The Fifth Trimester with Lauren Smith Brody
What if moms were granted the kind of parental leave they really needed to heal from childbirth, care for baby, and return to work? Lauren Smith Brody thinks it would completely change the lives of new parents—and everyone around them.
Most parents have to go back to work months before they’re emotionally and physically ready, missing out on an important developmental phase. When Lauren had her first child, she realized that phase needed a name, and a movement—so she launched The Fifth Trimester to help parents and businesses transform workplace culture together.
It shouldn’t be on women necessarily, and it shouldn’t be on moms necessarily, to have to make these big cultural corrections just because they’re the ones who need it in this moment. It’s really on all of us.—Lauren Smith Brody, author and founder of The Fifth Trimester
We talk about:
- Why openly talking about being a parent at work is so critical. “Coming back to work as a new mother was my first day on the job all over again in many, many ways…I didn’t know how to do my job and be a mom at the same time. I felt like a newbie and I just decided to expose that all over the place as much as I could and make it ok.”
- How asking for what you need as a new parent can actually help everyone in your workplace. “Try to remember that this is not something that you are asking for for you, your family, in this moment. This is a plan for how you will get your job done. But also, any flexibility that you’re able to win is really a win for everybody around you.”
- Why reckoning with our racist and capitalist past is the only way we can fundamentally change the system. “Racism so clearly impacts the access to support and even just obviously simple good health and the right to good health that American workers have. …So very often you’ll see that a company has gotten headlines for providing, you know, so-and-so is going to now have, you know, 12 paid weeks of family leave. Great. Who actually has access to that?”
Plus: committing to becoming better advocates for people who have kids and digging a little deeper into the very real impact slavery’s history still has on our country today.
- The Fifth Trimester
- Lauren on Instagram
- The 1619 Project, podcast episode 2: The Economy That Slavery Built
- The 1619 Project, article: “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”
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SWB: 00:39 Hey everyone, I’m Sara.
KL: 00:40 I’m Katel.
SWB: 00:40 And this is Strong Feelings, a podcast about work, friendship and feminism and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL: 00:46 Today we are talking about a major milestone in a lot of new parents’ lives, The Fifth Trimester. That’s a term coined by our guest, Lauren Smith Brody, and we’ll let her explain it in full, but it’s when a new parent first goes back to work after having a baby.
SWB: 01:00 Yes, we need to talk about how tough this is. You know, I was just thinking about this yesterday because I was on a call with a UK company and I met with a woman who I hadn’t talked with before because she was like, “Oh, I was out on maternity leave—for a year. And I was just like, ”Oh, right. That’s a thing other countries do.”
KL: 01:20 I know. I feel like I’m newly astounded every time I hear just how wildly different, i.e., better or longer, maternity leave is in a lot of other countries versus the US.
SWB: 01:31 Right. I mean, I knew other countries aren’t like ours, so obviously I knew that. We’ve talked about it before even on the show. But it just felt so visceral in that moment to be like, ah, yes, I have never interacted with you because I’ve only been working with this company for like seven or eight months and so, right. I didn’t know you at all because you’ve been out that whole time. Yeah. So versus here, which Lauren is going to talk about a little bit more extensively, but the average is just a lot lower than that. Like prepare yourselves.
KL: 02:02 Yeah. I’m equally astounded and you know, kind of disgusted by how terrible American family leave policies are. And I’m not a parent or going to be one, but I know a lot of them. I mean you and I both do. And I thought I had an idea of what they were dealing with, but I definitely don’t know as much as I should.
SWB: 02:19 Same. It’s really been on my list this year to better understand all the stuff that people with kids are up against. Not because I’m planning my own, because I think that ship has sailed or like is sailing further and further away for me. I’m getting more and more confident every day that I’m not personally going to have kids. But I think that means I need to understand even more what that’s like, particularly I think for women or for anybody who’s actually giving birth to children, because there’s so many biases and so many limitations and so many just like black holes when it comes to policies to support parents and to support moms. And I feel like it is up to me as somebody without kids to like, really be a better advocate for people who have them and to really try to understand what that’s actually like.
KL: 03:05 Yeah, totally. I mean, my sister has two small kids and you know, she’s been making it work with a full time job since her first one was born four years ago. But it definitely hasn’t been easy. I mean she’s, you know, cobbled together childcare and sort of teleworking because she really wants to be present in her kids’ lives and that’s how she’s making it work. But she juggles a lot. And you know, last month we had a Collective Strength event that my sister came to, and the focus was on working moms. We had this really awesome panel of three moms with three very different experiences and perspectives of what it’s been like to get pregnant, take varying lengths of leave ,and then go back to work, and what comes after that. And during one of our breakouts where folks were sharing some of their own experiences, and I was actually in a group with my sister, it was the first time I’d really heard her talk about what it was like for her to have leave conversations with her boss, and what she did when she went back to work. And I felt really grateful, but also really embarrassed that I hadn’t asked her or talked to her about it before.
SWB: 04:06 Right. And it just wasn’t coming up in detail.
KL: 04:09 Yeah.
SWB: 04:10 Yeah. I hear that a lot. Like it tends to come up between moms, for example. But if you don’t have other parents who are going through the same stuff, it’s like sometimes you don’t know who to talk to.
KL: 04:21 Yeah.
SWB: 04:21 You know? I think that it’s so important that more of us are having this conversation more often. So that actually brings up one last thing I want to mention before we get to Lauren’s interview, which has been coming up for me as I’ve been kind of getting into more of these conversations about parenting and kids and maternity leave and work, which is that the conversation tends to be really focused on moms—and for good reason, right? Like, dads don’t experience bias at work the same way when they have kids at all. There’s definitely a very real anti-mom bias out there. But you know there are folks who don’t identify as women or as moms who are having kids. There’s non-binary people, there’s trans men, and you know like everything related to gender, there’s just a lot to consider and it’s not as simple as I think most of us grew up believing it was. And so knowing that people of all these other genders get pregnant and need to take leave after birth and absolutely face biases at work and real hurdles at work, I think it’s important, right? And I don’t want to erase that if we only talk about moms. But at the same time, mom is really important as a cultural and a personal identity for people. So not talking about moms doesn’t always feel right either. So anyway, that’s definitely something that I’ve been tussling with a little bit and we’ve been talking about and I think, you know, we’re trying our best to work out how do we talk about these issues in ways that reflect reality and that reflect our values, reflect the experiences of our guests when our guests are moms and that are specific and that are useful. So we’ll let you know if we figure it all out.
