The case against "fake it 'til you make it" for new working moms



This little "shark" is super cute, but I kind of hate everything he stands for (sorry, fishy). Coming back to work during my Fifth Trimester after the birth of my first son, I heard this advice a lot: "Fake it 'til you make it. Just pretend you have it all together, and eventually you will!" While I agree that nothing gets you through a tough transition better than just putting one foot in front of the other and letting time tick on, the idea of faking okay-ness bugs me. Only by owning our struggles do we get to own our successes. Here's why I don't think you should fake it 'til you make it.

BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT A FAKE If you put on lipstick, you are not faking beauty or faking having your act together enough to spend 20 seconds on lipstick. You actually are beautiful. And you did find the 20 seconds. Likewise, delivering an amazing client pitch after a night when the baby was up four times is not "faking it 'til you make it." It's knowing your stuff well enough to succeed—even under crazy pressure.

BECAUSE HIDING THE STRUGGLE GIVES THE NOT-YET MOMS FALSE EXPECTATIONS The postpartum mood disorder experts I interviewed for my book agreed that we are living in an epidemic of outlandish expectations. "Mothers with high expectations are really at more of a risk for developing postpartum issues," says Wendy N. Davis, PhD, executive director of Postpartum Support International. Don't contribute to that by setting an impossibly high (and fake) bar for the coworkers who may follow you into motherhood. It's not reassuring for them to see you be perfect. It IS reassuring for them to see you be IMperfect—and stay, and grow, and succeed anyway.

BECAUSE YOUR WORK SUCCESS ISN'T SOME FLUKE Why credit your success to some head-game when you can simply credit yourself: Your talents, your skills, your level-headedness, your organization, your moxie. Realizing you've harnessed all those great qualities lets you keep drawing on them again and again.


AND BECAUSE POLICIES WILL ONLY CHANGE IF OUR NEEDS ARE VISIBLE Bosses aren't mind-readers! If you come up with some creative lie every time you leave work to take your baby to the doctor, how is your manager going to know that that's something s/he should help accommodate? By displaying your need for flexibility (and still getting your job done), you are helping yourself and the company. The majority of millennials agree that work/life flexibility is high up on their list of priorities while job-hunting. If policies don't evolve, your workplace will become Jurassic, quickly. Help yourself and your employer. Be real.

Would you crowdfund your maternity leave?

 It's come to this. Photo by Ryan McGuire

It's come to this. Photo by Ryan McGuire

Because apparently now that's a thing, according to this excellent BuzzFeed story. Couples and moms-to-be are using sites like GoFundMe and CrowdRise to raise the money they need in order to take unpaid time away from work. (Quick reminder that here in the U.S., FMLA requires companies with more than 50 employees to hold your job for 12 weeks of family leave—but it's up to individual workplaces to determine how much of that time, if any, is paid.)

Leave it to a pregnant, nesting, hyper-goal-driven woman to get things done, right?

The 100 women I interviewed for my book were all over the place in terms of time off—and I have to be honest, I worked hard to ignore my own biases and be open minded. You want to take 12 weeks? Okay. You want to take one week? Also fine. You want to take six months? Fantastic. All good. But the verb in all of those sentences contains the word "want." That implies a choice. The availability of options. It's the women I talked to who took far less leave than they wanted (or frankly, needed, physically and emotionally) that made me so convinced that this FAMILY Act for paid leave needs to happen, and fast. The waitress whose husband lost his job, who was back in her uniform in a week. The small business owner who was placating clients from the NICU. These women are scrappy as hell. But they shouldn't have to be. 

 Three of the nearly 1300 maternity leave appeals on GoFundMe.

Three of the nearly 1300 maternity leave appeals on GoFundMe.

So as much as I absolutely hate—hate—to see women and families panhandling, I hope the trend gets a whole lot of attention. I hope it's an embarrassment to this great country that has such a rich history of bootstrap pulling, of people doing everything they can to succeed and move up to give their kids a better life. Because a better life means having choices, not being so up against a wall that you're reduced to only one option: begging. 

