Hint: It has nothing to do with having kids.
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Work Mom
Credit: Alexis Jang

Kerry Hayes, 40, buys two Mother’s Day cards every year: one for the woman who raised her, and one for the woman who has been her “work mom” for the past 16 years. When Hayes found out her then-boyfriend was cheating on her a decade ago, she called her mom. But she also turned to someone physically closer: Patti Senese.

“When you’re young and single, besides coworkers, you don’t really have daily support,” Hayes tells InStyle. “Someone in person to give you a reassuring hug or pep talk is different than a phone call to your mom. Daily support from anyone is like a little daily dose of therapy.”

Senese, 62, was in a unique position to offer that support. “My heart was broken for her,” Senese says. “I didn’t belittle the feelings she was having because I knew they were real — because I had been through it myself — but I also knew there was something better for her down the road.”

And she was right. “I’m 40 now, married with two kids,” Hayes says, “but Patti has seen me through everything.” She still sees Senese as her work mom, as do many in the New Jersey corporate pension company where they work. “Meanwhile, Patti, a single mom, has all her own life’s problems and her own kids’ issues to deal with — and yet, still, she’s there at work listening to us all moan and complain about our own lives.”

Senese, a private equity operations manager, bakes a birthday cake from scratch for all 19 of her team members’ birthdays. She says she got the idea from her own mother, who worked at a college and baked for all of her college-age coworkers when Senese was growing up. And she takes it seriously, remembering people’s favorite flavors all year long.

“One of the guys here, I know he loves peanut butter, so I always make him something with peanut butter. One of the girls, she’s very proud of her Italian heritage, and just last week I baked her a cannoli cake,” Senese says. But making sure everyone has a cake sometimes means stressing out and staying up past midnight.

In offices across the country, “work moms” like Senese dole out that daily dose of office parenting in the form a sympathetic ear, homemade treats, and the perfect card. They’re often the first to roll up their sleeves and do the dishes festering in the office sink, and the ones to stay late to deck out the conference room for a send-off party. But too often, the people (largely women) who work to make the office feel like home don’t get much appreciation.

“The party planning or event coordinating, the birthday drinks, the cupcakes, have almost always, in offices I’ve worked in, fallen to female staffers for no reason that I can understand,” says Erica Cerulo, the co-founder of Of a Kind and co-author of Work Wife: The Power of Female Friendship to Drive Successful Businesses.

Unlike a work wife, where two women take care of each other inside and outside of the office to help drive their success, the work mom can be more of a “one-way street,” Cerulo says. And the support she’s offering often has little to do with the work at hand — hers or others’.

“The implication, for me, is that this person is meant to take on emotional labor — emotional labor that certainly isn’t being paid for but that also is relied upon by the rest of the team but not necessarily appreciated by the rest of the team,” Cerulo says. “It’s someone who is expected to sort of show up for everyone and worry about everyone’s well-being but without there necessarily being anyone that’s worried about theirs.”

“Also, it takes a lot of money.”

Of course, it isn’t only women who step in. Jose Rios Lua, 30, is the director of communications in New York City’s special education office. He describes himself as his office’s “work mom” and says he plans every birthday and baby shower (thanks to a baby boom last year, there were five). “It’s one of those things that people don’t realize not only takes up a lot of time outside of work, but also it takes a lot of money,” Rios Lua says. “You get gifts — and sometimes folks pitch in and sometimes folks don’t — but when you do these kinds of things, cupcakes, snacks, cards, a small gift, that’s another thing that factors into it.”

Rios Lua says every other office he has worked in has had an office mom — but this is his first time being one. A maternal figure at his first job used to remind him to take breaks for lunch. “She genuinely cared,” he says, adding that it’s not just about parties and gifts. “It’s saying 'hi' to everybody, asking folks how they’re doing and being meaningful about it, taking an interest in their lives.” But for the person doling out all that care, it can be stressful — and, frankly, just a lot.

Senese says, “Some nights, you get home from work and you’re just exhausted, but I feel like I have committed to doing this, and it’s somebody’s birthday, so I stay up and I do it” — no matter the personal toll. “I’ve stayed up until two o’clock in the morning sometimes baking a cake because I don’t want to disappoint everybody.” She has had to reschedule birthday treats due to illness, but, she says “I do get stressed out about that, very much so.”

Assumptions that women are the natural caretakers in any environment mean that even if a woman doesn’t want to be the “work mom,” there can be that expectation, according to Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist and author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood. Sacks says there is also a danger that work moms can be seen as only that, and be passed over for advancement opportunities. “It can be a diminishment of women’s role in professional communities: You are the caretaker rather than you’re responsible for the thought leadership at the company, which is often assumed to be a more aggressive, full-on trajectory, and caretaking roles are often viewed as more sensitive and passive,” Sacks says.

