Podcast: The “fifth” trimester – those first weeks back at work

You know about the first three trimesters — how some people demarcate the 9 months babies spend in the womb. Some people refer to the “fourth trimester,” which would be the first 12 weeks when newborns are still adjusting to life on the outside. They become a lot more alert after that…but of course that’s when many women in the U.S. return to work.

Enter the “fifth trimester” — the first few months back on the job post-maternity leave. In today’s episode of Best of Both Worlds, Sarah and I interview Lauren Smith Brody, former executive editor of Glamour magazine, and author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby.

For many women, the “sanity” part is key. Especially after maternity leave #1, going back to work can be a rough transition. You might be adjusting to a hard-stop on your day (e.g. daycare pick-up or when a nanny needs to go home). If you work in the kind of place where people casually say “hey, let’s take another 30 minutes to work through this,” that can be a problem. If you’re pumping, that includes a whole different set of challenges. When can you fit it in? (“Where” has gotten slightly better in some workplaces, but still, there’s that too.) You may not be sleeping well yet. Your clothes might not fit! Kids can get sick, which will then introduce you to the fun of back-up care or quickly readjusting a schedule.

Lauren shared a lot of great tips for dealing with that — and I think we spent at least 10 minutes talking about pumping — but I’d like to throw out there that the “big success” part of her subtitle can happen as well. Many women have not ever taken a couple of months away from the day-to-day demands of a workplace before. Yes, there’s a newborn around, and newborns have many demands, but sometimes there can be mental space for thinking about other things too. Manoush Zomorodi’s book Bored and Brilliant discusses how she got new ideas for where she wanted her career to go during the long, phone-less walks she took with her newborn who would only sleep while in motion. I wrote the ebook What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast in the weeks after my daughter was born. I had consciously taken fewer immediate assignments because I was expecting the baby, and the lack of deadline pressure helped me find the space to try something new. If someone else has been handling some of the day-to-day responsibilities of your job while you’ve been gone, your return to work can give you the opportunity to continue delegating some of those while you choose which aspects of your job you’d most like to continue, and which you’d like to add on.

Lauren also pointed out that many wise new moms make new mom friends while on leave. These women might have little in common with you outside your new mom status, but they likely work in all sorts of different industries, and know people, and are members of various other community organizations you’ve not been part of. It’s an opportunity to massively expand your network.

If you’ve taken a maternity leave (or two, or six) and returned back to work, I’d love to hear your tips. What advice would you give a new mom who’s going through the “fifth trimester” for the first time? What helped you keep your sanity? And if you found any “big success” in the process, I would love to hear about that too!

23 thoughts on “Podcast: The “fifth” trimester – those first weeks back at work

  1. I think one of the trickiest things abut maternity leave advice is how different maternity leave is for each person. I was still a postdoc when I had my kids so my maternity leave was 6 weeks and unpaid. And my first child was terribly colicky. He cried all of the time. It was a major shock for someone who had been told how much newborns sleep (mine didn’t). I thought I would have time for work related reading and maybe a little bit of writing but that never happened. I did have a manuscript edits I had to complete in a 48 hour period when I was in my second week of maternity leave. It was torture. My baby was screaming and I was trying to check the edits for a scientific manuscript. I don’t want to depress people but I feel that so much of what you might (or might not) get done on maternity leave is out of your control.

      1. @Sarah K (and beth) – true that everyone’s experience is different, and it is hard to know what kind of kid you will get. But that is one reason I want to throw out there that your experience may not be like what other people tell you – in any form. I don’t know if I happened to know a lot of dramatic people or what. But I know that when I was pregnant with my first, people had told me things like “Oh, everything will change once you see that baby!” and “you’ll never want to leave him.” Um, no. I was the same person afterwards, with the exact same interests, none of which I desired to stop doing. So I went back to choir rehearsal the next week, turned in some articles I was working on, hired a sitter to come for some time so I could run, went out to dinner with my husband some time within the first 3 weeks, etc.

        1. I agree that it is good to get multiple stories out there. I guess I just put mine forward in case someone reading this ends up being the person that gets nothing done on maternity leave despite all of their best intentions. A bad maternity leave doesn’t doom you for life (and it doesn’t doom your career). It’s nice if you can make use of the time but you don’t have to feel like a professional failure if you can’t.

          Here’s to understanding that there is no one “right” way and no one universal experience.

