What exactly is the Fifth Trimester?
The Fifth Trimester is when the working mom is born. If the first three trimesters are pregnancy and the fourth is the newborn phase, the fifth is when mom heads back to work…often before she’s physically or emotionally ready to be there. And yet there she is, because that’s the reality for American women right now. (25% of new working moms are back on the job two weeks after birth. And only 56% of working moms even qualify for unpaid FMLA leave. The percentage who can afford to take all of that time off unpaid is even lower.) My goal is to support her so that that transition—while difficult—can serve a bigger purpose, setting her up for lifelong career and family satisfaction, and helping her workplace advance its culture for all working parents.
The Fifth Trimester is a book and a movement for new moms. It’s also a company I’ve founded (speaking and consulting) for businesses that want data-driven strategies to improve retention of women in the workplace.
Why was it important for you to write about this time in a woman’s life?
Ha! Oh my goodness, it took me 352 pages of my book (The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby) to answer this question properly, and there’s still so much to be said. I’ll try to keep it simple. I interviewed and surveyed about 800 working moms (from hourly workers to CEOs…adoptive moms, single moms, partnered moms), and there were two major themes: 1) This return-to-work stuff is emotionally and logistically grueling, and 2) Once you’re through it you realize just how powerful your motherhood can make you in the workplace. There’s a desire to nurture that is born in many, many women when they have their babies, and this doesn’t stop in the nursery. They bring it to work and become amazing mentors who are driven, creative, dexterous, efficient….all of this good stuff that makes them *better* than ever at their jobs and fantastic mentors for this Fifth Trimester movement. How wonderful would it be if they knew that was coming and if they came back to work broadcasting those strengths? That’s why it’s so important to get this message out there: The Fifth Trimester is simply a developmental phase of growth, this one for mom. And supporting her through it pays off in spades.
We love that you say, “Every new mother can come back to work more capable than before…and more able to make change.” What are some ways women can be set up for success when they return to work?
It’s great optics right now for companies to announce better and better paid leave policies. That’s huge, and it WILL make a difference toward improving our societal norms. But even the most forward-thinking, most well-intended companies will still see enormous attrition of new parents if they do not also support them in their return to work. I love love love the new policy that Amazon has in which it allows just-back parents to work part time for up to eight weeks. So: If you can negotiate a phase-in program, definitely do. They’re also dealing with gender equity by allowing Amazon parents to give some of their paid leave to a spouse who works for a less generous company. That’s wild and amazing.
But there are lots of things you can do for yourself at home too (again with those 352 pages of stuff, but I’ll throw out a few ideas here): Set up as many systems as you can so you do have to make decisions about things like tech and home supply shopping over and over. Set up recurring deliveries of things like paper towels. Get your bills synched up to be paid directly from your checking account. Get a phone plan that works for your whole family. October 16 is National Boss’s Day, we’ll…realize that you are a Boss Mom and be a good boss to yourself. Total Wireless has a whole #BossMom campaign because they get the juggle and now offer a very simple shared family plan. Four lines, $25 per line. Decision done. Part of the way I’m growing my Fifth Trimester business is by partnering with brands that support new moms. Total Wireless is one of those brands so I’m happy to spread the word.
By leaning into work, we show our children how to focus and lead…and we appreciate our time with them more, too
What do you think workplaces need to do to ensure a successful return?
The gold standard would be six months of paid leave for mom and dad, plus 6-8 weeks of phase-in benefits like flex time, part time schedules, etc. Plus ongoing flexibility, on-site childcare, great health insurance, etc. That’s what’s been proven to improve mom’s mental health, baby’s physical health, and the company’s economic health! But there are lots of little cultural shifts that can make a big difference too. No end-of-day meetings that can drag into the commute hour. Excellent facilities for pumping breast milk (which, by the way, are not expensive to provide)….and that includes easy accessibility as well as the tech to allow moms to work while they pump if they want to.
Is there a right time to go back to work?
The women I surveyed reported feeling physically and emotionally back to normal-ish by about the six-month mark, which is what the scientific studies say too. But that’s just an average. I really was compelled by some of the women I interviewed who told me that they wanted to go back to work immediately, and by others who took years away. Ultimately, the real definition of feminism, I believe, is having the right to make whatever choices are best for your family’s circumstances. That’s being a real Boss Mom. No judgement.
You spoke with so many women during the development of this book, what themes really stood out to you about motherhood and work?
Just how much we all have in common…and how much we can stand to learn from each other to push our culture forward. The more interviews I did, the more I began to understand my own biases and my own privilege, frankly. I had postpartum anxiety after my first son, and thought that it was the end of the world that I was sitting on my couch crying all day not enjoying my maternity leave as I’d imagined. It was shattering, to be clear, and I should have reached out for more support. But, talking to a mom who was a waitress whose husband lost his job right after they had their baby really helped put things in perspective for me. At two weeks out, she was pumping in the restaurant bathroom and losing out on tips…so her colleagues rallied to cover for her. I learned a lot from her about fostering a sense of humanity among your work team. As I’ve gotten feedback from readers, I’m hearing a lot of moms quote other moms whose circumstances are wildly different from their own. We are all in this together. You can be part of the workplace revolution by moving up and changing policies, or just by being open and honest about the challenges and triumphs of working motherhood. It all helps.
How have you found your balance between work and motherhood?
Is it a cop out if I say I don’t believe in balance? I don’t. I think we have incredibly outsized expectations of ourselves both in our families and in our careers, and that bites us in the collective butt. I think of it this way: If life is a seesaw and work is on one side and family is on the other, would you really want to be that fulcrum in the middle holding it all in check? No way! You’d want to lean way over one direction one moment and then way over the other the next. That’s where you find the joy. I get that that’s a little philosophical, so more practically speaking, I try to assess how I’m doing with prioritizing every few months or so instead of weekly or daily. Because of course you will have a whole week, or even a month, that is overwhelmingly focused on one part of your life. And that’s okay. By leaning into family, we bring more of what inspires us to work. By leaning into work, we show our children how to focus and lead…and we appreciate our time with them more, too.
Photo credit: headshot, pic with teddy, and picnic in the park: Nancy Borowick, Still life with flowers: Billy Farrell Agency (BFA)
It’s not your fault that this is all so hard. The United States is the only developed country in the world where you have to ad hoc negotiate this stuff. (I got that from my brilliant psychiatrist friend Dr. Christin Drake.) So many other countries have paid leave, better gender equality, better postpartum care.
You are the boss of your closet. It’s not the boss of you. Even the least superficial woman among us can get defeated in the morning getting dressed going back to work after baby. Just make yourself a mini closet within your closet of what fits and is appropriate and choose from these happy clothes for the moment. Feeling like you look good really does help. I even found studies that proved it!
I haven’t said a word about husbands and partners in this interview and they are usually a huge part of my message, so let me say this: If you want an equal partner in parenting, you must let your partner learn these things alongside you. Trust that he/she loves this baby as much as you do and wants to keep this baby safe. They might not do everything exactly the way you would, but let them in on the responsibility and the satisfaction of nurturing a child. Big PS that sometimes I really need to take my own advice. But hey, I’m in my 30th trimester and am still learning!