Transitioning from diaper duty back to PowerPoint presentations is a major event for anyone—and it can bring up a lot of mixed feelings, from excitement to overwhelm. And while you may be eager to help a work pal resettle into the daily grind, there isn’t exactly a manual for what to do or say.
For instance, should you request a recap of the delivery? Is it okay to ask whether her schedule will stay the same? And how can you let her know you’ve got her back, without overstepping any boundaries?
Of course, these answers depend on how close your relationship is. But whether she’s your work wife or just someone you occasionally see at the espresso machine, there’s a degree of nuance that should infuse those early, post-maternity-leave conversations.
For an etiquette lesson, I turned to Randi Zinn, author of Going Beyond Mom. Here, the digital media CEO shares a few things you shouldn’t say to a new parent at the office—and offers some alternative talking points that’ll leave your colleague feeling supported. (Because let’s face it, not everyone wants to talk about breastfeeding in the company of her cubicle-mates.)
Are you saying the right things when your coworkers come back from maternity leave? Keep reading to find out.
Don’t assume she’s struggling
After several months of newborn snuggles—and, on the flip side, the sleep deprivation that comes with them—returning to the swirl of early-a.m. commutes and endless conference calls must be a drag, right? Not necessarily.
“We assume [going back to work] is kind of like pulling teeth, and that is not the case for everyone,” Zinn says. “This woman coming back into the office might be really happy to be back.”
To that end, avoid asking questions with inherent assumptions built in. “I would never make a statement like, ‘Are you really upset to leave your baby right now?’” says Zinn. “I would say, ‘How are you feeling today? Is there anything I can do to help?’ Ask questions that are compassionate and open at the same time.” It’ll create space for her to be real with you—or to keep certain things private, if that’s what she prefers.
Body questions are never okay
It’s totally fine to ask for baby pics. (But only if you really want to see them, says Zinn—don’t force it.) However, that’s about as personal as it should get. Steer clear of discussion topics that could result in an, um, awkward biology lesson.
“I think specific body comments are probably better left off the table,” advises Zinn. Was it an unmedicated birth? How was the recovery? Is she breastfeeding? Just don’t go there. If she wants to talk through those topics, let her bring them up on her own.
Be tactful when discussing her new schedule
If you work closely with the new mom, you may be wondering how her hours might change to accommodate her growing family. After all, it may affect your work schedule, too—especially if the two of you have lots of face time together.
Zinn says it’s a fine question to ask, but one you’ll want to word thoughtfully. “It has a lot to do with tone,” she says. “And it has a lot to do with the angle with which you’re asking the question.”
So don’t say, “Do you get to leave an hour early?” Instead, Zinn recommends focusing on productivity: “Say, ‘Hey, I’d really like to support this new phase you’re in. I want to make sure I can deliver to you in a way that’s effective. So are your hours staying the same right now or are you shifting things around to adjust?’”
That way you’re acknowledging she’s still working hard, even if she may not be keeping the same office hours.
Do set her up with other moms in the office
If you know someone else in the company who just returned from maternity leave, play matchmaker! “The most powerful thing you can give a woman in a transition is someone who gets it,” says Zinn. “You really need a text buddy or someone just to bounce things off of.”
And if you’re friends with your coworker, don’t assume she doesn’t want to hang out if she bails on your usual happy hour. Consider asking her out for lunch instead. “The greatest challenge in early motherhood is finding any time for yourself,” explains Zinn. “Even if it’s like, ‘Hey, you wanna go get a 10-minute chair massage?’ Invite her to do something for herself.”
Socializing and self-care? That’s a “welcome back” gift anyone can get behind.
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