          1. @beth – it definitely does not doom you for life! or doom your career. Actually, if you think about it, probably nothing most of us do in the next 12 weeks will profoundly affect our lives in any case – babies or not.

          2. I appreciate you sharing your story! I am an adoptive mom and didn’t have a traditional maternity leave– I took zero full weeks off work! Luckily my husband had six weeks (paid!) paternity leave– it’s the only way it made the whole thing possible.

            Those first few weeks were so wild with still working and being up all night (I was a little paranoid about the baby bonding with me so I did the vast majority of the wake-ups)!

          3. Omg Beth yes. Thank you. I also had a colicky baby with horrible reflux and it was such a shock. My daughter cried hours and hours of every day and my husband worked A LOT ( though he helped as much as he could). I really could not do much besides try to survive. I was incredibly lucky to have already have worked out some additional leave because my daughter was still crying hours a day at 12 weeks- I would have quit my job before going back to work and putting her in daycare like that if I had to make that decision at that point in time. I was so shaken by those first few months. I don’t try to scare people but I wish I had been remotely prepared for the possibility that my experience could be like that. I am expecting a second child and am trying hard to set myself up for survival again and hoping that helps.

    1. I just want to say – wow, that sounds astoundingly difficult. “Kudos” doesn’t feel quite right to say, but I want to congratulate you for getting through that. And, thank you for being willing to share how hard it was. I totally agree with you that much of what I was told about having a newborn wasn’t true, especially when one works in research.

      1. Beth, I can relate to your story so much. I also has a colicky baby and a dissertation to work on. I had a husband who was working 14 hours a day, unsupportive parents (I don’t understand why this is so hard for you. Wtf?) and no help. I couldn’t “just” hire a babysitter because it was just too much. I had to manage my husband who had a meltdown every time the baby would be up at night because she would be up for at least an hour each time. Most people do not have this experience, I think. People are in general quite bad at imagining what it feels like to go through what other people are going through, and very quick to be self congratulatory about how relatively easy things were for them. Six years later I’ve yet to find one other person who had a similar situation.

    2. I had a pretty easy baby the first go-round, but my second child had colic for 10 weeks. My husband and I still marvel at the different experiences our two newborns gave us.

  2. I had twins a year ago (early Nov. 2016) and took 12 weeks of until the first week of Feb. 2017 when I went back to work full time. First tip: talk with HR early on to figure out your leave policies. Mine included part PTO and part short term disability. Get everything in writing in a way that makes sense to you. This was important in may case as I was so sleep deprived those first 3 months dealing with 2 babies, that I needed to be able to refer to notes. Also the person I talked with before I went on leave, left the company while I was out on leave, so I’m again very glad I had everything in writing. A success/challenge I also had was that I had been negotiating for a raise/higher title in the 6 months before I left. It was successful, however, my company had a rule that all staff promotions happen the 3rd week of Nov (2 weeks after I went on leave). So then while on leave I had to figure out how that new salary would then affect my PTO/benefits while I was on leave. Again, I was so glad I had everything in writing ahead of time because they did mess it up and I had to get them to fix it once I returned in Feb. Last tip: listen to suggestions (I joined a Twin Moms group that was fantastically supportive), but just do what works for you and your situation. Only you know your family and your job, so do what works best for you and tune out the unhelpful voices.

    1. @Twin working mom- great tips! Especially if there is anything out-of-the-ordinary negotiated, getting stuff in writing is key. Because yes, people move on. And having something in writing will seem more official to the new person than any sort of “but he said…”

      Possibly documenting plans for promotions, raises, etc. is wise too. Because unfortunately some people do view mothers as less committed.

  3. Loved the episode, as always! But great to hear Beth’s perspective above as well. I had an easy baby first go around, but reading her comment just reminded me that I still felt really out of it especially the first 4 – 6 weeks, maybe just my body’s reaction to the changing hormones? I was recovered enough by the 10 week mark to travel cross country with the baby and return to work shortly thereafter and actually enjoy returning to work. Thanks for the opportunity to reflect as I gear up for my next maternity leave!

  4. I enjoyed this episode more than I expected when I first saw the title. I’m currently back at work following my second, at a new job (moved cross-country during my leave). As I’m in the throes of pumping those parts resonated for me (man I hate it but I want to continue to do it). Starting a new job postpartum has had rocky aspects but it has also been a good chance to rebrand myself and set expectations from the start.

