Lauren Smith Brody’s book “The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby” is a spot-on, easy, deeply felt and fun-to-read guide to what it promises.
The “fifth trimester” is the period when American moms often return to the workplace.
Though I’m more targeted by and did like Leslie Stahl’s newish book “Becoming Grandma,” I felt enriched by Brody’s sensitivity, wit and ability to connect.
Writing in vernacular for younger readers (words such as “effing” and “s—”), Brody uses her magazine background to produce a punchy, no-nonsense, well-organized guidepost.
Well organized to the point of beginning with a two-page pre-table of contents for skimming the book’s easy-to-find tips: “Page 78 — How to look like you slept when you didn’t. … Page 115 — How to recover from an outburst at work.”
And who among us couldn’t use a 60-second how-to on applying makeup? Is the curler more important than the mascara if you must choose?
Brody, a married mother of two boys, was most recently the executive editor of Glamour magazine. She is the founder of the Fifth Trimester movement, which helps businesses and new parents work together to create a more family-friendly work culture. But you might just see her as your new best friend.
Lean in to our interview.
Jaffe: You spent some of your definitive years in Atlanta and attended the Westminster Schools. … How would you describe the vibe here?
Brody: Atlanta is so warm and modern with its approach to working motherhood. Many of my former high school classmates encourage my work. Their approach to working motherhood is collaborative and supportive. The mommy wars that I remember from growing up in the ’80s and ’90s are over. I also interviewed many Atlanta-area working moms among the hundreds I talked to for my book, and I was just dazzled by the innovation going on — not just in the city’s most booming industries, but on a smaller, more personal scale day to day at work. Kindness and hospitality go a long way in the South, and that is strikingly apparent in the workplace. I think Atlanta can be a real leader for workplace culture.
Jaffe: One of your guideposts for navigating the fifth trimester is “Eat a Frog for Breakfast.” How can we all use this in our everyday lives?
Brody: That came from one of my Atlanta interviewees! It was one of 100 genius things Jennifer Easterly Dorian said in our interview. She is the general manager at Turner Classic Movies, has two daughters and is the kind of boss every expectant mom wishes for. The frog idea is adapted from a Mark Twain expression. Essentially, do the hardest thing on your list first. If you have to eat a frog, eat that disgusting frog for breakfast. That applies day to day when you’re first coming back to work in your fifth trimester, and, on a bigger scale, it’s true of the whole transition: Just get this hard part over with so you can reap the benefits for your career/family satisfaction for a lifetime.
Jaffe: Elaborate on your concept that new mothers can work out a “pu pu platter” for balance.
Brody: My dad and I jogged on the morning of my wedding in Atlanta. I asked him to tell me the secret to a great marriage, since he and my mom have such a strong partnership. I wanted his advice, but I also just wanted the excuse to listen while I puffed up the hills. The advice he offered then has made more sense to me as my life has become fuller. Take care of yourself first, then your partner, then your kids, then job, friends and community. There will never be one perfect moment when everything feels in balance, but if you can figure out a natural check-in point from which you can assess that list — maybe it’s once a season or twice a year — then you can know that you’re doing fine.
Jaffe: Expound on your advice for learning to prioritize in the form of VIMTs.
Brody: VIMTs are what I call “very important missed things” that happened while you were out on maternity leave. Coming back to work, it’s tempting to be curious about every little detail that passed by (and got handled by someone who’s not you). You’re better off just looking forward and only worrying about the VIMTs, things like a major change in policy or a new hire in your department or a new competitor in your industry. You need to think big picture enough about your standing in your career to ignore the rest. Rehashing the small stuff is a waste of time.
Jaffe: One of the most dramatic revelations in your book is in pulling the scab off post-partum depression.
Brody: The most urgent takeaway for me was that women reported, on average, feeling emotionally recovered from childbirth around the six-month mark. These were schoolteachers, CEOs, factory workers, lawyers and doctors. They all had this incredible hurdle in common. They were expected to be back at work months before they were emotionally ready to be. That desperation drove me as I dug into my research and made peace with my own struggle after the birth of my first son. I learned that post-partum mood disorders affect one in seven mothers. That stat jumps to one in four as soon as you account for more challenging circumstances, like single motherhood or the loss of a job. The maternal mental health experts offered a lot of concrete advice about how to scaffold yourself against a meltdown on the job or in your marriage. Knowing how common these feelings are is protective against depression.
Jaffe: As a new mother, I was jealous and tried to control the nanny by assigning toys, books, etc.
Brody: Finding good, affordable child care is at the top of every working mother’s list of concerns. You just know that unless that falls into place, nothing else works logistically or emotionally. It turns out that what’s normal in NYC is very different than what’s normal in Atlanta. I looked at the scientific research about at-home care vs. day care — literally a compendium of 1,000 studies over more than a decade. The upshot was startling: The biggest predictor of your child’s developmental success and happiness in someone else’s care … is your comfort with that care. So that was my starting point: How do we make the child care decisions that make us feel most at peace? If having that degree of control over your nanny’s interactions with your baby is helpful to your emotional well-being, then own that and be upfront with your caregiver about why you need that level of involvement. Most women I talked to were better off identifying the couple of baby care tasks that brought them the most satisfaction and letting go of the rest. Time and again I heard, “I realized that the more people who loved my baby, the better.”
Jaffe: You mention early on that new mothers often push back advice from their own mothers. Broadway show creator of “Hamilton” Lin-Manuel Miranda said that the soothing mantra from his mother is “This too shall pass.” Grammy winner Pharrell Williams said his mom’s is “If you can’t do it for yourself, you can’t depend on others to do it.” What do you hope your children will say about your best consistent slogan/advice?
Brody: I am positive they will call me out on my constant plea for women to “ask for what you need.” I hate asking for help. One of the joys of being on book tour is being able to relate to brand-new moms by admitting that I’m in my 28th trimester and I’m still learning. So many of the tips about getting through the awkwardness of a big transition ring true to me right this minute as I launch this business and this whole second career for myself. I hope my boys respect how vulnerable I let myself be for a bigger cause.
Jaffe: If you could wake up tomorrow and find that you had written yet another book, on what topic would it be?
Brody: “The Manager’s Guide to the Fifth Trimester.” I’ve started going into law firms, tech companies, and other businesses to help them sort through the tangle of issues that mothers have revealed to me. Often, companies will have the best intentions, but parents don’t feel like they can use the generous benefits they’re offered. Fixing that gap ultimately affects retention, recruitment and reputation — all things that dramatically impact the bottom line.
On “Meet the Press” on Mother’s Day, May 14, moderator Chuck Todd exposed census data predicting that for the first time the new generation of working women might alter the politics of America. Todd said, “This recent last decade’s rise in millennial moms could change our whole political dynamic with a slate based on the ‘child care mom’ voting bloc vs. the 10-year-old, fading ‘security moms’ values.”
Brody hits the nail on the head, and businesses would be wise to use her consultancy services to get on board. She makes the case that better maternity leave and work flexibly increase productivity for the business.