Family (Care) Matters: August Cover Lauren Smith Brody on Postpartum, Paid Family leave and more Victories
She was my coach when I returned from maternity leave,” the DM read. “She’s the best!” I had just posted a photo of Lauren Smith Brody and myself from our Zoom meeting where I interviewed her for this cover story—and the responses came fast. See, Lauren’s company, The Fifth Trimester, has quite a loyal following on Instagram. Since her book of the same name was released in 2017, she has tapped into this section of #momlife that not a lot of people were paying much attention to: the return from maternity leave. The company’s homepage says it best, “The first three trimesters are pregnancy. The fourth is the newborn haze. But The Fifth Trimester? It’s when the working mom is born.”
But this response in my DM’s caught my eye because it wasn’t from any of the mutual connections I knew Lauren and I shared. Those responses I was expecting. Instead, it was from a high school acquaintance who I hadn’t spoken to in many years. The law firm where she worked was offering Lauren’s coaching services to its new parents and, despite it being her second child and “not my first rodeo”, she decided to take the opportunity and schedule a call. I have to admit I was floored when I read her email detailing how the coaching sessions helped her to find her footing after maternity leave, left her with valuable takeaways, and “provided a sounding board” for how to succeed both at work and at home. I’ve always heard of companies offering services like this, but never knew anyone who actually benefited from them.
At that moment I knew Lauren’s work was making a true impact in the lives of real moms in the workforce. And when my acquaintance said she would “wholeheartedly recommend” Lauren’s coaching services to “anyone and everyone”, I also knew she had hit on something I bet so many of us didn’t even know we needed. Because we didn’t even know it existed. Because new parents, especially new moms, are so used to having little to no help that they think it’s normal. Well, if I’ve learned one thing from this assignment it’s that moms—and dads, and caregivers, and anyone whose job it is to take care of someone other than themselves—deserve more than what’s been considered normal up to this point.
Keep reading to hear how Lauren is trying to affect change from the inside, the amazing group of women working alongside her, and why offering paid family leave benefits every single one of us.
CP: Tell me about your maternity leave journey.
LSB: I worked as a magazine editor at Glamour for a long time. I had both of my boys while I was there, I went through all these life stages, surrounded by all these women. I was in many ways set up to have the greatest experience. Condé Nast didn’t have the best policies at the time but I did get some paid leave, my parents came to town if I needed them, and even though I had a husband who was doing his residency and very often working nights, he was incredibly supportive of my career. At that point I was the breadwinner of our family so I didn’t really grapple with the question of whether I was going back after maternity leave. I had a lot working in my favor. I was surrounded by women who were comfortable talking about nipple shape. I had my breast pump on my desk.
It seemed like I was set up to have the perfect entry into working motherhood, and yet it was devastatingly hard. I just didn’t know how tiny and needy newborns were, and how little they could give back to you in the beginning. And so I had postpartum anxiety during my maternity leave. I was just starting to come out of it when it was time to go back to work, so it was an enormous struggle—even from the privilege of, at that point, being an executive. I felt competent at my job and yet coming back after having my first son, Will, felt like my first day at my first internship when I was 17 years old. It was terrible. What I didn’t understand at the time was that it wasn’t my fault.
I think like a lot of new moms I internalized a lot of guilt. Now I completely reject mom guilt, because what I didn’t realize then was that the systems weren’t set up to support me. I knew I had this amazing husband, fancy job, healthy, fairly easy baby, but couldn’t understand why this was still so hard. It must be something that was wrong with me. What I didn’t know then was that all of the studies that I’ve since researched show you need six months of paid leave. That’s the minimum amount to be protective of mom’s mental health, mom’s physical health, baby’s physical health, partner’s bond with the baby, and your ability to maintain your income. So I struggled through it.
CP: Tell me about when you came up with the idea of The Fifth Trimester.
