Q: I've been in a new job for over a year. Everything is going well from a work perspective. My primary group is small. Our social conversations tend to center on kids, and I'm the only one in the group who has no children. I put on my game face and listen with enthusiasm, but it's hard when I can't contribute anything to the conversation. And I feel as though the question is coming any day now: Why don't you have kids?
As someone who was raised by a single mom with an amazing village, I always dreamed of finding a wonderful partner and raising a family. But, for a variety of personal reasons, children will likely not be part of my future.
Part of me feels envy listening to childbirth stories, first-day-of-school stories, holiday shopping stories, and the like. When they complain and commiserate, I can barely hold back from saying, "Be grateful you have a child, not everyone is so lucky." Could you share thoughts on how to cope at work when the center of your co-workers' lives is something you can't relate to at all?
A: I'm seeing two different issues requiring coping skills: feeling left out of conversations you can't relate to, and wanting badly to be able to relate to them.
I think most of us have had the experience of being simultaneously surrounded by and shut out of water-cooler chatter. At minimum, it's a tiresome distraction; at its extreme, especially in a close-knit workplace, a lack of social success can feel like a threat to professional status. Fortunately, the topics usually change over time, so you can find your niche. Unlike football season and paleo diets, however, children are a perennial infatuation. And if a majority of team members have kids, it's easy for the parenting prattle to take over.
But that doesn't mean you owe anyone an explanation of why you haven't joined the parenthood pod, or that you "can't contribute anything" to the conversations going on in your office. You have a life, right? Stuff happens in your life, right? You have as much right to share it as your colleagues have to vent about their day-care drama.
When there's a lull in the conversation, share a non-kid anecdote. Or toss out a question: "I am loving your jacket -- where did you find it?" "Does anyone have recommendations for day trips in this area?" Or thank or praise someone for contributing to something you're working on. Remind them of their value and identity as peers, not just parents, and they'll be likely to reciprocate your interest.
And that leads me to the second issue. Major envy is a sign that you're not at peace with your own situation. Maybe it's time to consult experts about medical or social options for bringing children into your world, so you can find contentment and fulfillment, as a parent or as part of an "amazing village," in the center of your own life.
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Ask Karla Miller about your work dramas and traumas by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.