Back-to-Work Style Tips for When You're Exhausted & Leaking & Nothing Fits

woman shopping for clothes

Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, faced an extra challenge returning from maternity leave (you know, in addition to childcare, mom guilt, sleep deprivation, and all the other fun challenges working moms face): What on earth to wear? 


At the time, Brody was an editor at a fashion magazine. "I didn't feel good in my old clothes yet," she says, "and I wanted to burn my maternity pieces. I just sort of muddled through. After a couple of weeks, I realized I was doing okay at work. I was getting home on time. I was making enough milk to feed my baby and enough money to help pay for childcare. But the woman in the mirror looked like a mess -- and projected that sense of mess to the world."

Brody knew she had to pull it together: "I didn't give myself a major makeover, but I did buy a handful of inexpensive pieces that actually fit," she says. "And I made myself a promise to strive every day for what I called my generous minimum: What's the minimal effort I can make, plus one more thing (lipstick, earrings, a few swipes with the straightening iron) that would make me look and feel like I've done something good for myself?"

Today, Brody is devoted to helping parents and businesses create a family-friendly culture. For The Fifth Trimester, she surveyed 732 moms, plus experts for advice on everything you need to know to go back to work, whether that's full-time, flex-time, or from a home office. 

We pelted her with questions about looking your best when your waist is AWOL, your boobs are dripping, and you have a million other things on your mind:

Does style really matter for a new (and exhausted) mom going back to work? 
That really depends on your job. If you work in a more image-driven industry, then yes, absolutely. If you work for yourself and can wear PJ pants in your home office, then not really. But I will say that women in both scenarios can benefit emotionally from putting just a little bit more effort into their image. Of the women I surveyed, 53 percent ranked the importance of personal appearance on the job at least a 6 or higher out of 10. Think of it this way: If we were judged only by the quality of our work, their answer would be a zero -- so 6 is significant!" 

Mornings are frantic. Is there a getting-dressed time hack that will make us feel more in control?
Create a mini closet within your closet, using only pieces that fit and that you love and feel good in, even if it’s just six things. This will save you the time and upset of sorting through a whole bunch of stuff that doesn't work quite yet. And you can see what you need to buy if, say, you don't have a single pair of black pants. 

What about a beauty routine?
Focus on your skin and hair above all else. Those two things give the biggest psychological boost, and they make everything else easier. Get a haircut that makes you feel great, and that'll grow out well in case you don't have time for another soon. For your skin, drink a ton of water and make sure, no matter what, to wash your makeup off at the end of the day. If your skin is healthy, you'll need less makeup, and you'll spend less time covering up. 

You can't return to work in yoga pants (unless you are a yoga teacher). Is there a must-have piece, or a couple of must-have pieces?
Jackets are a lifesaver! Whatever shape you like, a bomber, a schoolboy blazer, or a classic ladies-who-lunch Chanel-style jacket, will give you instant polish. A jacket provides structure around your midsection, where you might not be feeling back to normal yet. It also gives you coverage. (Try a stretchy little shell underneath for pumping -- so much easier than a dress that zips down the back and requires virtual nudity for boob access!) 

What about colors?
Neutrals like black, navy, white, and pale blush always come across as more polished, even in comfy fabrics. They never look disposable the way some brighter colors can. I say this, by the way, as a Southern girl in New York City who loves color. Neutrals require minimal decision-making, and they mix and match brilliantly. You can put your color focus on accessories, like a great bag or a necklace, which always fit! 

Speaking of accessories, what's the best investment?
If you're going to spend money on one thing for yourself, buy a great four-season bag. You want something big enough to hold a lot of stuff. Some breast pumps can be removed from their ugly black cases and stashed in your own bag. You also want space for your laptop and maybe a pair of sneakers in case you can fit in a walk for some fresh air. 

What about jewelry?
Have fun with it -- it doesn't have to be the real stuff. A lot of moms use jewelry to feel a connection to people they love. That might be a necklace with your baby's initial, or a ring passed down from your mom -- just a little something to touch when you need a moment to remember who you are and where you came from.

Our favorite shoes are now too tight. What to do?
Don't toss them. Either take them to a shoe repair place and have them stretched, or put them away for a few months. Feet can take a whole year to go back to normal.

Our least favorite accessory is baby vomit, especially when it happens the minute we're walking out the door. Advice? 
Try to buy washable fabrics (or wipeable ones) because the dry cleaner is just one more errand, and who's got time for that? Knits tend to be the hardest things to get spit-up out of. Leather wipes off very easily! Prints can also be helpful, especially for hiding milk drips. 

What are the best types of shirts and tops for nursing moms that don’t scream, Hey everybody, I'm lactacting!
Button-downs, for sure. And anything like a stretchy cami or shell worn under a jacket (see above) or a cardigan. You just want to make sure your bottom layer gives you access. Wrap dresses work well. Anyone who's ever owned a Belabumbum nursing top or dress keeps it forever -- so comfortable. I also love a new company called Allette that makes really cute tops with hidden slots down the side instead of those telltale horizontal seams below your boobs. Oh, and also Blanqi is amazing. They make maternity tights and postpartum leggings that offer tummy coverage while nursing or pumping.

Is there a silver-lining to needing to change up your usual style choices?
Yes, absolutely! Like so much else about the Fifth Trimester, sometimes the adjustments that feel like compromises at first end up feeling like real progress. Instead of thinking about all of the things that you can't wear in this moment, realize that this is a fantastic opportunity to define your look or "uniform." If you know, for instance, that black pants and a button-down are going to be your go-to for a while, use the opportunity to have fun with your accessories. If you know that high-high heels are out of the question for now, but your only flats are sneakers, go check out the most fun flats you can and make that part of your new look. We all need a nudge now and then to evolve our style. Also, remember, it's been probably a full year since you wore some of your trendier pieces, which might not feel so trendy anymore. The return to work can be a time for the move to slightly more practical, longer-wearing pieces, and that can be a good thing. Your clothes don't wear you -- you wear them. Especially now! 

author photo by Nancy Borowick

Lauren Smith Brody is the founder of the Fifth Trimester movement, which helps businesses and new parents work together to create a more family-friendly workplace culture. A longtime leader in the women's magazine industry, Lauren was most recently the executive editor of
Glamour magazine. Raised in Ohio, Texas, and Georgia, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two young sons.

Read More >