I’ve been on maternity leave for the past nine months, staying home with my wonderful baby daughter. In that time, I’ve been surprised at how limited conversation has suddenly become with other adults. I don’t mean the conversations I have with other new parents—those are filled with exclamations about our children’s diaper output and pride at their accomplishments—but rather the conversations I have with non-parents or parents of older children.
The reason these conversations are so dull and frustrating, I believe, is that my conversational partners keep coming back to five specific topics, none of which I think are ideal to discuss with a new mother. Here they are:
1. The birth. Why do people, even folks you barely know, want to ask you details about labor and birth? Why is it any of their business? For most women, giving birth involves quite a lot of pain and squeezing something relatively large down and out the rather small vaginal canal. Frankly, this isn’t much fun. For some women, birth involves surgery. It can also be life-threatening or traumatic. Why would a woman want to continually re-live it? If a woman wants to share her birth story with you, that’s one thing, but don’t ask. And certainly don’t ask questions with obvious answers, such as, “Was it painful?”
2. Your method of feeding the baby. Breastfeeding is the biological norm and in most cases, it’s the best thing for the mother and the baby; no one can claim not to know that. There’s no reason to point this out to a new mother, particularly if you see her bottle-feeding.
Meanwhile, if a woman is breastfeeding, you shouldn’t stare and you shouldn’t comment. There is absolutely no call for referring to the size of the woman’s breasts, or to how much of the breast is on view, or to the fact that she’s breastfeeding at all. Breasts are for breastfeeding, and women have the right and the need to do it. If it upsets you, don’t look, and get over yourself.
The only exception to my no-commenting rule is if you want to be supportive. When my baby was 1-month-old, I was breastfeeding in public, and a woman with two older children said to me that it was great to see more people normalizing breastfeeding. I appreciated hearing that, especially since other people had suggested I sit in my car to feed.
3. Weight. Four days after giving birth, someone asked me over the phone, “Have you gotten your figure back yet?” Um, no. I was busy breastfeeding, cuddling, caring for, and admiring my child; I didn’t have the time or inclination to head to the gym. Since then, nearly everyone I’ve seen has made some comment about how much (or how little) weight I’ve lost. Some people are trying to be kind or complimentary (“You’ve never looked so slender!”), but even so, weight is one of those sensitive topics that you shouldn’t really comment on, especially if you don’t know the person very well.
It takes around 38 weeks to put on the baby weight, and a woman should have at least that amount of time before she even begins thinking about losing it again. I’d prefer if people said, “You look happy.”
4. Work. I’m on maternity leave; that means I’m not working at my job because instead I’m working at taking care of my child full-time. Why must everyone ask me if I’m “back to work yet” or when I’m going back to work or if I’m at least doing some work from home? Does a woman with an infant really want to think about the day she’s going to have to leave the baby at a nursery? No. Women on maternity leave want to concentrate on their babies, not on their careers. It’s stressful to constantly be asked about work.
Also, colleagues shouldn’t send emails asking for help with tasks, or ask women to come in for meetings (and a special note to my colleagues at the university where I teach: You need to stop telling students to go ahead and contact me for help even though I’m on maternity leave; it’s disrespectful). If you wouldn’t contact someone on sabbatical or vacation or suffering from a bereavement, why would you contact a woman on maternity leave?
5. Money. Along with work, many people ask, “But how can you afford to be on maternity leave?” or, “How do you plan to pay for the [pram, nursery, clothes, crib, education, birthday parties, university, etc.]?” It’s one thing to empathize about the costs of having children, but another thing to ask about someone’s budget. If it’s not your child, don’t worry about how the child’s financial needs are being met.
So what can you discuss with a woman who’s at home with a new baby?
Well, how about her child? Ask about the child’s personality, or compliment how well s/he is holding her/his head up, or find out what baby groups mother and baby attend.
And once you’ve exhausted that topic (or, let’s face it, once you’re exhausted from hearing the mother gush about the baby), try discussing politics, the environment, books, movies, celebrities, sports, or anything else that you might be interested in. Just because a woman has had a baby doesn’t mean she no longer has any interests outside of parenting.
We’re still people, even though we’re mothers now too, and we still are aware of the world. It’s a world much bigger than those five tired topics.