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Hi Captain!

I’m an adjunct professor at a mid-sized University, a new mom, and I just had a very awkward encounter with my department head. I’m teaching one of the sections of my department head’s courses; so myself, the department head and all the other section instructors meet up each week to discuss things and make sure we’re on the same page. Before the semester started, I emailed her to let her know that I recently had a baby and if there was a place I could pump between our course meeting and the start of class. She responded that I was welcome to use her office anytime (I don’t have an office) and to let her know if I needed anything. Great! Fast forward to the first day of class: we have our course meeting and all is going well. At the end of the meeting, I ask my department head if now is convenient for her to lend me her office so I can pump; and if not, I’m happy to wait until she’s ready. She enthusiastically responds that now is a great time and that she’s totally comfortable “being around exposed boobies.”

I’m a bit taken aback at this point, I expected I’d be able to pump privately. I start mumbling about not wanting to interrupt her work when another one of my fellow adjuncts comes to my rescue and informs me the adjunct lounge is currently empty and the door has a lock. I’m relieved and my department head cheerfully remarks that’s the perfect place to pump. I make my way over to the adjunct lounge, lock the door and get to work. Five minutes later, I hear a knock on the door… it’s my department head. She whispers through the door to be let in, saying she has something important to discuss with me. Unnerved, I unlock the door and let her in. At this point, I have all my pumping gear on and am wearing my pumping bra, so I’m mostly covered up, but my shoulders are bare and one can clearly see my pumping bra. My department head looks at me for a moment, then asks me if I’ve seen where one of the other adjuncts has gone. Umm….what? She could have asked anyone else in the hallway that question, why did she have to come in and ask me? I’m clearly super uncomfortable and I respond that I haven’t seen her since the meeting. My department head stares for another moment, then apologizes profusely for disturbing me and leaves.

My question is: what on earth should I do about this? I’m incredibly uncomfortable with how she conducted herself, especially since she’s my boss. Should I speak to her about this? What should I say? Should I just pretend this never happened and hope it doesn’t happen again? I’m definitely not going to use her office to pump (or pump anywhere in that building if I can help it).

Awkward Academic (she/her/hers)

Dear Awkward Academic:

Let’s have a brief pause so readers can manually reaffix our jaws back in our faces.

My read is that your department head was pretty determined to be a part of your pumping experience that day, so determined that she broke some fairly obvious norms of workplace interaction like intruding on a locked door. Does she have a scholarly fascination with the technology of modern motherhood? Does she just wanna catch a glimpse of dem titties? Does she just want to prove, in a feminist way, totally not a creepy way, definitely in a Solidarity-Among-Women sort of way, exactly how deeply comfortable she is with women pumping breastmilk at work, so comfortable that she is totally unfazed by it, so can you please let her into the locked room so she can demonstrate how unfazed she is by this Incredible Progress For Working Parents?

Who can say?

One of the things about academia is that it can take a second to sort out behavior that is malicious, on-purpose, weaponized oddness from behavior that is well-intended but still highly fucking odd. Patterns are telling, as are how people respond to the words ‘no’  or “please don’t” (the oddness may continue but come with a half-hearted apology first!). We don’t have to solve the mystery of “deliberately harassing weirdness or just ambient weirdness” at this moment to know that you deserve to never have to worry about this again at work, so I think this should be your order of operations from here: 1) Focus on getting a totally private space to pump that does not depend in any way on your department chair 2) THEN worry about fallout/discussion/awkwardness with her.