KL: 05:47 Yeah. Okay. Well, until then, let’s get to Lauren. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Lauren Smith Brody
SWB: 05:52 Lauren Smith Brody is on a mission to help parents and businesses revolutionize workplace culture. She’s the author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby. And we’re so excited to talk with her about parenthood and the workplace. Lauren, welcome to Strong Feelings.
LSB: 06:08 Thank you. Thanks for having me on.
KL: 06:10 Okay. So first up, for folks who haven’t read the book or might not know much about the movement, tell us what you mean when you talk about The Fifth Trimester. [Laughter]
LSB: 06:18 So, yes, there are five, I’m sorry, but there are five and there’s probably—I’m probably in my like 34th trimester by now or something. I haven’t done the math recently. So the first three trimesters of course you know about, that’s pregnancy. Fourth trimester is something that I didn’t, it’s a term I didn’t know until I had a newborn. And my first son who was a little bit of a cranky baby and I read the Harvey Karp book, The Happiest Baby on the Block. And he introduced me to this idea that human babies are actually born three months earlier developmentally than other mammals, because of the size of the mother’s pelvis relative to the baby’s skull. And so in order to soothe the baby, you recreate the feeling of the womb for those three months. And I remember reading this book and it was very helpful to me at the time. He’s a pediatrician. Good advice. And he just kept saying, “just get to 12 weeks, mom. Get there and your baby’s gonna wake up to the world and you’re going to get something back from them, and they’re going to be on more of a sleep schedule, and things are just going to look a lot shinier and better at the 12-week point.” And I thought, “Oh no, that’s exactly…that’s great, but that’s also the point at which I go back to work.” And I knew even then that actually—I had FMLA and I had some of the time as paid as well, and some of it was covered by disability—and I knew even then that I had access to more of that probably than most American women did. But the irony of course really colored my entire maternity leave and I was so worried that by the time I got used to having this baby, who was going to actually only be a real baby at that point, I would be headed back to work. So I got back to work, muddled through. My whole managerial style, sort of the whole way through my career, has always just to kind of wear everything on my face, because I can’t tell a lie to save my life. And I was pretty open and transparent about the challenges of working motherhood. I was still obviously trying to do my job really well too, but I kind of knew I couldn’t hide anything. And then what I found pretty quickly—and this is from a position of privilege, I was an executive at this point and so I probably had more leeway to be more about more open than most people did—but I decided to use that to my advantage, and I found pretty quickly that instead of being a weakness, actually, it showed particularly the women who were junior to me that they could do this one day too, and that it was often a mess and often ugly and yet still you could get through it. It was a transitional phase, and I was like, “ah, it’s a phase. It’s really just another trimester.” And so I had this idea that there’s really a whole fifth trimester to get through. And on the other side of it, you’re better prepared for really every transition that can happen in career and motherhood.
SWB: 08:54 What was going on in your particular fifth trimester story? You mentioned you were an executive, so like what was your role and how did you end up managing that fifth trimester?
LSB: 09:02 I was an executive at Glamour Magazine on the editorial staff. I was there in total 13 years. I had both of my sons there. And when I had Will, my oldest son, who is now 11, I was the, I think I was in the number three position. So I had a couple of bosses above me, so I felt the pressure of that, but I also had—it was a creative field. I was surrounded by women, many of whom were were mothers themselves or wanted to be one day. There were a handful of men. And it was a pretty supportive environment. We were creating content for American women for the most part. So we were really comfortable talking about women’s health issues and women’s rights and things that, you know, really were salient to the phase that I was in. And yet still, I found even then that there was this sort of instinct to hide what was hard, and to separate home from work. Yes, you could have your toddler’s drawing on your desk or you could have their picture, but if you needed to sneak out to go to something at preschool or a pediatrician’s appointment, you really did feel like you needed to sneak out. Some of that was the time, you know? But it was, it was really, it’s something that I think we’ve, we need to put behind us in workplaces but haven’t yet. And our leadership needs to do a really good job of showing how much they value flexibility, being able to be yourself in the workplace, which of course is so much more motivating and factors into retention anyway. And I knew we could do better even then. And so I decided to really kind of go out on a limb and just be that person who was always a little bit more open than was comfortable about motherhood. And I found that instead of actually making me feel exposed, it really made me feel, in many ways—and this was a privilege, not everybody can feel this way and be this bold—but it really helped me find new meaning in my work. I had been in not that exact position, but at that publication for, you know, years and years at that point. And I needed something sort of a new challenge. And I knew how to edit. I knew how to write a headline. I knew how to help design the cover of a magazine. All of these things that I’d spent my 10,000 hours on. But I hadn’t yet learned how to…coming back to work as a new mother was my first day on the job all over again in many, many ways, because I was not entirely a new person—I knew how to do my job. And I didn’t know how to do my job and be a mom at the same time. And so I felt like a newbie and I just decided to expose that all over the place as much as I could and make it ok.
SWB: 11:37 How did that turn into what is now The Fifth Trimester, sort of, ™? You know, the official Fifth Trimester work?
