Most of us here at Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman have had some very awkward interactions at work before and after having a baby, which shows us that many people are not comfortable speaking with a reproductively active woman. Since being pregnant is such a physically obvious state, and very exciting for most people, others somehow feel compelled and permitted to talk about it in a way they would never get personal with anyone else. You’ll want to avoid situations like these, which actually happened to us:
Student: *looks at belly* *giggles*
Me: Hi, how are you?
Student: *looks at belly, giggles* Um, good! *giggles*
Female co-worker I’ve met briefly twice: You’re pregnant! *rubs baby belly*
Me: *eyebrow raise death glare*
Male colleague: Are you going to be breastfeeding? Where are you going to pump?
Me: Well, there’s a lactation room, so probably there.
Him: You can use my office if you want.
Me: …No, thanks. The lactation room is fine.
Colleague: Have you and your husband been watching birthing videos? Because you need to watch them.
Me: Um, yes, a few.
Colleague: Have you watched any up close? Because there is a lot of gross stuff that comes up when the baby is born, you both need to be prepared.
Colleague: I was right behind you walking to work today.
Colleague: You don’t look pregnant at all from the back. But you definitely waddle.
Male colleague, after complaining about how unfair it is that I am taking maternity leave: I know I’m not supposed to say stuff like this but I think it might be better if women just took 5 years off to focus and raise their kids.
Male colleague: You look… *stares at belly* less…
Me: Yes, I had the baby, she’s 3 months old now!
Colleague: Weren’t you… pregnant?
Me: Yes, I had the baby, she’s 3 months old now!
Here are some tips for more comfortable interactions and avoiding getting too personal – feel free to use, share, or add your own in the comments!
- Take a cue from her. If she doesn’t bring up her pregnancy, maybe you shouldn’t either. It’s usually not relevant for most work situations.
- If you must say something, make sure you’re 100% certain she is in fact pregnant. Otherwise she may not have told her boss or coworkers yet, she may not be ready to talk about it with you, and she may be offended.
- Don’t even mention her body. Unless it’s to say “You look great!” and nothing more. Why would you do this with a co-worker under any other circumstance? And certainly don’t touch her belly. Just don’t.
- Do not assume or suggest that your pregnant colleague is disabled. She very likely knows what she can or cannot continue to do in the workplace as her physical condition changes. If you see her in a meeting or at the lab bench, she belongs there. An offer of assistance is generally welcomed by anyone; suggestions that she should not or cannot are unwelcome.
- Unless you are in a professional role where you can make accommodations for pregnant or lactating women in general, there is no need to ask about her plans and preparations, especially where or whether she will be breastfeeding/pumping. If you are her direct boss or genuinely think you can help, simply say, “I am here for you if you need help making accommodations during pregnancy or for lactation. You can talk to [health and safety, HR, etc.] about this as well.”
- Family leave time is an important time for all new mothers (giving birth or otherwise), as well as fathers. You have no idea how she feels about the length of her leave or her personal struggles surrounding working and spending time with her child, so please keep your opinions about appropriate leave time to yourself.
- Maybe people are worried that something bad happened during delivery or with the baby medically and are afraid to ask specific questions. Just keep it general: “I haven’t seen you since you were out on family leave – how is everything?” She’ll probably be happy to tell you exactly as much as she wants to about her baby.
- Do not ask for any details regarding the birthing process. Hopefully you would not do this for any other medical procedure a colleague went through, and birth is typically even more personal.
- Again, no comment on her body is needed beyond, “You look great!”
- If she is pumping at work, it can be very difficult physically, emotionally, and disruptive to her work schedule. Trust that she is doing the best she can to work out her schedule, it is not a “break”, and anyone mentioning or complaining about it will not improve things and only make her feel worse about an already difficult situation. If she needs to schedule something with you around her pumping time, simply work with her like you would with any other colleague with a scheduling conflict.
- Nothing gets older than hearing “Are you getting any sleep?” Because of course she’s not, and this goes for non-birthing parents as well. Sleep is a sensitive issue for parents of newborns. Tired doesn’t begin to explain how one feels with a brand new baby (or two babies in my case). Don’t tell a new parent that they look tired. And don’t mention to a new parent how tired you are, or on the flip side that you got to sleep in or take a nap on the weekend.
As with any colleague, try to be warm open, and understanding, and you will go far!