3 things you're definitely better at after being on maternity leave

 Pivoting: A highly useful working-mom skill

Pivoting: A highly useful working-mom skill

Think you'll come back to work a frazzled mess? Nah. You'll return to your career more capable than you were back when you waddled out still pregnant. That's because in the interim, the world's hardest boss (that would be your baby) has just put you through boot camp. Thank you, sir, may I have another? My prediction? You'll be better at...

Pivoting: There will be times, of course, when you need pure concentration on a heads-down project at work, or when you need to be 100% focused on your family. But the other 23 hours of your day? Those will be all jumbled up. At work, you'll get a call about the baby. At home, you'll get an email from a client. And as soon as you get comfortable bringing your whole self to work—mom identity and all—the pivoting starts to feel less like it's bad on your knees, and more like it's some supercharged dance all over the court in a cute tennis skirt. 

Working quickly and efficiently: It's tempting here to say something about how your skills at the changing table prepare you for sudden shit-storms (and indeed, Mark Zuckerberg even bragged about his sub-30-second diaper change). But most new working moms will tell you they get faster and smarter about how they work because, for the first time, they have a quitting time. Not a like-to-get-out-by time. A hard stop, after which their daycare charges them money, or their nanny dips into the freezer stash of breastmilk, or they don't make it home in time to read The Runaway Bunny. You will be shocked by how much you get done. Quickly. And well.

Saying no—and saying yes: The saying no part is probably no surprise. When life gets fuller, you simply have to decline some invitations, some projects, some meetings that just aren't crucial. But your Yes List—the things you do choose to take on—becomes hugely validating. Those are things that you know you've truly considered and designated important. And therefore? You will nail them.

The one thing every woman should do on maternity leave

 New mom Jessica Borowick, two weeks before returning to work. Photo by Matt Borowick

New mom Jessica Borowick, two weeks before returning to work. Photo by Matt Borowick

Fly fish in Argentina, obviously. No, no, I'm teasing. But only kind of.

Many women coming back from leave have some version of the same complaint: a well-intended but clueless colleague welcomes them back and asks how they enjoyed their "break." Break! A break in which they fed a small human being 12 times a day, recovered from childbirth or even major surgery, and did it all on Guantanamo-torture levels of sleep deprivation. Not exactly the same thing as a vacation.

And yet, I'd like to make a case for maternity leaves (paternity leaves too) that are long enough (and paid enough) that taking an actual, restorative vacation during those weeks is possible. New mama Jessie Borowick, who's pictured here two weeks before she went back to work at her Manhattan law firm, did just that. I did too, back when my babies were 5 weeks old. And while it's true that a getaway with a newborn is really more of a relocation than a vacation, it's really, really fortifying.

I called one new father the other day to fact-check his quotes for my book manuscript. Turns out, he was just back from a surfing vacation following the birth of his second son. He and his wife were both on leave, and she "generously, amazingly," he told me, encouraged him to get away on his own for a few days. "With our first baby we never would have dreamed of it," he told me. "But this time we knew what was ahead of us,"—and knew the value of taking time for self care. "I definitely had thoughts of what am I doing here with my surfboard....I missed this so much," he told me. "Coming home I saw everyone differently and so gratefully. I just wanted to squeeze them. I feel like this trip accelerated our lives as parents." They both—husband and wife—got a glimpse of what life would look like eventually, beyond the newborn years, and that steadied them through the present and made them excited for the future.


To the mother who left her little boy at Starbucks this morning

 photo by Ryan McGuire

photo by Ryan McGuire

Here's what I'd like to say: How could you?

Here's what I will say: All parents are human. I hope it gets easier for you to be patient and to discipline your child with empathy and not with fear. Until then, let the rest of us help a little. Because we will.