LSB: 11:42 [Laughter] Yeah, it is ™, it is like in like five, four or five categories. And I’m really proud of that. It was actually the very first thing I did before I even started doing research for the book is I had a coffee with an entrepreneur named Lisa Sun who has this company called Project Gravitas, and she was pitching me something about her company for Glamour, and she did something that I now try to do at the end of all of my meetings too, is she said to me—she kind of looked me deeply in the eyes—and was like, “but what else is it that you want to be doing?” And what I tend to do now at the end of meetings is not that deep gaze, but the like, “how can I help you? Who can I introduce you to?” Because inevitably they’ll do the same thing for you. And I just sort of spilled my guts and I said, “I have this idea, this idea that there’s a whole fifth trimester, and I want to write a book about it, but it can’t just be about my experience because mine’s pretty privileged. And it was really hard, but I know that it’s not representative everybody’s experience. And so I guess I would want to do a lot of research nationally and I can’t do that while I do my job, and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do this in a way that really feels good enough to, you know, to merit a whole book and a whole thing.” And she was like, “will you please just go trademark the term? Just go do that right now.” So, so that was my first step. She was like, you’ll get to it when you get to it. But I have a feeling if you take this first step, you’ll feel like it’s real, and you will want to take a second step. And she could not have been more right. And you know, four years later, here we are. And so the book was really—everybody always says, “when are you gonna write another book?” And I’m like, you know, it was really a launch pad for a business and a movement that is totally driving me now and I could not be happier doing it. It’s incredibly fulfilling work. So I left Glamour, I gave myself six months to do all of the research that I could, and I very quickly found that the survey that I created that was meant to answer a lot of questions about the return to work after baby, that I didn’t see any research on anywhere, took off. And just, I immediately got, within two weeks, I had 732 responses. And this was a 50-question-long survey. And I was able to see through the software I use that I had answers from all 50 states. And it was not very upfront about the fact that it was not necessarily a statistically sound survey done by a polling service. It was just me. But I sat with that data that I got in, and you know, over the course of three days of doing like eighth-grade-level algebra, I was able to really pull out some really compelling statistics that weren’t anywhere else that showed me, you know, if everybody who answered, they were able to get promoted and continued in their career within a year or two of having had a baby also had something else in common, what were those factors? Or you know, oh this incredibly small but really affected subset of people said that their relationship at home, if they had one went off the rails in their fifth trimester. What did they have working against them and for them? And so I was able to look at this and I very quickly put together a skeleton of statistics that helped form the basis for a book proposal. And then I wrote a sample chapter and an intro and found an agent and was really lucky to get my book deal quickly and have time to really properly research and go back and interview all these women. And I specifically sought out women who had a real variety of experiences, different definitions of motherhood, different definitions of career. So there are—probably disproportionate to the actual US population—there are quite a number of single moms, adoptive moms, moms who used surrogates, same-sex partnered mothers who carried the baby, same-sex partnered moms whose partners carried the baby. There are hourly-wage-worker moms. There are incredibly, you know, triple-degree-educated moms. There are fortune 500 executive moms, there are teachers, lawyers, doctors. Everything you can think of, I tried to find represented. And it was really interesting to see the ways that those differences gave us similar experiences in the return to work, and the ways in which the different factors affect people differently.
KL: 15:41 So the book has been out for a couple of years now. How has the movement itself sort of evolved since then?
LSB: 15:46 There was a moment at which actually my old work mentor, this woman Jill Herzig, who hired me at Glamour and is somebody who I still check in with occasionally and it’s been so supportive, and we had lunch. And I was at a point where I had been really giving a ton of time to promoting the book and promoting the book. And I had gotten tons of press and all of that good stuff that you hope for, but it hadn’t quite turned into a business yet. And you know, there were speaking engagements that people would say, “yeah, sure, we’ll buy 50 books.” And not sure that they really understood this, but that I was paid in advance for my book. And so that just goes straight into my publisher’s pockets, which is great. The publishing industry deserves to be paid for the books they make, but they didn’t understand that what I was actually asking for was to be hired as a speaker or a consultant or coach. So Jill, at this lunch that we had, said to me, “I gotta tell you, from this moment on, girl, this is not about the book. This is a business. Like, your book launched your business.” And that was really a turning point for me to understand that I needed to focus on being paid for the work that I was doing, for thinking of my research as really a proprietary thing that I had that I couldn’t just give away for free, and really developing my skills as a speaker and as a salesperson, which is something I had never had to do before. I connected with the audience at Glamour, I knew how to connect to people and how to express information to them in a way that you know, helped them solve problems. I knew how to write and edit and package content. I did not know how to create a proposal for consulting. And there were rules like, you know, I have a friend who does do this, a man, said to me, “Oh well you gotta you gotta have an A, a B, and a C option, and everybody always chooses the C option.” And I was like, “okay, go back. You got to explain.” You know, if you want them to hire you to do something, you need to create a plan that is less than that and costs less and more than that and costs more, and they will inevitably land on B. And I was like, “that is such incredibly valuable and simple information.” So these are things that I’ve learned around the way along the way. You know, how often to follow up, how much to pitch, how much is—oh, I hate this equation, but how much is exposure worth versus being paid well for the time that you’re putting into something? How do you scale what you have so that you’re not recreating the wheel every time you get hired to go in someplace? How do you really tend to their specific needs and help them not feel threatened by what I’m bringing in, too, which is, you know, I’m helping the women of your organization feel empowered to ask for what they need as mothers—or really, all the parents of your organization to feel empowered to ask for what they need as parents. But also, know that I’m appreciative of the fact that you’re my client and you’re bringing me in and I’m the guest here. So walking that line, all of this stuff has been something that I’ve been learning over the last couple of years.
SWB: 18:43 Yeah. So as this has become sort of a consulting business as well and you’re going in, you’re talking to companies, what are you finding in that process? Like, what’s it like for people kind of working on the ground at companies, and how are you helping them sort of think about motherhood and parenthood in their company a little differently?