    1. @Allison – I think the rebranding part is the real opportunity. Most people won’t wind up doing it in a new job, but your organization has figured out a way to do the stuff you’ve been doing without you…so now what do you want to do next? It really can be an opportunity, even if I know it’s always a tough transition.

  5. I found this conversation today really interesting! In Canada, most women who are employees take a full year mat leave. I was self-employed as a physical therapist, but have since gone back to school to do a PhD with a fellowship. So now I’m on my second mat leave during this degree – and feel fortunate to get 6 months minimum with an option to take 6 more. Personally, I couldn’t see myself taking a full year complete off, but with graduate school there is always work to do and I’ve been able to continue ‘working’ without any official deadlines for the year. It’s been fun to balance both enjoying time with my 3 month old and 3 year old as well as continuing to make progress on my career. I feel this is the right balance for me and that I am so fortunate to have the options and flexibility to do this! Also kudos to all the pumping – phew. I pump 1x day to help build up a reserve, but I cannot imagine 3+ times every single day!

    1. @Ally – I can’t see myself taking a year off either. While I certainly hope that women in the U.S. who have much less leave than they’d like could have access to more, I think this conversation also needs to make sure that people who don’t want long leaves don’t face a message that there’s something wrong with their decision either.

      1. coming from a country with 12 months I would say people taking different length maternity leave is not an issue. I took personally opted for 12 months as I had a long commute which would have been two hard but did some consultancy over the time. That said work colleagues have taken anywhere from 3 to 6 months and sometimes come back early but are part time for the first year easing back into. It is very much an attitude of you do what is right for you.

  6. Great episode! I totally agree with all of the advice about pumping. I got a lot of writing (email and articles) done while I was pumping, and even though I’m finished pumping now, I have actually preserved the idea of dedicating parts of my day to closed-door, focused work. Returning from my second maternity leave was a way to change my position and build some exciting responsibilities into my portfolio. I wasn’t strategic enough to anticipate these changes before I left on leave, as Lauren suggested in the interview; however, after that return to work, some colleagues were talking about how glad they were to have me back and I said, “What are you hoping we will be able to achieve now that I’m back?” It was a simple question, but it sparked some great conversations and good changes for me professionally.

    I think before I went on my first maternity leave, I really perceived it as a “break.” I was excited about taking four months away from the day-to-day of my career, even though I really love my work. I knew there would be a newborn in the mix, but I had very unrealistic expectations for my first maternity leave. I had a long list of domestic tasks that I really wanted to deal with and I planned to prepare a conference presentation that I was scheduled to give two months after my son was born. But then I had an incredibly difficult birth culminating in an emergency c-section. No one gets much rest during that process, but I began parenthood with a 72 hour sleep deficit and my physical recovery was unexpectedly difficult. I did give the conference presentation when my son was eight weeks, prepared during his pretty reliable naps, but I abandoned various other work-related goals because I was exhausted and even though he wasn’t a “high needs” baby, or whatever, he needed my attention. My second child had colic and we were overwhelmed and exhausted with caring for her and her older brother, but we planned differently for that leave–we had more support, we outsourced more household tasks, and we just had fewer expectations for what a “good leave” was going to look like.

    1. Yes! The C-section is a game changer. My first was a vaginal delivery and the second was also an emergency C-section. The first 2 weeks were quite painful and it took me 6 weeks to feel physically back to normal.

  7. What a timely episode! I’m expecting my first child in February and read The Fifth Trimester a few weeks ago. I happily have 18 weeks of paid leave through my work. I want to make the most of it but so much new parent advice is that the first months with a new baby are completely unknowable and difficult to plan around… Very difficult considering my current day-to-day! It’s so helpful to hear other women’s experiences and how they spent the time with intention.

  8. Suggestion for a future episode: get the author of “Work, Pause, Thrive” as a guest. Her book is about women who have taken more than a year career break and successfully reentered the workforce. I’m also interested in more guests who have kids in middle and high school.

  9. I feel very removed from maternity leave but I still enjoyed the discussion – especially thinking about it more from an employer side as I am the director of our organization.
    My best advice regarding maternity leave is to transition back with half days if at all possible. I did this with both my maternity leaves and it really helped – I went in for two weeks in the afternoons (which helped with sleep deprivation) and also happens to align with my natural productivity. With my first daughter I took 8 weeks and then went back for 2 weeks part time. With my second daughter I did pretty much the same thing – but I also negotiated working from home one day per week (helped with having one less day to pump).

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