Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, shares important truths about the many forms of working motherhood.

By Rebecca Rakowitz
April 27, 2021
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An image of a new mother getting ready for work with her baby.
Credit: Getty Images.

When Lauren Smith Brody was pregnant with her first son, she could find so much information about the three trimesters of pregnancy. There was even advice about the "fourth trimester," the first three months of a baby's life. 

But when Brody returned to work, she felt "totally at sea" navigating work life and mom life. It's what inspired her to coin the term and write the book, The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby. This week, she joins That New Mom Life to talk about deciding what's next, tackling the transition, and advocating for the support you need.

She even breaks down the myth that some moms "work" and some "don't."

"Let's be clear," says Brody. "We all work. If you are a mother, you work. Maybe you work for pay. Maybe you work for no pay. Maybe you do both. Each of these situations is hard depending on what resources you have available to you. So let's eliminate that."

Plus, five moms from the That New Mom Life community share how they decided to return to a job or stay at home. 

Listen and subscribe to That New Mom Life on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, PlayerFM, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts. That New Mom Life will be back again next week with more postpartum insights. 

Upcoming topics this season:

  • Reminiscing and looking ahead

If you have a story to tell or want to learn more about That New Mom Life, email us at thatnewmomlife@meredith.com. 

Listen to episode 11 right now:

Plus follow along here:

Desiree: When I became a mom to my triplets, I decided to stay at home. And while I know it was a great decision for me, it came with a load of responsibility. It was hard work and it was very challenging.

Grace: To tell you the truth, Desiree, I considered opting out of my career when I had my daughter. I did go back, but it wasn't an easy decision. Leaving my baby was my first real taste of mom guilt. 

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Grace: Hi, I'm Grace Bastidas and if you had a career pre-baby, the decision whether to go back or not can be a stressful one. 

Desiree: Such a tough choice—if you even get to decide! Because for many moms it comes down to finances. 

Grace: Yes, for lots of women working outside the home is a necessity, and that comes with a whole bunch of challenges. Thankfully, our guest today, Lauren Smith Brody, wrote a book all about the work-life juggle called The Fifth Trimester

Desiree: She also has great advice if you stay at home full-time! But first, let's hear from some moms about how they decided to opt back in—or not. 

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Mom 1: One of my very first memories is being at preschool, being asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" My answer was "a mom." When my perfect son was born, it was a dream. I chose to be a stay-at-home mom because I get to see every moment. I was planning on going back to the workforce, but with the cost of child care, my husband and I decided we wanted me to stay home. And I am grateful for every day and every moment with my son, even the tough days. It's the best job I will ever have.

Mom 2: Deciding to go back to work has made me a better mom. During maternity leave, I felt like my only identity was to be a mom. When I went back to work, because I'm a teacher, I definitely felt like I got the other aspects of myself back. It makes me a better mom because I get to go do what I'm passionate about, which is working with my students. And then when I get home, I am absolutely present, more present than I think I would be if I was at home all day. 

Mom 3: Going back to work, I really dreaded the idea of leaving my babies with anyone else besides myself. Because we had spent so much time and effort building our schedule, and our routines, and getting things to work really well for us, that the fact that I had to put this into someone else's hands, that was out of my control, which was really hard to let go of, really terrified me about what was going to happen. 

While the majority of me really dreaded and did not want to be back at work, there was a small, small ounce of me that was excited to think about something other than the eat play, sleep schedule. 

Mom 4: I remember when I had my daughter. My mom asked me, "So when are you going to stop working?" And I was genuinely confused by her question because I had never thought about it before. I always knew that I wanted to do both or at least try it and then decide for myself if it was not for me to work and raise a family.

I'm so passionate about what I do. And I love it so much that I didn't want to forget that part of me or put it aside for a determined amount of time. Becoming a mom did not erase the other parts of who I am. And even though Mamá is my most important title, I don't want it to be my only title.

Mom 5: OK. I'm going to keep it real. After I gave birth, I went back to work after only five weeks. Yup. You heard it right. I was ashamed of this when people would ask, but now I realized that in order for my kids to be happy, I needed to be happy. And what made me happy was getting back to my routine that didn't involve diapers and bottles, but did involve me missing my little ones.

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Grace: Now, let's hear from this week's guest. A mom and former magazine editor, Lauren Smith Brody knows firsthand the demands of working motherhood. She even wrote a book about it—The Fifth Trimester.

