The Fifth Trimester

Making the choice to return to work post-baby isn’t always easy—but it may be your best long-term decision. Here’s why, and how to make it work.

There’s the obvious three trimesters in pregnancy, plus the fourth-month post-birth when you’re in a bit of a haze. But what exactly is the “Fifth Trimester?” According to author Lauren Smith Brody, former Executive Editor at Glamour magazine, it’s the pivotal time in a mother’s life when she tackles the challenging question: Do I go back to work or stay home and raise the kids? In her book, The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity & Big Success After Baby, Brody urges mothers to return to work—but with plenty of sage advice on how to manage everything from childcare to looking like you’ve slept for more than three hours. Here, she addresses some of the most common questions and concerns working mothers have.

Books for Better Living (BBL): Tell us about some of the advice you give moms that help persuade them to go back to work.

Smith Brody: I just have to say; personally, I support whatever decisions new moms make about working outside of the home, or being home with their kids (hardest job ever!), but the key word there is “decision.” That being said, I do think that the most effective way to change our country’s workplace culture is for more moms to stay in the game, keep working, and revolutionize our attitudes and policies from within. They can come back after baby and ambitiously climb the ladder and change policies officially, or they can diligently work with real transparency, spotlighting the challenges and triumphs of new working motherhood. That moves the needle too and transforms attitudes.

As for advice! Two strategies that have proven to help, scientifically are:

1.) Realize what you get out of work. Spell out and recognize the value of your work beyond your paycheck (the good it does for the world, or the sense of identity it gives you, etc.)

2.) Realize what work gets out of you! If you can see the value that you bring to your workplace, it will help mitigate those feelings of conflict when you have to make compromises. And new working motherhood is ripe with compromises.

BBL: I love that your fifth-trimester exercise mandate is simply: “Just Don’t Do Nothing.” Do you find that working moms with new babies try to do too much physically?

Smith Brody: Ha! As I write this, I have one screen open on my computer from just booking an exercise class tonight. I have a lifelong love/hate relationship with exercise and am only now getting back to the fitness level I had before I was pregnant with my now five-year-old! Five years!

The message I wanted to communicate in the book is one of strength. New working motherhood requires endurance, and no matter what field you’re in, physical strength helps. Know that even little bursts of activity count. I think some moms assume that if they can’t take 90 minutes to get back and forth to the gym for a “real” workout, there’s no point. But things like a quick walk while on a work call, or a quick leg stretch while on the playmat with your baby, really do help keep you fit enough for when you’re ready to jump back into a more formal routine.

BBL: You advocate to make “mom” part of your work identity. So often we hear the opposite—that if a woman talks about her children she won’t be taken seriously. Why do you think it’s so important to claim your motherhood status on the job?

Smith Brody: This is, without a doubt, the biggest message of the book: Being a parent makes you better at your job. It doesn’t make you better than childless colleagues, but it DOES make YOU better than YOU were before. Being home on maternity leave is like boot camp. You learn to be wildly efficient with your time; you learn to pivot on a dime thanks to your 10-pound infant drill sergeant. Your new skillset translates when you’re back at work. You also learn to say “no” to unimportant things with less guilt (prioritizing is key), and those things you say “yes” to get your true, committed attention because you know you’re compromising something else to make them happen, so you want to deliver. All of that is natural.

What’s harder is broadcasting these changes to your workplace. I think it’s so important to be open and honest, not just about the challenges of new working parenthood (the cost, the sleeplessness), but also about the triumphs—the fact that you face all of these obstacles every day and still get your work done. If new moms can normalize the Fifth Trimester, their colleagues will see that policies should be more generous (for all of us, for anyone with a personal life), and they will also see that the transition time is finite. That new parenthood is simply a stage to be gotten through, and that you come out on the other side of it more capable than before.

BBL: You talk about learning to trust dad with the baby. How do women sabotage themselves by assuming their partners can’t change a diaper or feed the baby correctly?

Smith Brody: Partners want to help, but moms have to LET them. The only thing a new dad/partner can’t do is breastfeed. Other than that, every single other duty can, and should, be shared. When moms take more parental leave than their partners (which is still the most common arrangement), they have more hands-on experience and become quickly “better” at childcare than men. But moms aren’t more capable—they just have more practice!

Then, when mom heads back to work and suddenly is reentering the home in the evening right alongside dad, the habit sticks: They’ve both just worked a full day, but mom is the one who knows how to do everything. That breeds awful resentment in a marriage. The majority of the moms I interviewed/surveyed told me that their Fifth Trimester was one of the hardest periods they’d ever experienced in their marriage. It doesn’t have to be that way. Encourage him to take every drop of paternity leave he gets, and when he’s home, TRUST him to care for the baby too.

BBL: What is “Superwoman Syndrome” and how can new moms avoid it?

Smith Brody: We are all superwomen, truly… eventually! But Superwoman Syndrome is when new moms try to be everything to everyone at all times, and often completely neglect their own needs. Don’t do that! We are already living in a country that has unrealistic expectations of what new parents should be able to physically and emotionally manage after the birth of a baby. So don’t have unreasonable expectations for yourself too! That is so self-defeating. The very best thing any new mom can do is to ask for help, right at the moment that it occurs to her that she needs it. Do you need a change of schedule at work? Ask. Do you need Grandma to stay an extra week to help out? Ask. Do you need clearer communication from your daycare? Ask, ask, ask. People are usually happy to help but they can only help if you take off your cape for a second and go lie down!

BBL: You touch on important, but difficult, conversations women need to have back on the job. One of them is asking for a raise. What should women keep in mind when negotiating a raise post-baby?

Smith Brody: This is actually very simple advice. You should ask for a raise the same way you would have asked for an increase before you had kids, with a clearly spelled out case made about your contributions versus your compensation. Yes, you may feel particular financial pressure right now, and paying for childcare can make you acutely aware of the value of your time. But maternity leave has nothing to do with your salary. If you can make a good case for a raise, then make one! But if you can’t make a good case right now, then create some goals for yourself within a set time frame and then, once you’ve met them, you’ll feel confident to ask for what you deserve.


Photo Credit: Matzaball/iStock

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One response to “The Fifth Trimester”

  1. J stone says:

    This is kne of the worst things I have read as a new mother who had to go back to work. This is the same as those little closets we get at work so we can pump in privacy. Sure there aren’t lunch breaks or time to pee and an overwhelming sense of pain and frustration and lonliness but hey you can still breastfeed? How about instead of forcing tmoms to be everything to everyone and US having to make every sacrifice and have the physical pain of seperation and worry better policies are put into place so moms CAN make decisions on how and when we go back to work??

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