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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

On Writing (and Not Writing) "Out of the Office"

Theresa Donofrio

Table of Contents

Keywords: email, autoreply, pregnancy, inequity

Categories: Writing the Process of Writing; Creatively Caring for Self, Others, and Place

I'm not sure how long I spent not writing my "out of office" reply. If you emailed me between August 2020 and May 2021, you did not receive one. And, most likely, you did not receive a response from me. Roughly eight months after the baby was born, five months after the coronavirus pandemic began to reshuffle countless aspects of individuals' and communities' public and private lives in the U.S., and a month and a half after my mother died, I stared at the settings page in my campus email. My cursor hovered over the text block cheerily labeled "Vacation Responder." Unable to generate any content, the only keystroke to which I could commit was "delete." As in, I deleted last year's "out of office" reply and elected to replace it with nothing.

Last year's out-of-office reply was banal enough. It had read:


I am on sabbatical for the 2019-2020 academic year and will not be checking this email address regularly. For questions about the Rhetoric Department or Communication Studies program, please contact the chair of the department...

All the best,

Theresa A. Donofrio

When I posted that message in August 2019, I felt confident that I was not in any ethical grey territory. I wasn't lying: I was approved for a yearlong sabbatical. But I was also aware that the message wasn't entirely accurate. Shortly after I applied for sabbatical, I learned that I was pregnant, and by the time I left campus following commencement activities in the spring of 2019, I knew I would not be back for a full year plus one term of partially supported family leave. But who writes an "out of the office" for a year and a half? Trying to explain three terms of leave felt too messy, too complicated, and too personal.

Better to write simply that I'm on sabbatical for the year and figure out how to account for that extra semester "out of the office" next summer. Surely, I reasoned, I would come up with something to put in that text block by the summer of 2020.


A little over four months after the baby was born and one month after school closures and stay-at-home orders began in some parts of the U.S., I came across a Work Friend column in The New York Times titled "I'm Working Remotely. Can I Keep Hiding My Secret Baby?" In this piece, an anonymous letter writer from Texas seeks advice: The author "had a baby a few weeks ago" but never mentioned the pregnancy or the birth to a "remote business partner" for fear that it would affect negatively the business partner's perception of the letter writer. This author is "working from home," and the baby's "noises [are audible] in the background," presenting the letter writer with a quandary: How or should the baby's presence be discussed? (Weaver) 

I can think of no other piece of popular culture from this time period that amused me more than this Work Friend column. Successive readings did nothing to dampen its luster or its hold on me. I shared it liberally anytime a conversation remotely touched upon the subjects of work and childcare, which during the spring of 2020 were subjects that came up with some frequency amongst my friend group. One particular friend with the ability to see me better than I can often see myself jokingly replied by asking me if I was the anonymous letter writer.

It wasn't an unreasonable question. I have a propensity to keep some cards close to my chest, a character trait that has sometimes put me into binds not wholly unlike the one the anonymous letter writer was facing. And, indeed, given the timing of my own pregnancy and planned sabbatical, I considered briefly whether I could do something similar. Early in my pregnancy, I realized that I would leave campus for summer break before I was visibly pregnant. Thus, most of my pregnancy would take place far away from the eyes of my students and colleagues. And, after two terms of sabbatical and one term of partially funded family leave, I would be well outside of the frenzied newborn phase by the time I returned to the classroom. Beyond HR and the Provost's Office, maybe nobody needed to know?[1]

Work Friend advises the anonymous letter writer "to gaslight this man," the letter writer's colleague: Pretend that "he's known about the baby all along." She concludes, "[H]e'll probably go along with it. What's the alternative? That you kept a pregnancy, birth, and, now, a newborn totally secret for months? That would be crazy" (Weaver).

But was it "crazy''? Work Friend's decision to use this ableist and problematic word, in a dismissive and flippant manner, to conclude her response struck me as troubling on many levels.

Whatever one thinks about anonymous in Texas, the decision to withhold this information was not groundless. Sandwiched in the middle of the plea for advice, the author gestures to some of the beliefs informing the choice to keep the baby a secret, writing, "I didn't want it [the pregnancy] to be a reason to push the launch date, and" indicating some concerns that this colleague "might not think I was as committed to the project once I had a baby" (Weaver). In other words, the letter writer perceives possible tensions between the kind of labor for which this writer is paid and the unpaid, devalued labor of welcoming and raising a child. Or, put differently, all the elaborate orchestrations centered in the letter writer's plea and Work Friend's ensuing advice stem from an anxiety over a potential incongruence or incompatibility between paid labor in the U.S. and these particular forms of giving and receiving care. Given the mountains of evidence that would follow this April 2020 column detailing the ways parenting and other types of care labor negatively affected caregivers' abilities to perform (and thus remain in positions of) paid labor (not to mention ill effects on mental health, financial stability, etc.),[2] the letter writer was hardly "crazy" to entertain such worries.