LSB: 19:00 A big takeaway that I hope people come out of any kind of coaching session or speaking session that I do is that, if you negotiate as a single person for something that you need in the workplace—and it’s always better, if you can, to have three other people with you who also need the same thing, obviously strength in numbers—but very, very often there will be, you know, one mom who has to go ask for flexibility in a way that is not normal in her workplace. And so, and it is also quite frequently, unfortunately, a moment in life when a lot of women find themselves actually negotiating for the very first time, which is kind of shocking. But you know, many, many, many, many of us don’t ask to be paid what we’re worth, or for a change in job duties. And so now in this moment you have a baby at home, your hours are more challenging, and you actually find yourself compelled to negotiate for something. Only you’re doing it with this incredible pressure of something very personal. So what I say to them is, try to remember that this is not something that you are asking for for you, your family, in this moment. This is a plan for how you will get your job done. But also, any flexibility that you’re able to win is really a win for everybody around you. This is not just for you, this is for every mom. This is for every dad. This is for every parent. This is for everyone who has an eldercare responsibility. This is really for every human in your workplace who has something that is as important to them as your baby is to you—which is really everybody. Everybody has a personal life. And when it is tended to, and when they have the flexibility that they need it to be able to feel satisfied in their care of that thing and also do their job well, they’re more loyal, they’re more compelled to do inspired work, they’re better rested, they’re healthier, their mental health is better. All of these things factor into ultimately actually being good employees too.
SWB: 20:55 I love that so much and I believe that so much, and it connects back to something that I wanted to ask about, which is this concept of making motherhood more visible at work. And I’m curious when you talk about that, what that means for you, and what can non-parents do also to help make motherhood more visible in the workplace?
LSB: 21:14 So non-parents can make the thing that is in their personal life that is not necessarily as visible as a big pregnant belly, but that is super important to them, they can make that more visible too. They can talk about it. You know, if you are, for instance, training for a marathon to raise money for leukemia and lymphoma research because this is an illness that is in your family and this is vitally important to you, by all means tell people that when you have to leave a little early because it’s going to get dark out and you need to get a training run in, like, don’t shy away from that. Tell people that’s what you’re doing. Everyone should feel like their personal life needs matter and count, particularly, you know, in that they’re still able to get their job done. Because it shouldn’t be on women necessarily, and it shouldn’t be on moms necessarily, to have to make these big cultural corrections just because they’re the ones who need it in this moment. It’s really on all of us. And I also tell these mothers the last thing that they need is something added to their lists. You know, right. When they’re coming back to work and they’re already incredibly under-supported, Largely. But if they can do one sort of affirming kindness for somebody in their workplace who is not a mother or a father or a parent, that takes into consideration that person’s personal life, it goes so far. Because that person’s probably been covering for them in one way or another, you know, in the time that they’ve been out.
KL: 22:37 Yeah, I love that. And I also love something you wrote in a New York Times article, which I think is sort of related, about, quote, “paying your struggles forward” as a mom. And what does that mean to you?
LSB: 22:49 That’s sort of what I was talking about before. It’s knowing that when you ask for something, and when you go through something hard, that you’re showing other people that it’s possible. You know, that these struggles in many ways actually are an opportunity for growth. And it can be hard, particularly when you are sleep-deprived or perhaps not entirely healed, to see it that way. And I tend to be a glass-half-full person and I recognize that much of the world is not. But as much as you can embrace the opportunity and challenges, the better you’ll do. And in terms of paying it forward, it can be really hard, I think, to remember what you went through and just how hard it was and the details of it. And to recognize that the pressures that you may have felt in that time may not even be exactly the same pressures that somebody who’s going through that transition back to work two years later is going through. You may say, “Oh, well, our policies have gotten so much better.” Well, there may be other pressures in that person’s life to make it harder. So just remember that… try not to have a sort of survivor bias of, “I got through this, and you should have to, too.” Although I will add, one thing that I have learned since since I wrote the book, that my corporate work has really taught me to be eyes open about, is that when you do have an underrepresentation of women in leadership, it’s really important to bring those women who are not in leadership into the room to talk about the policies and changes that need to happen, because the women who do actually make it to the top and survive are a subset and probably had something working in their favor. Whether it’s that they need less sleep or they had a partner who was home with the kids, or they are incredibly smart—they’re just incredibly crazy smart and have a high IQ—you know, whatever it is, they had something working in their favor that not everybody has access to, so they can’t be the ones solely responsible for creating the norms. They also have—and I’m really sympathetic to this—they have an incredible burden on them, because when you are underrepresented in leadership at the top, you have to do your job, and it’s probably a hard job. Then secondly, you have to do your job really, really, really well to prove that you even deserve to be there as somebody who’s underrepresented. And then thirdly, you have this enormous responsibility—and opportunity, but really responsibility—to bring up other underrepresented people underneath you. So what I see, particularly in law firms is that, you know, these, these female partners who have made it to the top in a really competitive field also have to spend a tremendous amount of time mentoring people underneath them. And that does take away from their literal billable hours if they do it. And so it becomes a real conundrum. And so the advice that I give to places like law firms where they can actually measure this work is, have a billing code for that kind of mentorship, and that kind of career development work. And not only should you have the code and write it down, but it needs to be something that is factored into people’s bonuses. And perhaps those hours count even more than billable hours internally. And that’s how you make that correction to help women feel—anyone who is underrepresented—feel motivated to help the underrepresented people underneath them as well.
SWB: 26:00 What I really like about this is that we’re not just talking about,oh, a new policy that’s specific to people who have kids or things like that. We’re really talking about kind of reshaping the way that we think about work and the way we value work and what labor is considered valuable. Even somewhere like a law firm that has some very specific ideas about what labor is valuable.
LSB: 26:22 Yes, yes. Yeah. Every six minutes, man.
SWB: 26:24 [Laughter] That is not a life for me.
KL: 26:27 Oh my gosh, that is rough.
LSB: 26:30 Me neither.
KL: 26:30 Yeah. [Laughter] Well, I want to dig into this a little bit more. Touching on the idea that, you know, moms and dads should ideally be taking leave equally, which is something you’ve talked about, you know, to underscore that both are equally valued in the workplace. Why is this such an important missing piece of parental leave policies?
