Navigating ‘The Fifth Trimester’ – when the working mom is born.

By Sarah Lux-Lee

September 20, 2017

The Fifth Trimester might start too soon for many women, but once you’re through it, you realize you’ve learned skills that you’ll use for every life and career transition forever.

I first came across Lauren Smith Brody and her book, The Fifth Trimester, on a local Facebook parenting forum. One of the moms had reached out to the crowd, desperate for guidance on how to stay afloat as she juggled the competing demands of work and home. And it was lucky she had – within seconds, comment after comment rolled in, recommending she immediately get her hands on a copy of The Fifth Trimester, an approachable, in-depth guide to navigating the return to work with style, sanity and success.

Lauren and her book are a lifeline for so many working women around the world, who share the same questions and struggles. How do I talk to my boss about flexibility? Which tasks can I entrust to my family or community? How do I ask for help? Lauren and her book understand there are no easy answers, but give you a solid foundation to start building solutions. Lauren speaks to global audiences, and consults to businesses of every size, about how to support working moms through their experience of The Fifth Trimester.

I caught up with Lauren to find out her top tips for the #globalmoms community. If you’re in New York, you can join Mindr this weekend to continue the conversation in person.


As executive editor of Glamour Magazine, you served an audience of 12 million monthly readers around the world. What were some of the issues you came across that unite working women globally? 

We made a commitment at Glamour to really shine a spotlight on the issues women face all over the world, even before it was commonplace for women’s magazines to do so. We honored women like Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani women’s rights and girls’ education activist, for our Women of the Year awards, for instance. (We held our breath, worried that she wouldn’t be allowed to travel out of the country, but there she was, onstage at Carnegie Hall, alongside American celebrities, athletes, politicians, and business leaders, getting more applause and support than anyone.

In a dry season, someone must be the first drop of rain.

One universal way to connect women all over the world is through their love of their children and their respect for their own mothers. In Mukhtar’s profile in the magazine, I remember, she shared a wonderful bit of wisdom from her mother that she said drove her work day in and day out. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “in a dry season, someone must be the first drop of rain.”

There is no issue women face globally that doesn’t tie directly back to this kind of leadership, and our hopes, dreams and responsibility for the next generation we’re bringing into the world. As women, sometimes, I think it can be easier to ask for things for others than for ourselves. Fine, if that’s what gets us there, fine. Let’s push, as women, for the support we need to be the best mothers we can be. That means excellent parental leave, equal pay, access to quality health care, education, safety, a healthy planet, pre- and post-natal care. All of these needs can be supported in the workplace in some way.

A pregnancy has three trimesters, and the ‘fourth trimester’ is a term used to describe a newborn’s adjustment to life outside the womb.  What is ‘The Fifth Trimester’?

The Fifth Trimester is when the working mom is born. It’s a whole other developmental phase, this one for the mother, when she goes back to work. In many countries, that’s before she’s physically and emotionally ready to be there. One quarter of working American mothers are back in the workplace by two weeks postpartum because our 12 weeks of unpaid leave (FMLA) is a luxury most cannot afford. Nearly all are back long before the six-month mark — which is the point at which studies have shown mom’s mental health is more protected as is baby’s physical health. 

I want women to feel empowered and able to stay in the workplace.

My book about The Fifth Trimester is full of workarounds and strategies from hundreds of mothers who’ve been there — in corporate gigs, self-employed gigs, and hourly-wage jobs. Their circumstances are different, but there’s a common thread: these women, once through their own Fifth Trimesters, reach back and want to help other moms through theirs.

I want women to feel empowered and able to stay in the workplace. If they choose to lean in, move up, and change policies for new working parents from a position of leadership, bravo. But they should also know that simply staying in the game – putting one foot in front of the other and getting your job done and being transparent about the challenges of new working parenthood – counts too. That also moves our culture forward. 

Why do you think it’s powerful for working moms to acknowledge this time as its own ‘trimester’ or distinct period in their lives?