I suspect I am attuned to these concerns because they reflect my own misgivings about the relationships between the kinds of productivity deemed valuable and rewarded by U.S. capitalism and the kind of labor that capitalism does not value (Donofrio). Though I work in an environment where many individuals are open about childcare demands, my reservations about announcing any change to my family status did not emerge from concerns related to immediate repercussions. Or, put differently, I did not fear power and ideology operating as blunt instruments; I worried about something more subtle, more akin to that to which anonymous in Texas gestures. Whether those concerns were baseless in my particular case or not, at minimum, they illustrate how fully I've imbibed the creeds of patriarchy, capitalism, and white feminism, internalizing messages about who one needs to be to succeed in the workforce and which kinds of bodies will experience more or less "friction."[3]

And my impulse to consider never disclosing that I welcomed a child into my family while I was "out of the office" reflects back to me the problems and privilege of concealment. It is scarcely a leap to extend the logic that animates the Work Friend column beyond discussions of pregnancy and parenting to consider the ways whiteness, patriarchy, capitalism, cis-heteronormativity, and ableism shape relationships to and within paid forms of labor as well as unpaid forms of labor. [4] The kind of concealment from which the article's central predicament originates is itself a privilege, not a rhetorical strategy open to everyone who might experience "frictions" in the workplace. "Choices" about some forms of disclosure are not "choices" at all for everyone. The discomfiting implications of gravitating toward a strategy predicated on being seen to conform to these ideologies' dictates while tacitly leaving the dominant power systems that create them in place were clear enough even as I debated whether I should do something similar (Petersen).

Call it vexed. Layered. Maddening. Infuriating. Complicated. But "crazy"? The last line of the Work Friend column needled me. Glibly casting anonymous in Texas's situation as "crazy" – as if it emerged from some sort of individual pathology – seems to obscure something important. For, at the core of the piece, behind the humor of pretending a baby is a cat or imagining the implementation of Work Friend's elaborate plan for gaslighting, lurks a warranted skepticism of U.S. capitalism's valuation and accommodation of various kinds of care.


By the time I sat down to return to my "Vacation Responder" in the summer of 2020, the very notion of an "out of the office" reply had taken on new meanings. Before the coronavirus pandemic forced a reconceptualization of physical space, digital space, labor, and boundaries, I often felt like I was participating in a quaint ruse each time I penned one of these autoreplies. The very phrasing – "out of the office" or "away from my desk" – seemed an odd holdover from a time when one's spatial location alone provided sufficient justification for "clocking off" (this latter phrase, too, its own relic from an age with clear – for some – quitting times).[5] Still, even as I knew that we (you, the recipient of my "out of office" message and me, its author) were all participating in a fiction, pretending that whether or not I was physically sitting in my office in my academic building had anything to do with whether or not I could answer your inquiry, I could seldom craft a better explanatory device to legitimate a period of non-responsiveness. So, I recycled the outdated prose.

But now the very idea of an "out of the office" message seemed absurd. Without a ready template to which I could default, I wondered about the kind of explanation I needed to offer for my absence. 

I imagined an email that looked something like this:

Subject: Where is Professor Donofrio?

Professor Donofrio is on sabbatical for the year (sort of). Technically, she was on sabbatical in the fall of 2019. Then she took a semester of planned family leave in the spring of 2020 following the birth of her child. Then, that summer, her mother entered hospice, and Professor Donofrio temporarily relocated, returning to her hometown to be with her mother during her final days. Her mother died, and Professor Donofrio took an unplanned and unpaid personal leave to deal with the logistical and emotional aftermath. During spring 2021, Professor Donofrio will be on sabbatical.

For inquiries about the department…

Such an autoreply is so far removed from the ways I have learned how to perform "professionalism" as to make the very thought of posting anything like this utterly inconceivable.  I viscerally rejected the idea of anything remotely resembling this level of transparency well before I could unpack my layered opposition.

To be sure, I understand the value of the "out of office" reply. I operate in an environment where my work is interconnected with my students' and colleagues' work. I have obligations to others and, although I may be situated differently to the labor of the college while on leave, at minimum, I felt I should notify others to adjust their expectations for a response.