LSB: 26:47 Oh, it’s so, so huge. So, so yeah, I mean there that is the ideal should. And yet the reality, even for the most progressive couples, is that, you know, probably mom—and I’m going to be super binary about this—but probably mom has access to more leave than dad. And certainly, in same-sex couples, you know, we see actually that in some cases partners don’t even count at all, or they are treated like dad—but the societal expectation is that they be just as involved as a mom. It’s really challenging. But when you make everything equal, what you do is you leave it up to the individual family to decide what works for them. If you don’t do that, what happens is—and typically you don’t have a couple where like both people are working in the same workplace and have access to all the same exact benefits, right?—so typically what happens is that, you know, mom will be home for the time that she needs to be to recover and hopefully bond with baby to whatever degree she can afford to not be paid for leave or leave is covered. Then dad, kind of, regardless of what leave he has access to, will take about a week and a half. On average. That’s how much a typical father takes. A typical mother takes 8.5 weeks of FMLA. That’s the average. And FMLA is unpaid. So of course, women who have access to more paid leave do tend to take more, but that’s the average. And then what happens is, is if mom is home learning everything on the job, taking care of this baby, dad is at work, sending the message to the coworkers like, “Hey, my work at work is actually more valuable than my work at home, so I’m going to be here and we’re really reliant on my salary, which is probably more than my spouse’s, and my benefits, which are probably better than my spouse’s, and my future income, which is probably more than my spouse’s. And my work here is just worth more than home. That’s the message that gets sent in the workplace. Then at home, what’s happening is there is this sort of professionalization of motherhood that a lot of us experience, which is, ”I’m going to be really good at this. I’m going to be home with this baby. I’m going to learn all the things, I’m going to do them all really well. I’m ultimately going to want them done my way.“ So then, fast forward, mom goes back to work. Now both parents come home at the end of the day, and this is supposing a traditional workday, but you know kind of you can, you can shift that according to whatever your family situation looks like. But so both parents come home at the end of the day and you know, hang up their coats, and then guess who knows how to do everything? Mom. And guess who wants it done her way? Mom. Typically. I’m guilty of that all the time. It’s this term called gatekeeping. So what I recommend to my corporate clients is make everything even for everybody, and have your leadership, particularly your male leadership, model really fully availing yourself of all of the paternity leave that’s available. In reality, what ends up happening that I sort of think is kind of a second best answer, is if you, mom, have access to more maternity leave than your partner or dad has, you take your time. And then when you go back to work, have your partner take intermittent leave. So perhaps they’re there for you in the very beginning when you’re healing, maybe, I don’t know if it’s a week or two or whatever your recovery is like for those first few weeks. And then they can delay, if they’re allowed to do that in their jobs. Some of the leave that they take, even if it’s only like you know, three weeks or a month at the very end of yours, you go back to work and then your partner gets to be the one who is in the bootcamp of baby everything, and learning things his or her way. And you get the experience of feeling like, ”Oh my partner can handle this. My partner can do everything I can do to,” and the baby bonds with the partner or dad, and vice versa. And then you both go back to work and things are evened up. Really helps offset the motherhood penalty, the gender wage gap, and all of these things that are so exacerbated by unequal leave.
SWB: 30:30 Yeah, I’ve definitely had friends who’ve played around with different setups and one of them would refer to it as she had been the “lead parent” and then her partner became the “lead parent” and she was like, “I’m not going to be proactively paying attention to the laundry.” I like, yeah, I can no longer keep that in my brain. And that was a big shift and that’s kind of what you’re talking about, this idea of where it’s like you have to let them lead, they have to take the lead. And once everybody is good at doing that, it’s a lot easier to trade back and forth. So I really liked that a lot. And so when women or people who are, you know, more feminine—you know, could be a non-binary person who is perceived as a woman at work, right—when they are pregnant, or when they take leave to have a baby, they often experience a penalty. When men take leave for their children or leave early for a preschool pickup or whatever, they often get treated like a hero. And I’m curious about how this plays into the conversation about leave and the conversation about how we talk about parenting at work.
LSB: 31:33 There is an actual documented motherhood penalty. There’s a bunch of studies. The most conservative study, the one that I like to cite, because it’s still shocking enough, frankly, is that women’s income drops 4% per child that they have. Now there’s this inevitable hand that goes up in the audience that is always like, “well yeah but that’s because they’re working fewer hours, or they have to be out more, or that they went part time.” No, no, no, no, no, no. The studies account for all of that. This is purely in bias that they are paid less. A mother’s starting salary is 8% lower than a non-mother’s, female, worker’s salary, and 9% lower than a man’s salary. So this is even coming into a job fresh and new. Men’s, on the other hand, go up per child. There is however—men’s salaries—however there’s some new research that shows that actually when men really do wear their parenthood on their sleeve, that they don’t experience that same daddy bonus that we see otherwise. So what you’re describing of the dad who is like, “Hey, I’m going, I’m going to this school thing,” or “I am going to be home on on paternity leave for the absolute like every minute that I’m entitled to,” they actually don’t get the daddy bonus. The daddy bonus is experienced by men who everybody knows they became a dad, but they don’t act like it’s affected their work in any way. So I think that’s an important distinction.
SWB: 33:01 So disappointing too because like, you know, I just keep thinking, gosh, people at work are also still humans and like whether it’s, whether it’s a baby or an illness or anything else like this idea that as long as you put on the face of the perfect worker all the time, it’s okay. And if you’re anything else, it’s not, I’m just like, this isn’t working. You all can see it’s not working, right?
LSB: 33:23 I have to share something here that has been a real transformation in how I’ve thought about this. So I will very often get asked, you know, when I start citing that, you know, the United States is the only country, it’s the only developed country in the world that does not have paid parental leave, paid maternity leave. Ba-ba-ba. People say, “well, why? Why is it so bad here?” And honestly, I’m embarrassed to tell you that for years, for like two years, my answer was, “well, we’re a young country, and we’re still in startup mode, and we don’t have the benefit of a long lens to realize that sometimes you have to actually slow down in order to make like bigger and more important advances for the next generation.” I think that is somewhat true. Did you read the 1619 project or listen to that podcast from the New York times?
SWB: 34:05 Yes.
LSB: 34:06 Okay.
SWB: 34:07 It’s incredible for anybody who hasn’t listened to it. I mean it’s looking at 400 years of the legacy of slavery in this country. And it’s amazing.
