Navigating the 5th trimester – returning to work on your terms
“The hardest part about parenting so far was coming back to work” – Lauren Smith Brody
The 4th trimester, a now famous term first coined by Dr. Harvey Karp, paediatrician and author of Happiest Baby on the Block, refers to the first 3 months of a baby’s life after birth. Dr. Karp explains that babies are born too soon; unlike other mammals who are born being able to walk (more or less), human babies, who can’t even lift their heads when they’re born, remain incredibly vulnerable for many, many months.
Culturally, we’ve come to embrace the sacredness of the 4th trimester. During this time, families tend to take life slowly and choose to create womb-like experiences for their newborn (rocking, tight swaddling, dim lighting, sound machine playing).
The 5th trimester, a term more recently introduced by Lauren Smith Brody in her book The 5th Trimester, has quickly resonated with new parents – and their need to make sense of and seek guidance in navigating those early months of returning to work after having a baby.
Brody is a mother of 2 boys and so herself became familiar – twice over – with that murky and often daunting period of time when transitioning from “unpaid work” (parenting) to “paid work” comes into sharp focus.
“Coming back to work after my first son, I didn’t know what to do; it felt like it was my first day on the job”, Brody explains. Women are often unprepared for the return to work life – which can switch rapidly from maternity leave to 4 – 5 x 8 hour days of paid work a week, not including the commute.
Negotiating with an employer to set terms which would help with this transition is also a relatively new concept in our society. And the guilt that can be felt by a woman for taking maternity leave in the first place – followed by the fear of no longer being needed by said company – can make the idea of ‘negotiating’ a non-starter.
Having interviewed 800 women while researching for her book, Brody reveals that almost all new mums facing returning to work have one thing in common: an anxiety about returning to work.
So, whether you’re not feeling ready to be away from your baby for several hours a day, feeling concerned about pumping at work or about your childcare arrangements (or lack thereof) or whether you’re anxious about your ability to reenter a fast-paced, deadline-driven professional environment, you need to know that your feelings are entirely valid, normal and understandable.
Framing this universal experience with a name – the 5th trimester, helps provide it with cultural visibility, open up conversations around it and encourage women to really consider what an ideal return to work scenario would look like for her.
Here are 6 tips for navigating the 5th trimester:
- Longer maternity leave
Research shows that at least 6 months of (paid) maternity leave is recommended for the mental health of the mother and the physical and emotional wellbeing of the baby.
Establish your boundaries from the get-go about how long you will want and need to stay at home with your baby. This will help pave the way for a smoother transition back to work when the time comes because you won’t feel regretful – or traumatised – about returning to work too early. You will have also gotten in early in establishing a healthy negotiation dynamic with your employer – which you will call on when preparing to return to work.
2. Educate yourself and then come up with a plan
It’s a good idea to research your company’s competitor’s maternity leave and return to work best practices and policies so that you understand your playing field. It’s also important to get clear about your legal rights.
With your job description, the playing field and your legal rights in mind, get clear on what you want and how you imagine it working best for you, your baby/small child and your career.
3. Gradual phase back – adapt gradually
It’s been proven that a gradual return to work is optimal for both the working parent and the company – there’s no need to rip off the band-aid. No doubt your baby or small child will benefit from a gradual approach too!
4. Negotiate with your employer
Present your ideal plan/return to work scenario to your employer, describing how you could get your job done within the confines of your new situation. This is a time to discuss pumping at work and what you will require in order to do this comfortably, as well as your ‘hard outs’, in as far as when you will need to sign off for the day to pick up your child from childcare.
You may be working for a smaller company with limited experience in the 5th trimester – or for a company that has antiquated maternity/paternity practices; this is a great opportunity to lay the groundwork for future parents who also work at your company and will one day call on the same requested flexibility.
And remember that just because you may be proposing to work fewer hours and/or from home and may be less available in after work hours, if you are still proposing to fulfil the entirety of your job description, you shouldn’t necessarily agree to a pay cut. The efficiency of a working parent is like a superpower; you’ll be amazed at how much work you will achieve in the allocated hours you have to work! Remind your employer of this.
If you don’t get an immediate ‘yes’, you can ask to trial it. “Trial periods can be really effective”, Brody says. “There are very few managers that will say ‘no’ to, ‘can we try it, please?’”.
5. Choose the right childcare for you
“Research shows that the parent’s comfort with their choice in childcare was the number one predictor of the child’s success at that childcare”, says Brody. Anxiety around childcare (by whom and where) is common during the 5th trimester – after all, your precious baby has spent their entire lives to date with you.
“When you’re choosing childcare, really pay attention to your emotional need and comfort as much as the logistical comfort”, Brody suggests. Then workout a schedule of communication. For instance, how often do you want to receive video and image updates? Also, how local/nearby does the childcare have to be for you to feel OK about it? Creating control around a situation that feels out of control is important.
The Australian government provides a cost-effective Childcare Subsidy to eligible families through Centrelink.
6. Look for a collection of mentors
You don’t have to do this alone! Because the lives of working parents are so diverse and full these days, choosing more than one mentor can really help you navigate the 5th trimester and beyond. You might want to consider mentors in these areas:
- child health/child development/child wellbeing mentor
- social engagement mentor
- negotiating/financial mentor
- selfcare mentor
Thankfully, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided us with “a new cultural understanding” of working parents. Working from home and flexible working arrangements are now the norm. Therefore, lean into this new culture, get educated about the standards that have already been set in your industry, reframe what a workday looks like for you – and even what ‘success’ looks like for you – and come up with both a childcare plan and work plan that feels good.