LSB: I was a very open and honest manager. I admitted I was slurring my words because I didn’t sleep the night before, which sometimes felt like a radical act. There was a specific moment when I was back from maternity leave when a coworker came into my office with a problem. I fixed it and she was so grateful and told me how much she missed me. I thanked her, but confessed I didn’t always feel like I was succeeding in those days. She said, “No one has shown me what it’s actually like…that it’s hard and yet you can still be good at your job, and it’s worth it.” Motherhood was far in her future, she was in her 20’s with a boyfriend, but she said everyone else was hiding it. She thanked me for showing her that it’s hard but that she can maybe do it one day, too. That was a huge eureka moment for me. As a manager what I had thought was a failure, was not. What I had done was shown this woman, and maybe even some of my other colleagues, that they had longevity in this career and they would be able to do it even if it was hard. That planted a seed.
Then I had my second son, Teddy, and a second challenging return. I had read Harvey Karp’s book “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” and his idea of the fourth trimester really rang true to me. It’s this idea that humans are born three months premature compared to other mammals. That’s why the fawn is born walking, but humans don’t really wake up until week 12, which is why he advises all of the shushing, the swaddling, and all the things to recreate the feeling of the womb—and it was all working on my baby. His advice is “mama, just get to 12 weeks,” and I thought ugh that’s when I have to go back to work. At that time I had a good maternity leave compared to most women, and I knew it even then, so that was hard to swallow, and it made me realize that there’s actually a whole fifth trimester. I started to think of it as a developmental phase, as a transition to get through. It helped me to find meaning in my work because at that point the actual tasks of my job weren’t exciting to me anymore, but being able to teach and mentor other people started to have a lot more meaning to me.
I left Glamour when my younger son, was 4 and spent a few months preparing a book pitch. I had been looking at other jobs for a while, and in an interview I was told, “You need to just go and have 100 lunches.” I had always been the type of person who stayed while my boss had a breakfast meeting, a lunch meeting, and a dinner meeting. I sat in the chair and got things done. I never had time to leave the office, I never did any networking. But then I went and wrote my book where I interviewed and surveyed almost 800 moms who had all kinds of different definitions of family and career, to figure out what we had in common, what was systemic, what was working against us.
During the year I waited for the book to come out, I had probably 200 lunches, breakfasts, coffees. I met all these people that opened my world up in a way that I hadn’t when I was so chained to my desk working for someone else, and for someone else’s vision. I really learned to talk about my work. In that year I essentially built my company and I didn’t even realize it. But all along my intention had been to write the book for the consumer, for the moms, who can then go infiltrate their own companies to make things better for themselves, and all the other parents coming after and around them. The year of meetings gave me the foundation I needed to be able to say, “I’m starting a business.”
At that point The Fifth Trimester was me doing a lot of speaking engagements, I was doing some consulting, helping businesses doing a better job of retaining women and moms, and making the economic case. I learned pretty quickly I couldn’t just say, “It’s the right thing to do,” I had to give them the ROI. I knew it would have a ripple effect, but I was seen as “the new mom person.” And then the pandemic hit and every single speaking engagement I had for the year fell off my spreadsheet. My kids were home and my husband was gone 15 hours a day because he works in a hospital as a doctor. He’s having some of the most challenging, yet most interesting work of his life while I’m sitting here in my pajamas watching my income fall, watching my kids become somewhat feral, just trying to make everything ok. I knew I had the best of everything in my favor, but I will tell you I was freaking the fuck out. I tried to buy a liferaft. I bought powdered eggs.
Within a month, I figured out, as we were starting to hear about what was happening with women in the workforce, how inequitable the division of labor was in the home. I realized it was nobody’s fault. I realized that people came into their relationships in a progressive manner, but look at me. My husband was the one with health insurance, and couldn’t work remotely, so it all fell on me. I became more driven to help families beat old systems and expanded my business to include all caregivers, not just new moms.
CP: Because ultimately the work, whatever you define as the work, has to be split.
LSB: Yes. Some of it’s paid, some of it’s not paid, but all of it has value. I began to see a lot of stories about dads, grandparents, people caring for their spouses, people doing elder care. You’ve heard of “the sandwich generation”? I interviewed someone who had a club sandwich, with her daughter, her mom, and her grandma living with her. It became clear that this wasn’t just a new mom issue, but that in many ways we were all in our fifth trimesters. Anybody who was both an employee and also a caregiver for someone in their life had all the same needs as the moms I had been working with for years. I realized I had this treasure trove of research, and the storytelling behind it.