Desiree: She is also a consultant, helping companies retain and support mothers, and appears regularly on TV advocating for moms everywhere. 

Grace: Lauren, lovely to have you on That New Mom Life. Your book is titled The Fifth Trimester. What does that refer to? 

Lauren: Thanks, Grace. I'm so happy to be with you guys. So, I learned about the fifth trimester by essentially coming up with the term when I was in it. So, I knew when I was pregnant with my first son, that obviously what the first three trimesters were, there was a ton of information available for me to know, you know, when my fetus was the size of a kumquat versus when he was the size of a cucumber.

And then when I had him, I had what is commonly referred to as a hard time as a brand-new mom. And I read the Harvey Karp book, The Happiest Baby on the Block and he introduced me to the idea of the fourth trimester, which was this idea that, you need to recreate the feeling of the womb to comfort a newborn baby because human babies are born a whole trimester earlier, developmentally than other mammals. 

All news to me, sounded great, except the whole way through Dr. Karp and God love him, I think he's awesome, but he kept saying like, "Hey Mama, just get to 12 weeks."

First of all, I'm not sure I want to be called Mama. Secondly, 12 weeks is exactly when I go back to work. And I knew even then that I had it better than a lot of people. I had a supportive partner, I had parents who were retiring and could like fly to town if I needed them. I was able to take some of my leave unpaid, but I still ended up going back to work just totally at sea. And I thought, "Wow, this is really different."

I am good at my job. And yet I am brand new at this, at being a new working mom. And it helped me to define it, and indeed getting through those first few months was a huge reset for me. Of priorities, of negotiating for things, of being more transparent than I'd ever been before. And I found, counterintuitively, it actually made me better at my job.

And so fast forward another kid, another fifth trimester, and I decided to actually leave and do some research to look beyond my own admittedly pretty privileged experience. To look at other women's fifth trimesters, in other fields at other income levels, sort of all versions of support and motherhood and career and put it all together into this book that I've called The Fifth Trimester.

Grace: You mentioned that you found that when you returned to work, you were actually much better at your job, and I completely agree, but please share for all those moms out there wondering like, "How am I going to do this?"

Lauren: Yeah, no, and I don't want to sound like, you know, like an alien woman who came here from Mars to tell you I was better at my job. I definitely was not as together. I definitely had more sort of, you know, mind blips of losing my train of thought in the middle of my sentence, cause I wasn't sleeping yet.

That's that's, you know, obviously probably the biggest hurdle that, that many, many new parents face. But coupled with that , was a really radical transparency that I had never been comfortable with before. And I realized that actually I had been spending a lot of time as a manager, and as a worker, and as a colleague, spending a lot of energy, sort of trying to fake it till I made it. 

And that, that was just, wasn't an option. I did not have the reserves of energy to fake anything. And so instead I found myself having much more comfortably honest conversations with my colleagues about things like deadlines and giving myself a little more buffer. 

And asking them about their personal lives in a way that I think I had always been a person who was interested in the people, truly the people I was working with. But I just had an awareness, as a new mom that I had that kind of maternal instinct for some of my colleagues. I thought of them as people with a personal life in a way that I never had before. And it made me, I think, a better manager, and I think it helped me elicit better work out of them and made me better at my job.

Grace: Mmm… and probably better support from them as well. 

Lauren: Absolutely. Yeah.

Grace: Going back to our pre-baby jobs is a huge decision. When we had this tiny little baby who needs us at home, how do we deal with the mom-shamers who make us feel like we're actually abandoning our little newborns? 

Lauren: It's really important to externalize the pressures that we feel. This is not you making a bad decision. This is a very universally uncomfortable transition. Instead of blaming ourselves, let's blame the system, externalize it, and band together to make things better. 

I think it's also really important as women that we're not divisive about who works and who doesn't work, because that is such an old definition that is, you know, like rooted in the patriarchy.

So let's be clear. We all work. If you are a mother, you work. Maybe you work for pay. Maybe you work for no pay. Maybe you do both. Each of these situations is hard depending on what resources you have available to you. So let's eliminate that. 

And then the other thing I found in my research in my book, I did 115 individual interviews, average length of about an hour. Every single person described feeling guilty. There were people who felt guilty because they were leaving their baby in the arms of someone who they felt was less capable of provider than they would be themselves. There were people who felt guilty because they loved being back at work. They loved the adult conversation and they thought, am I not enjoying motherhood as much as I should? 

