Despite the promise that women could just “lean in”—a term popularized by the Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg in her 2013 bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead —it seems that too few workplaces offer flexibility to those who decide to pursue their career while raising children.
Working mothers and fathers don’t face the same challenges. According to the US Bureau of Labor statistics, in 2020 95.6% of employed fathers worked full time, compared with 79.7% of mothers. Women have also been affected disproportionately by the pandemic. According to research by McKinsey, 23% of women with kids under 10 have considered leaving the workforce, compared to 13% of men. Mothers also bear more of the burden at home than fathers. A survey by Syndio, an HR analytics company that promotes equity in the marketplace, found that women with kids are also “less likely to return to the workforce post-Covid.”
Is it possible for women to excel at work while caring for a young child—and what can employers do to help? We asked Lauren Brody, a consultant, public speaker, and author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, & Big Success After Baby. She is also the founder of The Fifth Trimester, a movement that helps parents and businesses revolutionize workplace culture together.
What’s the origin story of The Fifth Trimester?
During my first pregnancy, I read a lot about what it means to be a mother, what to expect and what to prepare for. There was this amazing book called The Happiest Baby on the Block that describes the idea of the “fourth trimester.” Since human babies are born a trimester earlier than other mammals, to soothe the newborn you should recreate the feeling of the womb.
But I was wondering what my next semester back at the workplace would look like. At the time, I was working for Glamour magazine. I loved my job, I had a career, and after my 12 weeks of leave, I was back at work. But in my first days on the job as a new mom, I was a total beginner all over again.
That made me realize there was a transitional stage, the “fifth trimester,” when I was getting used to this feeling of not being competent in everything all the time. Years later, after I gave birth to my second son, I still played with this idea of the fifth trimester in my head. I realized I needed to look beyond my own experience, so I started surveying hundreds of other moms in the US about their experiences of going back to paid work.
“I loved my job, I had a career, and after my 12 weeks of leave, I was back at work. But in my first days on the job as a new mom, I was a total beginner all over again.”
What did all these women have in common?
The thing that everybody seemed to have in common, no matter what the demographics, is “mom guilt.” Every single person mentioned the word “guilt,” but it meant different things to different people. Some felt guilty for leaving their baby in the care of someone else; others felt guilty for going back to the office and loving being at work.
But nobody was doing anything wrong! Everybody was doing their best, trying to juggle a lot of things, having outsized expectations of themselves. We need to face it: in the US, there is very little social support for parents, particularly new parents, and unfortunately, we culturally normalize it.
“The thing that everybody seemed to have in common, no matter what the demographics, is “mom guilt.””
There is a high value placed on what we see as masculine characteristics at work. Part of what I try to do when I teach women to negotiate for their needs and protect their earnings is to reframe a lot of what we think of as “professional” or “strong.”
When I came back to work after giving birth for the first time, I was very open about my experience. I’d say that I didn’t sleep well or would joke about the breast pump on my desk. I found it helpful, and many people told me it was comforting to hear me sharing, to see that being a working mom is hard but possible.
It is isolating to be a mother for the first time. You just don’t know what is common and what’s not, because people don’t really talk about the hard stuff. I was reassured when I heard people telling stories that in many ways were so similar to mine, and realized we ought to normalize talking about the good and bad sides of parenthood.
“Part of what I try to do when I teach women to negotiate for their needs and protect their earnings is to reframe a lot of what we think of as “professional” or “strong.””
You mentioned the lack of social support for parents in the US. How does that impact working moms?
In the US, if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford 12 unpaid weeks of parental leave, you think, “Good for me.” So a woman who goes back to the office thinks she should feel lucky to have 12 weeks of leave. If she doesn’t, she thinks something is wrong with her, though the research shows that six to nine months of paid leave is the minimum necessary to protect the mental and physical health of mother and baby.
And yet in the US, the Family and Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993 under President Clinton, sets the norm for 12 weeks. I think there is a need for paid parental leave and, more broadly, the need to be able to retain your paycheck while caring for a loved one. That should be a basic human right, and the minute it passes into law in the US, our cultural norms will start to change for the better.
There is also the issue of childcare, which is often the very first decision to be made if you are returning to work. Is a child better off being cared for by their parent, in a daycare center or at home? Offering advice in my book, as I didn’t want to tell people what was right or wrong. The existing body of research points out that the biggest predictor of your child’s happiness is not about having a nanny or staying home with the baby. It is about parents feeling comfortable with their decision about childcare. However, the reality is that many people cannot afford childcare they’d be comfortable with.
