The protagonist of Workin’ Moms is not a good person. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about that. Plenty of shows are about bad people and Kate’s sins are relatively minor. She’s not killing people, dealing drugs, or running a criminal enterprise. Yet, most antiheroes (and heroes to be honest) remain men and Kate’s misdeeds are particularly interesting because of the premise of her show — motherhood.
Or more precisely, working, regular motherhood. Kate and her friends may be privileged (no plotlines yet about the expense of childcare) but they’re also supposed to be relatable. The zany “other” characters sit at the show’s periphery, uttering just a few lines in the mother’s group to signal that the show’s creators know that black and brown and older mothers exist. But these women are outside the central group, not as relatable or flushed out as Kate and her friends.
The main group, of which Kate is the lead, is comprised of working, upper-class white people, struggling to be good parents, professionals, and people. It’s the last one that Kate fails at through acts big and small. She teases a toddler boy for his long hair, showing her propensity to punch down (not to mention her lack of feminist bona fides). Though technically consensual, she starts sleeping with her much younger assistant in a plotline that if the genders were reversed would have people calling for her head. She even serves as the go-to PR person for the local men’s right chapter (before eventually quitting this vile gig).
You see Kate’s ease with moral missteps are all light enough, small enough that we’re meant to forgive her, to understand. It’s the type of empathy that asks you to briefly cross ethical lines. And in Kate’s universe, most everyone crosses it with her. Her assistant comes back after the men’s rights clients are gone, seeing Kate’s willingness to work for them as a momentary lapse. Her (estranged, having cheated) husband doesn’t see a problem in Kate sleeping with her assistant — he goes so far as to support his wife, acting as her attorney when the young man sues.
The only time Kate is held accountable is for teasing the boy about his hair. The boy’s mother takes offense and uses her power as a journalist to smudge Kate’s reputation. It’s clear this transgression is different from the others — it reflects not just on Kate as a person, but her as a mother. And that distinction, that Kate can be a good mother while not being a good person is what makes Workin’ Moms so distinct.
Usually, TV moms are good or bad and their personality outside of motherhood matches nicely. There are the good moms of yore (from June Cleaver to Claire Huxtable) and their modern variations (Pose’s Blanca, Friday Night Lights’ Tami Taylor), all good people through and through. There are selfish bad moms (like Betty Draper and Lucille Bluth) and criminally abusive moms (from Mommy Dearest to Carrie). But the bad person/good mom is hard to find (and the good person/bad mom seems entirely absent, while men get this characterization all the time).
Now some may argue that Kate’s not a good mom. She consistently prioritizes her career over her family. In season one, she takes an out-of-town job despite having a newborn at home. Later when she’s on a forced-leave, she hates staying home with her baby and takes a second job just to have something else to do. But Workin’ Moms doesn’t demonize her for those choices. Instead, it contextualizes them as part of how Kate struggles to be a good mother. Yes, her husband cheats on her, blaming, in part, how she puts herself (and her career) first. But not only does that not stick (he wants Kate back as soon as he’s found out), it doesn’t affect Kate’s parenting. You can be a good mother and bad partner.
Kate’s mothering may not look like June Cleaver’s but it clearly falls into the “good enough” category. In season one, we see her struggling to get her baby to latch, fighting the good fight to breastfeed, even when it’s clearly not working. Later, she’s figuring out how to co-parent after separating from her cheating husband, first denying him the ability to see his kids and then eventually granting it. By the end of season three, she’s making her toddler’s Halloween costume in a hotel bathroom, sneaking away from her sexy new lover to make sure her kid has something to wear. None of these parenting moments shows a perfect mom. But they each show a woman struggling to do right by herself and her kid.
Kate has to work at mothering, not because she’s a bad person but because she’s human. So much of the portrayal of parenthood omits these day-to-day difficulties. Instead, it’s how best to guide your kid — not how to deal with the constant pressure to subsume yourself to the cult of good motherhood.
In the second season of Workin’ Moms, we see a lot of younger Kate, learning how she met her husband, what she was like before kids. And like everyone I know in real life, Kate is the same before and after having kids. She doesn’t become a different person. Instead, she remains the funny, morally-flexible person who quips to defend herself but can’t predict when she’s about to take a joke too far.
I sympathize with Kate not for her lack of conventions but rather for her flawed nature. She’s not evil or saintly. Simply she’s imperfect and women, particularly mothers, are rarely given the chance to tell that story.