Rethinking Your Work Style After Maternity Leave

The author of The Fifth Trimester offers advice to new moms going back to work

Image by Artis777/ Getty Images

The culture of work is changing, and with it, our office dress codes. As companies encourage staffers to bring their whole selves to work — and people embrace style repeats and “personal uniforms” in an effort to de-stress workwear — Thrive decided to take a deeper look into how what we wear to work affects our mental well-being, creativity, productivity, and authenticity. We welcome you to take a spin through our special section: The Psychology of What We Wear to Work

“Why are you bleeding? Show me where you’re bleeding.” Lauren Smith Brody’s two sons are off from school today, so she is watching them while also working from home and doing this interview. It turns out neither of the boys is technically bleeding (maybe there is a slight papercut) and so we resume our conversation. Brody, the author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby (Doubleday, 2017) and I are speaking about the psychology of how new moms dress in the period when they return to work following a maternity leave — that “fifth trimester” of Brody’s book title. It’s often a time fraught with mixed emotions, minor embarrassments, career cul-de-sacs, and zig-zagging self esteem. (Turns out, figuring out what professional armor to wear each morning has its own challenges when your kids are fighting or asking tedious questions or making a mess or, as is the case today, possibly bleeding.) Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Thrive: The central theme of your book is that when women give birth, they typically (though not always) have a few weeks of leave, and just when they are getting their bearings — and their baby is starting to engage with the world — they are expected to return to work, and that entails all kinds of decisions about what her new life is going to be like. What role does appearance play in all that?

LSB: This is a moment in your life when you have entirely different priorities and that’s completely natural. Where you used to worry about the height of a heel or whether the front piece of your hair curls under exactly the way you want it to, you’re now, as a new mother, more focused on what feels so much more important, and that is keeping a baby alive. Everything else — everything — feels less important, including what you are wearing. Plus, you’re coming back to work on little sleep, so you really don’t have the energy to put into your appearance in the way that you did before you were pregnant. And yet at the same time, you know that you are still projecting — like it or not — an image that people will judge you for. And you want to be true to yourself, and true to who you used to be, because you are still that person, too. To summon the energy and wherewithal for that before you are physically and emotionally ready to be is a recipe for, at worst, an identity crisis and, at best, some really challenging mornings.

Thrive: Do you remember what you wore on your first day back [as an editor at top women’s magazine] after the birth of your older son?

LSB: I do and Will is now 10, so it says something about how hard I looked for an outfit for that first day back that I remember it perfectly. I remember I was pretty concerned with looking professional. So I wore a black silk dress that was not expensive, it was fast fashion, and it was loose in front gave me some breathing room — I didn’t have to suck in my tummy all day. It was also sleeveless and cut in at my shoulder, which I didn’t mind because I felt my arms looked good from lifting my baby so much. I felt like I looked more like myself in that dress in many ways than I had in a long time.

The problem was, it was not fitted or stretchy like my maternity clothes had been, so it seemed three-sizes too big, and I felt like a blob. And after 45 minutes, I needed to pump breast milk, and that’s when I realized I had to unzip down the back to do that, which meant I basically had to sit in my office naked. I was so, so fortunate to have an office and a door that was frosted glass, and I also worked in an environment made up largely of women who were familiar with the idea of pumping and understood when I said I have to close my door for a few minutes.

Still, I’ll never forget that startling sensation of sitting in my place of work half naked — I felt so exposed in so many ways. And then I had to do it all over again two to three hours later. And as much as there was the feeling of embarrassment, I also had this feeling of being disconnected. I was the type of colleague who prided myself on always having my door open and walking around the office to see what people were working on, and now I had to sit behind a closed door for part of the day. That really bothered me.

Thrive: I imagine many women have this problem and not every workplace is as accommodating.

LSB: Yes, a big concern for many women is pumping breast milk. It can be a huge challenge to schedule privacy depending on what accommodations your workplace is willing to offer. And if your workplace doesn’t have something set up for you, it can be extremely strange and uncomfortable to ask for something you’ve never had to ask for before, which is time and space to expose your breasts to the air three times a day. Fortunately, there are new pumps that fit into your clothing, so you can walk around and be with people — these are awesome. And I think we are seeing a cultural shift in the next generation of moms. More and more of them are proudly pumping in public and, thanks to social media hashtaggery, more people and places are supporting breastfeeding moms.

