Interview'We need to live in a post-guilt world'

How to survive the ‘emotional bloodbath’ of work after having a baby

In ‘The Fifth Trimester,’ former Glamour editor Lauren Smith Brody crowdsources career advice for new moms transitioning back into the professional world

Lauren Smith Brody's first days with newborn Will. (Courtesy)
Lauren Smith Brody's first days with newborn Will. (Courtesy)

The first three months of a newborn’s life are commonly referred to as “the fourth trimester.” But Lauren Smith Brody, former executive editor of Glamour magazine, has coined the term “The Fifth Trimester,” which just so happens to be title of her new book.

The phrase refers to the period in which new moms go back to work; a time — in the United States, at least — when they are often not yet emotionally ready for the transition, and are hungry for guidance and reassurance.

Smith Brody surveyed working mothers from different careers, classes and parenting situations across the US — stock traders, stunt doubles and waitresses; single mothers, adopters and married moms of three — to compile this pragmatic guide.

Advice is offered on topics ranging from managing your wardrobe and handling postpartum disorders, to negotiating a pleasant pumping room and a pay raise. Told with insight and witty turn of phrase, this account also draws on her personal experience of momming in the magazine world.

I don’t think I’ve come across many parenting books that cull advice from a wide array of parents. How did you come up with this idea?

I don’t think of it as a parenting book but as a business book, a career book for women. There are a ton of books out there about pregnancy, the newborn phase, an overwhelming number on sleep training. But when I needed career advice after my first son was born, there was nothing that addressed the emotional transition I experienced. My senses of identity, confidence and ambition had changed, and people saw me differently too. Clearly, a whole other developmental trimester existed.

Lauren Smith Brody with her kids during the last days of pregnancy leave. (Courtesy)
Lauren Smith Brody with her kids during the last days of pregnancy leave. (Courtesy)

I was lucky: I qualified for leave and was returning to a pretty women-supportive work environment. Still, this transitional experience was an emotional bloodbath. My expectations for myself as mom, a worker, and a working mom were overwhelming. I had no idea if this was the new normal or just a phase.

Eventually, I got my sea legs. I was making enough milk and money, and getting my job done, if not with flair, at least efficiently. That was when some of my younger, childless colleagues started to approach me, thanking me for being so open about the challenges I was facing. At first I was embarrassed that they’d noticed how tired I must have looked, how I’d left at 6 p.m. sharp each evening. But then I realized that they still aspired to have my career, they saw their future in me. I was the role model, the person to emulate. It was so important for younger women to see a working mom up-close.

‘It was so important for younger women to see a working mom up-close’

My goal was to interview a highly diverse group of women in order to establish a communal “working-mom mentor” — the Nth degree of what I’d been to those women. I’d hoped that 100 people would answer my survey; I received 700-plus replies, and then did 100 in-depth interviews.

While the approaches to motherhood and career varied wildly, I noticed two universal themes: One, these women had gone back to work before they felt emotionally ready. And two, having made it through the hard way, they wanted to help others… mentoring and parenting are awfully related! Hence, the book.

What was your most surprising interview? The best bit of insight you gleaned?

My conversation with Sarah Serafin, a mom from Ohio, really stands out. She’s educated and so smart, but hadn’t found her career; she was doing shift-work. As soon as she had her baby, her husband lost his job. She had to go back to work after one week — waitressing. She used the employee bathroom to pump. If a baby in the restaurant began to cry, her milk would let down. She stuffed her bra with diapers to absorb leaks. At week one of my maternity leave, I was on my couch freaking out because I couldn’t get my baby to latch.

Lauren Smith Brody with her family in the hospital room after the birth of her youngest child. (Courtesy)
Lauren Smith Brody with her family in the hospital room after the birth of her youngest child. (Courtesy)

‘We never talk about daddy guilt’

I’m grateful that I spoke to Sarah early on because talking to her informed every other interview I did. She made me painfully aware of my own privilege, of how easy I had it. Some of the best advice in the book comes from women who had it the hardest and made it through because they had to. The main thing I learned from them: check your sense of “I can do everything,” and just ask for whatever you need — changes at work, someone to bring you a bagel while you pump, someone to tell you you’re a good mom. It was the single moms, the ones with kids with special needs, people who knew they simply couldn’t handle it alone, who were honest about their limitations and asked for help.

While this isn’t necessarily a Jewish book, you do mention guilt! Why do mothers feel so guilty and why do you think they shouldn’t?

Lauren Smith Brody is the former executive editor of Glamour magazine and author of 'The Fifth Trimester.' (Courtesy/Nancy Borowick)
Lauren Smith Brody is the former executive editor of Glamour magazine and author of ‘The Fifth Trimester.’ (Courtesy/Nancy Borowick)

Guilt is such a Jewish tendency. Maybe it’s because we come from a past of oppression. Our opportunities are precious gifts, and we feel we have to take advantage of them all.

We hold high expectations of ourselves. I felt a high-pressure need to fulfill my potential at work and as a mom. In every single interview I conducted, women used the term “guilt” but it meant different things to different people. Some felt “guilty” leaving a child at daycare; others felt “guilty” because they liked being at work.

It wasn’t really guilt — it was sadness, ambivalence, regret. “Guilt” is label we give to uncomfortable emotions, but in and of itself, it’s not a real feeling — we never talk about daddy guilt!

We need to live in a post-guilt world. Guilt implies you made a wrong choice. Going back to work is usually not a choice. We’re all just doing the best we can.

In your section on setting life priorities, you use the term “prioritization” but say that you never use “balance.” Why not?

I hate the term “work/life balance.” Work and life bleed into each other all the time — they shouldn’t have a slash between them. We order our groceries from the office, and we email our bosses at night while nursing. More importantly, you draw on skills from each for the other. We are not meant to be a fulcrum, holding everything perfectly in check. A good, satisfying life enables you to dip back and forth. No life is balanced every minute, or even every day or week. But yours might be if you give yourself the vantage point of a few months or even a year. Everything’s a season, a trimester. It’s a long game.

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