How To Plan For Your Return To Work? | A Q&A With Lauren Smith Brody

Lauren Brody headshot (credit Nancy Borowick) (1).jpeg

Lauren Smith Brody is the ally you want by your side when you re-enter your career as a mother.  When I first got wind of her book, The Fifth Trimester (just released in paperback yesterday!), I assumed we'd be wildly apart in our views. 

She's raised two sons while navigating fifteen plus years in publishing, most recently the executive editor of Glamour Magazine, before committing to author her book and take on the conversation of empowering women returning to the workforce.  Mother Untitled of course representing the group of ambitious women who choose to take a pause or make conscious shifts in their work to make room for motherhood.  But Lauren proved supportive of all choices and this community, reminding me on our first meeting that work in the home is work and that pauses are accepted and encouraged internationally with far superior maternity leaves.

Lauren is a welcome voice of reason and empathy offering practical advice and experienced advocacy for the new working mother both, in her book and in workplaces as a consultant, and I appreciate her mentorship here, interpreting her volumes of insight for the women in the shades of grey somewhere between full-time mother and working mother.  

You've made your mark on the return to the workplace with your book and business, The Fifth Trimester.  What were the key challenges you encountered in your own experience after two kids and then managing a staff of women at Glamour that you wanted to address?

So many! So many! Where do I begin...?

- finding good childcare that we could (barely) afford

- managing my emotions during postpartum anxiety

- having a boss who'd gone about her own maternity leave and reentry period differently than I wanted to

- missing some of my baby's early milestones

- not having grandparents close by

- squelching my control-freak tendencies and letting my husband help

- working in a field that often had workdays that stretched past midnight

- nursing and pumping (so hard, the worst -- and yet, the thing that helped me feel like I was doing something for my baby even when I was at work)

- the waxing and waning of my ambition

....and on and on!

And I knew -- even then -- how privileged my experience was. I had a truly supportive husband, an amazing nanny at home, a workplace that was full of other women who certainly didn't mind talking about boobs and babies. And yet, I was really uncomfortable with the whole transition. I knew I was good at my job, but I was unprepared for how much of a newbie I would feel...I was brand new at being a working mom. I really had to adjust my expectations of myself and get comfortable being open about this big identity shift I was going through. Like so many moms, I sought new meaning in my work after having my boys -- if I was going to be away from them, I wanted it to be for good reason. I was lucky to find that meaning in mentoring my colleagues, and that grew into my research for The Fifth Trimester. There had been so many resources available to me when I was pregnant, so many for the newborn phase (aka: the fourth trimester), but nothing for my return to work. As time ticked on and I muddled through, I realized that there was a whole additional fifth trimester -- a finite developmental phase -- only this one is for mom. In the US, most women are back at work before they are physically and emotionally ready to be there. There's this gap to hurdle. I didn't have all of the answers, so I decided to really research the problem and interview hundreds and hundreds of women who'd made it through the transition so we could learn from each other's successes and challenges. Together, these 800 women became the collective working mom mentor I wish I'd had.

Some women in the MU camp may eventually be returning to the workplace after an extended pause. What specific advice would you have for women preparing for that step?

First, know that getting through this incredible transition back to work -- no matter how long you've been away -- will ultimately set you up to be very proud of what you've accomplished. You will be able to handle almost any other life or career transition because you can look back and see what you accomplished in this moment. 

Second, know that everywhere else in the world, this would not be on you to solve. New parenthood is valued in every other culture in the industrialized world. When you have longer, paid parental leave, and quality childcare, you are much less likely to have had to [break] from the workforce. So, if you feel awkward at all upon your return, that's no reflection on you or your's a reflection on our larger society that might not have supported you back when you needed it. Thirty percent of professional women [leave] the workforce within a year of having a child. 

Third, you must really internalize the ways in which you are coming back to work MORE capable because of the time you've spent at home with your child. There is no more demanding boss than a baby. They teach you how to prioritize, how to be efficient, how to find meaning in your work, how to pivot on a dime when needed. All of that translates directly into the workplace.

