Going Back to Work When You’re Not Ready

Find out why Lauren Smith Brody wrote The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby


Lauren Smith Brody was a high-level editor at Glamour magazine when she gave birth to her first son in 2008, and she soon found that her expectations of herself – both at home and at work – were crushingly unrealistic. Like so many of us, she muddled through anyway, redefining success. Her reward: On the other side of the transition back to work, she had found a new calling, helping other new moms thrive and encouraging businesses to support new parents better. A few years and hundreds of interviews later, The Fifth Trimester – book, consulting business, and working mom movement – was born.

KR: What is the 5th trimester?
LSB: I called my book The Fifth Trimester because in my research I discovered that there is another entire developmental phase for moms. When I read Harvey Karp's book The Happiest Baby on the Block as a brand-new mom, I learned about the fourth trimester. Again and again he would say, "Get to 12 weeks, and your baby will connect to you and that's such a great feeling." But I knew that 12 weeks was when I would be going back to work – and I had a much better maternity leave situation than most women – so the irony of that kind of hit me. The women I surveyed said, on average, they were feeling physically better after birth at about 5.5 months out, and emotionally about 5.8 months out. That said to me that there is very, very definitely a fifth trimester, and almost no one I interviewed was home with their baby at that moment. So I wanted to answer the question: How do you bridge that gap emotionally?

KR: You say that if women can extend their parental leave they should? Why?
LSB: It's been shown that a longer leave time (particularly if it's paid) helps with focus. It also can help you mitigate any bad feelings you have about the compromises that you're making when you return to work. Those two things – better focus and feeling better about the compromises you are making to return to work – are really, really beneficial to your emotional well-being when you start working again. That may not be possible for every kind of job and every kind of woman. But I found there are other ways you can negotiate it. You might be able to take one week less of leave, for instance, and then apply those five days to five Fridays. Maybe you and your partner can take intermittent leave. Do whatever you can to phase back in or create a schedule that makes you more comfortable.

KR: Because there is not a supportive parental leave culture in our country, many women feel afraid to ask for anything that seems like an "accommodation." What's your advice for making these kinds of arrangements?
LSB: What's important in negotiating all these things is going to your boss with an actual plan, not a mere request for an accommodation. For instance, if you want to ask to work from home, make it clear that you will have childcare in place and show how you will meet your deliverables. Also, see if you can make a case for how what you’re asking for is good for the company…not just for you. And it's critical to make a date to reassess. It will help your boss feel more comfortable if [he or she] doesn't think the change is going to be for time immemorial. You might say, "Could we try this and check back in after two months to reassess?" And what can be in the back of your head is that in two months you will have a baby who's two months older, potentially with different needs you might need to work around. They change so quickly.

KR: I think there can be a lot of guilt about putting young babies in childcare. How can women make choices they feel comfortable with?
LSB: I think a lot of it is very geographically dependent. What's "normal" where I live is pretty much just daycare or a nanny or relative who can be home with the baby. In San Francisco, there are a ton of nanny shares. In Denver and LA, a lot of people mentioned home daycare centers. So much of what I looked at was really trying to parse out what is best for the kid. A huge compendium of studies focused on early childhood development, and [researchers] found that there is no major significant difference between daycare or having a caregiver in your home. Ultimately what mattered most was the comfort level the parents had with their childcare choices. If you're comfortable, your kid is going to be more comfortable. You have to make a decision that feels emotionally right for you as much as it is logistically right.

KR: Every woman you interviewed reached an "I have to quit" moment.
LSB: Most did, yes, whether it was a fleeting one-minute blip or a longer crisis. I was really surprised – and comforted, actually – by how universal that was, regardless of ambition level and career, whether [the women] were hourly workers or executives. I think we have set up this idea of choice that is really false. Most women don't have a choice about whether to keep working. And yet they all still hit a point of feeling like things could not possibly work. Many just rolled that feeling right over into mommy guilt, which I think is so self-defeating.

KR: How do women work through that moment?
LSB: I looked at the science of how to get through the feeling of "I have to quit," and here is what helped: realizing the transition is finite and that it will pass. If you can get in touch with what you get out of your job – and that can include a paycheck – write it down. Having that list in your mind actually helps with focus while on the job. And also make a list of what your job gets out of you. Realizing – and internalizing – your value to your employer has been shown to help women feel more comfortable with the compromises they are making. Phasing back into the job also helps as well as feeling like you are being successful. Write down your tasks (even if you've already completed them) so you can cross them off and feel a burst of success that can power you through your day.

KR: You now realize that you had undiagnosed postpartum anxiety with your first child?
LSB: Yes. I loved my baby from minute one. I did not love myself when I looked in the mirror as a mom. I did not meet any expectation I had for myself. I thought, "I thought I would be so good at this, but it doesn't feel natural, and it's much harder than I thought." I had a lot of intrusive thoughts – like an image of a bus hitting my stroller as I crossed the street – but I didn't share them. Back then nobody talked about those thoughts. My husband was in his psychiatric residency, and still I didn't share them with him. He said, "You're going to be ok. It's just the baby blues." But that's because I didn't tell him everything I was thinking. Breastfeeding was hard for me, and many of the scary thoughts that I had would be while I was sitting on the couch trying to nurse my son. My OB and pediatrician both asked me if I felt ok, but I wasn't telling them the truth about what I was thinking and feeling. People go into those appointments so scared of admitting any weakness. Ultimately, you're terrified.

By the time I had my second son, I'd found the confidence to be proactive about my mental health and saw a psychiatrist for the first few weeks of [my baby's] life. She was reassuring – as was my self-awareness – and I ended up having a totally different experience. No depression, only joy. And exhaustion, of course!

When I was doing interviews for my book, the thing that I found incredibly reassuring was learning from Wendy N. Davis, the executive director of Postpartum Support International, that there's actually been brain mapping done on moms while they're having these thoughts about their babies. She said when you look at the brain, the part that lights up is actually the protective part of the brain. It's not the violent part. It's not that you're going to hurt your baby, you're trying to protect him.

KR: You felt like you could not speak about your anxiety the first time. What do you want other women who might be struggling to know?
LSB: How common these struggles are. Most American women have to go back to work months before they are ready emotionally, and knowing that the greater culture is at fault – not you, not your boss, not your partner – helps. It makes women feel more comfortable asking for help. Everywhere else in the world you'd have more support. That unfairness is frustrating, but it's also very motivating. Together, by being more open about these struggles, we can educate each other and support the women coming up after us.

KR: What's one piece of advice about going back to work that seems counterintuitive?
LSB: Be open about your new life as a mom. Everyone around you has something or someone in his or her personal life that matters to them as much as your baby does to you. If you open up about your life, they can open up about theirs, and it becomes a great game of catch – helping each other. One of the biggest themes that came through my research was that once women have gone through this emotionally challenging transition, they often have a burning desire to help other women. And that's what happened to me. Once I was on the other side of the transition back to work, two colleagues came in and said they wanted to thank me for being a mom at work, for being open and human and still doing a job that they admired. This was a greater lesson for me. This wasn't something I struggled through alone and that, by being open, I was actually helping my colleagues.