Brilliant mid-maternity leave idea: The co-worker catch-up lunch

 Thanks to this kind group of work friends for letting me interrupt. That's new mom Lauren, top right, in the blue shirt.

Thanks to this kind group of work friends for letting me interrupt. That's new mom Lauren, top right, in the blue shirt.

Heading back home to NYC from spring break in Colorado yesterday, we stopped for lunch in Denver at the Four Friends Kitchen (cornbread croutons = genius, btw).

As we ate, I noticed a happy-looking group of—what else?—four friends at the next table over. Then, one of them pulled her adorably tiny newborn baby out of his stroller and started passing him around the table and things got even happier. Many oohs, many ahhs. I couldn't help overhearing: The baby was about a month old, and the mom was eager for advice from the other women about how to get a better night's sleep (go figure). As I rudely stared and eavesdropped I realized: Hey, they all have on ID lanyards except the mom, and the lightbulb went on: She must be on leave, and they were having a co-worker catch-up lunch.

And because, apparently, I am now a lady on a mission, I popped right up to interview her.

"Yes! That's exactly what we're doing," Lauren Harrington told me excitedly, introducing her baby Wesley and her colleagues, all early childhood education specialists at the Mental Health Center of Denver. "I wanted to reconnect. They're my co-workers, but they're also really good friends of mine, so I asked them to meet me for lunch," says Lauren, who's headed back to work in a couple of weeks, sooner than she'd like. "But it'll help having seen them," she says. "It's reinvigorating."

Such a great idea.

In my old job, there was an unspoken tradition that new moms would bring their babies in (usually right around 8 weeks, after they'd had their shots). I loved those days, when a beloved colleague would show up, dressed way down, but somehow seeming more capable than ever. Still, when it was my turn, I was a little self conscious about the whole thing, not wanting to be disruptive. That's where the lunch idea is such a great one. Steal it! And congratulations to Lauren and her supportive colleagues. I hope you get some sleep soon!

The life-changing magic of the co-worker hand-me-down

 photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill (baby foot by me)

photo by Tara Todras-Whitehill (baby foot by me)

Once upon a time, one million years ago (actually eight), my wonderful colleague Suze—who has impeccable taste and three beautiful boys—passed her "lucky" boy bassinet down to our colleague (and my work BFF) Erin.

When Erin's baby Alex outgrew the gorgeous white wicker beauty, she passed it along, with Suze's blessing, to me. It arrived on my doorstep encased impeccably in bubble wrap.

And about nine or so weeks into my maternity leave, right around the time baby Will busted his way out of his Miracle Blanket, I sent the bassinet back to Suze to pass along to another friend who'd just come home from the hospital with her own little bundle of boy.

This, my friends, is family-friendly work culture at its best. It wasn't ordered by management, or written up as policy. It was just a nice thing one veteran mom did for a newbie, with a wink about its magic to turn even the fussiest boys into good sleepers. That sweet little bassinet helped me know:
- It's okay to pass along parenting advice right in the middle of the work day.
- When you're out on leave, it can be nice to have a little quotidien reminder of your temporarily-arrested work life. I thought of Suze and Erin a million times over those weeks away, and in some small way, that helped me bridge the two worlds of work and home.
- There would, believe it or not, come a time when I'd made it through these early days and had my act together enough to repay the kindness for some other more-new-than-me mom. And I did. Luckily for me, the mini fridge I gave to Rebecca to use for storing her pumped milk didn't require bubble wrapping!

 

What my boys think of this whole Fifth Trimester business

This week, I've been working with a designer to create a The Fifth Trimester (T5T) logo, and just when you think kids aren't listening.... Mine have started lobbying me to go with their designs instead. What do you think? (You'll notice a theme.) Here's Will's:

 "It's a brain made of puzzle pieces and one of them is always missing."—Will, age 7

"It's a brain made of puzzle pieces and one of them is always missing."—Will, age 7

And here's Teddy's:

 "It's a cow with those...what do you call the things that make milk? Udders. With udders. But one of the udders is missing."—Teddy, age 4

"It's a cow with those...what do you call the things that make milk? Udders. With udders. But one of the udders is missing."—Teddy, age 4

I can't decide if I'm impressed or horrified, but as someone who has occasionally suffered from Mom Brain, and who fixated for the entirety of my own Fifth Trimesters on pumping and having enough milk, I've gotta say: I kind of think they nailed it.