And so what I really kind of came to realize is that guilt is this common denominator. 

Grace: I'm sure dads don't go through all this back and forth and guilt and all these feelings associated with this because mom shaming also works another way where it affects moms who do decide to quit their pre-baby career and stay at home. 

How do we deal with those feelings, those inappropriate comments, and just own our decision?

Lauren: Again, I think it comes down to thinking of all labor as labor. You know, realizing that the unpaid work you do in the home has absolute value and investment, even at its absolute most basic level. And this is something that I think everyone can agree upon. 

No matter how you feel about, you know, a woman's role, gender roles, whatever, progressive or not. We're making a generation of human beings who will one day support our economy. So if you're investing in them in any way, you are supporting the economy, and you should feel value in that.

Grace: Let's talk about advocating for the support we need. If you have a partner, many times that person has already gone back to work. What conversations should we be having at home to set ourselves up for success when we return to our pre-baby jobs? Especially when it comes to sharing the parenting load? 

Lauren: So it's really important to, again, externalize the factors that are working into your partnership. You know, if you find that you have taken more maternity leave than dad has taken paternity leave, and I'm sorry to be so heteronormative about it, but that's what the numbers are sort of based on, it makes sense that things would feel uneven. 

And so it's a very natural reset at the end of leave when you're going back to have a conversation, really spelling out all of the duties, all the things that perhaps one of you has learned deeply that the other has not, so they don't both come home at the end of the day and have one person who knows how to do everything and by the way, also wants it done her way if we're talking about me, and we are. It's called gatekeeping and it's real. 

And then there's sort of the ongoing conversation. It's actually very much like a career conversation that, you know, these negotiations are not like do or die. We have to have this talk right now. It's actually the more natural and productive thing is to have an ongoing conversation. 

So I recommend the couples talk every, typically once a week, usually Sunday, if you work a traditional sort of Monday to Friday week, about what your week looks like. You know, who's got blackout times coming up? Who has a really, really important meeting they cannot miss? And that way, if you know the daycare center floods, you know that the other parent's going to cover it. 

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Grace: So child care is often such a big factor in whether we return to our pre-baby jobs or stay at home. Do you have any tips for how to tackle that? 

Lauren: Child care is covered in the first chapter of my book because it's very often the most pressing and urgent need that parents have when they're thinking of returning to paid work. 

Really what it's about is about listening to your emotions and how you feel about the child care. Do you feel comfortable with somebody in your home? Do you feel more comfortable with checks and balances of having a whole staff of people? Do you feel comfortable with the amount of money you'd be spending or traveling or not traveling? Are you a morning person who's really good at packing up?

All that stuff should count as you make these decisions, and validating that I think is the most important thing. 

Grace: Let's just say there's a couple of weeks left to your maternity leave, if you've even had one and you're getting ready to go back to work. What conversations should we be having with our managers? 

Lauren: Sure. So some of it is going to be about transitioning to actual work, you know, projects that perhaps were spread out among other people. And what is, kind of have to check your ego a little bit, cause there might be some, there might be some projects that other people have taken over for you that they actually should see through. 

And if that's true, then the conversation becomes about, "Well hey, what can I take on?" Even if you are easing back in, and I would recommend trying to negotiate at least for the first couple of weeks to have a slightly abbreviated schedule. Do not give yourself a pay cut for it, it's ultimately to keep you in your job and retained.

So some of it's about hours. Some of it is if you know that there's a blackout time, that's going to happen in your day. If you're going to be doing bedtime from 5:30 to 8 o'clock every single night. And you just aren't going to be able to look at your emails and that was something you used to do, go ahead and say so. But know going into those conversations, really what you're expected to do in your job, because so often we over-deliver. 

And then come with a plan. Don't just come with an ask of, "Can I not be available for this hour that people around us are typically working?" But "Here's what I need and here's how I can make it work."

And that's really the approach you want to take. 

Grace: That sounds like radical transparency to me, actually saying what you need. 

Lauren: Yeah! And to realize the person you're negotiating with is also a person with a personal life. Whether they have kids or not, they have something that matters to them. And on an emotional level, they're going to understand. You just have to give them the tactics to show them that it's OK. 