I am tempted to say I "owe" it to others, to the institution, and yet that language of "owing" gives me pause, raising questions about what I owe and to whom. The posture I could feel myself inhabiting as my fingers sat on the keyboard and I stared at the "Vacation Responder" text block was the stance of a writer who feels the need to explain herself, seeking validation. Coursing between the lines of my imagined reply is an attempt at legitimation, a rhetorical effort just a hair removed from seeking permission. And, for as much as I loathe the extent to which I feel compelled to justify myself, I find more troublesome still my willingness to translate births and deaths into rationales for not meeting the demands of relentless calls for (certain kinds of) productivity (see, again, Petersen). I bristle at the idea of having to furnish such raw, personal, affective experiences as "good reasons" for an absence (despite the number of times, before the pandemic, I had asked my students to do the same).[6]

Worse, I doubted that these life events even counted as "good reasons" given the extremity of what so many individuals were enduring during the same time period. News cycle after news cycle foregrounded the fatal effects of a toxic mix of (some) governmental officials' abdication of their responsibilities to protect their communities, the legacies and perpetuation of anti-Black racism, and absent or crumbling social safety nets compounding the hardships countless individuals and communities were facing while coronavirus deaths in the U.S. climbed. Casual conversations were replete with stories of friends and colleagues trying to function in untenable situations, struggling with a wide range of unceasing pressures and the emotional tolls of losses of all scopes and scales. Any effort to cast a tether – to look beyond personal pain – revealed oceans of suffering. When almost everyone I knew was swimming in grief of various kinds, what right did I have to take a leave to deal with mine?

This kind of question risks distorting its subject. The recriminatory tone in which I hear it signals disciplinary mechanics at work. It is the sound of self-policing, an effort to bring myself back into line with what I think capitalism demands of me. I have no right to such time or space for giving or receiving care, I am prone to respond to myself, concluding accordingly that the appropriate course of action is to return promptly to my (paid) work.

The question-and-answer dead-ends in a rhetorical place out of sync with my convictions and occludes the more complicated dynamics structuring relationships between capitalism and care. I subscribe to the beliefs that: Everyone in the throes of crisis and grief deserves the space to process. Everyone deserves to be able to position themselves to receive care. Everyone deserves to exist in a social system that makes it possible to take up various forms of care labor – whether or not they are recognized and "validated" by U.S. capitalism as it exists now – without added burden or hardship. Everyone deserves this time and space.

And not everyone is positioned to receive it. U.S. workplace cultures – or at least the ones with which I am most familiar – do not make a practice of granting their employees yearlong leaves for giving or receiving care during times of crisis or otherwise. The privilege of taking that time and space – like every other form of privilege – is distributed unevenly and unjustly. Too often, access to that time is tethered to one's place in a highly inequitable social structure, one where institutions deem some people in some roles "entitled" to such benefits (e.g., sabbatical) or where the "right" to reclaim one's time is contingent upon the ability to afford it.

Herein is the rub: I didn't deserve a leave any more than anyone else suffering through this time, but I could afford it. Because I operate within a system that inequitably positions people to access these privileges. Because I live in a two-income household. Because generations of intersecting inequalities – racial, citizenship-based, ableist, economic, gendered, etc. – meant that I had the financial wherewithal to do so.

I could word the "out of office" any way I wanted, and the message would always say more than whatever showed up in a recipient's inbox. The inequity at the core of differential affordances and access to time and space for the kinds of care of little value to capitalism were broadcast clear enough. The prose – or its absence – saturated in the layers of privilege and inequity that structure the labor force and my implication in them.


Ultimately, I decided that being rude (or at least seeming rude) was my best option: I never posted an autoreply. I concluded that I would rather risk the perception of being impolite than try to unpack all the messy and tangled ways my life intersected with care, labor, and loss. I could not find the language. I could not generate a concise way to explain how matters of life and death in 2020 – the very subjects I would have been unpacking intellectually with my students and colleagues had I been in the classroom – were altering my relationships to paid labor and unpaid care labor. I only had incomplete sentences, halves of words, and jumbles of letters, erased and written over before they were consigned to oblivion, rendered digital detritus.

I struggled to make sense of my inability to do something that seemed so simple: Pen a few short lines in a "Vacation Responder" text block. At first, I misapprehended the situation as a form of writer's block. But I doubt it was solely a problem of "craft." Rather it seems a problem of incommunicability within the frame. How does one render the poignancy and complexity of the year's emotional weight sensical within a template designed primarily to demonstrate one's accountability and responsiveness to others? How do you discuss care and labor while laboring within social systems that have demonstrated repeatedly their abilities to adopt rhetorics of care while structured so often in fundamentally inhumane ways?   