Here's what happened:  Working at Starbucks this morning, I headed over to the noisiest corner of the coffeeshop, the one with the outlet. The corner was loud because a little boy, adorable and maybe almost three years old, was pitching a not-so-adorable fit.

Mom: Okay, time to leave.
Boy: I wanna stay.
Mom: Well, it really is time to leave, we have things to do, so come on, do you want to leave now?
Boy: No. 
Mom: Well, I'm sad that you're one of those boys who doesn't do what he's told.
Boy: I'm sad. I hate you. 
Mom: I'm sad you use those naughty words.
It went on and on like this and—after wondering why the mother didn't just pull rank and strap the kid in his stroller and go—I decided to mind my own beeswax and made a work call.

Five or 10 minutes later, I looked up from my interview and saw the little boy just standing there, no mother in sight. The guy next to me and I exchanged looks. "Where'd the mom go?" I asked him, "Is she...gone?" Noticing the boy, a Starbucks barista left his post to come see what was up, just barely making it to the door before the little boy tried to push his way out onto the busy New York sidewalk.

The three of us, perhaps all parents—but certainly all one-time scared children—circled up around the boy. A grandmotherly woman near the window shook her head and pointed: "She's at the fruit stand, down the street." And, there she was, the mom, buying bananas, acting bananas, almost a full block away. I walked the boy out and over to his mother. Was I doing the right thing? Should I bite my tongue? I tried to catch her eye but couldn't. Right away, hands on hips, she shouted at the boy, full of sarcasm. I let go of his wrist and wished I'd thought to hold his hand, to squeeze it and connect in some way, especially when I heard her explanation: "See? That's what happens when you don't want to leave when Mommy leaves, naughty boy." She'd done it on purpose. To punish him.

Now, I have no idea what's going on in this woman's life to make her act this way. And as I walked away, reluctantly, I was gutted for this child. Should I have called the police? Would that have made his life better, or worse? Worse, I'm guessing. So I went back in to the Starbucks, to my table, where I'd left my laptop, my phone, my wallet, and went on with my day. I was sad, but I was also oddly reassured that once again I'd felt the welcome pain that parenthood gives you: That feeling that everyone, everyone is someone's child, that we are all responsible in some way for caring for each other. The barista had felt it. The businessman next to me, and the grandmother too. I hope that that frayed mom and every mother knows—at work, in life, at the corner coffeeshop—We've got your back. Just let us help.

5 perfect things to say to a friend just back from maternity leave

I rediscovered this note recently, sent to me on my first day back at work by a dear girlfriend who knew just what I needed to hear—and she hadn't even had kids yet! I am not similarly blessed in the perfect-words-on-demand department, but my research for The Fifth Trimester has taught me several more....

"Don't worry about calling me back!" Call, email, text, do it all to show her that you're thinking of her—but always include the clarification that this is a message of love, not one meant to be added to her to-call-back list.

"Can I give you a ride?" I surveyed hundreds of new moms and found out that their commutes were measurably more stressful during their first few months back at work. If you can give your friend a ride, offering her found time so she can pump in the passenger seat, or do a work call so she can leave a bit early, or grab a nap, or just talk? That's lifesaver territory.

"There's no one 'right' way to feel right now." Some new working moms are wracked with guilt about working. Others feel guilty for loving the (very adult, nicely clothed, actually-hot coffee-sipping) escape that work provides. However your friend feels, help her know that it's normal.

"I blame America." Here's how this one goes: She complains about her boss, or her husband, or her mother. You listen, of course—these can be really fraught relationships during the Fifth Trimester. It's tempting at this moment to fuel her boss-bashing with a rising chorus of "hell yeahs." But if that just makes her angrier, are you really helping? After all, she has to face this person tomorrow—and do good work for him/her. So instead do what one reproductive psychiatrist I interviewed suggests: Listen, tell her she's right to feel the way that she does, and then go macro. Help your friend see that the inequities she's dealing with are not normal out there in the rest of the universe, where paid parental leave and nursing in public are standard. She's the sane one. American culture is to blame. (And by making it through the Fifth Trimester, she can help change that culture from within.)

