I sometimes get the rep for giving off a cold first impression. Truth is, I have had the same friends for 30 years, and the newbies (10 years or less) are just as ride or die. They are my sisters and brothers, are there whenever, and they will tell you I am far from my perceived demeanour.
Well, sometimes I guess I can be a tad frigid… but whatever.
Anyway, I have reflected on the aforementioned assumption that some have of me, and I’ve come to realize my falsely perceived coldness comes from an expectation people have – specifically of women – to be open from the onset. Bubbly. Warm. Making you their world. Telling you their secrets (even if it’s from a place of fakeness).
I’m none of those things and if that’s what cold means, then smack it on a button and I’ll wear that label with pride.
Compounded with this ridiculous expectation of behaviour, is a vicious little habit random people have of telling women who they should be, how they should be, and why they should be.
Unfortunately, this happens often in the workplace, and more times than most want to admit, this is commonplace upon returning from maternity leave. My friends and I have conversations about this all time. None of this behaviour is experienced by my male colleagues or by most, if not all, males I know. However, where my “cold” personality serves me well is in these exact instances.
Here is THE lesson I’ve learned:
We need to stop catering to people who aren’t our friends.
I know I’m not alone in being victim to the litany of absurd comments regarding mothering and being a working mom. So, in the spirit of rebel support for those who are at a loss when colleagues speak to you about your parenting and family when they’ve never been to your home, and don’t even know your partner’s last name, learn to start every retort with one phrase:
“We aren’t friends.”
That’s right. Tell this individual, who knows nothing about you, your family, your finances, your situation, that he or she is, in fact, your colleague and not your friend and as such has no business speaking to you about your personal life in a work setting.
And guess what? This is the best advice to give to a woman returning from maternity leave. Because, unfortunately what probably awaits her is judgment by her colleagues and the entitlement they feel to comment on every single aspect of her work, life, body, and family, now that she’s fresh from a “year’s vacation”.
She will be told:
She is selfish for not being certain about having a second – By someone who is not her friend. And to think, all she wanted to do was put her lunch in the fridge and get to work.
She will be asked “what kind of mother are you?” for coming back to work early/late/at all – By this non-friend who assumes her kind isn’t the kind that will cut you if you touch her kids.
She will be told not to be too ambitious in regards to her career because she has small children and “other” responsibilities – As if this borderline stranger has any real idea about her mastery of juggling shit to ensure her success and happiness is balanced with the needs of her family.
She will be nudged to go back to the baby making board because she had a girl, and should go for the boy (or vice versa) – As if this non-friend had any idea about how long it took her to get pregnant the first time and if having a certain assigned gender is the ultimate indicator of family completeness.
She is told how good she looks, with obvious surprise/fakeness/hostility – As if now it is acceptable to speak to one’s colleague about her body.
Her actual role will be changed, and it will be as a direct result of her “absence”. And while this may be illegal in some cases, this non-friend thinks she is a friend for doing this for her.
She will be asked “are you okay?” in a way that will invite her to either crack, break, or burst into tears at a moment’s notice. The truth is they are waiting for a TMZ moment so they can use it against her a second later.
And she will know that while she is amazing at her job, and has a proven track record, people will assume that having a child somehow means she is now incompetent at her job.
And isn’t it a fucking shame that so many of these comments will come from her female colleagues.
And she has learned to expect this coming back to work, because most of her friends have dealt with the exact same thing. And with a sense of remarkable normalcy.
And while it is difficult to come back to the work setting after spending some time off with her child/children, you can bet she would be far more excited about it if not everyone had an opinion about her life and how it impacts her ability to perform upon returning.
And honestly, she may just want to relish in the idea of peeing with the door closed, eating actual lunch as opposed to leftovers from her kid’s plate, and drinking hot coffee, instead of all the other nonsense that’s coming her way.
Is it any wonder that mothers feel such angst about returning to work post-maternity leave?
Let me be extremely clear: When I say the most important thing to learn is to respond with “we aren’t friends” when met with the same old patriarchal bullshit upon returning to the workplace, it is because anyone who actually speaks to someone in a way that assumes her time off has made her unqualified to do her job is absolutely not her friend.
In fact, her ability to perform and be more efficient at her job – managing her time, juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, etc. – is actually enhanced by her being a mother.
Being a mother changes you. Your priorities change. Your outlook changes. You become stronger. You learn to not sweat the small stuff. You grow. All of this is of benefit to any woman returning to the workplace after maternity leave. So really, a return to work should be met as a celebration more than anything else.
You shouldn’t need to nod politely, and laugh things off to appease your colleagues. You don’t owe them the courtesy.
And so it is this to keep in mind when feeling apprehensive about returning to work: You don’t need to be friends with everyone you work with. You need to be collegial. Collegiality doesn’t mean becoming besties. And we shouldn’t feel bad about that.
Changing the narrative about women returning to work is part a rebel mama’s job. We need to support each other. Build each other up. Support our colleagues when they return. Know they are coming into to a room where their new role as “working mother” is met with resistance, and do what we can to make sure that their experience isn’t suffocated with negativity.
After all, she, by name, may not be a friend, but she’s a woman and a demonstration of support for one woman is a demonstration of support for all women in the workplace.