Meet the only person who can change our workplace culture issue (you know her).

 A funny thing happens when everyone brings their real selves to work: It becomes the new normal.

A funny thing happens when everyone brings their real selves to work: It becomes the new normal.

One of the big themes of my book (turned in the revision yesterday—woohoo!) is that while U.S. policy around parental leave and reentry may stink, real cultural change can happen right now, politics aside, one woman and one workplace at a time.

Often, on this blog, I'll look at other countries and see how they're getting things right. Why not steal some great ideas and bring the home, right? Weelllll, a new report out of the U.K., conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that even the most generous maternity leave policies aren't perfect. A huge 77% of the 3000 U.K. mothers surveyed had experienced "negative or possibly discriminatory" behavior at work either before, during, or after maternity leave, according to the report. In a word: Yikes. This is a country where women and men are entitled to share 50 weeks of leave per child and still these biases continue.

I'm a glass is half full woman. So, instead of being defeated by this statistic, I'm going to choose to think of it this way: We can't rely on broad, sweeping policies to make all of the changes we'd like to see for new parents. They are only a start. You—yes you, mom, new mom, mom-to-be, one-day mom—can make the real change happen here by:
A) Pointing out and stopping discrimination when you see it at work in even the most subtle ways
and
B) Proving, by example, that women come back from maternity leave more capable than before, not less.

Did you have to bare your post-pregnancy belly when you went back to work?

I'm guessing not. I'll never forget an old colleague/friend of mine, bless her, who invited me and another colleague/friend over to meet her new baby while she was out on maternity leave. I was maybe two years out from starting a family of my own, so I took mental notes the whole time: So that's what you do with the baby bathtub when you only have one bathroom.... Ah, a white noise machine. Never seen one of those before.... And something else I'd never seen before: The wrinkled, oddly-beautiful bread-dough-soft belly she unshyly showed us when she nursed her baby girl. "Can you believe it looks like this," she asked us, slightly horrified but mostly amused.

In the years since then, it's become a bona fide trend for new moms to share pics of their real, deflated bellies. Barycenter's got a whole board dedicated to the topic, as does Babble. I love it. But most of these photos are taken at home, in the mirror, in a moment of cozy maternity leave nesting. 

Then, recently, as reported by Today parents, professional runner Stephanie Bruce, next-leveled the whole situation, posting photos of herself in her Fifth Trimester, getting back to work pounding the pavement getting back into shape for the Olympic trials—in exactly the same belly-baring running gear she'd always worn. Her message speaks for itself, so I had to share it as is:

The lifesaving app every new mom needs (that's a literal use of "lifesaving")

The largest study ever on postpartum depression is launching now, as reported by Kelly Wallace for CNN, and researchers need 100,000 new moms to sign up to make inroads on the mood disorders that are estimated to affect (conservatively) 1 in 7 mothers.

Here's what's so genius: All you have to do to participate is download a free phone app. It'll take you through the 10 questions of the classic Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale and give you a score (along with referrals and resources if you need them). Women with symptoms deemed moderate to severe will then be asked if they'd like to be a part of the genetic study for which they'll be sent a saliva sample collection kit.

I have to add here that, while researching my book, I took the Edinburgh test and found some of the language to be confusing. Here's Question 4:

I have been anxious or worried for no good reason
- no, not at all
- hardly ever
- yes, sometimes
- yes, very often

It's the "no good reason" part that gets me. Because, while I'm sure some lovely Scottish scientist, years ago, meant well, I can tell you when you're in the throes of postpartum anxiety, every reason that has to do with keeping a newborn alive-and-fed-and-breathing feels like a good reason. That might have led me to underrepresent my anxiety in my answer. When I complained about this to Wendy N. Davis, PhD, who runs the awesome Postpartum Support International, she gave this great perspective: "It's translated from the British!" she says. "You don't want to overthink it. If you are even tempted to take a quiz like this, that in itself is a sign to seek further support and help."