Guess where women were fined $300 a day for taking maternity leave

 photo by Ryan McGuire

photo by Ryan McGuire

Canada. Yes, Canada, land of one-year maternity leaves, and a prime minister who calls himself a feminist, and a massive uptick in Google searches on how to move there that followed last week's Republican presidential debate. Even Canada didn't have its act together about parental leave just 25 short years ago.

I will go ahead and plead completely ignorant about Canadian politics, but....There's a Member of the Legislative Assembly, Linda Reid, who just celebrated her 25th anniversary in the B.C. legislature. The Richmond News, in British Columbia, did a fantastic interview  with Reid in which she recalled her dogged infiltration of a boys' club as Richmond's first elected woman. Her request for a ladies' restroom was just the beginning. When she had her daughter, she realized there was not only no maternity leave offered, but that she'd be fined $300 per day that she was out. "It was just bizarre," Reid told Richmond News reporter Matthew Hoekstra. "I said to Gordon Campbell, who was then leader of the Opposition [and later went on to become the Premier of British Columbia], 'If we ever get to government that's one of the first things we're changing.' I think he decided you shouldn't argue with a postpartum woman." True that.

Canada actually had had some form of maternity leave since 1921 but it took until 2001 for the Employment Insurance system (maternity leave) to resemble the plan in place today. Along the way, parental leave expanded to include fathers and adoptive mothers. It took time.

I suspect that paid parental leave will also take time in the United States, as much as I would love for the FAMILY Act to catapult us into the modern age in one swift beat. But we'll get there. If every baby step is a victory, then every woman who speaks up, who points out inequities, is like a mother leaning over that baby, holding his hands as he toddles.



Lessons on working-mom anxiety from Zika (yes, from Zika)

While researching my book over the past many months, I've gotten to know the Seleni Institute, an absolutely one-of-kind resource for maternal mental wellness. I can't tell you how much I wish this place had opened its doors two years earlier when I really needed it. Seleni provides counseling for depression, anxiety, fertility struggles, and miscarriage, along with parenting help, breastfeeding support groups—and acupuncture and massage. Even its wallpaper is soothing. 

Recently, Seleni has fielded many calls from panic-stricken women about the Zika virus, which can have devastating effects on a developing fetus. This week, I sat in on a training session Seleni hosted for therapists on how to counsel these women, and I was struck that so much of what was suggested is just plain old good advice for anyone whose worrying is getting in the way of their work or their mothering. Things like:

Get out of your head and into your body: To stop the vicious cycle of rumination over a worry (which can make it worse), try distracting yourself with a mindful use of one of your five senses: a warm shower on your skin, a nice-smelling lotion for your hands. "These things sound very simple, but they distract in a healthy way," says Seleni psychologist Shara Marrero Brofman, PsyD.

Have an elevator speech ready for anxious family and friends: You know what makes anxiety worse? Having other people anxious for you. To give yourself some reassuring control, realize that most people's nosiness comes from a place of kindness and concern, and formulate a little response you can have ready. You might want a one-liner for people you aren't that close to ("Thank you for your concern") as well as a longer version for people like your mom, who might just need to be told that you've thought things through in an informed way. 

And most of all, worry well. "It's not realistic to tell people not to worry, but we can help them contain that worry," says Seleni clinical director Christiane Manzella, PhD. Worrying can become a compulsion, but so can reassurance. One suggestion: Set aside a time to worry. "Tell yourself, okay, I'm going to use part of my lunchtime at work to go online and look at only these two websites," says Dr. Manzella. By giving the worrying some boundaries you'll keep it from creeping into every moment of your day.

