Coming back to work after maternity leave can be a big transition.
“For me and for many of my coaching clients, there was a complex mix of emotions during this time,” said Becca Carnahan, a career coach who works with mothers. “Anxiety around leaving your newborn, exhaustion from parenting a newborn, excitement about getting back into your routine, guilt for being excited about getting back into your routine, the list goes on.”
“That’s why support from co-workers is so important to ease the transition and help parents be successful in the paid workforce,” Carnahan said.
Ideally, colleagues can help make it a smooth reentry. Unfortunately, awkward, insensitive and downright rude comments from co-workers are all too common. Even the most well-meaning peers can say something that backfires.
We asked experts to share the most common kinds of remarks you should avoid, if you want to be a better colleague to someone who just got back from maternity leave. Here’s their best advice:
1. “Must have been a nice vacation.”
Carnahan said many of her clients and friends have been welcomed back to work with a version of this insensitive comment.
Going on parental leave is certainly not a relaxing break, and common remarks like “How was your vacation?” are problematic, said Amy Beacom, the founder and CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership. “All new parents are learning what their child needs for food, sleep, diapers, etc. ― all with so little sleep it can be classified as torture. It is in no way a restorative vacation!” Beacom said.
Childbirth is an intense physical experience, and for birthing and non-birthing parents alike, what happens after the birth of a baby isn’t a vacation either, Carnahan points out.
“There are sleepless nights, hormonal changes, significant changes to family dynamics, and numerous doctor’s visits,” Carnahan said. “Comparing maternity leave to vacation devalues the health of the parent and important work of raising children. If you wouldn’t ask about a co-worker’s ‘vacation’ after back surgery, don’t refer to maternity leave as a vacation, either.”
Similar comments about how “the boss is so generous to give you time off” misunderstand what parental leave actually is, said Daphne Delvaux, a California-based workplace rights attorney who focuses on women’s rights.
Paid parental leave is not federally guaranteed in the United States, but the Family and Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave following the birth of a child.
“Insensitive comments always imply that the leave of absence was some sort of special privilege, when truly it is a right,” Delvaux said.
2. “Don’t you miss your baby?”
This statement may seem like an innocuous, well-intentioned attempt to show interest in a co-worker’s life outside of work, but it can bring up feelings of guilt or shame for your colleague, Carnahan said.
“That’s because of course they miss their baby, but at the same time they may be happy to return to work ― I know I was in many ways! ― and a statement like this sends a signal that the mother should be prioritizing being with her baby over all other things,” she said. “For some parents, having a stay-at-home parent is not a financial option. For others, work outside the home is an important part of what makes them feel whole.”
“Parents miss their children,” Carnahan said, “but there are also many reasons that they may not be with them all of the time, and there shouldn’t be a judgment tied to this.”
3. “I’m surprised you came back to work.”
This is another statement that packs a judgmental punch for some parents, Carnahan said.
“This statement can can be construed as ‘I don’t think you can handle working outside the home and being a parent,’ or ‘A choice you’ve made isn’t in line with what I believe makes a good parent,’” she said.
But in reality, when and how a parent chooses to return to work after taking leave is none of your business as their colleague.
“You don’t know all of the details about why a parent chooses to stay home as a primary caregiver or return to work, and a parent may not want to share this information at work,” Carnahan said.
Related comments can include expressions of shock like: “Wow! I could never handle X number of kids and do my job!”
Beacom said this kind of remark is usually meant as a compliment, but instead sends a message “that they shouldn’t come back to work, they can’t handle it, and they might as well quit. And definitely not have any more kids.”
4. “You look tired.” Or, “You look great.”
Comments about appearance can carry implicit judgments about how a working parent “should” look.
“You look tired,” for example, is not a helpful nor a groundbreaking comment to hear as a new parent coming back to work.
“The parent is absolutely tired, but pointing out how it is clearly showing in a professional setting, when the parent has likely spent a good amount of time trying not to look tired, isn’t helpful,” Carnahan said. “Simply flipping this to ‘How can I support you as you transition back into this work?’ is much more helpful.“
Even compliments about their appearance can be a well-intentioned attempt to connect, but it often doesn’t land that way, Beacom said. It can be interpreted as a suggestion that they didn’t look good before, and it “doesn’t acknowledge their inner experience and can make them feel unseen and alone,” Beacom said. It “can lead to alienation.”
5. “You really left us in a pickle” and “We really had to pick up the slack while you were gone.”
Delvaux said some of the most common insensitive comments she hears boil down to: “You took time away and you should feel bad about that, because you really left us to pick up your slack.”
“What we see sometimes within company culture is, generally there is no training on parental leave management,” Delvaux said, noting that she often sees friction when a team feels overwhelmed by an employee’s absence. Colleagues sometimes take out that resentment on the employee when they come back from leave, instead of directing it toward management.
Delvaux outlined a common scenario: An employee named Lisa goes on maternity leave and the company does not provide enough coverage, so Jim, her co-worker, has to do both her job and his own, causing him to become overwhelmed and angry at Lisa.
“That’s an operational failure. That’s not Lisa’s fault, that’s not even Jim’s fault ― the company didn’t plan to account for that gap in labor,” Delvaux said, adding that “unfortunately a lot of companies, they just expect the team to absorb the labor.“
As a result, employees who bear the brunt of being understaffed will take out their frustrations on the employee who took maternal leave, with resentful comments like “I really had to pick up all of your slack” and “Must be nice to just sit at home while I was doing your job,” Delvaux said.
“There is a feeling of unfairness and frustration towards the mother going on leave and leaving. We really see this in fast-paced work environments, especially in places where you see quarterly metrics and KPIs [key performance indicators],” Delvaux said. “Those kind of structures don’t really allow for absences.”
Watching their team get overburdened can make the mother feel like they’ve let their team down and exceeded the generosity of their employer, and can cause them to come back from maternal leave earlier than they’d wanted to ― even though their leave is not a generous privilege, Delvaux said, but a right.
“In healthy workplaces, no one feels jaded and resentful towards each other when they have life events occurring,” she said. “In places where that doesn’t exist and where work is the religion and we’re all bowing to the god of work ... it’s a hard as an employee to break the culture.”