In the US, the childcare industry is messed up, especially right now, in post-pandemic times. If industries fully recover, employees who have caregiving needs will be left behind. And those are often working moms.
“I think there is a need for paid parental leave and, more broadly, the need to be able to retain your paycheck while caring for a loved one. That should be a basic human right.”
What can companies do to close the care gap?
Companies can welcome women speaking up: they can train leaders to encourage the employees who need support to ask for it. This will breed loyalty, and companies will be able to retain staff, which is also a good financial decision because attrition is expensive.
Employers can also offer paid family and medical leave—they can do better than what’s required by the government to attract the best and the brightest. They could offer leave not just for parents but all employees who might need to care for somebody, which takes the stigma out of parenthood. You may have somebody with no kids who has a sibling in need of their care—it is incredibly important to them to provide that care until they can return to work.
Employers should also pay attention to who gets to work from home. If your employee has a baby and is breastfeeding, the right thing to do is to accommodate them so they can work from home. The problem, of course, is if you are trying to care for children at the same time. It is not sustainable to have kids who need care, with no caregiver around, and also do your full-time job. Employers could support childcare needs by providing backup care and a stipend for caregiving. Any employer investing in childcare is investing in their future capability to retain the mom workforce.
“Any employer investing in childcare is investing in their future capability to retain the mom workforce.”
Why should companies also encourage fathers to take paternal leave?
In heterosexual couples, when the dad takes paternity leave, that benefits the mother tremendously, but the dad too. The value of paternity leave is in the fact that the mom can work while dad’s at home caring for the baby, but also in the fact that gender expectations are being reset. The father learns how to do the things that mom learned already on her maternity leave. So when both parents are working full time, they will both know how to care for the baby after coming home at the end of the day. That burden will not fall disproportionately on one parent’s shoulders.
“The value of paternity leave is in the fact that the mom can work while dad’s at home caring for the baby, but also in the fact that gender expectations are being reset.”
We know that women are essential to the economy, and we have never seen that to be more true than it is right now, with the “Great Resignation”. In the US there are 3 million fewer women in the workforceIn the US there are 3 million fewer women in the workforce than there were at the beginning of the pandemic, and that is largely because of their caregiving obligations. We as a society have been conditioned to believe it’s women’s work, and we treat it as such. There is not enough value put on frontline labor, especially the labor of caregiving, whether that is for children or elders. And even the most progressive heterosexual couples will decide that the dad should go back to work if he is better paid. than there were at the beginning of the pandemic, and that is largely because of their caregiving obligations.
“There is not enough value put on frontline labor, especially the labor of caregiving, whether that is for children or elders.”
While waiting for a more systemic change, what can working moms do to have a better fifth trimester?
The best thing you can do is to ask for what you need, to make your needs visible. I assume this might be an American tendency, but many people in the US think that if they ask to pick up their kids from school or to be home after daycare, it is their personal life, their problem. If you think like that, you will enter any negotiations from a position of weakness, because you feel your employer is doing you a favor. The most basic thing I teach women is to realize that you can’t solve problems you cannot see. It’s imperative for employees who have personal difficulties to make those visible.
“The most basic thing I teach women is to realize that you can’t solve problems you cannot see. It’s imperative for employees who have personal difficulties to make those visible.”
A happy employee will probably do better in the workplace. If you’re a working mom stressed out about childcare or worried about whether you can pick up your child from school on time, you will become resentful, and you will not be doing your best work. Ultimately this leads to bad economic outcomes.
I also like to remind women that they have a responsibility to speak up for their colleagues who might not have the same leverage, as well as a responsibility towards their organization to shine a light on problems that need fixing. It will ultimately make the organization stronger.
How to make the most of your fifth trimester
Share the good and the bad about motherhood at work
Each and every new mom has to learn certain things the hard way. But we can mentor each other, and we should openly share the good and bad sides of working as new moms.
Don’t waste your energy feeling guilty
As a new mom, you might not be on top of things all the time: just accept that’s a perfectly normal thing. In the US, working parents, and especially moms, lack social support.
Speak up at work (for yourself and for other moms)
You are not selfish if you want to negotiate leaving work earlier to pick up your child from daycare. Workplace flexibility results in better productivity.
Prioritize the childcare you feel most comfortable with
Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about the type of childcare you choose. Staying at home longer with your child isn’t necessarily more beneficial for them than a daycare center.
Be part of a cultural change
If you are in a heterosexual union, encourage your male partner to take paternity leave. It will be beneficial for your work and increase equality at home.
Photo: Marc Regas for Welcome to the Jungle
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