Others may be returning in a flexible capacity - are there conversations women should have both at home and in work to set themselves up for success for that arrangement?

Flexibility is no longer this crazy unattainable ideal. Even if most of corporate America isn't there yet, Millennial women are demanding flexibility to a degree we've never seen before. And if they aren't getting it, they're creating it on their own. 

But if you are someone who is used to approaching everything in life with extreme ambition, that gets pretty heady when you are working out of the home. It's important to be as good a boss to yourself as you would want to have over you in a more traditional workplace. Grant yourself "benefits" -- vacation time, set hours if you can. Because flexible work when you work for yourself can very easily slip into boundary-less days. Case in point, I'm writing this at 11:08 PM. Why? Because this work is my passion.

For someone who has negotiated for flexible hours in a more traditional workplace, I would advise revisiting the conversation every few months. Several women I interviewed told me that they negotiated for four-day workweeks (including taking an 80% salary) but then ended up feeling obligated to be in touch all day on that fifth day. You need those check-ins every few months to make sure the deal is manageable and fair for everyone. This also gives you an opening to ask for different kinds of flexibility as your children grow and their needs change.

At home, remember that the time you spend taking care of your children IS work. It's not valued with a paycheck in our society, but if you think of your partner as the one with the "real" job, that's not going to do anyone any good. Own the choices you make and be glad you have the agency to make them. You have chosen to do incredibly hard, incredibly worthwhile work.

What do you see as the key responsibility of workplaces to support women in their transition?  

Paid family leave is an absolute minimum. All of the research points to six months of paid leave as the magic number at which mom's mental health (and ambition) is protected, as is baby's physical health. That said, I think this leave should be provided at a federal level, paid for by a tiny social security tax on every worker -- the amount that would work is like $1.50 per week. 

But there are lots and lots of things workplaces can do at reentry that go beyond providing leave. All of the stuff I'm about to list sounds expensive but has been shown to SAVE money ultimately because it so dramatically impacts retention. There should be a budget line for parental-leave fill in labor. Parents who are just back should be allowed to work part-time hours as they adjust back. Employers should help make childcare more accessible -- either on site or by providing stipends or backup care as part of the benefits package. New moms need accessible, functional, private space to pump. They need time to pump. They need predictable hours and mom mentorship networks. They need to be counted *in* for whatever opportunities are made available for their colleagues. Don't assume a mom isn't interested in going for something big. They need to be paid fairly, and, yes, that means accounting for the time they were out on leave if you're talking about a commission or bonus-based business.

Beyond the big conversations and boundary setting, what's the super simple stuff that often gets overlooked in this transition? 

The biggest piece that gets overlooked is just the fact that sleep deprivation affects *everything* -- absolutely everything. Your health, your stamina, your focus, your emotions, your relationships. The women I surveyed weren't getting seven hours of straight sleep until the seven-month mark. At that point, nearly all of them had been back at work for months...working through sleep deprivation. There's a ton of info out there about how to get your baby to sleep (and maybe it'll work, maybe it won't). But what you need to know for yourself is this: 1) You must make sure that whatever little sleep you're getting is good quality sleep -- practice good sleep hygiene, and do everything you can to share the nighttime wake-ups with your partner if you have one. Easier said than done, but all of the research shows it's ultimately better for everyone -- including dad! -- if you take turns. 2) You must learn some strategies for working through sleep deprivation. That means having a back-pocket plan for emotional moments, and it means gaming your day so you require adrenaline at key moments that will power you through the rest of your day.

And, of course, women overlook their own needs -- emotionally and physically. Get a haircut. Buy some pants that fit. Wash your face at the end of the day. Drink water. I'm not going to tell you to go get a weekly massage because you are not a Kardashian, and that's not realistic. But you can make a little mini closet within your closet that is only for the stuff that fits and is appropriate for your job. You don't have time in the morning to be tortured by your closet. Like it or not, the science really does show that when we look together, we project that to the world. I think it's less about people judging you, and more about the fact that you realize: "Hey, I'm a person who has myself together enough that I was able to get a haircut and buy some new pants. I MUST be doing okay." It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of confidence.