A trimester is finite; it’s a season. As a boss and colleague, I would always suggest that new hires put a date on their calendars three months out to assess how they felt about their adjustment. Any sooner was too soon. At the end of three months, you’re able to look back and see how far you’ve come. For new mothers, that typically means that they’ve caught back up on what they missed while they were out on leave and launched into some new project or initiative – that’s a real, reassuring milestone. If they’re nursing and pumping, perhaps they’ve gotten into a good rhythm; if they’re really lucky, baby has started sleeping more predictably. And most importantly, once they’ve gotten past those first few weeks and months of reentry, they’re able to see – and broadcast – the ways motherhood makes them better (yes, better!) at their jobs.

The Fifth Trimester might start too soon for many women, but once you’re through it, you realize you’ve learned skills that you’ll use for every life and career transition forever.

Are some countries doing better than others in supporting working moms as they transition back into the workplace after having a baby?

I need to pause here to laugh for a minute. YES, in short, ALL countries are doing better than the United States. You’ve probably seen countless infographics that show that the United States is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t offer paid parental leave. We are in last place, and the impact of that is real.

We need to push for wider cultural change – women in government and on corporate boards in higher numbers all around the world.

However, no country is perfect. For instance, Sweden is often depicted as being in first place. It’s what I call the land that’s flowing with breastmilk and honey with all of its goodness for new parents – and its dads seem to be among the most task-sharing of all partners. But men in Sweden still take only a quarter of all parental leave – a figure the government there (fortunately) hopes to improve upon.

Policy is a start, but it’s not enough. We need to push for wider cultural change – women in government and on corporate boards in higher numbers all around the world. Because what happens when you’re back at work is just as important as what happened when you were away.

There was a great study done for Vodafone by KPMG back in 2015 that prompted the company to update its policies not just for parental leave but for the return to work. Now Vodafone mothers are allowed to work 30 hour weeks at full (40 hour) pay for their first six months back at work. That change is beneficial for the mothers’ emotional well-being, of course, but it also reduces families’ initial spending on childcare. Again and again in my interviews, women talked about the internal debate of, “I’m spending nearly as much on childcare as I’m earning…is it worth it?” This kind of policy change helps ease that self-doubt long enough for women to keep advancing in their careers. 

What can women do to ensure their transition back to work is as smooth as possible? What are some strategies they can use to help find “balance” in the juggle between work and home?

There are so many – from the seemingly superficial (organize a mini closet within your closet of just what fits and works now, to save time in the morning), to the practical (when negotiating with your boss for flexibility, forget the notion that you’re asking for an accommodation and instead embrace the idea that you’re asking for something that’s mutually beneficial, and prove that point!). 

But the very best thing, anecdotally, that we can do is to go easy on ourselves and ask for the help we need, especially of our partners at home if we have them (single moms and dads, you are heroic).

This generation of men was brought up to want to share equally in parenting, but this generation of women was brought up to believe we should be able to do everything ourselves. These things fight each other, particularly when dad takes a shorter parental leave than mom does. Try not to let parental leave set up unequal parenting patterns. Make sure there are parenting duties that only your partner knows how to do (and you don’t!), and remember that your work at home – keeping a human baby alive – really IS work. The only thing a new dad can’t do (yet) is lactate. He can get up in the night. He can give you time and space to be alone. He can cook and clean and comfort the baby as well as you can – if you give him the chance.

In five words or less, what is your wish for every working mom around the world?

A satisfying life worth emulating. (Because the way we treat ourselves rubs off on our kids.)


Take Action Challenge

  • Share your tips for a smooth return to work. Whether you’re a recent mom, or have a few years of experience with the work-baby juggle, share your tips for a successful Fifth Trimester using the hashtags #thefifthtrimester and #globalmoms
  • Based in New York? Join Mindr on Sunday, September 24th to continue the conversation with Lauren Smith Brody in Brooklyn, and ask her your questions about navigating the work-baby juggle. 
  • Become a part of the Mindr community! You can find them on Facebook and Instagram

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