Are You Ready for the Fifth Trimester? Lauren Smith Brody is helping new moms go back to work.

By Caroline Tell | Photo courtesy of Lauren Smith Brody

At Babe we talk a lot about the fourth trimester – those incredibly amazing but super hectic, all around mind-blowing 90 days or so following birth, when women are recovering, feeding and taking the time to adjust to life as a mother. But for working mothers specifically, there’s something called the fifth trimester that occurs right afterwards, when – in the United States at least – they’re expected to be “ready” to go back to work.

Lauren Smith Brody coined the fifth trimester to mark such a moment upon experiencing it herself. After resuming her career as executive editor at Glamour following the birth of her two sons, she realized quickly that the system wasn’t set up to accommodate new mothers in the workplace. Now, following the success of her book, The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby, she works with businesses on reintegrating new mothers back into the workplace and coaches women on how to thrive at work and at home, even when the system is stacked against us. Check out our interview, below, and get Lauren’s tips on surviving the fifth trimester.

OK so what exactly is the fifth trimester?

The fifth trimester is the return to work after baby. It’s the acclimating and getting used to new ways of seeing yourself and ways you define yourself at work. When I was on maternity leave with my first son, I read Dr. Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Baby on the Block. He introduced me to the fourth trimester and how human babies are born earlier than other mammals, and that we need to be recreating the feeling of the womb. Then, at 12 weeks, our baby will wake up to the world. I thought, well that all sounds super helpful but that’s when I go back to work! I want to enjoy my baby before then! It occurred to me then that maybe there’s another trimester that happens to women.

How did the fifth trimester come to be?

Before kids, I was a magazine editor. I started at Glamour in 2001 and had a bunch of different jobs. I eventually became executive editor. So when I had my first son in 2008, I knew everything was working in my favor rather than the majority of working women. I was open about my physical needs, I saw other people take maternity leave. And yet it was unbelievable how much harder it was than I thought it would be. Even though I was an expert at my job, I was a brand new working mom. I didn’t understand that at the time. There are so many factors culturally, where the policies were working against me, but I thought it was my own fault for not being ready to do this.

After I had my first son, I came back and an employee thanked me for being so open and honest about working motherhood. I knew then that if I was going to grow in my job, I was going to be open about motherhood and the work place and show people that they could do it, too and maybe spark some progress in our culture. I wanted to advocate for these rights at work, but I still needed some of them, too.

Fast forward to having my second son, and I had this notion of the fifth trimester. So I started exploring and began speaking with a myriad of mothers on their experiences and definitions of career and going back to work. I turned it into a framework of a book proposal, found an agent and sold the book. (I left Glamour to work on the book). But my experience was But my experience was marked with a lot of privilege. I was a white woman…in a totally supportive marriage…I made enough money. If it was hard for me, I wanted to understand other factors for other women and where we could mentor each other. From the book came the business. I did a lot of public speaking and turned it into a speaking, consulting and coaching business. 

Seeing as Covid-19 has completely upended the traditional workday experience, how has the pandemic shaped what you do?

On March 12, I had about 20 speaking engagements that all fell apart due to Covid-19. I thought, how on earth can I talk to diversity inclusion officers about being good to new moms and fostering gender equality? People’s immediate needs might feel way more urgent. I was really worried about how I was going to sustain this. My husband is a doctor and was out of the house working 14 hour days. He also got Covid-19. So I went from standing on stage at Lincoln Center to doing laundry and getting up in the middle of night to place a Fresh Direct order. It was a big reckoning in practicing what I preach. Work, even unpaid work really counts.

I learned within a few months that I had to pivot my business. So much that I learned was now being experienced by so many workers. Whether you’re a new parent, or a parent of older children, or have elder care responsibilities. Now what I’m doing is helping a number of businesses be good to working parents. Part of that is that women are leaving the workforce in droves. I’m helping businesses encourage them to stay and to find a way for them to stay. 

So does the fifth trimester only apply to actual working mothers?

I believe yes, all moms work and they all have to acclimate to a fifth trimester of motherhood, but the people I primarily work with are returning to paid work and are finding a way to do it that feels sustainable and worth it and can add dimension to their lives.

What are some methods of the fifth trimester?

I teach a lot of reframing. Those early days of motherhood can be very isolating. It’s this incredibly universal experience, yet OMG why is this so uncomfortable for me? Am I doing something wrong? I help them attribute it not to their own supposed shortcomings, but to the way the culture is set up to not support new moms or dads. Geographically, people are more spread out and public policies are not set up to support new moms. You have all of that working against you but in the isolation of new motherhood, it doesn’t feel good. 