  1. Document all the stuff you told me in case you need it later. I’d rather have you have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Be dry, factual, list who was there, times, dates, exactly what was said and what happened (there’s a how-to guide at the link).
  2. Talk to Human Resources/Administration (I don’t know who handles this at your school, find out) and tell them that you’re a new mom, you will need a private place to pump on campus x days roughly at y times, what can they suggest/offer you, where do other new parents go to do this, and what kind of policies and tools do they have to ensure privacy (locking doors, signs on the door that the room is unavailable, blocking out rooms in the online space reservation system, etc.)? It’s okay to do this by email, it’s okay to go completely around your chair as if the other day didn’t happen and you’ve never discussed it, and see what the school can offer. Maybe this solves it!
  3. If HR/Admin/Building Services, etc. don’t have a good solution, and/or suggest talking to your chair, or they loop her in on the email and she delivers a bunch of empty reassurances about how it’s totally so normal and cool if you use her office, it’s probably time to pick up the phone or request an in-person meeting with Admin/HR. You want to document the weird shit that happened in writing for later in case this escalates, but you want to be strategic about when and how and whether you share the information (to get forwarded around to heaven knows who, incl. your chair). Do I sound paranoid? I am? Given power differentials and office politics, at this stage, keeping the tone and content of written communications in the vein of “helpfully seeking a positive solution that assumes the best of intentions, won’t make anyone look bad, and will hopefully work for everyone”  helps you get what you need in the short-term (a private, consistent spot to nurse where this person can’t intrude on you again).
  4. During the Call/Meeting: Let helpful person know that your department head oh-so-helpfully offered her office but could not promise privacy there, then she helpfully suggested the adjunct lounge which has a locking door but you could not count on privacy there, either, since a few minutes later she interrupted you to ask a question. Since you really need total privacy for nursing, and you’d rather find a solution that does not depend on your department head, perhaps something in another building so students and colleagues will be less likely to try to interrupt? What do other nursing parents do that works? Your tone is “This is so very awkward but my chair’s enthusiastic offers of help are not actually working, can you help me find another way?” 

The probably good news, if there is good news, is there’s a good chance that either your chair is an already-known weirdness vector to these people, in which case they’ll be like, “Say no more, we got you!” or they will, like us, be brand new to her weirdness and be like “OH MY GOD, she did WHAT, that is totally out of bounds, leave this with me, we got you.”

If HR/Admin are not cooperative at this point, that’s when your documentation can be useful and your tone can change to one of “Look, I have a right to pump in a private place where my boss can’t interrupt me or talk about how deeply comfortable she is with, and I quote, ‘exposed boobies,’ the last thing I want to do is waste everyone’s time with a harassment complaint about a generally supportive colleague for what I hope is a temporary moment of extreme awkwardness on her part, but for the next x months I need a private place to pump that does not depend on the goodwill or Getting It of this particular person, so, are you going to help me do the right thing quietly, or am I taking this to the general counsel’s office/Twitter/The Chronicle of Higher Education/The Chronicle of Higher Education’s’s Twitter?” I don’t think it will come to that? But if it comes to that, it won’t be you who makes it have to come to that. You tried the easy way.

Get your place to pump. THEN, either address or (strategically) don’t address the issue with your chair. I’m going to give you a few scenarios that might happen with her and some scripts to go with them, ok?

Scenario 1: She notices you’re not pumping in her office/the lounge and approaches you to ask about it/remind you that you TOTALLY can:

  • “Oh, thanks so much for asking, I was able to talk to [admin] and arrange a spot that a lot of other new parents use [under no circumstances reveal where], where the noise of the pump won’t bother anyone and it’s less likely someone will need to interrupt.” 
  • From a working-mom-in-academia friend, who wanted to be clear that pumping is very different from nursing and can be extremely hard and require [privacy][strange bodily contortions][a photo of the baby’s face to get it flowing][way more time than you think you’ll need]:

“If it did come up again, I would probably just say something like ‘I really need to be relaxed to get a good flow and for me that means being alone while I pump.’ And if this earns her further unwelcome advice like, ‘it’s perfectly natural, you shouldn’t feel awkward‘ the retort it, ‘however I SHOULD feel, I’ve learned that privacy is key to my comfort. Without it I risk not being to meet my baby’s supply needs.’ At that point, further argument makes the chair a total asshole because this is about having enough milk to feed a baby, not about somebody’s relationship with her ‘boobies.'”

