heart of the show might actually be the relationships between Kate and her fellow playgroup parents, who, unlike that moms group Reitman attended, talk about it all without shame: abortions, the weird porn they like, those daydreams about hospital stays (pudding cups and clean sheets? It doesn’t sound so bad!), and always, always wondering if they’re doing the right thing when it comes to parenting. The show’s popularity was a slow burn at first, but — like another little CBC show that could — it exploded after coming to Netflix globally in 2019.
“It started as a straight hard comedy, but Catherine realized what was missing was the pain and suffering that comes with motherhood, and paying respect to it,” says Sternberg, who also executive produces. “Not just glazing over it to make people comfortable with it, but exploring the painful sides. Which I think sets it apart from just being another sitcom.”
“I was frightened I wouldn’t have that maternal bone.”
Today, its most loyal fans resemble an underground sisterhood. (A friend recently texted me: “I’m rewatching the whole series, and just snort-laughed at the scene where they’re comparing their boobs: ‘I feel like a proud show dog that didn’t understand her days were numbered.’”) Over lunch, it felt like there was nothing I couldn’t tell Reitman, who seems incapable of judgment but is also down to laugh at the absurdities of motherhood — like when I tell her about babies pooping in bushes at my local Brooklyn park because their parents are practicing “elimination communication” in lieu of diapers. (“That’s not a thing!” she says in disbelief.) Almost all the fans she encounters feel the same.
“People feel seen,” Reitman says, sometimes in ways that surprise her: “One time I even had a woman come up to me in the grocery store and say, ‘I love your show. I’m pregnant but don’t know if I should keep it. What do you think I should do?’ I was like ‘That’s not something I can answer for you!’ But I almost feel like this show had to happen, with or without me behind the wheel.”
The irony of writing a hit comedy about working motherhood is that, for a long time, Reitman was pretty sure she didn’t want kids — in part out of concern for her career.
She knows what you might be thinking now: Isn’t she one of those Hollywood “nepo babies” everyone is talking about? Well, yes, and Reitman is frank about what having a famous director father does and doesn’t afford you. (“I talk about it a ton with my husband — and my publicist, who of course is like, ‘Pivot off!’”) Of course she grew up with wealth. “The only way to answer that truthfully is that I’m the luckiest kid in the world,” she says. There were boundless professional resources: She was raised around film sets and had a sounding board in her father, who would “come to set and give me tips and notes” into her late 30s. “That’s a mentorship I’m so blessed to have,” she says.
“When you’re pregnant, everyone fills you with fear. But no one talks about the joy. And as they get older, it gets better and better.”
But when it came to work, her last name wasn’t a shortcut to starring roles. Reitman, who made small appearances in her father’s movies as a child, says she struggled to feel like she belonged in Hollywood. “I was this really goofy-looking kid,” she says. “I was raised in a patriarchal industry where so much of your value is based on your appearance, and I was goofy-looking for a long time.” After a post-college stint with the improv troupe the Groundlings, she went on endless auditions. “It was so much rejection. So the idea of having children, when I already knew I had so many things going against me, I was just like, ‘I’m not going to risk having a baby and making myself even less desirable to that mysterious man on the hill who is going to hire me.’”
“Plus,” she adds, “I was frightened I wouldn’t have that maternal bone.” She didn’t babysit growing up; she didn’t have a lot of pets. “I’d put on plays with all the kids in my neighborhood, but I think that was more directorial instincts than maternal instincts. And so it never rang true to me. And I watched my mom sacrifice so much for us. She had a blossoming acting career and she sacrificed it all.”
Her husband ultimately convinced her they could make it work. “He took me on this walk on the beach and told me, ‘A family is really important to me. And I promise, no matter how our life shakes out, I will make it so that you can still have a career and don’t have to sacrifice anything,’” she recalls.