In other words: Get the app. For your sake, for your friends' sake, for your daughter's sake one day. 

 

 

"Mommy, I made a picture. It's you and your...."

"...compooter, Mommy. Look! Let's frame it!"

This weekend, my adorable jumping bean of a four-year-old little boy drew me his very first portrait of me. And there I am. Not making cookies with him, or reading to him, or playing time machine with him. But just standing there smiling next to what is, apparently, the one true talisman of my happiness: my compooter.

I was, of course, actually on my laptop finishing something up for the day when he presented the drawing to me. I stopped, said thank you, told him I loved that he used my favorite color. Then I proceeded to have some feelings about the picture, not all of which were particularly self-assured. I'm in a big work month at the moment, finishing up edits on my book. Thanks to bad timing, the boys are on spring break and around for lots of playtime...with our awesome caregiver, not with me.

As I often do in such times, I turned to my Francesca/Allison/Ashley group text:

Me: I give you: portrait of my mommy and her computer. Sigh.
Ashley: Much better than with a bottle of wine, no?
Me: True. But he gave it to me while I was working!
Allison: If you weren't working what would you be doing? When I am not working, I am not spending 100% of my time doing kid-picture-worthy things. This is fine. Frame it.
Francesca: [Francesca was a few minutes behind, probably because she actually was doing kid-picture worthy things, but that's okay because she was the hero of yesterday's post.]

And just like that I let it go, except for one thing: I got a haircut today. Because that length does look nicer on me. Thanks, sweet boy.

The un-rude way to ask a new mom if she works

One of the hidden benefits of being in the trenches of Newbornland on maternity leave is that in your new latte-drinking, up-all-night social life, you're likely to make other new mom friends. Whether you two hit it off at a breastfeeding support group or just while jiggling your strollers next to each other in line at Starbucks, you bond fast when you've got an itty bitty baby in common.

Pretty soon, you'll each know details the other's birth, and nipple cream preference, and even aunt-in-law dramas. And then suddenly it'll dawn on you: I have no idea if this lady is also on maternity leave. Does she have a job she's going back to? Like a job outside of the home...which is probably the wrong way to put it because, as maternity leave has more than proven, a job inside the home is certainly a job too. And then there are moms who work from home....

So how do you get clarification on this issue without sounding like a jerk? 

My friend Francesca recently taught me the coolest move. Here's what you ask: 
"So, do you work really hard for a paycheck, or do you work really hard for no paycheck?"

Smooth, right? I adopted it immediately.

 

The 8 things to pack in your back-to-work bag

 Sadly, not your cat. (But how great is this  Loeffler Randall bag ? Founder Jessie Randall is in  my book !)

Sadly, not your cat. (But how great is this Loeffler Randall bag? Founder Jessie Randall is in my book!)

I don't know about you, but I spent an inordinate number of hours of my pregnancy thinking about what to pack in my hospital bag. Then, our baby was born and I spent an inordinate number of hours of my maternity leave thinking about what I needed in the diaper bag every time we left the apartment.

What I didn't think about was my back-to-work bag. But by the second baby, I had it down. Here's your checklist:

1) Pump stuff (if you're pumping). The machine, the tubing, the cooler, the flanges (maybe my least favorite word of all time).

2) Duplicate pump stuff. Yep, you're going to want extras. Because tubing cracks, but your sanity shouldn't have to.

3) Something from home. Pictures are awfully nice. You might imagine it's torture to have to look at your baby's sweet little face on your desk all day, but it will eventually become a comfort, and just part of the scenery, not a distraction. I am also a huge advocate of bringing your "whole self" to work, and this is one easy way to show everyone around you: "Hey, I'm a mom now. But I'm also here and working. I did it. I'm doing it. You can too."

4) Extra clothes. Even if you're not breastfeeding (and occasionally leaking), you will be shocked by how stealthily babies can spit up on you. At no other stage in your career would you find a random stain down your back—hours and hours after your goodbye hug.

5) All of your numbers. These will be in your phone, but unless you're a savant number memorizer, bring a print-out anyway to soothe your paranoia (and mine): Pediatrician, caregiver or daycare, your OB/Gyn, your spouse/partner's secondary number (you know, the one you don't have memorized).

