For many working mums, going to work isn’t just about getting paid at the end of every month (although that definitely helps); a lot of us enjoy the work that we do. We often spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our nearest and dearest, but as a working parent, how would you rate your relationship with your co-workers? In a recent study 64% of parents felt that colleagues without children were unsympathetic to the challenges that they face when trying to balance work and home. That’s not to say that all colleagues are unsupportive, because of course that’s not true. But for those who have less than sympathetic co-workers we’ve summarised some of the main issues that we face and our advice on how to deal with them.
The ‘harmless’ banter comments
“What’s happened to you? You used to be so glamorous and now look at you!” Yes, this really is a comment that was said to a participant on one of our Mumager workshops when she returned from maternity leave. Whilst she knew the comment was made in jest and was part of the banter that her and her team had always enjoyed, she admitted that she was a bit taken aback by it and wasn’t sure how to respond to it. Other comments that colleagues sometimes say as part of the ‘office banter’ include ‘leaving early are you?’ and ‘thanks for doing a half day’.
Our advice: There are three ways to deal with this kind of behaviour from your colleagues. Your approach will depend on you, how you feel, and your relationship with your colleagues. The first option is to ignore it and to not even acknowledge the comment. Laughing along with your colleagues reinforces that these are acceptable comments to make – and they aren’t. The second option, if you’re blessed with quick thinking is to deflect the comment by making a witty remark back. The third option is to let the other person know that their comments are hurtful or disrespectful, and to explain the impact that their ‘banter’ is having on you. Most people when confronted with their behaviour will stop it immediately e.g. ‘I’ve noticed that over the last week on three occasions you’ve remarked that I’ve ‘left early’. All I’ve done is leave on time, and every day I’m in the office an hour before you arrive. I’m finding your comments unhelpful and I’d like you stop please’.
“I coped – so should you” comments
We were recently supporting a mum who was about to come back to work from her maternity leave. We were discussing the option of using her parental leave to do a staggered return to work. Her colleague (who herself was a working mum) replied to her by saying ‘what would you want to do that for – we’ve all had to cope –you’re no different’. We may hope for the support or understanding from other working mums – but this isn’t always the case.
Our advice: Remember that every situation is different and avoid comparing yourself to other mums. Just because one person has decided to do something it doesn’t mean its right for you. We all have different experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, maternity leave and our feelings about returning to work. We also have different personal circumstances such as the support around us and our finances. Be clear on what your values and boundaries are. Sit down with your partner and work out what working hours will work for you as a family, your childcare, your commute etc. When you’re confident that you’ve made the right choices for the right reasons then it’s easier to deal with unhelpful comments or comparisons.
“You chose to have kids – why should I pick up your slack” comments
Some colleagues can feel resentful that you leave the office on time to pick up your children whilst they stay late in the office. Or they may start to feel frustrated that you are taking days off work when your child is ill. According to the National Association for Sick Child Daycare, working mothers are absent from their jobs anywhere from five to 29 days per year because they are caring for ill children. This can be magnified in the first 6 months of returning to work where children starting in crèche are particularly susceptible to picking up colds and bugs.
Our advice: I think we’d all agree that we wouldn’t expect our colleagues to take on extra work just because of the choices we’ve made. Talking to your colleagues upfront about the hours that you’ll be doing and explaining what you can and will do when there are busy times can help manage expectations. We’d also recommend that you sit down with your partner and agree upfront what you’ll do not if, but when, you child is ill (it will happen). It’s not fair that one of you shoulders all of the responsibility and therefore time off work.
“You never come out with us anymore” comments
The social scene at work is often a great way to unwind at the end of a long day or week, and a chance to catch up on all of the gossip and goings on. A lot of the mums that we work with say that they really miss the chance to catch up with their colleagues more informally, and they feel a bit left out when everyone is chatting about the night’s events. Our colleagues are probably missing us too – especially if we were a regular on the going out scene. After a while, people sometimes stop asking us out in the evenings as they assume it’s going to be ‘no’, which can make us feel even more of a social pariah. So – what can you do?
Our advice: whilst going out every week may no longer be an option for you, try to arrange at least one night every month, or couple of months where you do go out. Re-connecting with people and letting your hair down is a great way to have some down-time. You don’t have to stay out til last orders; even just staying for a short while can make a difference. You could also make an effort to go for coffee with colleagues after a night out so at least if you weren’t there, you can be part of the coffee chit-chat as they dissect the night out. And lastly, connecting with colleagues doesn’t always have to be done in the pub after work. Suggest some breakfasts or lunches together as an alternative way of showing that you’re still interested in them as individuals.
If you’re having an issue that we haven’t covered then get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.