For many women, returning to work after maternity leave may be the one thing more challenging than childbirth itself. Lauren Smith Brody, a veteran magazine editor and mom of two, recalls experiencing both sadness and excitement. “I was thrilled to be back in touch with this part of myself, and I was getting my job done,” she says. “But I couldn’t hide that I was struggling.”
One day, a younger co-worker said to Brody, “I love your honesty about how hard it is to be a new mom at work.” Brody blanched. Was it that obvious? Had she been unprofessional? But when her colleague thanked her for showing her she could do it, too, Brody had a lightbulb moment: She wanted to help working moms see they could live a life that was meaningful and fun, and bring those experiences back to work with them to be successful in their careers.
A few years later, Brody published “The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby,” which draws upon interviews with over 700 working moms and experts. Brody has since helped companies across the country create more family-friendly workplaces.
Here, she shares her top take-charge strategies to help new working moms set themselves up for success.
FIND A WORKING-MOM MENTOR
My research shows that the happiest new moms have one thing in common: a working-mom mentor. Find yours. She doesn’t have to be in your own office, or even your own town, but she should be someone you respect who has gone through this transition and can show you how to come out on the other side.
OUTSMART YOUR SLEEPY BRAIN
The biggest question I get from new parents is how to work through sleep deprivation. I like to share a tip from Wendy Troxel, PhD, a behavioral and social scientist, who advises “gaming your day.” It sounds counterintuitive, but schedule tasks that require you to be on your game and make you a little nervous — like important phone calls or meetings — at the time of day when you’re prone to a slump (for most people, that’s after lunch). Your body will naturally counteract that slump by producing adrenaline, which will carry you through the afternoon.
NEGOTIATE A SCHEDULE THAT WORKS FOR YOU
Whether you want more flex time, need to reschedule a meeting that always keeps you at the office late, or want to travel less than you used to, you should absolutely negotiate for that. Go in with a plan: Say, “Here’s what I want — and here’s how I’m going to deliver everything you need.” Ask to try out your new schedule on a trial basis, and set a date for one-to-three months in the future to discuss whether it’s working. It’s easier for bosses to say yes when they’re not signing in blood. Also, babies’ needs change by the month — if not by the week — so by the time your trial period has passed, you may have different needs.
REACH OUT TO COLLEAGUES WHO DON’T HAVE KIDS
I’m always hesitant to ask a new mom to give more of herself, but this really works: Take time to notice your colleagues who don’t have children. What is it that’s as important to them as your baby is to you? If someone has a sick pet, or a parent who is older and needs extra care, offer to help them out. Say, “I want you to know that you can lean on me, too.” Very often, they won’t take you up on it, but it changes their whole concept of what a harried working parent deals with.
TOOT YOUR OWN HORN
Too often, I hear new moms apologizing for the ways parenthood has changed them. It’s important for us to talk about the ways that we are better and more efficient in the workplace than we used to be. Be really deliberate about telling people what you’re working on, and how it’s going, so they see more than the fact that you’re leaving at 5 p.m. sharp every day.
ADD SOME SELF-CARE TO YOUR COMMUTE
Women I interviewed reported that their commutes were 50 percent more stressful after having a baby. It’s the one part of their day when they’re neither here nor there. But it can be a great time to squeeze in some much-needed self-care. Make a ritual of it. Carry a scented lotion and apply it to your hands during your commute. The smell will flood your brain with calming chemicals, and set you up to feel better when you get home. I hear it again and again from working moms: The key to everything is to become the kind of woman who knows what she needs, and does it for herself.