6) Your hand-off memo from back before you left. Thankfully, much of what's on there will be long-ago-taken-care-of ancient history (and it will feel great to cross those things off). But I guarantee there will be something people decided to "wait for her" on. Going through your memo to check for these things will give you something to do right away, and it'll put your mind at ease, too.

7) Something sensory and relaxing. Think: some luxe-smelling lip balm, or a piece of good chocolate. The mindful use of one of your senses has been shown to halt anxious ruminations. 

8) And food, glorious food. I really recommend packing your lunch for at least your first few days back. A) It's a guarantee that you will have time to actually find food. B) If you're pumping you have to eat to make milk. And C) It's just a nice little way to take care of yourself—or, better yet, to have your partner take care of you. It's silly, but nothing makes you feel more together than a packed lunch. If you got out of the house, and got to work, and did it with a healthy, lovely lunch, you must have your act together, you capable woman! Yes, one turkey sandwich can do all that.

Coolest parental leave policy yet: The double dip

When it comes to ketchup or hummus in our house, the rule is very firm: NO double-dipping. Especially when there's strep and flu going around (it's been a germy week chez Brody). But that's exactly the brilliant tactic that an Austral-asian company has just come up with for parental leave. My Food Bag, which is similar in concept to Blue Apron here in the U.S. (scheduled deliveries of pre-measured ingredients for at-home meals), will expand upon the New Zealand government's 18 paid weeks in a really cool way: New moms and dads will be allotted an extra 18 weeks—if they want to take them at any point in their child's first two years of life. Should they choose to forgo the additional leave, they will be paid 160% of their salary for that time. How smart is that? (And how loyalty inducing is that?) Because the message sent to employees is three-fold:

1) We get it. You really might need this time. And we don't want you feeling pressure to come back to work before you're ready. And:
2) Your work is so valuable to us that we will pay you significantly more for it. But:
3) This is, essentially, temporary combat pay, to acknowledge that your working right now is a detriment to other parts of your life.

My Food Bag's co-founders, both 30 years old and both pregnant, declined to tell The New Zealand Herald, which reported on the new policy, how much it would end up costing, saying only, "The costs will be significant, but nothing in comparison to the rewards."

The only legit way to conquer "Mom Brain" (which is real, BTW)

 photo by Ryan McGuire

photo by Ryan McGuire

Holly Madison is E! News' latest celebrity blogger. Admittedly, I had to Google her to remind myself what exactly she was celebrated for (dating Hugh Hefner, and having a couple of reality shows). One of her first posts is about her embarrassment from having so-called Mom Brain following the birth of her daughter (she's now pregnant with her second baby). Quite eloquently and honestly, she describes how disruptive and upsetting it was to be obviously forgetful, especially at work.

The research is split on Mom Brain, with some studies suggesting that mothers actually have enhanced cognitive abilities post-partum, especially when it comes to protecting themselves and their babies. But anyone who's returned to work—hormonal, lactating, and with a darling bundle of up-all-night—is likely to side with the opposite research camp, which confirms: Your memory while postpartum, especially for words and phrases, sucks. That's the technical term, by the way.

So, let that be a comfort to you while you struggle to remember where you put your coffee cup (it's in the washing machine, with the burp cloths, naturally). But also stop and pinch yourself so that, like Holly, you can remember and share this particular struggle. Don't let it fade away into the sweet cotton candy haze of memory like your "really not that painful" birth. Other new moms at work are counting on you to warn them about this stuff. Pay it forward. Tell them about Mom Brain, before you forget yours.

Paid grandparental leave is now a real thing

 Grandma and Grandpa and baby me

Grandma and Grandpa and baby me

Not here in the U.S., obviously. We have to get our heads on straight about maternity and paternity leave first. But Santander, a financial firm with 20,000 employees in the U.K. just announced it's offering grandparents paid leave following the birth of a grandchild.

Now, hang on. Because if you're like me, your thought process is going something like this: "Hmm...well, I think that's great. Could be helpful for new parents, and sure, Grandma and Gramps want to bond with the baby too. But, wait a minute. If every family has 2.2 children, then each grandparent has 4.84 grandkids. Let's call that 5 grandkids, at 16 paid weeks per, and how is this going to work?"

