I started a new job this year. Jobs in my field are notoriously difficult to come by, even during non-coronavirus times, but I believe I’ve made a mistake in taking this position because of two co-workers I’ll call Anna and Lauren. Both Anna and Lauren are pregnant and overshare continuously: bodily functions, digestive problems, pregnancy facts, and their previous birth-control choices. And they assume I want to hear about it. I could deal with that part, but Anna has been targeting me with questions about my reproductive choices that are extremely inappropriate. Like both of them, I am in my mid-30s, but I am currently single and do not have children. This isn’t where I planned to be, but it’s where I am, and I have a fulfilling life (and I haven’t completely ruled out children at this point).
Anna has told me that I need to hurry up and find a partner and get pregnant because I’m “practically middle-aged” (for what it’s worth, I’m a year older than her). She’s pried into my dating life and my desire to have children and has even asked several times if I want to know what it’s like to be pregnant. It’s infuriating.
At one point, I said to her, “I don’t want to talk about this with you,” and started crying (it’s a sensitive issue for me for a number of reasons). She just stood there and stared at me until I asked her to leave my desk. Bursting into tears in front of her slowed her down but didn’t stop her comments to me, and she still bombards everyone with baby and body talk on the work Slack channel.
How do I deal with this? Because I’m new and we’re a small department, I’m hesitant to be as firm as I’d like to be, but the assumptions that I’ve never been pregnant before and that I’m missing out on a life without children or that I’m some lonely miserable spinster are starting to get to me. Plus there’s the constant talk about bodily functions. I’m happy to have a workplace where we discuss things that aren’t strictly work related, but I feel that these two are egging each other on to become more and more boundary-violating.
I did finally say something to my supervisor, and she told me to say something to Anna if I’m uncomfortable — but I feel like it’s gone past that, and I dread working with her.
Agggh. Why do people do this? Prying into other people’s reproductive plans and pressuring them to get pregnant is incredibly obnoxious and boundary-violating. This kind of invasiveness is endemic in our culture, but it’s particularly bad when it happens at work, both because you’re a captive audience and because it can be harder to shut it down when you’re worried about needing to preserve professional relationships.
But you can shut this down if you’re determined to. The next time Anna says anything about your age, your fertility, your baby plans, your dating life — any of it — say this: “I should have said this earlier, but I need you to stop talking about my reproductive plans — it’s not something I ever want to discuss at work.”
You said you’re worried about being firm with her because you’re new. It’s true that when you’re new, you don’t have much political or social capital accrued yet and might need to tread more delicately around people who are still forming impressions of you. But this isn’t in that category. No reasonable person would expect you to tolerate Anna’s prying; you’re allowed to set boundaries, new or not. And to whatever extent you felt like a softer approach was in your best interests at first, you’ve already given her that, and she’s blown right by it. When someone hammers away at your boundaries like this, you’re allowed to get firmer. In fact, she’s forcing your hand in that regard: She’s so over the line, and ignoring gentler signals, that you don’t really have a choice but to be extremely direct.
Please realize, too, that you’re putting a lot of energy and worry into how to keep things harmonious with Anna — but how much thought and energy is she investing in being considerate of you or preserving a good relationship? (None, it seems.)
You get to speak up. And any awkwardness that results from that is on Anna, not you. In fact, right now you’re stuck carrying the burden of all the awkwardness she’s creating. Put it back where it belongs: on her.
So, from this point forward, your refrain is: “Stop asking me about this. It’s not something I discuss at work.”
If you repeat that a time or two without watering it down, it’s pretty likely that she’ll back off. But if she doesn’t, at that point you can go back to your manager to explain that you’ve told Anna multiple times to stop harassing you about pregnancy, and it’s still continuing. Your manager has an interest in not having this happen on her team, and saying that you’ve repeatedly told Anna to stop, without success, should nudge her to act. (To be clear, it wasn’t wrong for your manager to ask you to try handling it yourself first — that’s a reasonable approach with interpersonal conflicts — but if you try that and the problem continues, a good manager will step in.)
The oversharing is harder to deal with. In some ways, that part is like having a co-worker who talks incessantly about sports or dieting or anything else that gets old for anyone who doesn’t share the obsession. When the topic is pregnancy, it can be more emotionally fraught (especially if anyone in your office is struggling with infertility or pregnancy loss), but it can be tough to shut down a topic others are interested in just because you don’t want to hear it. To the extent you can, I’d try to block that out. But you should feel free to proclaim “TMI!” when something is clearly over a line (something I bet some of your other co-workers would appreciate), or even privately say, “This is a difficult topic for me. Would you mind reining it in when I’m around?”
But mostly I’d focus on shutting down the inappropriate questions to you. I suspect when you feel comfortable doing that, you won’t feel as beleaguered by the rest of it.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.