Why working moms have a fifth trimester

Any woman who thinks she can bring a child into the world in just nine months may be surprised to learn that there are five trimesters on the path to motherhood.

The fourth trimester is the first three months of a baby’s life when the mother tries to create a womb-like environment in the real world.

And now, thanks to Atlanta-bred Lauren Smith Brody, there is a fifth trimester — the three-month period when maternity leave ends and working mothers head back to work, ready or not.

Related: That fantastic parental-leave policy sweeping America? It isn't

Society puts a lot of pressure on women to bounce-back, lean-in and break the glass ceiling but often in the months or perhaps even years after having children, women are emotionally and sometimes physically still in recovery.

"The expectations that women have for themselves at work and at home are insurmountable and we need to give ourselves the opportunity to do good enough," said Brody.

With her book, “The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, & Big Success After Baby,” (Doubleday, $26), Brody hopes to ignite a national movement that changes the way we view working moms.

"A new parent in the U.S. is not really supported, not just by our government but by our culture," Brody said. "It made sense that this already was a movement and it just needed a name and so I gave it that. My hope is that women, after having gone though this transition, will turn around with their hands outreached and help someone behind them," she said.

Related: Major metro Atlanta city votes to offer paid maternity leave

She also believes it is a great opportunity for moms to lead the way in bringing a more widespread understanding of how all employees, parents or not, can better navigate their personal and professional lives.

In researching the book, Brody, a 39-year-old mother of two, decided not to rely solely on her personal experience or even that of child experts. She shared a 50 question survey with working moms of all ages, ethnicities, family structures and income levels asking them about the three-month period when they returned to work post-baby. She got more than 700 responses and at least one thread was consistent -- guilt.

Whether they were excited to return to work or found themselves back at their desks wanting to lean-out instead of leaning-in, mothers felt guilty for their desires.

"I found that there was a whole other kind of diversity. Diversity in ambition. There were women who felt super ambitious and got back to their desks and where like 'Thank goodness!' Then there were women who were ambitious and were startled by the shift they felt in their drive upon coming back to work. They were all valid," Brody said.

What they universally noted was that the whole process of readjusting to work life was much harder than it should be, Brody said.

There are the obvious situations to navigate when returning to work  — finding daycare, plotting a plan to pump milk, shifting your wardrobe and beauty regimen from stay-at-home-mom to work warrior — all of which Brody covers in her book, but she also helps with the not so obvious scenarios.

How do you manage colleagues who throw shade?  How should you respond to weekend emails? How can you recover from emotional outbursts at work?

For many women, the emotional upheaval of returning to work is huge. The women featured in Brody’s book offer advice for coping emotionally that runs the gamut from learning how to not blame yourself for mistakes to not make any major career decisions in your first few months back to work. She also includes tips on how to initiate tough conversations at work and what to say if you decide to ask for a raise or request a flexible work schedule.

While women of Generation X have laid the foundation, the millennial generation will likely usher in many of these changes as they increasingly form the larger percentage of working mothers. The number one workplace issue millennial women say they want to tackle as leaders is work/life balance, said Brody.

Having worked in magazine publishing for 13 years and with her children now age 5 and 8, Brody is in the midst of transition herself. She spent two years writing the book and now is entering the next phase of speaking engagements and workplace consulting to help companies turn policies for working women into substantial action.

America is still a young country when it comes to cracking the code on working families, said Brody. The country ranks last in almost every important measure related to family policy. "There are 182 other countries that lap us completely. I think (America) is still in startup mode. We are building. It is a painful thing to stop that momentum, but the ultimate result would be good for everyone," she said.

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone
Nedra Rhone
Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.