Here's how: The grandparents don't get their own separate leave. They're entitled to share a portion of the parent's leave (as is the co-parent). Which is amazing news for single moms, or single dads, or families in which both parents can't be away from work at the same time. There are countless circumstances in which this arrangement could be helpful—as usual, the most helpful thing for new families is having choices. 

Coincidentally, on the same day this week that Santander's policy was announced, my cousin, a school teacher in North Carolina, who is a dad to adorable twin baby boys, posted on Facebook thanking his mother for saving the day. Aunt Peggy—awesome, intrepid Aunt Peggy—was on the road from Ohio, headed down to help out my cousin and his wife so they wouldn't have to miss work; one of their boys had a fever that prevented him from going to daycare. Aunt Peggy is retired, which is why she could pull this off. But imagine if working grandparents could step in like this without worrying about career repercussions. 

Grandparental leave may sound like an extravagance, but really, it's an acknowledgment that dual income families are now the norm—and that people are working well into their golden years. This next generation leave isn't cushy. It's just an extension of the other cultural realities of our time.

Would you spend $2.19 a week to guarantee paid parental leave?

 Photo courtesy of Pond's End Productions

Photo courtesy of Pond's End Productions

That's exactly 0.2% of the average American annual salary of $57,000. And that's how much it would cost to fund paid parental leave for all parents for 12 weeks following the birth or adoption of a baby. Seriously, two bucks. That's what Rep. Rose DeLauro (D — Conn.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D — N.Y.) proposed as part of their FAMILY Act—so far, to no avail. In the meantime, private companies are doing their best to stay competitive by offering their own versions of paid leave.

The latest and greatest is Etsy, which announced yesterday that it will offer all new moms and dads 26 weeks of paid parental leave, to be taken over the first two years of a baby's life—along with lots of new support programs. That is awesome, obviously, and part of a trend of one-upmanship among tech companies that I'm happy to cheer on. But here's what's especially cool: Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist at USV, who sits on the board of Etsy, gave his blog readers a glimpse at the thinking behind the new policy. It was fueled, Wilson writes, by the need to stay competitive in recruiting and retention (no surprise there), but also because, he explains:

"Etsy is a marketplace where creative entrepreneurs, many of whom are women, can create a more fulfilling and flexible way to support their families. An important goal of this policy change was to align the internal company values with the marketplace values."

Makes a ton of sense. But Fred, wisely, also points out that Etsy is able to make this change because it's a large company, with the scale to support these policies. He writes:

"It's easier to do this sort of thing when you have a workforce in the thousands or tens of thousands than when you have a team of four people working from a co-working space."

Or how about a team of one, like the lovely Etsy vendors I buy from when I need a sweet, unique baby gift, or "homemade" Phineas and Ferb Halloween costumes (homemade by some other far-more-fabulously skilled mom than me)? What about those individual entrepreneurs? Where is their leave—paid or unpaid? Non-existant. Which brings me back to two dollars. Because I would happily spend that, many times over, if it meant we could catapult the U.S. into the present and in line with the rest of the civilized world.

Got (extra) milk?

Back at holiday time, stringing up lights in my son's school lobby, I found myself entangled, literally, with a mom I'd never met before, Dr. Katie Kelter. Turns out, we had lots to talk about: A pediatrician and lactation consultant, she's one of the founders of the just-launched New York Milk Bank, a nonprofit that collects and pasteurizes donor breastmilk for premature or critically ill babies. I got all kinds of great advice from her for my book, T5T and when I followed up with her recently, she told me how easy it is to donate—money, obviously (the program helps underserved communities), but also surplus milk. "If any of your readers are lucky enough to have a freezer bursting at the seams with extra milk, they can go to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA.org)  to find out if they're eligible to become a donor," says Dr. Kelter. All it takes is a medical screening and a blood test. Then you drop the milk off at a local depot or mail it (for free) via Fed-Ex. "Your milk is pasteurized and given to premature infants whose own mothers' milk is unavailable," says Dr. K. "You can actually save lives."