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Catherine Reitman, who produces, writes, directs and stars in CBC‘s Workin’ Moms, channels her life experiences to the show.

The working mom is adapting her own life to television and not sparing the audience from breastfeeding and bodily fluids, Johanna Schneller writes

For a terrible moment, Catherine Reitman thought her ambition had killed her unborn baby.

Reitman, now 35, was living her dream. She'd spent a decade working her way up in the comedy scene in Los Angeles. She was married to a supportive co-conspirator, Philip Sternberg. They had a beloved toddler, Jackson. Reitman had returned to work soon after Jackson's birth, kicking up a dust storm of emotion – guilt about her absences, anger that she felt guilt – which she'd channelled into a television series idea. The day before she pitched it to Sally Catto, head of programming at CBC-TV, Reitman learned she was pregnant with her second son (Liam). It was a hell of a metaphor, since the show was called Workin' Moms.

Reitman had never written a series before, much less run one, and on this she would produce, write, direct and star as Kate, a PR executive who's both a good mother and frankly ambitious. The plots would come from Reitman's real life, often in real time. Her husband Philip would play Kate's husband Nathan. She would be fearlessly honest.

"Nothing is too personal," Reitman said earlier this week, during an interview at a coffee shop near her Toronto home. She wore a fashionably fraying denim shirt, her dark hair was long and wavy, and her clear amber eyes made constant contact. She's warm, funny, almost dangerously open.

"I made a commitment early on that if I was doing this, I was telling the truth, showing my blood," she continues, swigging the last of her latte (she tries to cut off caffeine at 3 p.m.). "It's as scary as it gets. But it also makes me feel very human."

For her pitch, Reitman recruited friends to shoot an eight-minute demo reel, which included this scene: Kate, freshly returned from maternity leave, is working late in a boardroom with colleagues, all men. It's feisty, competitive. Kate gives as good as she gets. But one guy grinds her a little too hard about neglecting her child, and her laugh becomes a sob. The men fall silent. Her boss says, "You should go home." Kate lifts her head and says, "I want to work."

"I went, 'Yes!'" says Catto, also a working mother, in a phone interview. "That's the crux of the series. That's the truth of being torn. The pressure of what you have to do when you love your child so much, but you also want to work. The losses, the gains. It was done with humour, and depth, and heart. I went, 'Oh my God.'"

The CBC bought the show. Reitman spent her pregnancy running her writers' room in Los Angeles by day, where they arced out 13 episodes; writing her assigned episodes on evenings and weekends; packing up her home for a move to Toronto, where the show would be shot (as Toronto, for a change); hiring her crew and auditioning actors; and rolling around with Jackson in sandboxes, swimming pools and play groups. On top of that, the pregnancy was tricky; she had a condition called placenta previa. But she had a deadline, and she had something to prove.

The daughter of iconic Canadian filmmaker Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and sister of minted auteur Jason Reitman (Juno), Catherine, says husband Sternberg, "is used to being dismissed, or used as a stepping stone. A member of the entourage but never the star. Both Ivan and Jason are incredibly supportive. But honest." Ivan in particular reminded Catherine that she had to stay true to her voice, and make up for her lack of experience by putting in the hours. "That stress was always there," Sternberg adds.

One evening last April, she was home in L.A. writing the script for Episode 13. She felt light-headed. Next thing she knew, she was coming to, face down, on top of her belly. The bang of her fall was loud enough to send Sternberg running upstairs. He arrived just as she threw up. On the ride to the hospital, she was sick with guilt: She couldn't feel the baby kicking. Pursuing her dream had hurt him. The baby and the show couldn't co-exist; she'd have to choose.

Liam was fine; he's a delight. Workin' Moms was fine, too: In its first two airings on Tuesday nights, it scored high ratings, especially in the key 25-to-54 demographic. Strangers on the Internet were thanking Reitman for her honesty; writers were sending samples for a presumed Season 2; American networks were sniffing around.

But here's the moment that still haunts Reitman. "Right before we rushed to the hospital, even though I wasn't feeling any kicking," she admits, "I took the time to press save" (on her script). "I see now that it's a hilarious, painful, confusing moment. But I thought, 'This is my other baby. It can't all be in vain.'"

Catherine Reitman tries to balance being a working mom and playing one on television.

If that feels like a lot of candour, you should watch her show. More cable dramedy than network sitcom, it strikes a finely calibrated tone of bittersweet humour. Not only Kate, but all the main characters are aspects of Reitman: Jenny (Jessalyn Wanlim), an IT worker, embodies Reitman's confusions about sexuality after motherhood; Frankie (Juno Rinaldi), a real estate agent, suffers from postpartum depression, as did Reitman; Anne (Dani Kind), a psychiatrist, is a balls-out conduit for Reitman's anger that women still have to fight society – and one another's judgments – to have what men have. Reitman even breastfeeds her own son on camera.

