Confession: when friends and colleagues have announced their pregnancies, I’ve found myself wondering what they'd decide about work. Would she continue working? Would she take a long-term break? Would she leave the workforce completely? Would she find some kind of blend that suits her and her family and, honestly, is it really my business at all? I get that people are going to wonder about the future when women announce their lives are going to change. Still, when people tell a new mom they’re "surprised" she’s back at work, that’s a little different than genuinely wondering. That’s more like admitting your subtly and silently judging her for a choice she's already made.
I’m sure my coworkers wondered when I announced my own pregnancy back in 2013, and I don’t blame them one bit. I even had a colleague blatantly admit they were surprised that I had made the choice to return to work (spoiler alert: I didn’t stay long before transitioning to a brief stint as a stay-at-home, then landing on being a work-at-home mom, which I currently still am). While it's difficult for me to say what my colleagues true intentions were when they said they were "surprised," I can say that I didn’t really know what to say to them in response. It just sounded, well, off-putting.
For any other moms who might be in a similar position, and who may be struggling to come up with an appropriate response, let’s consider what the other person might mean when they say such a thing:
“I Honestly Thought You Were Going To Quit Your Job”
Let’s start with the obvious, shall we? It’s possible someone came to this conclusion based on their own assumptions, and not based on anything you’ve ever said or done. The fact that this is possible says more about our own cultural and the social expectations of women who decide to have children, than it does your decision-making. It doesn't make it suck any less, but it is possible that their incorrect guess has very little to do with you.
“I Assumed You Were Going To Give Up Your Career Completely”
If you make this choice, great! I’m super happy for you. However, if you don’t make this choice, and people around you seem to question it, it can be a tough thing to hear. This implies permanence, and a complete closing of a door that one may have worked really, really hard to open.
“Don’t You WANT To Quit Your Job?”
Maybe you do want to quit, but you're unable to. Maybe you don’t want to quit, but someone might be implying that you should. Either way, it’s not exactly a comfortable conversation to have (or anyone's business).
“OK, Wait. Why DON’T You Want To Quit Your Job?”
Maybe you love your job and maybe you couldn’t possibly dream of leaving it. Maybe you have a big career master plan figured out and your own goals to obtain. Maybe it was a tough decision and you’re still not sure it was the right one. Maybe you like, or need, to have the income. Whatever the reasons, they're valid.
“I Have Different Priorities Than You”
Oh, OK cool. I tend to prioritize not casting my judgments on other people (or at least, trying not to), but to each their own. Good talk.
“My Assumptions About And Expectations Of Women Are Extremely Dated”
Let’s assume you did nothing to convey a desire to leave your job. For someone to simply assume that you would, because you became a mom, is ever-so-slightly misguided (and probably a little sexist). Sure, it happens, but lots and lots of women (69.9 percent, in fact) are in the work force, so clearly you’re in the majority.
“I’m Just Genuinely Surprised You’re Back At Work, That’s All”
Perhaps you planned to do otherwise? Perhaps you mentioned that you were considering quitting your job once your baby arrived? Perhaps this person actually had a valid reason for assuming you’d stay home? I know, I know, chances are slim (because a person who knows your plan probably knows why you decided to ditch your plan), but I wanted to include it just in case the benefit of the doubt is necessary.
“If I Were In Your Shoes, I’d Make Different Decisions Than You Do”
If I were in your shoes, I would have worn different socks, but to each their own, right?
“I Applaud You For Deciding To Do Whatever Is Best For You And Your Family”
I mean, we can all hope, right? Let’s just assume that all things people say to working moms are actually meant to convey support.