What a 20-day maternity leave post C-section looks like

Most of the time, what you'll read on this blog is my own work, but I was blown away by the simple, beautiful, unsettling urgency of Jessica Shortall's piece for The Atlantic Monthly online today. This one can't be missed. Tara, the woman she profiles, has only 20 days—cobbled together from vacation time—to take away from her job. Because of the size of her company, she is not covered by FMLA. Because her husband has a chronic illness, she cannot afford to take any days unpaid. This is her roller-coaster of a story: from panic, to joy, to resignation. 

How Bethesda might get the whole U.S. paid parental leave

 photo by Benji Aird

photo by Benji Aird

Back in September, the United States Department of Labor's Women's Bureau issued $1.55M in grants to eight regions around America to study the viability of local paid family leave programs. The goal? To research, "how paid leave programs can be developed and implemented across the country." Which is awesome. I'm going to be watching those eight regions and reporting back here on how it's all going. 

One of those communities is Montgomery County, Maryland, where, last month, district 16 Del. Ariana Kelly brought a bill forward that looks very, very similar to the federally proposed FAMILY Act: Funded by a payroll tax (to avoid a burden on businesses), the plan would create a state-run insurance fund to give workers 12 weeks off of work, at two-thirds pay, to care for a family member. At the hearing for the bill on Tuesday, Kelly appealed not just to desperate mothers and fathers—but also to the local businesses that she knows her district's economy depends on: "I'm not just a family person. I'm an employer," Kelly said. "I've been both the pregnant employee who needs paid maternity leave and the employer who does not know how she's going to pay for that."

Stay tuned. This goes to committee next week, and Kelly says she plans to reveal some of the findings of the Department of Labor study. And yes, that's a bloggy T5T cliffhanger.


What?! Paid menstrual leave is happening.

  Photo credit:  Puno3000  via  /  CC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: Puno3000 via / CC BY-NC-ND

I think we've found one way we actually don't want America to catch up with the rest of the world. Yesterday, a province near Shanghai began offering women days off of work specifically for menstrual cramps. When I first read that, I assumed that this particular Google alert was just a wacky random little factoid that somehow had gotten trapped in the search engine colander. But nope. Turns out paid menstrual leave is available in several Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan.

 Lena D. in designer Rachel Antonoff's Madame Ovary sweater

Lena D. in designer Rachel Antonoff's Madame Ovary sweater

First thought: Okay, it's nice to remove the stigma of period pain, which can be challenging to work through. 
Second thought: But why not just call it a sick day?

Lena Dunham, bless her fearlessness, has become an outspoken poster child for a major culprit of period pain, endometriosis, which affects up to 1 in 10 women during their reproductive years and can cause infertility. That's heroic. We should applaud anyone who helps galvanize society to seek out understanding, awareness, and research about a debilitating illness. 

But for perspective, here's a quick list of other things that affect 10% (or more) of the population:
- Migraines
- Anxiety disorders
- Irritable Bowel Disease
Should any of these conditions receive their own specifically branded paid leave? No way. If you have a migraine or ungodly cramps, you should be able to take a paid sick day—or even disability if you need it. But in practice, just like with paid parental leave, these kind of benefits come down to culture, an understanding that we are humans who work, not workers who happen to be human. 

Reproductive-age working women do not need a fetishization of our periods as something we cannot handle. We need—just like men need—businesses that are set-up to accommodate these very human moments: sickness, childbirth, infancy, eldercare. All that stuff is in the same bucket, a bucket that everyone dips into at some point. As soon as we can see the similarities of our needs—rather than our differences—we'll all truly benefit from our benefits. 

Secret work weapon: New mom humor

 Shout-out to my favorite coffee shop, Macaron Parlour

Shout-out to my favorite coffee shop, Macaron Parlour

In a recent New York Business Journal article about the new ways "executives and companies embrace the funny," the CEO of Peppercomm, a marketing and communications firm, predicted: "Joy will be 2016's new black." That is really excellent news for new mothers returning to work.

