In late December, a new law was passed giving federal workers paid parental leave for the first time. (Unfortunately, not all federal workers are covered by the new law.)
This is a great step forward, and we’re so happy there’s being a national conversation around parental leave — it’s finally getting the attention it deserves. But we’d like to push the conversation further.
Companies and parents need to talk about a little known transitional period that author Lauren Smith Brody calls the “fifth trimester” — the time when new mothers, just months after delivery, are going back to work but often before they feel emotionally and physically ready to return.
Returning Back to Work
Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby, writes that the first three trimesters (and the fourth — those blurry newborn days) are for the baby, but the Fifth Trimester is when the working mom is born.
Brody calls that first day back at work the “second cutting of the cord.” From interviewing more than 700 mothers for her book, she found that the emotional through line was guilt. “Everybody talked about guilt, even if it meant a different thing to each person. Everyone talked about coming back to work, feeling different and knowing that people saw them differently, no matter what field they were in,” she says.
Seventy-five percent of the women Brody surveyed said they wished they had been able to take a longer maternity leave. When asked how much extra time they would want, the most common answer was “a few more months.” “Either way, there’s a monumental transition,” she says. “I like to point out that the fifth trimester might be longer for some women and shorter for others. You kind of don’t know how long that transition time is going to be until you’re on the other side of it.”
Gender Equality in the Workplace
There should be an understanding among workers that this Fifth Trimester exists, and motherhood should not be treated as a career barrier.
As Harvard Business Review writes, “The ability to take one’s full parental leave without diminishing one’s promotion, pay, or leadership prospects is crucial for greater gender equality in the workplace and for helping all working parents, and in particular mothers, achieve greater work-life balance.”
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Brody says that more than anything, it’s important to be transparent about the challenges, but also about the triumphs. “That will also help everyone be less afraid of it, both of going through it and managing people who are going through it.”
If you want a chance to talk to other like-minded women about these issues and other challenges that arise around money, please join us at one of our Conversation Circles.