"She was literally living it 24/7," says Rebecca Kohler, one of Workin' Moms' writers. "She'd be breastfeeding Liam and Philip would come downstairs as she was telling us something that had just happened between them. She has a great balance of being funny, finding the joke in the darkness and having serious conversations. She has almost no ego. She's a girls' girl. She likes to bond over the common struggle. If you ask, 'Do you ever get acne on your chest?' some women might say no. Catherine will say, 'Totally! All the time!'"

Other than Sternberg, who came and went, Reitman's writers' room was all-female. "I didn't set out to make it that way," she says. "I chose who I thought was best. But once we were in it, I was grateful they were all women. I cried a lot; other women cried. We shared embarrassing things about what makes us us. The selfish moments of, I don't want to make that sacrifice. Or, Why do our mothers hate us now?" (Many key crew members are also women, including the director of photography.)

Here's the moment I knew Workin' Moms was onto something real, though: Midway through Episode 1, Jenny straps on her breast pump in her office break room. For reasons explained by the show, she also begins to masturbate. But first, she gives her hand a big old lick. I've seen a lot of women have a lot of sex on TV. Very little of it looks recognizable to me. That did.

"We'll be watching TV," Sternberg says, "and Catherine will say, 'That girl is not just going to put her pants on after sex. You have to go pee. Where is the semen?' She's always tracking the details."

Growing up in Los Angeles, Reitman felt the power of telling funny truths early. "My father called me a smartass just about every day of my childhood," she says. Her upbringing "wasn't fancy," but it was full of love and support.

At school, however, she felt isolated. Reitman attended the Buckley School, a posh haven for children of wealth (Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie were peers). Her classmates were "not just affluent, but really beautiful," Reitman says. "It took me a long time to blossom. Everyone else understood how to socialize and how to look. I didn't get the memo."

To compensate, in Grade 6 she morphed into a Mean Girl. "I knew how to come up with jokes at someone's expense really fast," she says. "After about a year I snapped out of it, and I still feel deeply ashamed. But it was a survival technique. I was lost and sad and looking for some control. And, I realize now, practising wit."

She earned an acting degree from the University of Southern California and joined the Groundlings improv troupe, where she wrote and put up weekly shows. Fellow members included Melissa McCarthy, Mikey Day (Saturday Night Live) and Michaela Watkins (Casual, produced and directed by Jason Reitman). It trained her to be specific, to focus on idiosyncrasies. "And the habit of 'yes, and' really works for me as a writer," Reitman says.

After meeting Sternberg in L.A., they began collaborating on projects, including 150 instalments of a movie-review Web series, Breakin' It Down with Catherine Reitman. She was landing roles in films (Knocked Up) and TV series (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia). She wasn't famous, but the right people were onto her. Then she got pregnant.

"I felt pure panic," she says. "Does it all just end? That doesn't seem fair. Why do we go to school, train? I thought, 'I have to be able to laugh at this or I'm going to die.'" It became a mantra, and that became Workin' Moms.

Of all the things Reitman is nakedly honest about, the main one is her ambition. That's still a dirty word when it's applied to women. Reitman wants to help change that.

"No one warned me about the identity crisis," she says. "That when you go back to work, not only do you feel you're not capable, but your ambition is looked down upon. You're encouraged to feel guilty; if you do, you're a good mother. You're not allowed to talk about the fact that you're breaking. So with Kate, I want to say [screw] that. Even if it hurts, even if she fails, I want to see her go after it as if she's entitled to it."

Here's what that looked like for Reitman when Workin' Moms was in production: Wake up at 4 a.m., shower, dress, go to set. Direct. Between scenes, give notes to the writers and actors. Lunch: Hold newborn and scarf down food for 30 minutes. Return to set, work until 9 p.m. Come home, kiss sons, climb into bed. Read lines with husband. Fall asleep at 11. Repeat.

Sarah Jessica Parker didn't write Sex and the City. Vince Gilligan didn't star in Breaking Bad. But Reitman feels like she has to do it all, to prove it can be done. "There were a few weeks where I cried every day," she says. "But there have to be more examples of mothers with work ambitions. You want to yell at women who give up on it, but it's completely understandable. I've had that moment constantly. But I have to believe that if more women do this, society will have to adjust and start providing us with things to make the impossible possible."

That's why Reitman's most vulnerable moment on screen wasn't the first scene in the pilot, where she's topless – it was the last scene, where she stands her ground and shouts down something that's threatening her. "We've all been in that metaphoric place, having to scream out what you want in the face of your fears," she says. "To admit that you're shooting for the stars – that you're allowed to do that, that it's not shameful – that to me is very vulnerable."

When Reitman heard that well more than 600,000 people watched the pilot episode, she sprinted to a bathroom stall and wept. Recalling that in the coffee shop, her eyes well up again. "I'm so screwed," she says, laughing and wiping away tears. "Now I have to keep doing this. Remind me to tell my husband to get a vasectomy."