Life, when you're under-slept and overworked, and hormonal, can make you cry, sure, but it can also make you laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Go with that, even if it means exposing your weaknesses, because...
1) Humor makes you better at work: One survey by finance and accounting firm Robert Half showed that nearly 4 out of 5 CFOs, "said that an employee's sense of humor plays an important role in how well he or she fits in with a company's corporate culture." And, 
2) Laughter is good postpartum therapy: A 2011 study out of Korea found that laughter therapy (sign me up, please) helped alleviate postpartum fatigue and stress in new mothers.

Bottom line: Life just handed you a whole bassinet full of material. Don't be afraid to use it.

What your baby is really thinking while you're at work

It's pretty clear what my younger son Teddy was thinking about in this video from a few years back. But don't you wonder what else is going on in your baby's cute little noggin? Especially when you're out of kissing distance, at work? I sure did.

Here's what we know babies think:

"Hey, why'd that happen?" This recent study, in the journal Science, found that babies as young as two months old make their own hypotheses about the world around them. When infants watched an object do something unexpected (like defy gravity), they examined it carefully, seemingly testing its solidity and weight.
The working mama takeaway: Babies are learning constantly from the simplest things in the world around them—whether or not you're the one sitting there at the highchair with them.

"Gross, no way will I eat that!" Proving that there are research grants out there for almost anything, a group of scientists at The University of Chicago are studying how "contamination context" affects babies' and children's food preferences. The research, which is ongoing, will include infants, but so far has shown that toddlers are less likely to eat something if they think someone has sneezed on it!
The working mama takeaway: Self preservation is real. Even when you're not there, your baby is looking out for his well-being.

"I totally have an opinion about that." I loved this piece, by CNN digital correspondent and editor-at-large Kelly Wallace, about how even the tiniest babies can tell right from wrong. Wallace even talked to one mother who who recalled how her baby would appear "ticked off" whenever she saw a family portrait that had been taken before she'd been born. As soon as it was replaced on the wall with an updated version, the baby responded happily. Indeed, research out of Yale University's Infant Cognition Center shows that even three-month-old babies can start to intuit the differences between good and evil.
The working mama takeaway: Trust your gut on your caregivers. But pay attention to your baby's cues too. If they're happy, it's for good reason.

It's good for moms when dads brag about their skills

Mark Zuckerberg, as you know, is back in his hoodie at Facebook after his two-month paternity leave. But he's continuing to be loud and proud about being a new (and involved) daddy to baby daughter Max. In Berlin to receive an award last week, Zuck bragged adorably on German TV that he is a speed demon at diaper changing: "I got it down to 20 seconds, which I think is pretty good," he said, explaining that he'd been timing himself to improve his skills. Timing himself, friends.

I'm going to go ahead and admit that if my husband had ever made such a statement—especially when our son was three months old and I was headed back to work with mixed feelings—I would have thought (silently) many sour grape things, including:

- Oh sure, and then the diaper leaks...
- ...all over the outfit that you picked that I didn't like anyway.
- And also, if you had out your phone for the stopwatch, how did you handle the hygiene factor of that?
- And also, also, pretty sure my best time (no leaks) was 18 seconds. Suckah.

Now, presumably, Mark's wife Priscilla Chan is more mature than I was as a new mom. But generally, when your maternal instincts kick in, so do territorial ones. It's natural to be possessive and to want to be the best in your house at All Things Baby. But I'm telling you: Get over it. Because...
One: There will absolutely be aspects of parenting that your partner does better than you do. And eventually you will appreciate that.
And, two: As mothers, we can't ask our partners to step up and then not give them bragging rights.

Fathers deserve to be proud of their parenting. Kids deserve to have fathers who are proud of their parenting. So boast away, Zuck. You're encouraging a lot of dads—and a lot of moms—to share both the job and the joy. And that's a great thing for everyone.