Lauren Smith Brody started her career as a high-powered magazine editor at “Glamour.” Then she had children. She continued working hard, but she also realized firsthand that women require support beyond pregnancy and the postpartum haze. They need a road map to returning to work while parenting, ranging from basic stuff like how to apply makeup when you haven’t slept in three days to negotiating flexible work arrangements with a boss.
Brody wasn’t shy about being honest about parenting at work. She’d leave meetings to pump. She’d talk about her kids and how hard it was to balance a big, fulfilling job with a big, fulfilling (but demanding) family life.
“Thankfully, I worked in a supportive environment with many women,” she says. “I wasn’t going to fake my way through it. There was a day a few months into coming back where I wasn’t really sleeping yet but I could see the light, and a young, single colleague who didn’t have kids came into my office to ask for help on a headline. In the middle of our conversation, she said, ‘I want to thank you for being so open about this motherhood stuff.’ At first, I was worried. Maybe I hadn’t been professional? Did I allude to not sleeping one too many times? But she said, ‘You know, you’ve shown me it’s incredibly hard, and you’re still getting it done.’ That was my epiphany: I wanted to be a workplace cultural leader. I could use my weaknesses for good!”
In her book, “The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby,” she interviewed hundreds of women from all walks of life about how to make it work. Some were well-off; some were struggling. Some had choices about when to go to work; others had to go back within a week or two (one waitress would feel her milk come in every time a baby cried at her restaurant). The book is chock-full of relatable, real advice. As for the “fifth trimester” title?
“It’s when the working mom is born,” Brody says.
Brody hopes to turn the book into a movement that challenges corporate culture to become more hospitable toward working parents, and offers mothers a resource for revolutionizing workplace culture themselves.
We talked to Brody about the book, the movement and what she’s learned so far.
First things first: How does being Jewish play into your work?
It wasn’t hard to legitimize! I’m Jewish, but the book isn’t necessarily meant just for Jewish readers. Yet Jews have led the way in so many of our cultural-shaping industries—arts, finance. There are more Jewish women in positions of executive leadership, industry-wide, then there are Jewish men, which is pretty fascinating. It’s hard because you want to make policy changes at your workplace, but I understand that for many women, this isn’t necessarily a moment of great ambition. Just understand that by being open and transparent, you are making cultural change. By setting an example, being open, leaving a meeting to go pump, you’re impacting culture, and for a Jewish reader, know that we’ve led the way! In terms of the percentage of Jewish women in the workplace and in leadership roles, we have an opportunity to make an impact.
How was your back-to-work transition?
I had a challenging transition, but I also understood that I had it easier than most. I was working in an industry largely made up of women who were approaching motherhood in myriad ways. Some were like me, upwardly mobile and trying to climb the masthead. Others were satisfied and maintained their positions. There was a woman above me who took a two-week maternity leave, and I remember thinking, ‘How could you?’ I had a 180 change of heart once I had kids. I began to understand that, although science shows that a longer paid maternity leave is better for most women, the truth is, the most important thing we can do, the most progressive thing, is to have agency and do what’s right for our own families. This was the right thing for her, so I learned to check my judgment at the door. The whole point of my book is to offer women options and as many avenues toward making their own options and having agency.
What would make returning to work easier for women?
All families need a federally supported, paid family leave. Men, women, adoptive parents, et cetera. Barring that, I think new parents need to realize that they come back from parental leave stronger in many ways than when they went away to have their babies. There’s this boot camp mentality. In terms of workplaces, there is so much logistical support possible. Three months leave is not enough. There’s this feeling of, ‘You took your three months! You should be raring to go!’ As managers, we have to internalize the idea that it’s not enough.
If you can support new parents in their first few months back, it will improve retention, recruitment and a workplace’s reputation. It’s all stuff that’s ultimately good for companies and, on a global scale, improves the bottom line. It’s a mind shift.
Can you offer some practical tips for just plain getting through the day?
Sleep is one of the most vital issues for new parents. It affects your physical and mental health, and it also affects your ability to keep your job. If you’re coming back emotionally frazzled, you’re petrified of saying or doing the wrong thing. Protect the quality of the little sleep you’re getting. Negotiate with your partner who gets sleep when.
Also, game your day! Wendy Troxel, who’s a Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh and a social scientist with RAND Corporation, had this great piece of advice. There’s a slump everyone has at 2 p.m. If you have any control over your schedule, make phone calls or do a presentation then. This will flood your body with adrenaline and carry you through the rest of the day.
How does a woman’s self-image change after returning to work?
I fight against this idea of fake it until you make it. I tried to be very deliberate in finding diversity: socioeconomic, kinds of jobs, diversity of ambition. I talked to women who started out as ambitious and it temporarily or completely fell away; I talked to other women also who weren’t ambitious, then stuck with their work to pay for child care and really made it worthwhile. A lot of those women found new approaches to the work they were doing. A lot of women saw themselves differently than before, or thought their colleagues saw them differently. You have to will yourself to move forward and embrace it. You cannot move forward if you come back to work worrying about everything that happened while you were gone, or every favor everyone did for you while gone. Don’t feel indebted or worried they resent you. Realize that everyone you work with has something in his or her personal life that matters as much to them as your baby does to you. Ask after that person. Embrace everyone’s humanity. They bring that to work with them, and it’s OK.
How can mothers improve workplace policies, like flex time or telecommuting?
Think: How much can I push the envelope here? Think of the greater good by taking a narrow personal risk. Manage up. Take motherhood out of it and think of the company as a whole. How can you legitimately claim that a policy is not just good for you, it’s good for a company? Ask for something that’s good for everyone.