CP: What advice do you have for moms who are gearing up to go back to paid work after having a baby?
LSB: The advice I would give to anyone is to know their impact. Know that for everything they are a little more transparent about, every negotiation they engage in, everything they do that sort of stretches their boundaries a little bit in terms of their comfort and ability to protect their income, is not just for them and their family. Very often the first time women negotiate for something really important at work is in their fifth trimester and they’re doing it with the highest stakes possible: the health, wellness, and safety of their families. That comes with a lot of pressure and one way to diffuse that pressure is to know that it’s not just for you, you’re not being selfish. It is for your colleagues who for one reason or another may be marginalized in a way that you’re not, and may not be able to speak as loudly or directly as you’re able to. So whatever bit of privilege you may have, use it to ask for the thing you need knowing it’s also for your colleagues who also have caregiving needs.
And also know that you are actually making progress for your employer. You are doing your job well by pointing out to them what they need to do to recruit, retain, and support the best and the brightest employees. Mothers who are working for pay right now have been through the worst over the last 2.5 years, and yet they actually have more agency than ever before. Try to enter it from a position of strength—have a plan B, have a way to check in, and have a way to report back and know what your job description is so you know you’re delivering what you need to do, even if you’re doing it in a different way, on different hours. Negotiate the hell out of everything you need. I firmly believe that the way to make change is through infiltration. To the degree that I can be loud, make change—whether it’s the parents’ association at my kid’s school or a fortune 500 company that doesn’t really understand that when you say primary caregiver leave versus a secondary caregiver leave that’s actually not gender neutral—I’m happy to just be a voice for people who maybe don’t have a voice. I would encourage new moms to feel like they can do the same to the degree that they can.
When mothers go back to paid work, people like to say they are more efficient but what I like to say is actually they’ve been very well trained by the baby to compress the transition time in between tasks. So yes they are more efficient, but they’re also better at saying no, and I believe they are better at giving more meaningful yesses because by the time they agree to meet someone for a drink or go for a promotion–
CP: Right, like what’s been coordinated by that point to make it happen.
LSB: When you get to yes you’ve already had to do so much mental math to make it work that it is a very committed and real yes. It’s a lot of reframing.
CP: So what’s next for The Fifth Trimester?
LSB: Fifth Trimester is almost entirely private sector. It is what fuels and funds everything I do on Instagram, every DM I answer, and allows me to do things like help the White House behind the scenes during the formula shortage. They need people on the ground who are really connected to mom communities and the people who serve those communities. It’s been overwhelmingly gratifying and totally a privilege to help.
CP: What do you mean by “help”?
LSB: Some of it is the relationships, some of it is research…there’s not a lot of red tape with me. If you need someone at the Academy of Pediatrics who is a specialist in formula formulation and the nutrition behind it, I know a spokesperson for the AAP. She asks around and within minutes you have THE person you need to talk to. It’s just boots on the ground. That’s why I mentioned that year of lunches. That year helped me learn how to build those relationships, maintain them, and see them make a constellation of support which is not available right now publicly to moms, women, and birthing people.
In the spring/summer of 2021 I was very excited to learn about the way paid family and medical leave was built into Build Back Better. It still wasn’t perfect but it was meant to be 12 paid weeks. It had bereavement leave for pregnancy loss, it had the acknowledgement of chosen family, it had a lot of things to it that people needed and what I was already teaching the private sector to do. I was really excited about that, I was pushing for it, and then it got whittled away down to 4 weeks, so I went ballistic on social media. A bunch of other people who I had not met in person did too, and we all decided to come together.
CP: Is this where Chamber of Mothers comes in?