Grace: That's a great way of thinking about it, but often when moms go back to work they get passed for opportunities. Somehow, we're seen as less devoted, more distracted. How do we deal with this idea of being mommy tracked?

Lauren: So the motherhood penalty is a real thing because it is a real measured thing. The motherhood penalty is the negative impact of each child on a mother's earnings. The most conservative estimate is 4 percent decrease per child, but also on her status.

And it's really important when we talk about it to also say that when these studies are done, they have all accounted for things like an unpaid maternity leave or choosing to go part-time, that's all accounted for. 

It's really, actually totally rooted in bias. We all have biases, I have biases, you have biases, we don't have them with ill intentions most of the time. Most of the time, it's actually kind of a split between, you know, like bad assumptions about somebody, good assumptions about somebody, you know, they're pretty deep rooted. 

So you have to go into these conversations in these interactions willing to say to somebody—to assume, first of all, that their intentions are good. If they cut you out of something, if they think that you shouldn't go for promotion, if they think you're not ready to travel and maybe, maybe you're not. You should be able to say to them, "Here's what I want."

And this is part of a conversation that you can have right before you go back to, "I know that people are going to be looking out for me and trying to really protect my time and my wellbeing, and I appreciate that so much. What I would like is to be given the choice at every opportunity to say, 'I want to go for this.' Or 'I want to go for this later.'" And just say, "Come to me, come to me, come to me, please."

Don't shy away because so often it's the people are trying to protect you. But what they're doing is they're actually cutting you down.

Grace: All right. So, having those conversations beforehand. Some moms may decide to transition to stay at home full time, after having careers. What's the process of letting go? And what are some worries that can accompany that decision? 

Lauren: You know, I think it's important to think if you are moving from paid work into fully unpaid work, to remember some of the things that you liked about the paid work and incorporate them into your unpaid work life. 

So if you loved feeling creative, it's going to be important to try to use some of that time at home with your children creatively. And it's also important, and this is something that I've seen evolve over the last several years, our colleagues are no longer just the people we work with on our team or in our industries.

Our colleagues are really every other parent who's going through this with us. You know, you may no longer be attending like formal networking mixers, right? But that's fine. You know, when you talk to other parents about their experiences of work, and how they divide things up, and how money works in their home, division of labor issues, really be radical about how honest you are with your friends about that, and they will do the same for you. 

And I swear, it's going to be, you know, a rising tide lifts all boats. When we start talking about this stuff and normalizing it, we're all going to benefit. 

Grace: That's the whole point of this podcast, That New Mom Life is all about talking about it. 

Lauren: Yeah, it helps. 

Grace: Finally, Lauren, can you share your top tips for getting back into the workforce with our sanity intact? Is that possible? 

Lauren: I would say it's transformed in a good way! This is going to sound so superficial, but it is so important to feel good physically in the morning when you are getting dressed to go to that paid job. 

So, look at your closet. It is probably clothes you haven't worn in, like, at least nine months, you know, it may not be seasonally appropriate. Make yourself a little mini section within your closet just of the things that are appropriate and fit. And that may be five items of clothing. 

And if you see that none of those items of clothing will cover your bottom half because you don't have any pants then go buy yourself a pair of pants. But shop only from that little section in your closet, it really will make you feel better, more in control. And over time, as things start to fit better, whatever seasons change, you'll fill it in with more clothes. That's fine. So just don't torture yourself every morning with that.

Next, I would say, put a date on your calendar three months out and, it is incredibly common for people to feel ambivalent about how they're doing through a transition. If you have that perspective of a little more time invested before you make a big decision, you will make a clearer headed decision and be, and be happier with the decision that you've made ultimately. 

Next, if you go into any kind of negotiation for flexibility, remember, really internalize all the research. Do your research about what's been available to your colleagues because that can set precedent, which actually can be legally binding. See what people in other fields have done and really make the internal case before you go into those conversations.

And then when you do have the conversation, this is so key. Remember, this is not just something you're advocating for, or asking for, for your own little private, personal life. This is actually something that you probably have more privilege and more ability to enter into this conversation about, than a lot of your colleagues do, who can't be as visible for whatever reason. And so do it for them too. That is universally what I hear from women is the thing that helps them have these hard conversations is remembering that they're making progress for everybody around them too, whose needs are less visible. 

