I spent a big chunk of 2013 working from an office bathroom. It was, as office bathrooms go, extremely well-appointed: a big single-stall room with some fancy candles, a bottle of high-class hand soap, and an armchair upholstered in a dachshund print. But it didn’t have any windows, and when you sat in the beautiful, expensive-feeling chair, as I did to pump breast milk twice a day, you were facing a toilet.
I’d returned to my job at a media start-up 12 weeks after having my first son, full of enthusiasm and nearly devoid of practical knowledge. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the woman who ran my local chapter of La Leche League said it was good to breastfeed for at least a year, so that was my entire plan: breastfeed, somehow, for at least a year. I wanted to be a working mom; aside from the obvious financial benefits, I believed that having a career was good for me and would be good for my family. I hadn’t factored in the hours I would spend managing my team by email while preventing them from emptying their bladders.
Lauren Smith Brody’s new guide to working motherhood, The Fifth Trimester, aims to help women avoid exactly this kind of situation. Brody was an executive editor at Glamour, and she takes a women’s-magazine approach to the difficult task of coming back to work, covering the frustrating realities of working-mom life in a chipper, big-sisterly voice.
There are chapters about everything from managing your boss’s expectations to managing your postpartum work wardrobe. And of course, there’s an entire chapter on pumping — a time-suck, a literal suck, and likely the most embarrassingly physical thing you’ll ever have to explain to your co-workers.
About that title: The wildly popular baby guru Harvey Karp says that, if pregnancy lasts three trimesters, newborns are basically living out the fourth. It’s not until they hit three months that they’re fully cooked, with the neurology in place to do things like smile and interact. Of course, three months is also the length of time many workplaces are required to hold your job when you’re out on maternity leave, according to the FMLA. So just when your baby gets fun, you’re probably returning to work. Brody’s argument is that for working moms, months three through six of a baby’s life constitute the fifth trimester of pregnancy, a time when you’re as raw as a newborn fresh out of the womb.
Her service-y approach is both the book’s blessing and its curse. Brody methodically breaks down all the potential pitfalls of working motherhood and then explains how to navigate them. Since I’m currently out on maternity leave No. 2, I figured I’d be an ideal test case for her advice. And at first, the book filled me with hope: Chapter one offers concrete advice on how to make peace with your child-care choices, something that still plagues me.
By chapter five, though, I’d become bogged down in despair. Do I really need to revamp my skin-care routine right now, when I’m barely sleeping? Brody’s Condé Nast background really comes through here: She interviews “some of the world’s leading dermatologists, style advisers, hair care experts, beauty editors, fashion industry bigwigs,” and more for postpartum fashion and beauty advice. Their tips come couched between disclaimers about how looking your best is really about feeling your most confident — because nothing builds confidence like a list of ways you’re probably failing.
This sense of whiplash is not the author’s fault. It’s just that our collective expectations for how to be a successful woman and a successful employee and a successful mother are crazy, so when you try to gather them all in one place, you wind up with a dizzying document. Challenging these demands ultimately means overhauling a system created without mothers in mind, which is why women end up making do. When you’re already pressed for time, it’s easier to pretend you’re fine with pumping in a bathroom — for a length of time that’s not forever — than to agitate for better workplace conditions on a national level.
Brody is aware of this problem, and she follows Sheryl Sandberg’s lead here. “Call it Leaning In, call it Not Opting Out,” she writes in the introduction, “but in order to achieve change — whether on a corporate policy level, or just at the water cooler — women have to stay in the game.”
But to avoid the backlash that Sandberg got for her whitest-of-the-white-collar approach, Brody also interviewed a ton of moms from different backgrounds. A chapter about women who own their businesses compares the experience of Manhattan real-estate scion Andrea Olshan and working-class single mom Sarah Serafin, who runs her own transcription company in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Sarah actually transcribed Andrea’s interview, which mentions multiple nannies and housekeepers. “It was interesting to listen to someone who had almost the complete opposite experience of my own,” she comments politely. (Chagrin falls, indeed.)
The book walks a fine line, trying to offer reasonable solutions to problems that are patently unreasonable. Sometimes, all Brody can do is acknowledge that it’s a broken system. Brooklyn psychiatrist Christin Drake tells her, “There is a real gap between the reality of motherhood and the public understanding of motherhood, and certainly the pretending in the workplace about what motherhood is really like. Being aware of that gap is really important.” For better and for worse, The Fifth Trimester will make you hyperaware of the gap.