There was a night when we were all texting and DM’ing and we wondered how we could build a coalition to solve this. My friend Erin Erenberg at Totum Women texted, “We can’t #buildbackbleeding”—that was our origin moment. We wanted to build a coalition that would focus America’s attention on the rights of moms, passing paid family and medical leave, getting more support for maternal and mental health, and helping people access affordable and quality childcare. A lot of it was just messaging and pulling together a coalition, of having women sign up and knowing as a block we could operate almost like an AARP or the Chamber of Commerce. One of the cofounders, my friend Daphne Delvaux, said we need to be like a Chamber of Commerce, we need to be a Chamber of Mothers. That’s where it came from.
All of us come into this work with our own contacts, our own expertise and background—some of us are journalists, physicians, lawyers. We have this notion of being a V of birds in the sky. It’s a little bit cheesy but whoever has the capacity and the ability at this moment to be the front of the V is in charge. And if you need to glide right now then someone else moves forward. Collectively we have kept moving through the sky and we have drawn thousands and thousands of other women with us. A big part of what we’re trying to do is be amplifiers of the amazing work being done by advocacy organizations who have been supporting mothers and women and parents and caregivers for decades. A lot of their work has been not appreciated by the greater public to the degree that it should. Organizations like Paid Leave For All, Moms Rising, Caring Across Generations, are all profoundly impactful and yet a lot of the general public didn’t understand what paid leave was, didn’t understand that we didn’t have paid leave. We’ve been able to help them reach a broader audience and share their research—but we can also be a little bit brash, a little angrier perhaps than they can be. They have to maintain their relationships in government, we don’t. We can be demanding and represent the voices of a lot of moms who have been pretty mistreated and unsupported. Some of them are just waking up to that and realizing it’s not just them and it’s nothing they need to feel guilty about.
Lauren’s trip to Washington D.C.
“The founding mothers of Chamber of Mothers were invited to the White House to celebrate the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act (the gun safety bill that enacts red flag laws, mental health funding, and closes the boyfriend loop for survivors of domestic abuse). We were there to thank and support survivors of gun violence and groups like Moms Demand Action that had worked so hard toward this moment, and to meet face to face with lawmakers to urge them to pass policies that are too often dramatically underrepresented in government.
I got to bring Will (14) as my plus-one, which felt just incredibly special personally and professionally. I think so many of our children have seen their parents question their patriotism and capacity for hope over these past several years. Our school-aged kids are anxious and outraged, and deeply committed to social justice. They’ve lost their innocence, but gained purpose. Not an easy trade off.
Walking onto the South Lawn with my son, I was surprised to feel enormous relief at his pride and mine. We talked about President Biden’s remarks, about how you can celebrate hard-won incremental progress while adamantly pushing for more. About how some amazing people are able to channel their pain into progress. I hope he walked away feeling the power and obligation we each have to build a more equitable, safe world.”
Lauren’s IG guide to activism:
@chamberofmothers: We are a collective movement to focus America’s priorities on the rights of mothers issue by issue, as we build the kind of world we want to live in and bestow to our children. Join us!
@blackmamasmatter: While maternal mortality has gone down by about 50% around the world, in the US it’s up more than 50% entirely because of racial inequities. Black women are 3-4x more likely to die in childbirth. This is a national emergency, and I’m so grateful to Black Mamas Matter Alliance and the work of Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Il) on the Momnibus legislation.
@theconsciouskid: My kids are SO MUCH BETTER at thinking inclusively about structural and racial inequities than I am. Words matter. The Conscious Kid has helped me catch up!
@poojalakshmin: Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, MD is my COM co-founder and a guiding light in my work. “It’s not burnout, it’s betrayal,” and “a bubble bath isn’t going to fix this,” are two quotes of hers that help me help women advocate for their needs effectively.
@votemamaus: Vote Mama helps moms who are in the thick of it all run for office with mentoring, funding, connections, and campaign finance reform that lets them use donations for childcare! Liuba Grechen Shirley, the founder, is my hero.
@emilyinyourphone: No one has the luxury of not being “political” anymore. Emily Amick (1 Minute Politics) breaks down every issue so it’s understandable and actionable. I adore learning from her.
Psst..check out 10 Things to Do With Your Kids in Central Park This Summer