Grace: I love that! We're in this together and need to keep the conversation going and be transparent about our needs. Thank you so much, Lauren. Great to talk to you!

Lauren: Thank you so much for having me on. I really appreciate it.

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Desiree: Well, that was a wonderful interview with Lauren. After the triplets were born, I was excited to stay home with them, and I chose that. That was my decision, and it was a whole new journey for me. What did that look like for you going back to work? 

Grace: Well, going back to work felt like this looming deadline, and I am an editor, so I'm used to deadlines, but this one was scary. I was lucky to have maternity leave, but that time just flew by. I just remember feeling so torn about what to do. 

I now had a baby that needed me. She was tiny, and I was raised by a stay-at-home mom who found ways to earn money at home. My mom sold Mary Kay cosmetics, she had a daycare, she did what she had to do so that she could take care of my sister and me. And I did feel this terrible guilt. And a lot of it was self-imposed, like holding on to my career was selfish for some reason. 

Desiree: That mom guilt, man. It just definitely sneaks in anytime it can. And I think that's can be really hard for us as moms and I, can relate to that just with, after giving birth to Cambria, I dove right back into working on campaigns and partnerships. 

I mean, I didn't even wait the six to eight weeks, it was just like, "Let's go, all right, here we go." And I look back, and I'm like, "How did I do that?" I'm not sure how I did it. It was like survival mode, but also trying to support my family at the same time. We had to. I mean, we're, living off both my income right now and my husband's income.

And so, in some ways it felt really hard, but just like Lauren had said, communication is really, really helpful and really important. And once again, we're learning to do that all over again.

Grace: I'm so glad you brought that up because for so many women, it comes down to, "I just can't afford it." Right? I need to make my wages and contribute, and we just can't live off of one salary, if you do have a partner, you know, you don't have much of that choice. 

For me, the decision came down to child care. I was so conflicted about who would I trust to take care of my baby? And I ended up quote, unquote hiring my aunt as my sitter, and that gave me peace of mind. And then I ended up, bold as I was, I ended up negotiating a work from home day, which gave me more flexibility and ultimately made me a happier mom and a better employee. 

So, you mentioned that you can chose to be a stay-at-home mom with the triplets, and how challenging that was. But with Cambria, you are doing all these different things all the time, including this wonderful podcast. How did that transition happen for you? 

Desiree: To be honest, it kind of just fell into my lap and became something for me. I started blogging when I was going through my infertility. It was really just like a therapeutic thing for me, and when the triplets were born, all of a sudden I had people following along, wanting to hear my story and what that was like. 

And after so much time, I learned that I could actually pursue this as a job, and I did. We were living with my parents at the time and when Ryan and I wanted to move out, I was like, "We both have to support our household in order for us to do that."

And so, I honed in and I focused on that and created The Perfect Mom. And it was so fulfilling for me to just create something where I can connect with other moms and have a community of support to know that we're not alone and all the different seasons of motherhood, the emotions, all the feelings. So it's really a great outlet for me that I think is sometimes needed when you are working outside of the household. 

Grace: You know, you brought up support, which I think is such an important thing. When I had my youngest daughter, my situation was completely different. I had been hired for my job when I was three months pregnant. 

I remember being super nervous about telling my then boss that I was expecting, but she immediately put me at ease. She said, "Oh, congratulations! That's great! We'll find someone to fill in for you during your maternity leave. No worries." 

That immediately set the tone for returning to work. You know, that time around, I felt I was supported and actually looked forward to getting back. I was lucky to work with mostly women, many of them moms. So, I became much more vocal about my needs because I knew they valued me. 

Desiree: Wow. Yeah, that's huge, and I think that again, comes back to communication and being able to have those conversations and know that you are supported wherever you are. 

Grace: I'm with Lauren, let's go with radical transparency, Desiree, and say what we need.

Whether we're doing paid work or unpaid work, it's all important, and it's all super valuable. 

Desiree: Absolutely. Yes.

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Grace: That's it for another episode of That New Mom Life, a podcast from Parents magazine—thanks so much for listening.

Desiree: Do tell all your mom friends about us, and head to Parents.com/newmompodcast to find out more. 

Grace: Thanks to Lauren Smith Brody for sharing all her great advice, to the moms who shared their stories, and our production team, Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav and Sam Walker. I'm Grace Bastidas.

Desiree: And I'm Desiree Fortin. Hang in there mom, you're doing great!