One of the most exciting things about Lauren Smith Brody’s new book, The Fifth Trimester, is that she puts a name on a life transition that feels as huge as actually having the baby but isn’t officially acknowledged: going back to work as a mom. Anyone who’s had to leave a still-helpless infant to start thinking again about ROIs and PNLs knows that it’s tough on many fronts—from grappling with the changes of your body to profound questions about priorities. Luckily, Brody has harnessed her 13 years of editorial experience at Glamour, plus extensive research and deep surveys of over 700 women from all walks of life, to create a modern, comprehensive, and compassionate guide to navigating this time of life with style and confidence.
We learned more about the author, her tips for new moms making the transition back to work, and the national movement she hopes to inspire, below.
What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
“More than anything, I just want people to feel like they have a resource to turn to at a time when American women and American families just aren’t being as supported as they need to be. I also wanted them to feel like it’s a resource with warmth, understanding, and camaraderie. I was intentional about not making this a memoir about my own experience because every woman’s experience is unique.
I really wanted to find women in as many industries, from as many different family structures and financial backgrounds, even varying levels of ambition, and give them something that they could use to further themselves.”
What chapters were the hardest to write?
“The hardest for me to talk myself into writing—although they’re probably the most obvious for me to write—were the fashion and beauty chapters. Although I was at Glamour and exposed to these incredibly fabulous people all day long, after having a baby, I felt the real push-pull that ‘gosh, this doesn’t matter to me anymore. Have my values changed?’ It look me awhile to realize that feeling good often starts with feeling like you look good and self-care—knowing that it’s okay to spend time on yourself.
I really hunted for good studies that showed the efficacy of putting some effort into the way you look and how that can affect not just how people see you at work, but more importantly how you feel about yourself. Going back to work is a time when—and this is a generalization—a lot of women feel quite shocked about how they feel about themselves. Women who have been so successful come back to work and realize: I’m a beginner again—at not just being a mom, but being a working mom. And so if having some shortcuts for feeling and looking good can help you hurdle that, it’s a really useful thing.”
What were you most surprised by in researching and writing the book?
“How in spite of the real breath that I strove for in terms of the woman I spoke to—there are single moms, adoptive moms, moms who are surrogates, lesbian moms, moms at every income level—universally, they all had very similar comments on the situation. They all tended to talk about the guilt that they felt, although that guilt felt different to different people—and there was this universality of the emotional struggle of going back to work. While it was upsetting to realize how common that was, it was also really galvanizing to realize how much women wanted to help each other through it.”
How would you advise women who have that conflict of wanting to be open about their struggle going back to work vs. wanting to pretend like nothing’s ever happened and that they’re as strong as they were before having the baby?
“A key message of the book is to be as open and honest about the situation as you can be. But that comes with the caveat that every industry is different.
I talked to a mother who was a trader on Wall Street and she was like, ‘I couldn’t get up from my desk and walk across the floor carrying my Medela bag to go to the beautiful pumping room that was on the 20th floor that I didn’t have time to go to anyway because the work culture didn’t support it.’ My hope is that one mom—and dad—at a time we can start to change as a culture. However, to whatever degree you can push your culture, push it one degree more. If you can find inspiration and meaning in your job, one thing that can be very motivating is realizing what you are doing for your workplace by being open. I heard that from a lot of women that I interviewed in a lot of fields. When you have co-workers who don’t have children, you might feel like the black sheep, but that is largely in your head. Some of it is there, but take into account whatever it is your co-workers have in their personal lives that’s important to them—like they might be training for a marathon and it might be very important for them to get a run in during daylight hours. It’s very hard when first coming back to work to look beyond your own experience, but as much as you can, pay attention to the personal lives of the people around you and show them that you understand that supporting that personal life helps them come to work fueled, energized, and ready to work—and they will give that back to you, too. Think of it as a game of catch. They’re helping you, but in what ways can you help them, too?”
How can partners support women when they go through this?
“I think it’s important that partners straight up ask the moms, ‘What can I do to help you?’ And just offer, offer, offer. The book is very much geared towards moms; the bigger message for moms is to ask for what you need. Because you cannot expect your partner, no matter how in love you are, to read your mind, and your partner is not physically and emotionally experiencing the same things you are.
If you have to, just make it an item on your to-do list: I will ask for something today—from ‘Please, honey, can you get me a bagel’ to ‘Please tell me once a day that I’m a good mom.’ It seems so silly to have to ask for it, but when you get it back it really is so, so helpful.”
What apps or tools can you use to tame the feeling of overwhelm during this time?
“I call the phone your second umbilical cord. It’s actually the thing that connects you to your baby. So, if you can make some rules for yourself and your caregiver about how that umbilical cord is used and nourished in this transition, that can feel really helpful.
For example, when you do figure out who’s going to be taking care of your baby when you’re at work, tell them really clearly how you want to be communicated with. Do you want the caregiver texting you a picture a couple of times a day? Is it really distracting to get that, or does it give you a sense of ease that allows you to then focus on work? A lot of moms really worry about missing milestones—and that is a heartbreaking thing to worry about and it is really distracting. I would advise making a plan with your caregiver: if baby has a first in the presence of your nanny, do you want your nanny to tell you that that happened, or is it better for her not to say anything and you’ll see it for yourself and it will be a first time for you? Just being really open about that is better for your caregiver and for you.”
If you could go back in time, what would you say to your former self while in the fifth trimester?
“I would say just keep going, because every stage of my career and motherhood—actually the ones that have been really rocky—are always followed by something even better. By nature I’m an optimist and a pleaser, so my expectations of myself have always been kind of high to a fault. High to a point where I may never actually totally satisfy myself.
Being able to be in one industry and make a huge transition to another, in many ways I’m going through my own fifth trimester right now. I call it my 27th Trimester, because I am also making a big leap and having to bet on myself. I would say to that person, eight years ago, that something great is just around the corner, just keep going.”