my coworkers are obsessed with talking about their kids … and I’m the only childless one here — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I work in a small public-facing office of a government agency. Due to some staffing changes in the past few months, my coworkers are now exclusively mothers of young children, with one exception who is the grandmother of young children. I am now the only man and only non-parent in the office. I have no problem covering shifts when people have childcare needs, but the amount of baby-related conversations at the office is driving me crazy!

In the past few months, I’ve heard detailed play-by-plays of potty training (including details like the texture of a toddler’s poop), frank conversations about postpartum depression, and details I as a gay man never thought I’d learn about the birthing process. On the one hand, I’m happy my coworkers are able to support one another, as I’ve gathered that such mother-affirming workplaces are pretty uncommon. On the other hand, I find it really distracting.

I tried using noise-cancelling headphones when chats get out of hand, but even this wasn’t foolproof: my colleagues often share with each other videos of, say, their seven-month-old eating carrots for the first time, played at maximum volume — and the shrieks of joy (cute to those who want to watch, I’m sure) still manage to pierce through my headphones and distract me. Moreover, since disgruntled members of the public sometimes come into the office, I have some safety concerns about not being able to hear all activity.

I really don’t want to shut down all the support my colleagues have found in one another — the support and care they have for each other is very touching. None of their work seems to be suffering, either. But at the same time, I don’t have a child and don’t plan on having one in the near future, so I find this an immense distraction. Is there a way I can bring this up or set a boundary without sounding like a woman hater or anti-natalist?

Oh, this is tricky.

In some ways this is like if you worked in an office where everyone but you was obsessed with sports and talked about it constantly, complete with shrieks of joy when a team won and graphic discussions of a player’s knee surgery. It would be annoying and distracting, and it would get really old.

This is similar, but with poop and childbirth thrown in.

In theory, with any topic that dominates office conversation, you should be able to say, “Y’all, this is a lot and I beg you for a topic change.” And you should definitely be able to speak up when the conversation is actually disruptive.

In reality, with this topic, there’s a pretty decent chance that it will land as “squeamish man doesn’t like women’s conversation.”

And that’s not fair. Your objections are reasonable. You should be able to work without constant bombardment on any one topic, and definitely without poop and childbirth discussions. But with the numbers in your office being what they are — and with the classic tropes that exist in society about men around this kind of talk — it’s still likely to land that way.

Given that, I think I’d just pick your battles carefully. You’re probably not going to be able to do much/anything about the prevalence of kids as a topic. But you can speak up when things are getting too graphic (“I learn a ton here about kids, but I really don’t want to hear about poop while I’m trying to focus — can you skip that?”). And if you really have safety concerns about not being able to hear over the noise, you should raise that too — possibly with your manager since that’s a pretty serious issue that should fall in her purview.

Beyond that … this is going to be a child-talk-heavy office and your best bet is to try to see it like any other topic you might not be interested in (again, like an office of sports-lovers or foodies or, I don’t know, avid hikers). Set some boundaries around the outlier stuff, and figure the rest is just this office’s quirk.

Also! Assuming you’re stuck with a good amount of this as long as you stay there, is it possible to mentally reframe this as an interesting opportunity to learn things you haven’t been this exposed to previously — a peek behind a curtain that a lot of men don’t get or don’t take advantage of? If you can approach it with more curiosity than aggravation, it would probably go a long way with your colleagues — and would also make it clearer that you’re not being anti-woman or anti-kid when you do set some boundaries. (To be clear, I’m not saying they should be overwhelming the space with this topic as much as they are; they shouldn’t be. But realistically, if you can’t change that, this could be a useful way to approach it.)

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