Returning from maternity leave elicited a variety of emotions from me. I was scared to leave my kid, but I was excited to engage in adult conversation on a regular basis again. I was nervous that I’d be regarded as irrelevant, due to being out of the office for 12 weeks, but I was eager to disprove that theory. What I was totally unprepared for, though, were the things people say to moms returning from maternity leave. Women have been birthing babies for centuries, and incorporating motherhood into their existing lives. And yet, some of what people felt fine saying to me made me feel that new working moms are an anomaly at the office.
I guess I shouldn’t be totally surprised. New studies show that working moms are concerned with how their employer regards their new status as a parent when when they return from leave. I know that I always feel I have to compensate for leaving right at six, so I can spend a hour or so with my kids before they go to bed. I am willing myself not to be, but it’s hard to shake that self-consciousness as you are dashing out the door while most of your colleagues linger at their computer screens.
Then again, I may just be a boss at time management, since I am motivated to get my work done so I can get home to my kids. I’m also better at saying “No,” or at least, "Not now, but I can have this done by the morning.” That bravery may come with age, though. When I was starting out in my career, I never said “No” to any work demand. Still, 20 years of job experience is not always enough for me to shake off the worry that I’m being judged, not as an employee, but as an employee with kids. That’s why I bond with other parents on the job; I respect all my co-workers but the other working moms just get me in certain ways.
I didn’t expect to hear some of this stuff, as it is 21st century and all, but here were some things people felt fine saying to me when I came back from maternity leave that'll make you think we’re living like it’s 1959:
“Oh, I Wasn’t Sure You’d Come Back”
This would be a valid statement if I was giving off “take this job and shove it” vibes before going out on leave, but that’s not how I roll. I am lucky to be working in an industry I’m passionate about, and while I don’t love every aspect about my job (who does?), it fulfills me in ways that being a parent doesn’t. I would love to have it both ways — being there to raise my kid and continuing to cultivate my career — but that is an unrealistic expectation for a human being who isn’t wealthy and can afford to outsource a lot of life’s necessary tasks.
“You Look Great”
And by “great,” do you just mean “alive,” because I don’t think I look great. I’m squeezing into too-tight tops (because I’m still breastfeeding), my hair is in a perpetual “I don’t have time for this sh*t” ponytail, and I did my make-up on a moving train, standing up. So stop lying to me. I don’t look great. I look tired.
“You Look Tired”
Look, I get it. You’re showing sympathy. I appreciate that. However, unless this observation comes with a huge cup of coffee, keep the thought to yourself.
“You Don’t Have To Come To This Meeting”
Oh yes I do. I am back, baby, and I know how the world works: out of sight, out of mind. I know I was missed while I was away, but companies always find a way to either replace an employee or make their position irrelevant. I was not going to let that happen.
I appreciated that my department allowed me to ease in a bit upon my return from leave (coming back to work on a Thursday, and not blinking when I packed up a few minutes early some days). But I was back, and committed to my job, while at the office. True, I’d have to switch to “mom mode” if the sitter called, or when I needed to pump, or when that reminder popped up to schedule my baby’s next check-up. Everyone deals with aspects of their lives at work, though. Especially women, as we still take on the lion's share of domestic responsibilities, even those who work full-time. Attending meetings, reconnecting with colleagues I hadn’t seen in three months, was vital to the health of my career when I returned from maternity leave. I wanted everyone to know I was back, and ready to work.
“Do You Miss The Baby?”
Trick question. If I say “yes” (which is true), my commitment to my job might be questioned. If I say “no,” (which is also true, sometimes), I’m a monster. But I have children and I have a career I love. I sometimes go hours without thinking of my kids, while I’m at work, And when I’m home, I don’t check email (if at all possible) or answer calls until the kids are asleep. So yes, I miss my children because they have my heart. However, I’m grateful to have a “grown-ups” only world, at the office, where I can focus on the parts of me that don’t have to do with motherhood.
“Who’s Watching The Baby?”
My favorite response to this one is to just go blank and slowly morph my expression into shock. “Oh no, who is watching the baby?” I repeat back alarmingly. Immediately, the person posing this inane question smiles feebly and may even back away (from shame or fear, hard to tell).
But seriously, this is not anyone’s business. The first time I returned from maternity leave, a nanny was watching the baby. The second time, my infant and toddler were in daycare. Why is this something a person has a right to know? If you want to talk to me about childcare, why don’t you talk to me about how hard it is to find something that's affordable, convenient, and makes you feel good about your choice to return to your job (which is often not even a choice, given the cost of living these days).
I cut some slack if this question is asked by a fellow parent because really, they just want confirmation that this whole childcare situation is an emotional, financial, and logistical hardship. But whatever answer I give — nanny, grandparent, daycare, babysitting co-op — be supportive about it. Don’t share your opinion on the matter. You do what’s best for your family, and I’ll do what’s best for mine. If we don’t agree, let’s just agree to disagree.
“Are You Back Full-Time?”
Why wouldn’t I be? Can your job get done with you here half the time? I continue to be shocked that women get questioned like this. Nobody asked my husband if he was going to continue working full-time after he returned from his 2-week paternity leave. Is it because I was out of the office for a full 12 weeks that made people assume I’d entertain a part-time schedule? And what about adding a member to the family makes the math work out for me to work, and earn, half as much? (By the way, if you know of a way where that math does work out, can you teach it to me?)
“Are You Pumping?”
Is this an OK question to ask me? I guess so, but it feels invasive. It means that you’ve thought about me pumping. You might be picturing me doing that. What is your motivation for knowing this? Are you another mom, hoping to compare breastfeeding war stories? Are you going to judge my answer? When I answer “Yes,” will there be follow-up questions? Let’s keep things simple that first week I’m back. Ask to see pics of my baby, and chat me up about the weather.
“Bet You Wish You Were Home, Right?”
Sure, who wouldn’t wish they were home instead of at work? Except when that home comes with a child who is dependent on you for everything, thus precluding a person from showering, eating, resting and getting household errands completed during normal business hours. So, while I don’t love being away from my baby, I don’t totally wish to be home, and away from adult interaction I sorely need after 12 weeks of straight baby talk.
“Ready For Your Annual Performance Review?”
This actually happened to me. I returned from maternity leave with my first baby in late January, and on my first day back, my boss informed me we’d be doing my performance review. Um, OK. To his credit, he wanted to get it done quickly so my pay raise would be able to be implemented sooner rather than later (nothing to get too excited about, just the standard three percent cost of living salary increase for worker bees like me). I sat there nodding through my review. All positive feedback, with the headline being, “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
In hindsight I realize that is not constructive feedback and have since gotten better about managing the factors that inform the trajectory of my career (including asking for constructive criticism, and more frequent check-ins). I realized later how unprepared I was to have a sit down with my supervisor and discuss my career growth. I had just had a baby. I was figuring out if the office fridge was suitable to storing my pumped milk. I was freaked out that my daughter wasn’t taking a bottle at home with the nanny, since she had staunchly refused it up until that point. I was in the right headspace to engage in a focused discussion about my work, especially since I hadn’t even been at work for the past three months.
Please don’t blindside us with this kind of discussion when we return from leave. That is wildly unfair. Give us a week, or at least a few days, to prepare to discuss our performance for the past year at work. (And still ask to see baby pics.)