I point out that as far as men go, he sounds like a f*cking unicorn, and she laughs in agreement: “He saw something in me that I didn’t.” Working with a spouse can be fraught, though, and Reitman says it took time to find their groove with Workin’ Moms, for which Sternberg is also an executive producer. “There were definitely moments at home where we would have it out,” she says. “We slowly learned about the boundaries of where we were allowed to talk about it, and where we weren’t allowed to talk about it.”
Because Workin’ Moms draws so much from her own life, Reitman is candid about the inner workings of her marriage. A big theme of the show is how relationships change after kids — some couples go through dry spells, other characters spice it up with or without their spouses — and Reitman is clear on the value of keeping things active in the bedroom, too. “There was a part of me a few years ago that would’ve been like, ‘It’s not important; the connection’s what matters,’ but sex is important. The physical part is as important as the mental, as the emotional,” she says. “After I have sex, I feel lighter, freer, less stressed out. Chemicals are released. There is a reason we benefit from this thing. And so I think it’s not only healthy for the marriage, but it’s healthy for us [as women].”
Still, sometimes fans aren’t always able to distinguish their real-life marriage from that of their characters. In an early season of the show, Nathan cheats on Kate with a nanny. That infidelity plot was originally meant for another character, but when it wasn’t clicking in the writers’ room, Sternberg volunteered his. “I think if I’d felt any smidgen percentage that Phillip was capable of that, I would’ve been like, ‘You know what? Let’s not do that,’” Reitman says. “But there were definitely waitresses who were maybe sticking their fingers in his eggs, and flight attendants who were angry at him for what he’d done on the show to my character,” she adds with a laugh. “They’d be like, ‘How dare you?!’”
Last year, Reitman decided it was time to end Workin’ Moms. That February, her dad died in his sleep, and the loss shook her. They normally spoke on the phone every day. “At the risk of sounding corny, he was my best friend,” she says. “After he died, this thing happened where I felt a deeper need to be in one place.” She and Sternberg, who lived and filmed the show in Toronto, decided to put down roots in the Santa Barbara suburb of Montecito to be close to her mother, Genevieve Roberts. “She’s grieving her husband of 50 years, so we’re over there a lot with the kids, who are high-energy goofballs.” It’s a new role — taking care of two young boys while also taking care of her mom. But she has no regrets about ending the series when she did. “I cried every day of that last edit, but there was some relief to it. There was something about this last season where it felt right. Also, I didn’t want to overstay my welcome.”
She’s hardly retiring — she’s writing a screenplay and developing another show — but she’s also enjoying just being a mom for a little while: organizing playdates, shuffling to and from basketball, fostering her kids’ independence. “We let them walk one block to the store with money to buy bread,” she says. (It hasn’t always worked out: “The other day they came back and were eating the most massive Hershey bars you’ve ever seen.”) One thing she’s also discovered? How much she loves watching her boys get older. “When you’re pregnant, everyone fills you with fear and tells you how hard the first six months are, how you’ll never get to sleep. But what no one talks about, or at least I haven’t seen articulated well, is the joy you’ll feel. And as they get older, it just gets better and better. I have inside jokes with my big guy and we crack each other up. That joy just grows with them.”
In the early days of Workin’ Moms, Reitman felt guilty for leaving her kids with night nurses and nannies so she could film. But just as the show has helped other moms feel less panicked about their choices, making the show has helped Reitman chill out, too. “I think we all feel such terror and anxiety that if we’re not the first eyes they see in the morning, and the last eyes they see at night, or if we don’t breastfeed for 16 years and all this sh*t, then we’re failing them,” she says. “But what I learned was: Just be a good mom when you’re with them — it’s the simplest thing in the world.” Even if you can’t figure out snack duty.
Top image credits: What Katie Did bra and underwear, Tanya Taylor dress, Catherine’s own ring, Falke stockings
Photographer: Jeff Minton
Stylist: Sarah Schussheim
Set Designer: Kelly Fondry
Makeup: Francie Tomalonis
Manicure: Merrick Fisher
Production: Camp Productions
Talent Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Samuel Schultz, Samuel Miron
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid
SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert