Welcome to Office Hours, where members of the Argent community share personal career stories and, in the process, dispense invaluable advice, rare insight, and inspiration through lived experiences.
Grab a seat—office hours are now open.
Lauren Smith Brody
Founder, The Fifth Trimester
When Lauren Smith Brody authored The Fifth Trimester, her book created a movement and a major career shift for the one-time magazine editor. But her story isn’t merely that of a job change, but an evolution of how the entrepreneur and activist came to understand transparency in the workplace, her personal definition of success, and—as many fellow working moms in the country may relate—the very limited support mothers and caretakers have from their employers and government.
After experiencing two difficult postpartum returns to work, Brody coined the term “the fifth trimester” referring to the period of time that some working mothers reenter the workforce in which support is needed for them to sustain their mental and physical health while being able to perform responsibilities as parent and employee. (“The fourth trimester” had been previously popularized by Dr. Harvey Karp, referring to the first three months that a baby is born and begins development outside the womb.) The Fifth Trimester book was released in 2017 and Brody subsequently launched a consulting business by the same name.
Today, Brody works with companies and individuals to support and retain moms, dads, and all caregivers with everything from family leave benefits to management training that prevents gender pay inequity. She helps her clients understand the ROI on these supports, pushing for progress across the private sector. She’s also extended her work into public policy as a co-founder of the Chamber of Mothers, a national nonpartisan nonprofit that mobilizes moms to advocate for their rights. Below she shares more about this journey, including reflections on how this unexpected career came to be and advice for utilizing your own power to support all caregivers.
WHAT DID YOUR WORK LOOK LIKE BEFORE THE FIFTH TRIMESTER AND HOW DID IT INFLUENCE YOUR CAREER CHANGE TO WRITE A BOOK AND BEGIN YOUR BUSINESS?
“I was at Glamour for a total of 13 years. I started before I had kids and by the time I stopped, I had both my babies. It was during a time when I had climbed the ladder and had a good amount of executive privilege. I also had the privilege of working among a whole lot of amazing, supportive women who were comfortable talking about our physical needs, even our mental health, back then. At the same time, publishing was a challenging industry because, in reality, we were still there until two in the morning shipping pages to the printer and missing out on nursing our babies to sleep.
“There was a vibe of ‘fake it till you make it,’ among women building their careers back then. And, as a masthead climber at the time, I embraced that stuff until I had kids when it became completely unrealistic and unsustainable to fake anything. I didn't have energy, I wasn't sleeping. I did have some maternity leave, some of it even paid, but ultimately learned years later the reason why it didn't feel like enough: Physically and emotionally, the minimum amount to be protective of your health, your baby's health, and your ability to sustain your career is six paid months. And we had nothing close to that.
“I found that, counterintuitively, rather than acting ‘professional’ the way I had always thought I needed to move up, there was a vulnerability that, as soon as I started sharing, actually helped me grow my career. There was a moment when my colleague came into my office. I stumbled over my words and I was like, ‘Danielle, I'm so tired. I just, like…’, and I gestured to the breast pump on my desk which I hadn’t even bothered to put away. And Danielle, who at that point was far away from parenthood in her life, said, ‘Thank you so much for being so open and honest about this stuff…You're showing me that it's incredibly hard and yet you're still here, you're still doing it, you're making it visible.’ And that was a real eureka moment. It showed me that there was a whole other area of growth that I had and that it would come from truly just being myself.”
WHEN WAS IT YOU LANDED ON THE IDEA OF THE FIFTH TRIMESTER?
“The birth of my second son really crystallized this idea of The Fifth Trimester. I had lunch with an entrepreneur, Lisa Sun, who had a company called Project Gravitas. And at the end of it, she said, ‘I always ask people at the very end before saying goodbye: What do you really want to be doing?” And I was like, ‘Well, I have this idea for a book about the return to paid work after maternity leave for moms, but I don't see a way to write a book. And then, what comes next?’
“Neither of us had a pen and so Lisa took out her lip pencil from her purse and, on a napkin in the Conde Nast cafeteria, she drew [a plan]. She was like, ‘First, you write the book and it's for the moms, and then you create the business and that's for all of the business leaders who want to know how to treat moms better.’ That's the genesis story. With my husband's encouragement and a big gulping breath of, ‘Can I do this?’ I gave myself six months and I created a book proposal and sold the book, but all along knew that the book couldn't just be a book. It had to turn into a business.”
DID YOU LEAVE YOUR FULL-TIME JOB AT GLAMOUR TO DO THAT?
“I was actually laid off from Glamour. If I'm being candid, I had gotten to a point where I was ready to go. And yet I was dug into ambition the way I had always defined it. My only measures of success were working long hours, making more money, and moving up that masthead. And that just did not sync with anything I needed in my personal life or what was happening in an industry. So I exited and I thought very seriously about trying to find another job that was something in content creation. Finally—and this is not how I tell this story typically, but I'm like ready to—my husband said, ‘Will you please just go write your book?’”