So it’s helping them realize those feelings are due to external forces. I’m really allergic to the term “mom guilt.” I certainly don’t deny that a lot of people feel it. I didn’t feel guilty about working, but I didn’t like how the term made me feel. Mom Guilt is a social construct and very sexist. The reason we don’t feel good going back to work after eight or 12 weeks is that we’re not ourselves. My research states that women feel somewhat back to themselves at around six months, at a minimum. FMLA was created in 1993 when President Clinton made it a law after it was debated for nine years. It was meant to be a temporary compromise. Based on research, it was supposed to be 26 paid weeks, instead we got 12 weeks unpaid, which is still only available to a little more than 50 percent of the population.. It became quickly normalized that you should feel ready to work after 12 weeks, so some of it is about reframing and external factors. 

Another big factor of what I do is for many women who have been historically underpaid and undervalued in the workplace. So this is the first time they actually have to negotiate for flex time and salary. Moms need to make enough to pay for childcare and for it to make sense working. Dads do, too but moms end up doing the math. A lot of what women need to do is learn to negotiate. These basic steps of negotiation for your needs and wants don’t feel selfish but are better for the organization and ultimately betters the workplace. So it’s reframing what’s working against you and learning how to negotiate. 

I’m allergic to the term ‘mom guilt.’ I don’t deny that a lot of women feel it. I didn’t feel guilty about working, but I didn’t like how the term made me feel.

What do you think is the hardest part about moms going from birth to the fourth trimester to the fifth trimester? What are the challenges unique to this situation?

It’s really the expectations we have of ourselves that aren’t aligned with reality of forces working against us. I’m super optimistic, but actually when we understand what’s broken, and when we’re able to describe our needs, that’s how problems get solved. We can’t expect workplaces to solve them. We need our needs met and that’s super vulnerable and so hard. It’s policy, it’s scheduling. It’s that the work day is not aligned with the school day. We have this 1950’s family model of mom being home with the baby and dad not being home. So everything from the school system to healthcare is set up in this 70-year-old way of life. 

There’s also The Motherhood Penalty, the measurable negative impact of each child on a woman’s salary and status in the workplace — due entirely to bias. Studies show that we are seen as less competent and less dedicated. But then other studies that actually measure our effectiveness show just the opposite. We are better workers than we were before. We know that the more women there are in senior leadership, the more profitable the company is. You have to assume a lot of these women are moms. But the problem is you have to keep them there. You must keep them as long term leaders.

What does every mother need to know about the fifth trimester?

That it’s finite. That you’ll get so much more comfortable with the compromises you’re making. Also, the things you’ll learn during this time will be constant, and you’ll get better and better at them. There’s so much about transition that’ll set yourself up for every transition to come. I’ve had major shifts in my own career and I draw upon those first few months from my early days of motherhood that make me feel so stronger. 

Lauren's Tips on Navigating the Fifth Trimester

Organize Your Closet

Pick out your clothes the night before. It’s so predictable and yet so good. Don’t let your day start badly because you have a closet of things that don’t fit or you haven’t worn in a year. Make yourself a section of what fits now and what’s appropriate for your job. You can’t let clothes torture you. Choose from that section of your closet and add to it as things start to fit.

Strategize Your Sleep

My survey of 700-plus new working moms showed that most women started sleeping through the night when their baby was seven months old. So how do working moms take care of themselves if they don’t sleep seven hour at night? Four hours is two REM cycles, which can leave you feeling somewhat rested. If you know you’re going to be sleeping fragmented, do all you can do so that one fragment is four hours. Maybe pump a bottle and give to your partner and go to sleep, then wake up at 1 or 2am. You need a four hour chunk. 

Divide and Conquer

In heterosexual relationships, the cultural norm is that the mom takes more leave than dads. Be aware of what it perpetuates. Within some couples, the division of labor is not what women envisioned. Even among super progressive couples, the mom takes leave and dad doesn’t and mom goes back to work. And then mom knows how to do everything and wants it done her way. The dad can’t participate. It ends up being a bad cycle. Awareness is important and make sure the dad or partner is also an expert in some things.

Schedule Your Leave

If your partner has access to leave, scatter out how you both take it. Have them take time in the beginning and when mom goes back, the partner takes additional time. That way it lets your partner learn things firsthand. And it lets mom be at work. Studies show dads or partners who take leave have a better bond with children into their teen years.