From a working-mom-in-nonprofit-sector friend:

“”I really appreciate your support, and the thing I need most from you is X uninterrupted minutes as required by [our HR guidelines][the law][our agreement][wymymhood].”

Scenario 2: Your discussions with HR/Admin get back to her and she’s miffed at you for not recognizing how awesomely supportive she is:

  • “Well, okay, my conversation with HR/Admin was meant to be in confidence specifically because I could tell you were trying to be supportive but I needed The University to deliver a private solution and didn’t want complicate our working relationship. My preference would be to not talk about pumping again and stick to [teaching topics], especially now that I have a much more workable solution. But since you ask, yes, you might be ‘comfortable,’ but it’s impossible for me to relax and get a reliable supply with an audience. [Name] in admin was really helpful in finding a private spot for me, so maybe the next time we have a new parent around the place we can connect them up.” + [A Subject Change About Classes].

If she’s cool after that, reward her with being cool in return. If she retaliates professionally, you have your log of the incident, you can log all conversations with her that make you want to crawl out of your skin, and turn your “can you help me out, HR?” discussions into official complaints at will.

Scenario 3: Your department chair is a Captain Awkward reader and sees this, in which case, hi there buddy! In your head you probably thought you were being so amazingly encouraging and supportive of A Woman’s Choice To Breastfeed, but clearly you made it incredibly weird for your employee. If you want to fix it, here are your pathways:

  1. YOU contact HR/admin and use your ‘department chair’ pull. “I have a new parent working in my department who needs a private, secure spot to pump on x days when she has classes and office hours. What are the best spots for this, how does one reserve them, and how should I direct her? Oh, and while this building would be convenient, I think she’ll have more privacy in a different spot from where her classes are. Thank you!” 
  2. APOLOGIZE: “I’m very sorry about the other day, I was bending over so far to be Supportive! Of! Working! Moms! that I fear got a little intrusive about the pumping. Good news, I talked to [Admin] and they’ve got a totally private spot for you to use with clear reservation times, a locking door, and a laminated sign to put on the door to reduce knocking. Let me know if that doesn’t take care of it for some reason and we’ll find another solution. Good? Good. How was your first week of classes?” 
  3. Never, ever, ever, ever tell an employee or colleague about how comfortable you are with “exposed boobies” and once you’ve apologized briefly and fixed the problem, do not bring this topic up again unless the Letter Writer does.

I hope this solves it for you without further conflict, Letter Writer, and that everyone chooses the easy, non-intrusive, non-awkward way.






MzHeather Sep 19 '19 · Tags: fusevy, love, relationships

It’s time for the thing where we pretend the search terms people typed into their computers before they landed on this place are actual questions. Context is missing; that’s kind of the point.

Let’s start with a song, as is traditional. Here’s Willie, breaking our hearts a little with his cover of “September Song:”

Onto the terms:

01: “The Field Of No Fucks Given”

Inspired by this meme from the Bayeux Tapestry, also sometimes known as “The Fuck-Its,” this is where you move when you’ve tried every reasonable measure to get along with  people and they still won’t let you breathe, so you decide to stop trying so hard (or at all) to appease them since being accommodating is not getting you anywhere. If a person refuses to be pleased, and you’re not harming anyone, you might as well please yourself? Related post.

An old timey-sampler that says "Behold the field in which I grow my fuck. Lay thine eyes upon it and see that it is barren."

Literally any excuse to use this image from now on.

Strong start, Internet!

02: “Exit Interview Bully Boss” 

I am of two minds about exit interviews. On the one hand, they can be your final chance to speak truth to power and make sure there is a record of your boss’s bullying (you’re leaving, but maybe your frankness can help those left behind). In this scenario, I’d especially want to get incidents of harassment and misconduct on the record, use the documentation you’ve (hopefully) done and language like “Now that I don’t have to worry about retaliation, I’d hate to see this behavior become an expensive legal issue for the company if not addressed.” This seems like a good time to remind people about the Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment, where data shows that people who harass people at work (surprise!) feel entitled to break lots of rules and cheat on their expense reports, so looking for patterns of crappy behavior is revealing.