Thrive: So how did you dress differently when you came back from having your second child?

LSB: With baby number two, I remember my mother in law gave me a gift card to Bloomingdale’s, which was such a wonderful gift because it eliminated the guilt factor of spending money on myself as opposed to the kids. So I remember I bought a pretty sweater to wear the first day back in the office. It was dark green, with ribbed detailing on it, and it was thin enough to be comfortable but also a little stretchy. I looked feminine, I looked like me. I also bought new pants that actually fit — they were not expensive but not cheap. And when I had to pump, I just lifted the sweater a few inches.

Thrive: It’s interesting that you said “I looked like me.” Was that a big part of this, emotionally speaking?

LSB: It’s kind of a twisty thing to explain, but it was important to me to feel like the kind of person who had my act together enough to go shopping and maybe even find time to get a haircut. It was all part of a process of establishing that I had my agency back as a woman, as a mom, and as a person with a job. Because if I had that time for a shopping trip or a haircut, it meant that I had childcare in place, the baby was fed enough, I had planned my day to be back in time to relieve my childcare, and my closet was borderline organized enough for me to know what pants I needed. When you have a certain level of control over the rest of your life, you feel like you can afford the privilege of taking care of yourself. Unfortunately, it is a privilege — as many women told me, things like access to childcare and paid maternity leave are not available to everyone and in some industries can be very hard to come by.

Thrive: As part of the research for this book, you interviewed and surveyed hundreds of women from all walks of life who had gone back to work after having kids. Was there any one thing in particular about dressing for work that universally bugged them?

LSB: One universal area of concern was their shoes. I spoke to close to 800 women, who had all different approaches to career and motherhood. Some had adopted, some were single mothers, some were paid hourly, some were executives — and, universally, everyone talked about shoes. Not surprisingly, a lot of them felt less inclined to wear uncomfortable shoes. But shoes also sometimes were an unexpected source of disappointment for them. They would be excited to wear a favorite stylish pair again, only to try them on and say, Oh God, these really don’t fit or don’t feel good anymore. Many women also described an interesting sort of “fight or flight” feeling about shoes — they would keep a pair of sneakers in the trunk of their car or in a desk drawer so they could run home at a moment’s notice if their kids needed them.

Thrive: You speak often about a kind of “push/pull” dynamic that new moms experience of wanting to return to their old polished, professional, confident selves, while also wanting to embrace the way pregnancy and motherhood has changed them.

LSB: Absolutely, part of the importance of appearance when you go back to work is just actually being able to feel like yourself again. But that’s not so easy. Assuming a mom carried the baby herself, her body has changed a lot — often, your bones shift during pregnancy — and she probably has not worn anything from her pre-pregnancy wardrobe for a minimum of a year and a half. In fashion terms, that’s at least one season if not two seasons away from the last time she wore what she used to think of as her work wardrobe. So even as you want to be your old self, you have to ask, Who was that lady? Who was Two-Years-Ago Me? Your go-to jacket might not look as good to you as it did back then.

And then there’s the financial factor — when you’re paying for child care, the last thing you want to do is splurge on yourself, especially for an outfit you like enough but will still shrink out of in three months. And it’s a lot more fun to buy something cute for your baby anyway. All of that adds up to this recipe where how you dress is one aspect of your identity you don’t want to worry about, and yet, it’s the thing people judge you for first whether they intend to or not. Happily, [through my research] I found that when it comes to clothes, women were imagining being judged more than they were actually being judged. Honestly, how you judge yourself is often the biggest factor.

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More on the Psychology of What We Wear to Work:

7 Lessons from Jonathan Van Ness and DVF About Life, Confidence and Fashion

5 Fashion Tips to Get Out the Door 20 Minutes Faster

I’ve Dressed for Work as a Man and as a Woman — Here’s What I’ve Learned

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