A new book covers range of issues new moms face when they go back to work, from child care to workload to domestic life.
Most parents are familiar with the advice given during the three trimesters of pregnancy — and even that so-called “fourth trimester,” when a newborn still needs tons of round-the-clock care and attention from a caregiver.
But what about the next big transition of a new mother back to work?
Lauren Smith Brody, a longtime women’s magazine editor and mother of two, decided to take on the dearth of advice literature out there for brand-new working moms with her new book, “The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity & Big Success After Baby.” The practical and entertaining read covers everything from finding the right schedule to pump breast milk at the office, to effectively dealing with postpartum depression, to adjusting your postpartum work wardrobe.
Smith Brody’s book brought up so much helpful advice, we decided to see how it stacked up with the needs of moms in the Seattle area dealing with this transition.
Child care questions
When it comes to child care, Gena Schwam, of Bellevue, who went back to work about a month ago, is still weighing her options. “Is it true that full-time day care is good for babies’ socialization?” she asked. “I need reassurance that day care isn’t going to do more harm than good full time.”
Smith Brody found loads of studies on this exact topic. “Basically, when you boil down the results of all of this research [done by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development], there are pros and cons of every child care option, but ultimately the individual parent-child relationship mattered above everything else. So whatever child care decision you make, if you communicate stress or comfort to your child about it, that’s going to make the biggest difference in your child’s life. My advice is to figure out, emotionally, what child care option makes you feel most comfortable — and that is not always as straightforward as signing up for the most expensive option.”
Hilary Maler, a mother of a 15-month old in Seattle, went back to work part time three months ago and is now wondering about a different child care situation: How to come to terms with leaving your child with a nanny. “When I drop him at the nanny, I can set expectations for what I want, but since I’m not with him I don’t always know what type of engagement and developmental stimulation he is getting with her,” she says.
Maler’s experience speaks to that same emotional decision Smith Brody mentioned before. “Every mom has to decide what level of checking in makes her feel most comfortable,” says Smith Brody. “There is no wrong answer. You may be the kind of mom that needs every diaper, every bite of food recorded for you. Personally, I think it’s a little harder to let go and focus on your work with that level of detail coming in, but maybe for you, it’s knowing that level of detail that will allow you to disengage a bit and focus on work.” Smith Brody says this may change, too. “As your baby grows and develops, your need for detailed information will change, too.”
Thanks to her employer’s generous leave policy, Erica Hieggelke, in Seattle, went back to work as an IT systems analyst when her child was around 13 months old. Quickly, she realized that becoming a parent had an effect on her working self. “I’ve always been known as a hard worker, but now I feel torn between making sure I have time for my kid and being present at the office,” she says.
Throughout “The Fifth Trimester,” Smith Brody emphasizes that each individual working mom has the power to influence the way we, as a society, think about working parenthood. This question is a prime example. “Start by redefining what a ‘hard worker’ is,” she says.
“Maybe it used to mean that you were first in, last out of the office. Probably not anymore, however there is actually so much about new motherhood that makes you better at your job. Now you can probably pivot better between tasks, you can prioritize better. You may have fewer hours in the day, but you’ll have more drive and purpose behind how you use them.
“Focus on your deliverables — and manage up so your bosses are, too — then it won’t matter if you need some extra flexibility. Your results will speak for themselves.”
Jess A., in Seattle, decided to negotiate a part-time return to work after her parental leave. Now she’s wondering if her current field has the flexibility she really needs as a working parent, and whether it’s too late to consider a career change all together. “I waited [to transition to a new job or career], because I didn’t want the demands of a new career to compete with having an infant,” she says. “But now I’ll be that much older and have small children in tow if I do. Is a transition now possible?”
Smith Brody says many parents feel a need for more meaning in their work after returning to the office. “A lot of new parents discover when they first come back that their old job is no longer a good fit.” She advises to start small first. “Maybe you could see about taking on a new project that you find meaning in, even something like managing the interns.”
However, if the need for something totally different continues to call, don’t despair. “Of course it’s possible to transition your career post-kids,” says Smith Brody. “This could be hard to realize when you still have a tiny baby who depends on you so much. But by the time that baby is 3 or 4 or 5 years old and goes to school, you’ll have a whole new idea of what’s possible to take on.”
As all parents know, the work is never over when you leave the office. Maler, now working part time, wondered about the shifting balance of work at home. “My husband and I are balancing the drop-off and pickup at the nanny, but navigating the balance of home management is in flux,” she says. One of her major concerns? “I still do all the cooking and am trying to set realistic expectations for how much home cooking we eat versus takeout.”
Smith Brody devotes an entire chapter of her book to navigating, “that whole 50-50 partnership thing [aka. ‘The Chapter that Keeps You Married’]” for those partnered working parents experiencing the stress of parenthood on their relationship and domestic life. She suggests Maler starts first with a shift in mindset about her work. “Just because you don’t work full time outside of the home, doesn’t mean you don’t work ‘full time.’ No matter what arrangement you and your partner have for working in and out of the home, you need to have that internal shift that you’re both working full time before you can even begin to ask your partner for what you need.”
Then, Smith Brody says, “be really explicit with what your needs are from your partner. Maybe she needs him to handle dinner every other night, or even every night — and maybe sometimes it’s takeout and that’s OK.”
Once you make sure you’re bringing home the paycheck and getting dinner on the table and managing a successful partnership, when do you take care of yourself? Schwam, the mom in Bellevue, would love to fit in a workout routine between a busy full-time job and a long commute. But “I want to spend the evening hours with my family, and it’s really hard to get up at 5 a.m.!” she says.
Smith Brody says most of the women she surveyed didn’t even begin to workout seriously until after their child turned a year old. There is, however, a solution.
“Moms are really good at multitasking,” she says. “The key is to multitask to fit 20 to 30 minutes of exercise into some other task you have to do anyway. For me, it was that I realized that my sweaty, stressful subway ride [in New York City] was actually only five minutes shorter than walking to work every day. … Some women I spoke with would take scheduled conference calls while they walked around the block a few times.”
Maybe for you, it means taking the stairs instead of the elevator in your office building, or a desktop yoga app for 15 minutes at lunchtime, or 10 pushups every morning. Tracking your steps is pretty easy to do these days. Smith Brody suggests taking a look at those at the end of the day to see what activity you’ve gotten in — while likely pushing a stroller or carrying groceries, no less. It may not be attending your former spin class, but chances are you are getting in some physical exercise — and a bump of mood-boosting endorphins, which, no matter how you get them, will help you deal more effectively with all the hurdles of working parenthood.