In many ways, our coworkers are like family — if you spend 40 hours a week with a group of people, you are likely to become close. So it’s no surprise our work family celebrates our successes and mourns our losses with us. It’s common for colleagues to pool money for a bouquet and spa gift certificate when a staff member is grieving the loss of a parent, or schedule a triumphant potluck or happy hour when someone gets engaged or announces a pregnancy. This recognition of life beyond the cubicle is great … except when it isn’t.
Workplaces tend to acknowledge events relating to a traditional, first-comes-love life. Engagements and baby showers are on the list, of course, and the sorrows are based on a nuclear family model as well: ill or dying parents, but rarely anyone further removed, or unrelated biologically.
There’s nothing wrong with this, of course — less support in the workplace is certainly not the answer. But for many employees, these occasions don’t encompass the most meaningful events we’re going through. You’re unlikely, for example, to get flowers and a card when your best friend commits suicide, or a care package after a sexual assault. Gender confirmation surgery or finally getting that doctorate aren’t typical reasons for a post-work drink at the pub across the street. If our lives haven’t followed the marriage-to-pregnancy path, it’s possible we’ll move through our careers with no recognition at all.
Six years ago, Meg St-Esprit McKivigan of Pittsburgh adopted a son. “I went to so many work baby showers,” she says, but nobody threw one for her and, even worse, her office maternity leave policy didn’t cover adoption. “My son was born the day after my co-worker’s baby,” McKivigan says. “She took three months off and my boss assumed I would ‘take a day or two.’ ” While McKivigan’s friends and family celebrated with her, the lack of support at work stung. What made her baby different? He was still a newborn, still part of a life-changing, incredible moment. Yet somehow it didn’t measure up.
Russ Marshalek of Brooklyn experienced something similar when his beloved French bulldog, Frito, died last January. He knew Frito wasn’t a human child, but Marshalek says the 3-year-old rescue was his everything. “By all accounts he did as much for me as I did for him,” Marshalek says. Yet hours after talking to his direct boss, throwing up an out-of-office response and taking Frito’s body to the vet, he got a work call. One of his clients had seen the out-of-office message and was sorry about the dog, but wanted to know if the social media calendar would still be completed. When Marshalek came back to work the next day, he felt looked down upon for taking time to mourn a crucial family member. “I really could have used some support,” he says.
After the death of a dear and longtime friend, I confided to my colleagues and manager. It was more uncomfortable to keep something private that seemed written all over my face. I certainly wasn’t expecting a bouquet, but the silence that followed got me thinking. I was reminded of single women who throw themselves faux-bridal showers; just because they aren’t married, they feel, shouldn’t mean miss out on a Le Creuset from loved ones. It made me wish life milestones were more like floating holidays than a set of specific days off — that you could pick which part of your life is deserving of cake and champagne in the break room, or of sympathy, rather than relying on a prescriptive standard.
Danielle, who asked that only her first name be used because of stigma often attached to academics working outside their field, told me about the monthly gathering of co-workers and students at the ballroom dance studio she once taught at. “The boss would go around and see if anyone had anything to celebrate, and we’d make everyone wear a funny hat and stand in the center of the room so everyone could sing at them,” she says. Birthdays and anniversaries were common achievements — anniversaries with romantic partners, not at the job. When it was her turn, she excitedly shared that she’d gotten her Ph.D. “Everyone kind of went silent,” she remembers. “The general atmosphere was painfully awkward. There were some handshakes from the students and students who wanted to know more about my work, but that was really about it. My boss never mentioned it again.”
Why do some events turn into awkward elephants-in-the-room while others are met with sympathy and fanfare? It can possibly be traced back to school, and what news was appropriate for the classroom. “I got a lot of grief [at work] when I had to go to doctor visits after being in a car accident,” says Leslie Hatton of Toronto. But what was even worse happened when she was 11. Her stepfather passed away shortly after both grandfathers and an uncle. “My homeroom teacher told the entire grade to not say anything about my stepdad’s passing,” Hatton told me. Death is often viewed as an awkward subject for kids, and the fact that it wasn’t a biological father might have affected the teacher’s decision.
Of course, workplace cultures vary. Some places help you mourn the deaths of pets, but not friends. Some celebrate your child, as long as they’re biological. And some workplaces really win a medal: When I asked around, people did, amidst the horror stories, report seeing gender confirmation celebrations as well as a party for someone’s first full year of sobriety. Sorrows and triumphs happen to everyone, whether on a traditional life path or not. And when they’re at least occasionally recognized at the water cooler, the triumphs can feel more profound, and the sorrows easier to bear.