How To (Painlessly) Transition Back To Work After Baby
Author and founder of The Fifth Trimester, our columnist Lauren Smith Brody literally wrote the book on going back to work after baby. Here, she answers your toughest questions about returning to the office, from how to deal with mom-shaming to successfully setting new boundaries.
- Written By
- Lauren Smith Brody
- Maria-Ines Gul
Last week, I did the math on the cost, took a breath, and pressed send on an email to my lawyer to renew my trademark on the term “The Fifth Trimester.” It was one of those little mini-milestone moments that I try to pay attention to with pride. Six years ago, I left my career in women’s magazines and coined that phrase to define the return to work after maternity leave, a time that sets you up, long-term, to weather any major career and kid transition with brave satisfaction. I researched and wrote a book and launched a company to help businesses advance gender equity by supporting new moms.
Even though my own sons are now 9 and 12, I’ve used the advice of the hundreds of new moms I interviewed again and again as I left my old career and built my new business as an author, speaker, and consultant, and then as I pivoted to keep going in the pandemic. And now, here we *all* are in the most substantial transition we’ve ever seen as we reimagine working parenthood coming out of Covid. In a way, we are all in our fifth trimesters now, muddling through the mess, being visible about our parenthood, and negotiating around all of our personal life needs.
So, while this month’s questions come from new moms who are going back to work for the first time, I hope there are strategies and reframes in my answers that help us all create the lives we want. And, please, if you do know a brand new mom, offer offer offer support, especially now.
Q: How do you handle the working mom shaming? The subtle "I could never" comments from other moms…
For me, it’s a three-step process: First, I straight up judge anyone who does that because I think they must be pretty unhappy with themselves (or desperate to try to justify their own life choices) to be that rude. So, that’s how I handle it. I judge.
And then, second, I remind myself of the research of Harvard Business School professor Kathleen McGinn, PhD who showed that daughters of mothers who worked outside the home went on to achieve higher career goals, and that the sons of those mothers grew up to be dads who shared childcare more equally. And that they all grew up happy too.
And third, once I’ve taken a breath and had a glass of wine, I try to remember that the work that those “I could never” moms do—taking care of their children all day long—is entirely under valued by our culture. So, I try to value it. I pay attention to unpaid labor and I call it such. I don’t ever ask moms if they work or not (we all work!)...I ask if they work for pay or if they work for no pay. Or both. I try to model the fact that it all counts so that we moms can spend less time being divisive and more time working together to make long-overdue cultural, economic, and policy corrections to support all parents.
That’s what I do to help myself through those moments. I hope it helps you, too.
Q: Can you help me deal with the disappointment of having a maternity leave during the pandemic? That’s making getting back to my paid work harder.
Let me guess: People keep telling you to look on the bright side, right? That you’re home and snuggly with your baby and that that should be enough. To that I say: Ehhhhhh. This crap is hard, and you need the permission to feel sad, feel frustrated, and then realize that as a sad and frustrated person, you’re still putting one foot in front of the other and making it through the day as a new mom. And then feel proud.
Here’s what I want you to do. Make a list of the fantasies that you had about what maternity leave would be like—whether or not they would have been realistic, pandemic or no pandemic—and then find a way to reclaim those things (and then some) in the future. You deserve a sustainable start to working motherhood and I don’t want the resentment you feel to linger. So…
...if you envisioned having a little babymoon with your baby and partner but travel was impossible, plan a vacation for next winter somewhere even more wonderful.
...if you imagined a train of friends and family coming by with treats and presents but then nobody could, throw yourself a “My Baby Is One and I Never Got a Shower” shower. Believe me, your friends were disappointed to not be able to do that for you and will be delighted to jump in and help plan.
...if you thought (ha!) that you might spend time organizing closets or printing out pictures and instead the anxiety of this time zapped your initiative, it’s not too late. Plan a day or two off (once you’ve got safe childcare) and do those very things.
And most of all, if you feel robbed of blissful stare-into-her-eyes time with your baby, as I suspect you do, consider building a little bit of that time into your new workday. Yes, really. I know it’s a renegade idea, but work is being redefined right now like it never has been before. So take that opening and present a plan for reentry that allows you that flexibility—perhaps starting 30 minutes later so you can be there for her wake-up giggles, or taking a longer break mid-day to nurse if you’re working from home. I know not all jobs are flexible, obviously, but you have more leeway right now to define your new normal than ever before. So go ahead and ask for what you want. You just might get it.
Q: What if you returncome back to work after baby thinking you can do full-time and then a few weeks into it, you realize it’s not working? How do you navigate that conversation and work out a scenario where both you and your employer are happy?
There’s a reason phase-back programs are the very first thing employees mention to me when their companies offer them after parental leave: They work. And in the United States—where only 18% of moms have access to any paid maternity leave, and where our 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA has set up this very arbitrary (and unscientific) cultural norm that women are ready to come back to work at exactly three months postpartum—we need more of that on-ramping!
So, I wouldn’t necessarily assume that you need to go part time. You might just need a temporary adjustment period of reduced hours or slightly different duties. Your employer has invested in you and wants to keep you and might be more willing to experiment than you’d assume…but you have to tell them what you need and what would work.
And absolutely no judgement from me if you really do want to work part time, but do everything you can to protect your pay and your benefits (which are part of your compensation and can be lost too easily). If you’re working your full job, just on different hours or in a more compressed way, you should still be paid for it. Never give yourself a pay cut.
Q: How do you make your employer understand boundaries, especially if you worked lots of overtime and were always available pre-baby?
The simplest answer is that people only treat you as well as you treat yourself, so communicate your new boundaries visibly and then still get your job done to a) prove your work style is viable and b) change your work culture, especially for colleagues who don’t have as much agency as you do. In practical terms, if your boss emails you at 10pm and it’s not an emergency, do not respond until the next morning. (If you’re the kind of person, like me, who can’t go to sleep with something looming over you, go ahead and write the reply but save as draft until morning.)
But of course, that hard-stop mindset is tough to adopt if you’re used to being the kind of person who measures her success in late-night cups of coffee and group replies to your emails that mention your crazy timestamp. Sorry, but the old Taylor can’t come to the phone any more—she’s dead. That simply isn’t you anymore.
I challenge you (and myself, and all of us coming out of this pandemic) to write new measures of success that are inclusive of our motherhood. Compensation and hours are obvious and legitimate ways to measure how your job is going...but they might not be the most accurate representation of your total satisfaction as a working mom. So, what else should be on that list? Instead of being just “Taylor who works so hard,” could you be “Taylor who isn’t afraid to ask the risky question,” or “Taylor who offers big ideas inspired by her personal life,” or “Taylor who is a great work mentor to other employees with caregiving obligations.” Then, when you achieve one of these goals, count it toward your successes, so you see your value and project that.
Lauren Smith Brody is the author and founder of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity and Big Success After Baby. You can follow her on instagram @thefifthtrimester.