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Navigating the fifth trimester: Why working parents need better support

A working mom makes notes while holding her daughter.
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

A textbook pregnancy consists of three trimesters. The baby develops at a relatively predictable rate during this time, from pomegranate seed to avocado to watermelon. And mom’s body adapts accordingly to meet her child’s needs. But this development doesn’t stop at birth. New parents are often told to treat the next three months as the fourth trimester.
Like the first three, this trimester is a time of mental and physical growth for the baby. It also serves as her introduction to the world—a busier, nosier place than her previous home. For parents, it’s an exhaustive blur of bonding, sleep deprivation, life adjustments, new responsibilities, and, for the birth mother, continued bodily change (such as postpartum pain and learning to breastfeed).
And after this period, parents become old hands at this baby stuff, and it’s easy, breezy livin’ until the toddler years. Right? Sorry but no.
Lauren Smith Brody, author and founder of the Fifth Trimester Movement, warns that the next twelve weeks will be yet another critical and challenging transition period. This fifth trimester occurs when working parents (especially moms) return to their jobs. And it almost always happens too soon.
In this video preview of her expert class, The Fifth Trimester—A Guide for U.S. Moms and Their Employers, Brody explains why.

The Postpartum Experience

  • During the fifth trimester, new moms transition from full-time newborn care to full- or part-time work.
  • Women, on average, feel back to normal physically 5.5 months after having a baby. They feel normal emotionally after 5.8 months. And it is typically 7 months before new moms are sleeping through the night. Yet the average American woman is back to work 8.5 weeks after having a baby.
  • Research indicates that 6 months of paid parental leave leads to:
    • improvements in mom’s mental health
    • improvements in baby’s health
  • Women going back to work before 6 months of leave are returning at a volatile time, both for themselves and their babies. But what’s expected of them at work may be the same—or more.

Despite the benefits of paid parental leave—which are enjoyed by parents, employers, and little ones alike—countries still struggle to implement policies that support citizens adjusting to postpartum life.
While many rich countries offer paid leave, these mandates can sometimes fall short. For example, Israel, Ireland, Mexico, Australia, and the United Kingdom mandate for less than 20 paid weeks off—short of the half-year Brody’s research recommends. And even progressive countries continue to shortchange fathers and their bonding needs. Among them is New Zealand, which only offers one to two unpaid weeks off.
But all other rich countries outpace the United States. The U.S. mandates no paid leave at the federal level, and only a handful of states have enacted paid leave programs. The reasons for this social slight are complex and many, arising from factors such as the culture’s stringent individualism, pervasive distrust of bureaucracy, and the country’s relative safety during both World Wars.
“There’s a basic inconsistency in saying we support families, we have family-friendly policies, when in fact we have the worst family policies of any developed high-income democracy,” Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, told The New York Times on the subject. “We don’t have family-friendly policies at all.”
True, the Family and Medical Leave Act grants 12 weeks of unpaid leave to a new U.S. parent. But in nearly half of U.S. homes, both parents work full time. Even then, 40 percent of American families would struggle to cover an unexpected expense of $400. This reality means few parents can afford to take the time away, forcing them to choose between their newborn and financial solvency (or just ends meet).
By returning to work before the fourth trimester has concluded, these parents must manage the transition to parenthood and the challenges of integrating their new work-life responsibilities. The result is a sense of guilt for leaving their child before they feel the family was ready.

Conquering Mom Guilt

  • “Mom guilt” comes in many forms. It can relate to how you’re parenting, or how you feel about parenting. But mom guilt is a misnomer. It’s a term that’s universally applied to a variety of emotions.
  • To move past mom guilt name and address the actual emotion you’re feeling:
    • Regretful
    • Conflicted
    • Overwhelmed
    • Unsupported
  • “Mom guilt” feelings can affect your partner, too. Invite them into the conversation.
  • Acknowledge your feelings around working parenthood early, before they snowball.

Happily, this status quo is likely to change. Countries such as Estonia, Austria, and Japan provide more than a year of paid maternal leave and have shown the viability of such policies. And Japan leads in paid-leave provisions for fathers in a bid to combat its “male-centered corporate culture.”
In the U.S., a majority of Americans support paid maternity leave, and President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan proposes to extend the Family and Medical Leave Act to require 12 weeks of paid family leave.
Until then, U.S. parents must continue navigating the overlapping fourth and fifth trimesters. That may sound like victim-blaming, but Brody wants to be clear that it is not. She isn’t saying that “mom guilt” or any other postpartum difficulty is a parent’s fault. She’s saying new parents are in a trying, emotional place and should be honest in their self-assessments.
First, they need to understand that these decisions aren’t easy and will require some sacrifice. No matter how cheerful and sun-drenched others’ social media feeds look, every parent faces trade-offs and must make the best of their situation.
Second, “mom guilt” is often a mislabeled emotion stemming from the belief that the trade-off was the wrong one. But as Brody notes: “If you say you feel guilty, it implies that you’ve done something wrong. No, you were doing the very best you can in the circumstances that you were living in to be a good [parent] providing for your child.”
Here, employers and colleagues can step up to help new parents. As Brody discusses in her expert class, employers give such support through gender-neutral initiatives. Examples of such initiatives may include flexible scheduling, intermittent leave, or a phase-back program—all of which can assist in relieving fifth-trimester stress. As a bonus, these initiatives can pay for themselves by improving retention rates and allowing employers to bank funds they would otherwise spend on training new hires.
And colleagues can cultivate an understanding environment to support new parent’s mental well-being. They can let parents know that they don’t owe extra because someone “covered” for them in their absence. They can improve working relationships by letting working parents adjust to new team niches. And, of course, they can be a much-needed shoulder for new parents to lean on.
Support new parents at your organization with lessons ‘For Business’ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, more than 350 experts, academics, and entrepreneurs come together to teach essential skills in leadership and cultivating culture. Join Lauren Smith Brody for her expert class, The Fifth Trimester—A Guide for U.S. Moms and Their Employers, and learn lessons in:

  • The Birth of the Working Mom
  • Understanding the Benefits of Paternal Leave
  • Asking for (and Getting) What You Need
  • Retaining and Supporting New Parents
  • Knowing Your Value as a Working Mom
  • Five Ways New Moms Can Reduce Stress

Request a demo today!

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