An alumna chronicles the challenges faced by new mothers in the workplace.
When Lauren Smith Brody C’99 returned to work following the birth of her first son, Will, in 2008, things looked pretty rosy from the outside. She had a prominent position at Glamour magazine, empathetic coworkers, a supportive husband at home—Ben Brody C’99, whom she met in a fiction-writing class at Penn—and a carefully selected nanny waiting in the wings.
In spite of all that, “it was scary and unmooring,” Brody says of her return to the office. “I kind of had an ideal situation, but it was still just ridiculously hard for me. The exact scientific word for what I was is a mess.”
She decided during her own difficult “fifth trimester”—the term she’s coined for when moms return to work post-baby—that someday she’d write a book to help women facing the same transition. But years before her book proposal and her deal with Doubleday and her freshly minted consulting business, she became a working-mom resource for others in her office.
Whether they were newly pregnant or just beginning to think about starting a family, coworkers often told Brody that watching her go through the process, bumps and all, helped them see it was possible. Many of them asked her for advice.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking in the last couple months about what inspired this book,” she says, “and I think that was the biggest part of it.”
Now she’s turned her own experiences, plus tales and insights from the surveys and interviews she did with hundreds of moms, dads, and assorted experts, into The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity and Big Success After Baby (Doubleday, 2017). Brody spoke with Gazette contributor Molly Petrilla C’06 about how women can navigate this tricky time and what employers, managers, and coworkers can do to help. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Were there common themes in your interviews with working moms between 2015 and 2016?
Although the circumstances were different, emotionally there were two main themes: One, it was really hard and people felt like they were having to go back to work before they were ready. Two, once they were on the other side of it, they had this irrepressible urge to help other women through it. Nobody said, “Oh yeah, I expected it to be every bit as hard as it was, and actually it was easier.”
What are some things every woman should know about having a smoother return to work post-baby?
Transitions are really hard, so if you can take control of your transition in little ways, it can actually make a huge difference. For example, there’s advice in [the book] about how to organize your closet so that you have a smoother and faster-running morning.
Another big tip is to use your commute the best way you can. In my survey, women said that on average, they found their commutes to be 50 percent more stressful after having a baby. That’s one I really related to. It’s one thing to get home seven minutes late when there’s not a baby waiting for you. But when you have a baby who is being held off from consuming the last bottle of milk you pumped yesterday until you and your breasts walk in the door, it’s really stressful. See if you can find a way to use your commute to finish up work for the day, or really try to decompress and use it for self-care—anything from listening to an audiobook or a podcast to calling a friend.
As someone who is coming back from leave, you also need to remember that every one of your colleagues has a personal life and has something in that personal life that is as important to him or her as your baby is to you. Maybe they’re training for a marathon, and training during daylight hours is going to make all the difference to their safety and their happiness. Maybe you can cover for them somehow. There needs to be a tradeoff, and people need to appreciate that everyone’s personal life is important and helps fuel the good work and passion and inspiration that they have for their job.
How can offices do a better job supporting new moms who have just come back from leave?
First of all, I think all the on-paper policies should be equivalent across the gender lines. So you need to have parental leave, not maternity leave versus paternity leave. The same goes for the circumstances of how you came to be a parent. Are you an adoptive parent? Did you use a surrogate? Whatever the case, everyone should be able to have the same benefits.
However, I discovered that even companies that have beautifully appointed lactation suites and amazing benefits on paper still find that their employees don’t feel like they can actually use them, either because the logistics are too hard or just because of the workplace culture. It’s about shifting culture to allow people to take the benefits that are there, which is very top-down. It’s really hard for you to take something if your boss hasn’t also taken it. And maybe your boss isn’t in the baby-making years. Fine. Then your boss should take a vacation and be very vocal about the fact that he or she is taking a vacation.
It’s also about being sensitive to the needs of parents and their new schedules in the most basic ways: not scheduling a 4:30 meeting if you’re a boss who typically runs late, and also not scheduling a meeting for 7:30 in the morning.
What about women who are self-employed or work from home?
These women universally described feeling always “on,” and it was very hard for them to take maternity leave or vacation. It’s about really trying to be as good of a boss to yourself as you would ask a boss to be to you in a more corporate setting. That means actually granting yourself vacations and knowing that there might be a couple of hours every evening when you are unreachable to yourself, where you have to put the phone down. Think about the benefits you would want from a more traditional setting, and try to grant as many of them to yourself as you can.
Based on your research and interviewing, if you had to rank the current landscape for new moms in the workplace at the national level, where would you put it on a scale of one to 10?
I think in terms of PR it’s up at a six and in terms of reality it’s more like a two.
The fantastic places to work, like the Googles and Facebooks and Etsys and Netflixes of the world, get the big headlines, and they want to shout these amazing benefits from the rooftops. They should, and I think that will ultimately impact the greater culture. However, the reality is that 25 percent of American women are going back to work less than two weeks after having a baby.
What changes can we make immediately?
I think it’s up to private corporations to do better and better for their employees if they can, but I also think it’s on us as parents to be open and transparent about the challenges of working motherhood, and to cling to that feeling so when it’s your turn to help someone else, you do it.
So the waitress who is eight months pregnant and can’t take as many tables and hold as many trays as she used to has colleagues who get it, who step up in that small mom-and-pop-owned business and say, “We’ll pool our tips. This is how we’re going to do this to make it equitable and fair.”
The industries that are healthiest are most able to offer benefits, and that’s a wonderful thing. But I think it’s really important that as individuals in the workplace we try to make things a little bit better [for new moms]. However comfortable you are pushing the norm, try to go one degree beyond that. If we all did that simultaneously, it would make a difference.