it's all relative

7 Women on Their ‘Work Moms’

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg/Photos: Getty

It’s All Relative is a weeklong exploration of all the different ways of being a family in the year 2019. Here, we’re talking about the “families” we find at work.

Most of us are familiar with the terms “work husband” and “work wife” — these are the people we go for long lunches with, take smoke breaks with, possibly flirt with, and generally develop closer-than-professional connections with, despite the shared professional setting. (Less familiar, but all too recognizable: the “office daddy.”) But what of the more familial professional bonds experienced between co-workers with a sizable age (and likely, experience) gap between them? We asked women to share their experiences with their “work moms,” and what that term meant to them.

My Work Mom Is Younger Than Me

“Whenever I can’t print something, or format something, or I forgot the conference line, or I can’t put the right code into the conference line, or I need to docusign, or scan with an app, or log into the shared dropbox, Ali helps me. And I chat back, “Awww, MOM!” in the tone you tell your mom thank you for writing a note in my lunch box. (As you can see, I didn’t do my own laundry growing up.)

Just to be clear, we have the same title at work! We’re colleagues. But she’s good at everything. She also has this aura of being the real adult in the relationship — no split ends, no pimples, from Connecticut, boyfriend with a famous father. I think it started because for the longest time I thought she was 19 — she’s one of those tiny, tan people, like Yoko Ono — and then she put her foot down and told me she was 24. (I’m 28.) So I started calling her mom as a joke. She also (two years ago, when I started) wasn’t in the position she’s in now, so she was doing all those little tasks for me because that was her job. But now she just does them because she knows I’m pathetic. She says “Awww, baby” in this singsong voice whenever I break the printer, which is often.” —Kaitlin

My Work Mom Is My Boss

“The best relationship I ever had with a boss was with a work mom type. She was a southern belle from Louisiana and had charisma for days. She had a Dolly Parton level of charm mixed with raw intelligence and shrewdness. She gave me constant support and encouragement, and through that made me happy to come to work every day. She would go to bat for me against workplace bullies like a mama bear as well. She was a mom boss to not only me, but to everyone in our office, often going far beyond the requirements of her job description to give guidance to her employees on personal as well as professional matters. After this job, I moved to a new position in a horrific boys club environment and have missed my work mom ever since.” —Anna

My Work Mom Is Decades Older

“I am fairly opposed to the term ‘work mom,’ as I think its connotations risk being counterproductive to women’s integrity and agency in the workplace, even if the relationship is an intimate, rewarding, and fulfilling one that does indeed resemble a maternal bond. That being said, I very much do have the sort of relationship described. D. (who is in her early 50s) and I (31) quickly discovered little unlikely-yet-plebeian commonalities that built an instant surface connection: we were wearing the same engraved necklace from a tiny specialty jeweler on the day of my interview, we owned the same limited-edition tea kettle, etc. — silly, stupid little things. Because we are also both early risers, we are almost always the first two people in the office each day, and during those morning hours, as we started our work day and weeded through our inboxes, we fell into a habit of sharing and discussing the things that we typically reflected on privately — the books we were reading (often the same), our reactions to current events, the many ways women are reduced to tropes in the media, how her children were navigating conversations around social justice, and our varied ambitions, hopes, and concerns for the future. These conversations built a foundation of commonality and understanding that transformed into a close and resilient friendship.

Our culture, I think, has a hard time understanding or defining intergenerational friendships and partnerships outside of the term “mentor” or “work mom.” But there is no cute term for two women of different ages who share a common sensibility and mutually challenge and strengthen one another. Ultimately, I don’t consider D. a mom of any sort, work or otherwise, but rather a person alongside whom I am fortunate to navigate my work and life. Sure, she’s older, and has therefore experienced more than I have, and I am the beneficiary of the wisdom of those experiences. It has been one of the great good fortunes of my career to meet a person I can collaborate with so honestly and productively.” —Kate

I Have Multiple Work Moms

“I have around four work moms in my department, and each of them check in on me and mentor/mother me in different ways. When I say they’re my work moms, I mean I literally address each of them as “MOM!” whenever I see them, which I’m sure they LOVE.

Each of my moms have been through a similar career journey as me, and each of them has picked up different tricks of the trade along the way. From one, I’ve learned the value of writing down EVERYTHING. She carries a giant binder of secrets with her, and whenever she has a question or needs to remember something, no matter how small, it gets written down in there. Because of her, I’ve also started carrying around a little notebook. From another, I’ve learned the value of reading the room. Good producing is being whatever everyone in the room needs you to be at that exact moment. Rather than suppress my natural inclination to please others, she’s taught me to lean in to it. I don’t think I’d ever receive that piece of advice from a male co-worker.

The best part about having moms to lean on at work is that they know what you’re good at, because often times, they see a lot of themselves in me. They’re invested in me as a person and as a co-worker, and because of that relationship, they’re able to identify different opportunities that make sense for me and my personal career growth. Also, they’re always game for a midday rosé if I need it (sometimes you just do.)” —Alex

The Work Mom Who Knows How to Work With Men

“I had a work mom at a previous job. She was very into mentoring me, and telling me how to be a woman in a very man department in a very man industry (not that they’re not … all man industries). Her big thing was ‘Never let them see you cutting a cake.’ She was also really good to me when my mom died, but that was after she’d left the company.” —Lisa

The Work Mom Who Helps Me Say ‘No’

“[My work mom and I] met during my first interview, which was very standard and professional. It wasn’t until a few months into my employment that sparks flew, if you will. Since we spend about 40 hours each week within arm’s length of each other, we both eventually recognized a kindred spirit and latched on.

She’s in a position at our company that, in my opinion, demands more emotional labor than I think any person should have to provide for employment, and which sort of mirrors the same disproportionate amount of emotional labor that moms often do in homes. So I try to take things from her workload that I can handle. If she has an incoming asinine question or request, I’ll intercept the aforementioned asinine asker. Alternatively, I’m in a role that lends a lot of support across various departments, which can be overwhelming. But since I’m lowest in terms of seniority, what am I supposed to do? Say no? I won’t, she knows it, and will often intercede on my behalf and act as a bouncer of my time when necessary. I do anything I can to ease her workload not because she’s my boss, but because we have sincere concern for one another. I literally worry about her on the weekends: is she relaxing? Is she drinking water?” —Caroline

The Work Mom I Didn’t Want

“I was working as a clinical research coordinator at a major research university. Got a new boss that was billed enthusiastically to me as “everyone’s mom” (to a large team she supervised and IRL mother to three grown children). I stubbornly resisted her management every step of the way. But once I realized Sandra was not there to micromanage me, but to be a resource, I eased up (even as I was dealing with the considerable on-call demands of the job, plus an untreated mental illness, and fighting a lot of other relationships in my life). Incidentally, during the months I worked under her, Sandra lost her own mother and father-in-law. Witnessing her deal with that grief openly and vulnerably made it impossible not to feel sympathy and respect for her. Once I stopped treating her as an adversary, I was able to receive her compassion, kindness and support. She was a mother to me when I felt like I had literally no one else in the world. We’re still in touch. She keeps me in her prayers.” —Whitney

7 Women on Their ‘Work Moms’