A younger colleague, whom I do not consider to be a personal friend, was open about having an affair with a married man. When she became pregnant, the married man left his wife and three children for her.
Our office is having a baby shower for this colleague, and I’m finding it difficult to be supportive. I’m particularly sensitive to this because I’m a relatively new mother, and I cannot imagine losing my husband and family in the way that this man’s soon-to-be-ex-wife has. I feel sick thinking about the heartbreak and betrayal that she must feel. I’m also sad for their children, who are being split between two households (one of them will be living with her father and my colleague once her baby is born).
I’ve been asked to prepare a dish to share for my colleague’s baby shower and get her a gift. I’ve also been urged to contribute to a fund to replace the pay she lost when she was on bed rest. I have no issue with giving her a gift, but I’m struggling to “celebrate” with her at the shower. I know it’s not her baby’s fault and I want what’s best for this new life, but I feel a sense of loyalty to this other woman, whom I don’t know. I don’t want what happened to her to happen to me. It almost feels like bad karma to attend the shower. How should I handle this situation?
Cheryl Strayed: I understand why you feel unsettled, Conflicted. You relate to the wife and mother in this situation because you are a wife and mother. The things your colleague’s partner’s wife lost — her husband and the unity of the family they made — are quite likely the things you value most in your own life. Witnessing your colleague’s affair and her lover’s eventual divorce has served as an uncomfortable reminder that the marital bonds you want to believe are permanent can be broken in a day. No wonder you feel heartsick. And yet, I encourage you to do all that you can to move on from those feelings. Your colleague’s partner’s wife needs the loyalty of her friends. She doesn’t need loyalty from you — a stranger. It will have no bearing on her life if you decide to skip your colleague’s baby shower. Attending the shower won’t bring you bad karma or impact your marriage. Set aside those concerns and focus instead on what I think you’re really asking us to help you do: map out a course in which you can participate in supporting your colleague with integrity, honesty and compassion.
Steve Almond: The line that leaps out here is this: “I don’t want what happened to her to happen to me.” That’s the lurking anxiety, one that has transformed this question of etiquette into a matter of conscience. I agree with Cheryl that attending this shower, and finding ways to support this colleague, will not provoke the gods of adultery into retribution. But I also think showing compassion will be much easier if you can address your anxiety. You write that you “cannot imagine” losing your husband and children. But that sick feeling you describe in the very next sentence is precisely that: You’re imagining the betrayal of an abandoned wife, and the despair of children divided between two households. There’s nothing in your letter to suggest these fears are rational, but they are real. One thing that’s equally clear from your letter is that you have to be around this co-worker, and by extension, that you’re expected to celebrate her pregnancy. It’s not a choice; it’s a duty. But you shouldn’t have to say yes to every request, especially ones unrelated to the work you’re paid to do. Opting out doesn’t make you a bad person. It simply means that you’ve chosen to spend your time outside of work supporting, and connecting to, your own family, rather than a co-worker’s — a reasonable desire, given that your work limits the time you can spend with your loved ones.
CS: Your reluctance to celebrate your colleague at her baby shower stems from your disapproval of her infidelity, but as you rightly point out, her soon-to-be-born baby is blameless. So celebrate the baby instead, and do it in a way that feels authentic to you. You don’t need to pretend to be your colleague’s friend. You can extend your good will to her without becoming the president of her fan club (or contributing to her bed-rest fund). Buy a simple gift you think would delight her baby. Bring a dish to the shower that you enjoy eating. Make your appearance at the party brief if you’d like, but don’t make a big deal about it. This baby shower is a small occasion that’s happening at a monumental time in your colleague’s life — and a stressful one too. There’s a good chance she agrees with your view that she didn’t become pregnant under ideal circumstances and bed rest is no walk in the park, especially when it’s accompanied by financial losses. Whatever your opinions about your colleague’s romantic choices, I think you’d regret it if you made the true nature of your feelings apparent to her, so err on the side of generosity and kindness, and see what happens next.
SA: Much of this redounds to office protocol. This woman is not a friend of yours, after all. She’s a colleague. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek to be kind to her. But the expectation that you’ll celebrate this pregnancy is a function of your professional relationship. And you are giving her a gift. What you seem to want to avoid is being disingenuous. So make room for the possibility that you simply want to withdraw from this particular office party with a polite and plausible excuse. Generosity is the ideal, obviously, but not generosity you have to fake. What truly matters here isn’t what you do in relation to this particular event. It’s that you contend with the darker feelings roused within you. What do they mean? Are they something you can share with your partner? With friends? With a therapist? Offering fraudulent bonhomie to a co-worker won’t generate good karma, Conflicted. In the end, it’s the easy way out. The tougher course, and the truer one, is to explore why this situation makes you feel unnerved.
By CHERYL STRAYED and STEVE ALMOND