Women already earn 20 percent less, on average, than men doing similar jobs, and the gender pay gap is even more pronounced for women of color. There is also what’s known as the “motherhood penalty” or “caregiver penalty,” which shows that women’s wages take a hit when they take on more caregiving roles.

Meanwhile, Sacks says many men want to be nurturers, but feel societal pressure to be more aggressive; a fact she says plays into the bigger discussion about toxic masculinity.

“I think we shortchange men when we assume they are lesser caretakers,” she says. “We really need to be talking up the positive attributes of men as nurturers and empathic, because I really think that will help a lot of men hone those skills, as women have.”

“I will go buy all the snacks and I will go do all the things, because I want it to be done right.”

Lindsay Monal, 23, tells InStyle she is always the first to volunteer to plan a party or event at the New Jersey high school where she works as a wellness teacher.

“I do it to myself. It’s not like anyone else is putting the pressure on me, I’ve noticed,” Monal says. “I will take control of whatever situation and be like, ‘Ok, we’re going to have a party for so-and-so’s birthday,’ and I will go buy all the snacks and I will go do all the things, because I want it to be done right.”

But Monal says she sometimes finds herself working late, working through lunch, and working on days off to get both her job-related work and the party planning done.

“The most stressful moments have always been when there’s been some kind of actual work deadline happening, and I signed myself up for 12 other parties or activities or events, and then it becomes a battle of: Do I focus on getting my actual work done, or do I not let somebody down because I promised I would buy this thing or do this activity or event?” she says.

Saks, the psychiatrist, has a word of caution for women in this position: “Leaving a meeting to get others food does not help someone’s advancement necessarily. The problem is when a person is held back from advancement opportunities because they are preoccupied with taking care of others.”

Cerulo says that female managers and leaders often find themselves “walking that line between being emotionally accessible and not being perceived as too soft” in the workplace.

“There is a tendency for women as managers or more senior employees to be pretty tapped in to the emotional state of employees,” she says. And that’s something that Cerulo — and a lot of the women she interviewed for her book — have struggled with. She says many want to know: “How can I develop relationships with the people who work on our team, where there is emotional transparency and there is vulnerability, but where I’m not the first shoulder that maybe someone is coming to cry on?”

And then there’s work-mom burnout: the sheer exhaustion that can come from putting both your work life, and personal life, second to everyone else’s.

“I think the people who end up being in this kind of role are the poster children who need to be told, ‘Put your oxygen mask on before putting someone else’s on,’” Rios Lua says. “Because we do kind of always put other people first. I’m so lucky that where I work, it works both ways for me. As I have been caring for others and engaging folks, they turn around and do the same thing for me.”

Long hours and sometimes-grueling working conditions mean caretaking at work has become all the more essential, but it’s still a lot of unpaid time and energy that is invested in making the office feel, well, less like an office. “We spend so much time at work. We spend more waking hours at work than we do at home with our own families. So it’s important to me to make sure there is some sort of sense of family in the office,” Rios Lua says.

“Your day just can’t be toppled by other people’s wants, needs, and feelings.”

Monal says that as a chronic work mom, her personal life and health have sometimes suffered. “I just come home and don’t have the energy, and end up falling asleep and missing things I want to do in my personal life because I’m so exhausted from things I take on at work,” she says.

She’s tried to turn this tendency to take care of others before herself into a teachable moment, offering workshops on “self-care for caregivers.” She recommends work moms find something they can do for themselves — journaling, running, cooking, yoga (which she also teaches), meditation — and that saying no is also crucial.

“It’s about learning how to set boundaries: You can still be a good person and take care of other people, and say no and take care of yourself first,” she says. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

For Rios Lua, self-care sometimes means putting on his headphones to make it clear he’s not up for an emotional heart-to-heart. Cerulo backs up that strategy. “It might be saying, ‘Hey, would love to catch up, today is crazy, can we do it in two or three days?’ So just kind of kick it down the road and make it clear that it’s not that you don’t want to be friends with your coworkers, or you don’t want to be supportive or whatever it is, but your day just can’t be toppled by other people’s wants, needs, and feelings,” she says.

Acknowledging the unsung hustle of the work mom means also acknowledging that a lot of us behave like the work kids: adults who want to show up and enjoy the cookie swap, birthday cake, or happy hour, without necessarily offering anything in return. Women have been more forthright about breaking down those gender roles at home; maybe it’s time we do it in the office, too. And if you find yourself on the receiving end of work-family care, it’s beyond time to make sure you’re returning the favor with thanks — or a Venmo for all those baking ingredients. Perhaps consider if you'd ever step up to be the one to fill that role.

“I’ve never, ever been tempted to be someone else’s work mom, but I just had my own kids in the last two years," Hayes says. "Maybe when Patti retires,” she adds with a wink.