Most of us, when we think about maternity trimesters, know of the common three. But, according to some, there are actually five.
In "The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity and Success After Baby," Lauren Smith Brody dives into all the challenges women who decide to return to work after having a baby will face (AKA the fifth trimester). She also offers tips, to-do lists and actionable strategies to help working moms during this challenging time.
What is the Fifth Trimester?
Whether you’re a mom, mom-to-be or have ever considered the possibility of having children one day, you probably know that pregnancy is comprised of three trimesters. To make it easier to understand what's happening with our babies, bodies and brains, each trimester is structured around specific developmental stages for both mom and baby. What most people don’t know is that the trimesters don’t just stop after a baby is born. Apparently, the “tri” in trimester is more of a symbol now, because there are at least two more generally agreed upon “trimesters” extending past the traditional three: the fourth and fifth trimesters.
The fourth trimester unofficially covers the first three months after a baby is born, when parents and baby are both surviving on very little sleep and attempting to get the hang of their new lives.
The fifth trimester directly follows the fourth trimester and is comprised of months 3-6 of a newborn’s life. It is a time when parents and babies are still operating on very little sleep and attempting to adjust to their new lives, but it's also when mothers are generally expected to return to the workforce. Any mother knows that this trimester is an extremely complex time in their life — which is where Lauren Smith Brody’s book comes to the rescue.
What are the challenges associated with the fifth trimester?
Going back to work after having a baby is extremely difficult. As a single mom who was working two part-time jobs and taking on an approximately 15-hour course load at my local community college during my own fifth trimester, I would have crashed and burned without a steady support system. While different lifestyles offer different challenges, new parents and parents-to-be should know that whether you’re a single mom like me or have a more traditionally nuclear family unit, there will be challenges associated with being a working mom, including:
Knowing whether you’re ready to return to work.
Deciding how many hours to work.
Complex feelings about your job.
Finding affordable childcare.
Attempting to look like you’ve gotten more sleep than you've actually had.
Finding the time and places to pump.
Finding time for nurturing your relationships.
Remaining focused enough to succeed and be taken seriously as an employee.
How to prepare.
Understand that your feelings are valid.
One of the hardest parts for me (from my understanding, this also rings true for most other new moms) was battling the guilt that I felt for wanting to return to my job so I would have a moment to myself. Alternatively, you might be battling guilt about not being ready to go back to work yet. Either way, you should take a deep breath and remember that there's no reason to be ashamed.
Working is an essential step for providing your baby with the life you want to give them, and if you’re like me — feeling guilty about cherishing the time away from home — you should remember that you'll be dedicating almost every ounce of yourself to the success of your tiny human for the next 18 years at the very least, and you're allowed to want a little time to yourself. On the other hand, if you’re not ready to leave your baby at home yet, that’s okay, too. If your employer is a good one, they'll understand that a mentally- and physically-sound employee is more useful than one who forced themselves back to work too soon just because society told them they had to. Your coworkers will welcome you back when you're ready.
Have a plan.
There's no right or wrong way to approach going back to work, but I do recommend that you do your research ahead of time. It's essential to communicate and have a plan for what exactly your hours are going to be, as well as who will be watching your child and for how long. Set a monthly budget. Have a backup plan.
Part of this will probably include looking into childcare options and costs. It’s never too soon to start. Know what you can afford, and if you’re in a situation where finances are tight, look into government resources. For example, in North Carolina, there are funds available to moms who can't afford childcare while working or looking for work, but the waiting lists are often extremely long, and getting ahead of the curve can only benefit you. You can learn about government resources via your states’ Department of Social Services website. Having a plan for your childcare in place will cut down on the stress of returning to work and allow you to cherish your time with your little one.
While it’s important to have a plan, you need to remember that things won't always go according to that plan! Life is unpredictable, and getting frustrated because the small details aren’t exactly how you saw them in your mind will do more harm than good. You should adjust your mindset toward being adaptable because as your life changes, so does your child’s. Keeping this in mind will help when your child inevitably doesn’t have dinner on time or fall asleep at exactly 8:00 p.m. because you won’t be caught off guard. It will be frustrating at times, but have patience and remember that things probably didn’t always go according to plan before you had your baby, either, and adding another person to the equation will always result in change.
Have a support system.
Not to be cliche, but absolutely no one was kidding when they told you “It takes a village.” As a single mom, I was extremely lucky to have my mom, my grandma, my son’s paternal grandparents and an extremely understanding employer on my side. Between working two jobs during the day and taking night classes, there was absolutely no option for me to take care of my son on my own, but I was lucky to have a live-in babysitter in my mom. I also had one employer who was in a position to let me take my little one to work with me until he was too big to keep next to my desk in a porta-crib, as well as my son’s paternal grandparents to help out while I was in classes at night.
This made childcare a smaller issue for me, but even if you can afford full-time childcare, a good support system can help avoid unnecessary time off because you might not be able to afford to take a day off work every time your child is sick. Not to mention that sometimes you’re just going to need emotional support or a night away, and having family, friends or a small community on which you can lean can be essential in meeting your needs as a new and working mom.
Take care of yourself.
Think back to high school when you probably learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You might recall that it states it’s difficult to take care of others if you’re not first taking care of yourself. This means making sure you’re feeding yourself along with the baby, making time for your friends and family and getting enough rest. The best advice I was ever given was to sleep while the baby is sleeping. Obviously, this won’t always be possible because you can’t sleep at work, but it’s a good rule of thumb for while you’re at home. Another tip I’ve found incredibly helpful was if it’s not just you and the baby at home, make sure you and your significant other are taking turns doing nighttime tasks. Also, don’t be afraid to ask your support system for help so that you can recharge yourself or go on the occasional date night.
Lastly, I recommend you read the book.
My philosophy with parenting is to take all the help you can get — even if it can feel hard to accept it sometimes. So, while I hope this has made you feel even an ounce more prepared for reentering the workforce, I could go on and on about all of my own personal experiences and speak to the challenges that may come with this step in your new life, but it still wouldn’t cover everything you’re probably worried about. Maybe one day I will, but in the meantime, Lauren Smith Brody has quite literally written the book. You'll invaluable advice and experiences compiled from hundreds of women in The Fifth Trimester.