On the other hand, your company never cared about this problem before this moment, they didn’t care about changing the circumstances for you when you actually worked there, so why put yourself through a difficult ordeal and possibly come off looking “difficult” to the people who will still have to give you references down the road? I think it’s really up to you how much you give to an exit interview. Especially if your exit interview is WITH your bully boss (vs. a human resources person) I think it’s okay to say “I’d prefer not to” or “Nothing to add, I wish you and the company well” and GTFO. You don’t owe anybody free management consulting or one last chance to bully you.

03: “I’m too busy for my boyfriend.”

Maybe…talk about that honestly? Like, here is what my schedule is, this is what time I have, does that work for you, how can we make this work, can we make this work, do we even want to make this work (given these constraints)? Two perfectly wonderful people can have mismatched needs and schedules.

04: “My workmate is always grumpy on Friday.”

Not a fan of The Cure, then, this person? Maybe something difficult on Thursday nights or something difficult coming up on the weekend?

Since you can’t really know (and might not want to if you could), and you know this is a routine thing, maybe try to get all the important stuff that needs their input done on Thursdays so you can both give and get space on Fridays?

05: “Ask for another place at office coworkers talk too much.”

  1. I believe you! I once had a database manager job that required focus and pretty much zero human interaction, but I sat right outside a busy conference room, so half my day was spent taking my headphones off and saying, “Oh, sorry, I don’t know what meeting that is or if “Richard” and “Julia” are waiting for your slides or when they’ll be done, sorry!” (Tbh I don’t know who those people even are) and the other half my day being told “Wow, sure is quiet over here!” and trying not to say, “Well, it was quiet, Andy” 
  2.  Perhaps a better way of asking for this is less about blaming/tattling on the talkative coworkers and phrasing it more in terms of your work, as in, “The [specific] work I do needs a lot of focus and concentration, is there a way I can move to a quieter spot?”
  3. Bonus points for identifying a specific quiet spot in the building in advance. Don’t share it out of the gate (you’ll seem entitled and they might have other plans for that space, so don’t assume), but hold onto it for if they seem open to moving you but not sure where they can move you. “Is _________’s old cube still open? That would work really well for me I think.” 

Open office plans are the worst (and they know it).

06: “That awkward moment you both want to hug each other but don’t end up hugging.”

Oh, I see you’ve met…me. And everyone I know. Welcome! Maybe someday we’ll hug, but not today. Or, maybe we will. Who knows?

07: “My new relationship just said ‘he can’t do this.'”

Believe him and delete his number. (I’m so sorry, but in most cases you’ll probably be so much happier if you do this sooner rather than later vs. trying to cajole or hold space for him).

08: “Went to my husband’s game and he didn’t introduce me to anyone.” 

Look, you know this guy best, you know your usual social patterns of who introduces who best, but that’s definitely odd and deserving of at least a question: “Dude! Why didn’t you introduce me to anyone? Did you want me to come to your game or not?”

Next time, if there is a next time, introduce yourself (which, my most generous possible read is: Your husband assumed you would). “Hi, I’m ________, _________’s wife/husband/spouse. Nice to meet you!” 

09: “He hasn’t logged onto the dating site since we met.”

You clearly have in order to be able to tell! Which is completely okay, don’t assume a new date-thing is exclusive unless you’ve both talked about that and agreed to some kind of exclusive arrangement, for instance, he could be not logging into the site where he specifically met you and still be Christian Mingling somewhere else. So this is not necessarily a telling detail. Does it make you feel excited to think about the fact that he seems to be focusing only on you? Or does it feel like pressure/a trap? What do you *want* this relationship to be like? Probably figure that out and when you’re ready, talk to him.

10: “How to ask someone to host Thanksgiving.”

As straightforwardly as you possibly can. “Would you be up for hosting Thanksgiving at your place this year, and if so, what would you need from me/the rest of us to make that work?” 