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TAKING ON THIS NEW VENTURE WHILE ALSO BEING TIED TO FINDING A TRADITIONAL FULL-TIME JOB? IT SOUNDS QUITE OVERWHELMING.
"It was. And honestly, it stays with me to this day, some of the complicated feelings. But I also think that those feelings make me better at the work that I do, and that's why I'm more willing now to talk about that part of the story.
“It's funny, on the hardback cover of my book, the subtitle is ‘The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby.’ And when we made the paperback, which was only a year later, we took the word ‘big’ out. I think we had a premonition that the whole ‘girl boss’ thing was going away, and rightly so. It was really meant to be much more about defining success on your own terms.”
"Women are incredibly profitable leaders and the only way to enjoy that profit as a business—to totally speak in capitalistic terms—is to keep them from leaving.”
YOU GIVE A LOT OF ADVICE TO WOMEN NAVIGATING THEIR WAY BACK TO WORK AFTER HAVING CHILDREN, EVEN WHEN THEY DON’T HAVE MUCH SUPPORT FROM THEIR JOBS OR THEIR GOVERNMENT. HOW CAN WOMEN IN THIS SITUATION FIND POWER IN THEMSELVES AND NOT JUST ACCEPT THE INSUFFICIENT OPTIONS AVAILABLE?
“It's not as simple as saying, ‘Just quit.’ Or if you're unhappy with the balance of domestic labor in your marriage, ‘Just leave.’ One of the things I love about the work I do is I can talk to an audience of 2000 people or I can spend an hour one-on-one with someone, and it really grounds me in their specific situation. When you talk to the individual, you understand the pressures that they feel to find comfort in the compromises that they're making and to help empower them to negotiate for the needs they have in a way that is going be ultimately mutually beneficial to both them and their employer.
“There's a breakthrough point that I have with so many—whether it's that big group or one person—where I help them understand that this specific accommodation or need for flexibility or change in pay structure is not just some personal life need. They're asking for every colleague they have. And a colleague could be any other working mom out there who may not have the same set of privileges that you do, who for some reason or another can't ask, for whom it's just too much of a risk that they can't take.
“And you're helping your employer do better—not just for moms, but for all caregiving employees. The ROI on supporting caregiving employees and on keeping women in the pipeline to leadership is enormous. Fortune 500 companies with a high representation of women in leadership show a 34% higher return to shareholders, according to a Catalyst study. And workforce gender equality would increase the U.S. GDP by 26%, according to McKinsey data. Women are incredibly profitable leaders and the only way to enjoy that profit as a business—to totally speak in capitalistic terms—is to keep them from leaving.”
YOU’RE NOW IN THE ADVOCACY SPACE, AS WELL, WORKING WITH CHAMBER OF MOTHERS. WHAT ARE YOU LEARNING THROUGH APPROACHING YOUR WORK IN THIS NEW WAY?
“It is an enormous work in progress. On my list today is to go through our document of bills that we want to see passed at a federal level in the next 18 months, which senators and representatives we're going to be meeting with in DC in early May, and who we’re bringing with us to represent our constituency. I had no idea that I had any kind of capacity to do this work because, frankly, government has always felt like something that was just out of my purview.
“In the work that I've started doing in public policy, I've found that—similar to coming back to Glamour after maternity leave—there's a strength in knowing what you do not know and knowing that you actually don't know how to talk about it perfectly.”
LOOKING BACK ON YOUR PRE-THE FIFTH TRIMESTER SELF, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE HER NOW?
“So often it's about trying to be better at taking my own advice. I am a product of girl power culture, I was raised in an environment of American exceptionalism, and I'm the eldest daughter. I'm not a risk taker and I love having structure, so there are pieces of working for myself that I will never get used to. I think it's really important to know the things that are unchangeable about my personality. And also to recognize that being able to work for myself and to do work that matters so much to me is the ultimate privilege. And with that also comes real responsibility.”
WITH MOTHER’S DAY THIS MONTH, WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE FOR WAYS ANYONE CAN CELEBRATE MOTHERHOOD?
“Mothering is a verb, and if you are a caregiver—even if you don't necessarily have children—you count, too. Obviously, mothers deserve Mother's Day, but when we stop thinking that these supports are only for moms, then we also stop stigmatizing ourselves. And as soon as we think of care work as more universal, then the rights we deserve around care become universal. And it becomes less on the mom to do everything right.
“The other answer would be just to eliminate the fallacy of mom guilt, which is just a sexist, classist, racist social construct. I'm not diminishing the fact that many of us feel guilty, but very, very few of us are making bad choices. Guilt implies you've done something wrong and nobody's doing anything wrong. If you feel guilty about something, there's probably some system that could be supporting you better.”