LSB: 34:16 And it’s basically reframing American history, and the way we think of American history, to look at the beginning point as 1619, which was when the first slave ship landed. Right. And just the influence that African culture has had on shaping what is America. Anyway, the podcast there that I listened to that turned my whole notion of like, “Oh we’re a young country” on its head is that actually they were talking about how—and I wish I could remember the reporter’s name, she was fantastic—but she talked about how the standards of what is considered sort of normal positive workplace development all come from the fact that slave owners who got the most out of their slaves were the most successful business owners (in quotes). So in order to like succeed in business and have the most profitable, say, plantation, you would basically run through people physically, you know, you would abuse them, you would get everything you could out of them. And so this really, really wound its way insipidly into our definition, our American definition, of work. So our American definition of work is get as much as you can out of people. And that’s why Americans—I don’t, this is not a comparison of vacation, you know, versus being horribly abused, but you know, this why Americans don’t take vacations. This is why Americans don’t have access to paid parental leave. It just totally blew my mind open how blind I had been to that.
SWB: 35:48 And for listeners, I believe you probably referencing Nikole Hannah Jones who created the 1619 project.
LSB: 35:52 Yes! Thank you, thank you.
SWB: 35:54 No, her work is amazing and I want to make sure she gets credit for it. And I think, you know, in this conversation, I’m really glad you brought that up because I think when we sort of back up from any American cultural thing that exists, you know, you back up a bit, you back up a bit. If you really look at it, we are always backing right back into slavery and into that original sin of this country. And it does a disservice, you know, to kind of keep things at a surface level. And that really does take it back to where if we can’t reckon with that, it’s hard to imagine how we’re going to get out of this from a sort of like deep cultural level.
LSB: 36:28 Mmmhmm. Racism so clearly impacts the access to support and even just obviously simple good health and the right to good health that American workers have. You know, we see it, this is a really simple explanation, but so very often you’ll see that a company has gotten headlines for providing, you know, so-and-so is going to now have, you know, 12 paid weeks of family leave. Great. Who actually has access to that? Is that just the corporate office, or is that the corporate office and the fulfillment center workers and the hourly wage workers? Because that lower tier, that lower status of worker is more likely to be female and more likely to be underpaid. And if the majority of your corporate office people and your executives are men, this is not, this is not ultimately that helpful for women. So I really celebrate companies like, and I know that they are, you know, not perfect companies, but Starbucks and Amazon that have really this kind of the next-level move in HR is making parental leave, family leave benefits available for everybody without a distinction of like primary versus secondary parent, and also making it available for everybody at every tier of the business.
SWB: 37:41 Yeah, and I think this conversation just gets even messier when we think about not just tiers of a business but also contract workers—.
LSB: 37:47 Yes!
New Speaker: 37:47 —and the amount of the economy that is provided by contract workers who have basically no, no benefits, no safety net at all.
LSB: 37:54 That is actually one thing that I am—I wrote about this for the New York Times. When New York, I live in New York, and when New York State’s paid family leave rolled out, one detail about it that didn’t get a ton of attention, but I immediately was like, “Oh, this is incredible” is that there was no minimum number of employees you had to have to have your business need to be able to offer family leave. So what that meant was, if you have a nanny in your home, a caregiver, that person has access to paid parental leave. And the burden of that financially is not on the shoulders of the employer. It is something that we all, except for non-exempt workers, which is not that many people, pay into to a tune of like a $1.50-something per week. Like everybody pays into this fund and that’s what provides not enough, but some, paid parental leave to everyone. Even potentially undocumented people who don’t feel always like they can actually put their name forward to receive it. But I interviewed a number of domestic workers who were able to use it for the first time and it was transformative.
KL: 38:59 You mentioned this word a little earlier, the word guilt, and—.
LSB: 39:02 Yeah.
KL: 39:03 I want to talk about that. Sara and I talk a lot about feelings on this show, but I think guilt is a really hard one to talk about in a lot of cases and especially when it comes to feeling guilty about something like being ambitious. How has talking about your own feelings helped other moms get in touch with theirs?
LSB: 39:20 I have very strong feelings about this question and about the word guilt. So one thing that I did in doing the research for my book—so I had this big survey, but then I also did these deeper interviews—it was with more than a hundred working moms. And one of the things that I did for myself to give myself some time was I hired somebody to transcribe—a woman, a single mom actually—to transcribe these interviews. And so I was able, not just to have had the conversation, but then to look at the words on the paper when they came back into me. And inevitably if you made a word cloud of which words popped up the most, guilt would be in that top tier of words that are really big in that word cloud. Everybody talked about guilt, which was not that surprising. What was interesting to me was when I looked at the context in each case, guilt meant incredibly different things to different people. So there were some mothers who told me that they felt guilty leaving their babies in the arms of someone who perhaps did not love that baby as much as they did. That was one kind of guilt. And then there were people who felt guilty because they actually loved being back at work. They loved the adult conversation. They loved not having a baby on their body all the time. But you know, when you think about what guilt means, guilt, the implication of guilt, is that you’ve done something wrong, right? Like in order to feel guilty you have to have done something wrong. But there’s so little support for American working moms that none of us is really doing anything wrong. We’re all just kind of trying to do our best with what we’ve got right? Everybody just wants to support their families, of course. And also if every single person around you, if every other mother around you, would say she feels guilty, guilt isn’t real. It’s really kind of, it’s like a common denominator that we all have.
LSB: 41:04 There’s no other less-guilty working mom to aspire to be if everybody around you is feeling guilty too. So it’s really not productive. It’s really sexist. I actually would very, very much welcome a conversation about daddy guilt because I’m sure that exists too. But for the most part, the sort of colloquial term is mom guilt, mom guilt. And the truth is is like yes some of us may feel quite conflicted about working, or, you know, we have made a decision that isn’t the best thing for our health or for our family in that moment. And so grapple with that, deal with that. But do not write off something that is actually big and complicated as like, “Oh I’m just feeling guilty,” you know? And it’s probably not guilt. It’s probably something that is more nuanced than that and that we should be able to talk about in clearer terms.
SWB: 41:49 Yeah. And just sort of hanging out in that guilt zone and feeling shameful about your choices is not helpful to anybody. Yeah.