They’ll either say yes or they won’t, so give them the respect of a direct request and a chance to refuse.

11: “How to indirectly invite yourself.”

There are probably exceptions (there are always exceptions) but here is how I generally roll:

If you don’t feel comfortable enough/close enough/confident enough with the situation and people to say, “Hey, mind if I join you?” and be cool* if the answer is “Not this time, sorry!” then probably don’t invite yourself to stuff, indirectly or otherwise. I have no magic hint-scripts for you. They don’t work. They create SO MUCH anxiety, on both sides. Ask. Or don’t, and either work on the relationship or your own confidence between now and next time so you’ll feel comfortable asking and have more knowledge about whether the host is a “the more the merrier!” type of person.

*You can FEEL horrible, rejection from a thing you wanted sucks, just, probably take the performance of feelings about inviting yourself to a private event to a private space and don’t pressure the people to change their minds if they say no. Your dignity and their eventual willingness to consider including you in the future will both be better for it.

12: “Moving out of helicopter parents’ house.

In some relationships, you announce your intention to do a thing, then carry out your research/planning, then discuss options/timelines and get advice/input/help, then actually do the thing.

In some relationships you do all the planning parts very quietly, make your decision, and then inform the other people about a decision you’ve already made about a plan that is already in motion. It can help to deliver this as very positive, exciting news that you expect them to be supportive and happy about (even if you suspect the opposite), it gives you a tiny bit more armor when the Worry Bomb goes off.

In some relationships you make a safety plan, hire a moving van and recruit friends to come get your shit while everyone else is at work, and leave a note on the kitchen counter.

You know your situation best, good luck!

13: “Captain Awkward sex ed for younger kids not high school yet” 

Glad you asked! Captain Awkward does not have to make this resource because somebody else totally handled it!

Scarleteen’s Heather Corinna and illustrator Isabella Rotman collaborated on a comic and activity book for pre-teens called Wait, What?, it just came out this month, it’s great, it covers body stuff, identity stuff, consent, relationships, basically “how do learn about this messy and complicated thing and not be a jerk,” it’s inexpensive, I want to push it into the hands of every parent and teacher I know.

Buy Wait, What???: A Comic Book Guide To Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up at Women & Children First / Amazon / Wherever books are sold. If you enjoy it and find it useful, leave a review, these really help with sales.

14: “White noise machine having sex”

White noise machines can mask your sex sounds for your roommates/neighbors and mask their sex sounds for you, so if you/they like it loud, probably a worthy investment. The way this is phrased  reminds me of the time one of my students made a short film about a Tivo and a Roomba who fell in love. As soon as the humans would leave for work, Roomba would trace hearts in the carpet and Tivo would play romantic movies. 60 seconds of adorableness, shot on 16mm reversal so sadly I do not have a copy to share.

15: “My biological father was never around and now wants to come to my wedding.”

He can start with “lunch” or “coffee.” If that, even. This is completely, completely up to you and do not let “tradition” or “faaaaaaamily” sway you if you don’t want him there. Weddings don’t exist to fix our families. Yours does NOT have to be the stage for reconnecting with an absent dad.

16: “I get drunk and start being extremely rude to women… do I have an underlying problem?” 

You’ve got problems, plural. Quit being a misogynist, quit being a rude asshole, lay off the drinking, maybe only greet your fellow men when you’re out on the town, see how you do.

17: “Is it odd to turn up outside someone’s work at end of day?”

If they’re not expecting you, you don’t have plans to hang out, and if you don’t know them well enough to know for sure they’d be happy to see you at work (thereby crossing the streams) then yeah, it’s somewhere on the scale between “odd” and “terrifying” with stops at “intrusive” and “creepy.”

Most of us have TELEPHONEPUTERS in our POCKETS where we can ASK people in our lives what they would prefer. USE YOURS.

That’s all for this month, thank you for keeping it weird!






MzHeather Sep 17 '19 · Tags: fusevy, love, relationships
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