I didn't have answers. Just a blinking cursor and an empty text block.



Austrew, A. (2022, January 21). Mom's viral "out of office" message should be a template for every working parent right now. Retrieved from, 21 Jan. 2022,

Black, J. (2020, November 16). Out of office messages in remote work times. Duke Today. Retrieved from

Clark, P. (2021, April 5). Covid has upended the out-of-office email. Hooray! The Financial Times. Retrieved from

Connley, C. (2020, October 2). More than 860,000 women dropped out of the labor force in September, according to new report. CNBC. Retrieved from

Dettman, C. (2022, March 25). Why the out of office alert is out of touch. PR Week. Retrieved from

Donofrio, T. A. (2021). Misreadings and misattributions: Care labor and control. Survive & Thrive: A Journal for Medical Humanities and Narrative as Medicine, 6(1). Retrieved from

Egerton, J. (2021, December 10). Typewriter rodeo: Out of office email responder. Texas Standard. Retrieved from

Elks, S. (2020, July 31). 75% of mothers in the UK have had to cut their working hours in lockdown. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from

Grose, J, et al. (Eds.) (2021, February 4). The primal scream: America's mothers are in crisis. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Maldonado, S. (2020, July 6). How to write an out-of-office email when everyone's remote. FirstHand. Retrieved from

McMillan Cottom, T. (2019). Dying to be competent. In Thick: And Other Essays (pp. 73-96). The New Press, 2019.

National Women's Law Center. (2020, October 2). Four times more women than men dropped out of the labor force in September. Retrieved from

Petersen, A. H. (2021, January 7). How to work through a coup. Culture Study. Retrieved from

Weaver, C. (2020, April 16). I'm working remotely. Can I keep hiding my secret baby?" The New York Times. Retrieved from

Wong, A. (2019, April 7). Ep 48: Care work. Disability Visibility Project. Retrieved from

Ziv, S. (2022). How to write an out-of-office message during the COVID-19 pandemic—plus examples! The Muse. Retrieved from


[1] My logic here echoes anonymous in Texas who concludes by writing "[m]aybe I just never say anything? It's not like he needs to know!" See Weaver.

[2]  For examples, see Connley; Elks; Grose, et al.; National Women's Law Center. See discussion of these sources in Donofrio.

[3] Anne Helen Petersen elaborates upon the "posture" capitalism calls individuals to adopt in order to meet the demands of "[t]he cult of productivity," an ideology she describes as "racist, sexist, able-ist, [and] sociopathic," and she highlights the moral compromises associated with adhering to "that posture." Petersen pinpoints many of the dynamics shaping the challenges surrounding efforts to legitimate non-responsiveness or seek "permission" to desist from paid labor and, in so doing, helps illuminate the rhetorical challenges explored throughout this reflection. See Petersen. See also McMillan Cottom on "friction" and competence.

[4] See Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's explanation of care work and the import of validating this kind of labor in Wong. See also Petersen.

[5] The very notion of either temporal or spatial constraints upon labor warrants further complication. Although I cast both kinds of boundary markers as if they have been eroded by technological changes, these borders around labor were always luxuries as many individuals' and communities' labor has been exploited without any consideration of spatial or temporal limitations. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha notes, "[y]ou can't talk about this [the full range of issues surrounding labor] without talking about the ways in which Black and brown people have been forced to labor for free, whether it's under slavery or indentureship or plantations." See Wong.

Further, I suspect that I am hardly the first person to make this observation about the "out of office" language, although I do not know where the argument originates. For authors noticing the oddity of writing an "out of the office" autoreply during the coronavirus pandemic, see, for example, Maldonado; Ziv.

My reflections were penned in September 2021. As pandemic-related challenges continue, other writers have focused likewise on the out-of-office message as a site for exploring tensions surrounding conceptions of labor and/or care. See, for example, Austrew; Dettman; Egerton.

[6] I am aware that other rhetorical options existed, responses challenging the devaluation of time "away" from work. For examples of such "out of office" discourse during the coronavirus pandemic, see Black; Clark.



Theresa Donofrio is the Esther and Robert Armstrong Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Coe College. She wishes to thank Vyshali Manivannan, Ruth Osorio, and Jessie Male for their feedback, guidance, and commitments to valuing labor and care. Special thanks to Audrey Golden, Tiffany Lewis, and Alyssa Samek for their thoughtful comments and suggestions as they reviewed drafts of this piece.  

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