LSB: 41:56 No. Certainly not to your baby. You know, if you’re feeling bad because you feel like you’re not being a good enough mom to your baby, well sitting there feeling guilty is not making you a better mother.
SWB: 42:05 Yeah, absolutely. Well, Lauren, we are almost out of time and before we go, I want to get just a little bit of like quick advice from you. Okay?
LSB: 42:12 Sure.
SWB: 42:13 So I have two questions. The first one is for parents, is there one thing that you would recommend that any parent does when they return to work?
LSB: 42:22 Yes. If you have the benefit of having a partner, share the sleeping/wake-up burden with that partner evenly. Even if that partner makes a different amount of money, has less access to good parental leave, the work that you do when you’re home on maternity leave is vitally important. Keeping a baby alive and doing it in good health. And is at least as important as that job that that person has. So share the nighttime wake-ups as much as you can. Logistically, that can be really complicated if you have a parent who is producing breast milk. However, the sleep experts say that really the amount that resets you is two nights of sleep. But if you can’t get that, two REM cycles. So that is about four hours. It’s like three and three-quarter hours to four and a quarter hours is enough in a row. Then you have to get more sleep obviously, like at later points in the night. But if you can offset one of those feedings to your partner so that you get a good stretch from like 9:00pm to 1:00am, you will wake up feeling better than if you didn’t have a four-hour stretch. So split it with your partner if you can. That supposes of course that you have a partner. And I just have to shout out the single moms in my book who had really no guilt. I will say. Who really were incredibly clear about the fact that they could not go through this whole experience of being a new working mom without asking for the help that they needed from the people around them and from their families, their chosen families, whoever it was. They knew that in asking for that, that was a strength, not a weakness, and that it would ultimately better be better for their children. And I think that we all stand to learn a lot from those single moms.
SWB: 43:54 Yes. Oh my gosh. Yes. Okay. Second thing. What’s one thing everyone who works with a returning parent can do?
LSB: 44:04 Oh, you know, this has become a little bit of like an Instagram trope, but I really, really believe it, is: don’t ask somebody how they are. Ask them how they are today. That will get you a real answer. It will make them feel truly supported in like, it’s not just some throwaway, you know, like, “I had to be nice to you today.” It’s really meaningful and it will, it will engage them in truly meaningful conversation about their home life at work and the way that those two things can push-pull against each other.
SWB: 44:34 I like that a lot. Lauren, thank you so much for joining us today. Where can listeners find out more about the Fifth Trimester?
LSB: 44:41 Oh, thank you. And thank you for having me on. So I am neglectful of much, much of social media except for Instagram. I’m @thefifthtrimester all spelled out on Instagram. I’m also thefifthtrimester.com online. I actually, I try to use my Instagram feed as a way to do—this is going to sound ridiculous—but somewhat pro bono work. I answer questions all the time. It is a way that you don’t have to hire me as a coach, but I’m just, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned and to broadcast your questions, too, in a way that ultimately helps all of the followers of that account via community together and make a real movement for change.
SWB: 45:16 I love that and I love you taking that invisible unpaid labor and saying no, that’s pro bono work.
LSB: 45:21 Yeah, it really is.
SWB: 45:24 Lauren, thank you so much. We loved chatting with you today.
LSB: 45:27 You too. Thanks for having me on. [short transition music plays] ### More on: the 1619 Project
SWB: 45:31 Okay. Can we dig further into something Lauren mentioned in this interview: how the American definition of work was fundamentally created by slavery. Because that’s huge and we didn’t have time to get very deep into it.
KL: 45:43 Yeah, I am so glad she brought that up. And so Lauren refers to a New York Times podcast episode hosted by Nikole Hannah Jones called “The Economy That Slavery Built,” which came out of an article in the same New York Times project by Matthew Desmond called “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”
SWB: 46:04 Which wow, that article is incredible. And there’s so much in this whole project, the 1619 project. So if you never read any of it, if you kind of like slipped under your radar, definitely go back and check it out. It is worth your time to really dig into everything that came out of the 1619 work, specifically this piece on the economy that slavery built, I mean, wow, there’s just a lot here. I want to talk about.
KL: 46:28 I know. So many aspects of how enslavement worked and thrived is directly related to capitalism becoming how this country operates and basically why America exists. That entire project is really sobering and there are so many correlations that stick out. Like this one. Can I read it to you? “Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs by developing precise systems of record keeping. Meticulous bookkeepers and overseers were just as important to the productivity of a slave labor camp as field hands.”
SWB: 47:05 Doesn’t that sound like a lot of the arguments you hear against things like family leave or giving people flexible work schedules? Like “no, we can’t possibly treat humans like humans because it’ll get in the way of our profit.”
KL: 47:16 Yeah.
SWB: 47:17 Yeah. So when I read that, I actually went down a little bit of a rabbit hole and started reading about the work of Caitlin Rosenthal, who’s referenced in that piece. She’s an academic, she’s a historian at UC Berkeley, and she wrote a book called Accounting for Slavery, which I now need to get a copy of. So her argument is basically that most scholarship traces modern management practices, business practices, to things like English factories and the major industries in the North, in the United States. But actually those practices started on American slave plantations. For example, she talks about depreciation as a business concept coming from plantation management. So enslavers would have these spreadsheets where they tracked how much enslaved people were worth over time, doing things like modeling out their depreciating value as they age. And also people might appreciate in value, right? Like they might get stronger, they might become more skilled at a particular task or you know, maybe they are people who get pregnant and create new enslaved people for the plantation. And so this idea of like reducing people to appreciating and depreciating assets was a very standard part of how plantation owners optimized. And that is a concept we carry right through to business now and we think about how business operates.
KL: 48:35 Yeah, absolutely.
SWB: 48:37 Okay. The other one that’s such a huge one is productivity analysis. So American slavery practices totally influence how we think about worker productivity today. For example, we know it’s really normal, it’s 100% normal in business to try to optimize a business for lower costs, right. No matter what it does to the people involved, you see it constantly. Like, remember “clopening”?
KL: 48:58 Oh God.
SWB: 48:59 “Clopening” if you have not heard about it is the way that a lot of companies, for example, Starbucks would do things like schedule workers to close one night and then open the next morning. And sometimes that would mean like maybe you close at 11:00pm maybe you get out of there at 11:30pm and you’re back the following morning at 5:00am you’re closing and you’re opening your clopening.
KL: 49:21 It’s rough.
SWB: 49:21 Yeah, it just wrecks people and you know, there was a lot of backlash against Starbucks for doing that. They said that they were going to stop doing that. It doesn’t seem like they’ve exactly stopped, maybe have improved some practices, but it’s also not just them, right? This is like an industry thing, and a lot of food service and retail people have so little power over how they’re scheduled or when they’re scheduled. And a lot of businesses are using software to automatically, like algorithmically, determine who’s working when. And so they set up these schedules and staffing in a way that is optimal for the business. Meaning like, we don’t want people around when we don’t absolutely need them, right? So we want to have as lean of a staff as possible in order to meet the needs of the demand that’s coming in at that time. And all of that makes enough sense, if you’re only thinking about the business and you’re only thinking about that immediate moment of like, what’s the least staffing I can do to get through this day? But what happens to people is workers have totally unpredictable hours. Some weeks they’re not getting enough hours, so they don’t have enough money. Some weeks they need to make up hours. So they, you know, will take whatever they can get. Sometimes they have to work all these late shifts, sometimes you have to work all these early shifts. And so if they have any other responsibilities, things like, I don’t know, children, how do you possibly arrange your life around that? Or if you need transportation, like you don’t have your own car necessarily, you have to arrange transportation around this totally unpredictable schedule. And so it just wreaks havoc on people’s lives. It completely wears them out. And I think about those practices and how they’re always justified by this concept of optimization and how that’s exactly the same justification that was used in slavery. And also something Caitlin Rosenthal talks about is the way that enslavers used things like rewards and punishments and even contests between enslaved people to maximize output. So like pitting two enslaved people against each other, right? To make them work more and work harder. And then I think about things like Amazon fulfillment workers who are scared to take bathroom breaks. Or the way that Uber and Lyft, quote unquote, “incentivize” drivers to drive more by creating contests. Right? And I’m like, Oh, right. All of these practices, all of these ways that we create games around productivity, all of these ways we manipulate workers to just always, always, always be producing more labor—they’re barely updated from what plantations did.
KL: 51:44 Yeah. That’s a lot to think about. One of the other things that Caitlin Rosenthal talks about that really got me is management structure. So if you were an enslaver who owned a plantation, you’d have a small group of people at the top running your plantation, your business, you know, a lawyer and an accountant and an overseer. Basically what we’d probably consider executive leadership. And then you’d have had drivers who were enslaved people and enslaved fieldworkers and some enslaved people were also in higher levels of the hierarchy, but always, always, always directly under an enslaver. The plantation owner always reaped all of the reward and then slaved folks at the lowest levels beared all of the suffering. And if you look at some of the frameworks of plantation, you know, quote unquote “organizations,” they represent legit org charts that look really, really familiar today. So you know, completely top-down hoarding of power, mistreatment of workers, no questioning of authority or the process. And this is all in practice today and we don’t question it. And if we don’t reckon with it and interrogate the origin of the modern frameworks we’re in today for work and why capitalism succeeds by treating workers as inhuman, it’s never going to change.
SWB: 52:56 Yeah, I think so much of this feels really mundane when we talk about it at the day-to-day level. Like how can depreciation of office furniture derived from slavery? Or, why would it be bad to optimize your business? But when you start connecting those dots, when you really let it sink in that all these things you just consider businesses normal—you consider them just how the world works, right? All the org charts, all the productivity analyses—they all have a direct line back to slavery and it’s a little mind-blowing and it makes it hard to ignore how big of a problem the way we work is, and how much it’s also not, it’s not natural. There’s nothing natural about it. It’s like we’ve internalized it as, “that’s just what work is like,” but that’s a history, a legacy, we’ve inherited.
KL: 53:38 Yeah, it is so mind-blowing, and to your point, it’s so important that we look at it.
SWB: 53:42 Yeah, so this is something I really want to come back around to in more episodes. I think it needs to be something that we really pick apart further next year. Because I think we talk about workplace culture a lot on the show. We talk about burnout, we talk about how productivity hacks are bullshit, we talk about bias against different groups. And I think anytime we’re doing that, I want to make sure we’re also really thinking about, how does that tie into white supremacy? How are all of those things actually facets of a white supremacist work culture? And I don’t think we’ve been doing that or we haven’t been doing that as frequently or as fully as maybe we can be. So that’s definitely something I want to spend more time on.
KL: 54:18 You know what? I think that’s what we should say “fuck yeah” to this week.
SWB: 54:22 Ooh, I like that. So we can maybe say fuck yeah to Nikole Hannah Jones and everyone who created the 1619 project.
KL: 54:29 Absolutely.
SWB: 54:30 For giving us the push we needed to go deeper on this stuff. Like, I really want to face head-on a lot of the really uncomfortable parts of my culture, my white culture, that I know we don’t talk about enough. And also I want to say fuck yeah to Lauren, because, you know, Lauren was giving an interview that could have been a really comfortable topic about motherhood and work, something she knows really intimately, something that she has reputation around, and she took it and she took a moment and said, you know, I want to turn this and make this a little bit less comfortable and I want to say fuck yeah to that because I want to see a lot of that.
KL: 55:02 Yeah, definitely. I think it can feel really hard and you know, I think we talk to people we hope are going to want to dig into stuff and it’s really, it’s great when they’re open to it.
SWB: 55:11 So fuck yeah to getting uncomfortable. I think that’s where all of our growth and change is going to be.
KL: 55:16 Yeah. Fuck yeah. Well that’s it for us this week. Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn at EditAudio. Our theme music is Deprogrammed by Blowdryer, who is an awesome Philly based band, and you should definitely check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Lauren Smith Brody for being our guest today, and thank you so much for listening. If you liked our show today, definitely subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. And Hey, get some Strong Feelings delivered right to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week. [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]