Dealing with fertility struggles whilst trying to maintain a career is one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced. As a HR professional, I can honestly say that I would have struggled to truly comprehend the effect that facing infertility could have on an individual’s time and emotions before going through it myself. I know I wouldn’t have been alone in this lack of understanding. Until it happened to me, I never considered how it could totally change my perspective and alter my state of mind, so much so that it had a direct impact on my motivation at work.
Infertility is an illness, it’s not visible and often kept secret but it can be life-altering for an individual. It can cast life’s hopes and dreams into doubt and I even questioned my whole purpose in life if I couldn’t be a Mum. Trying to process something as huge as this can be incredibly difficult and impactful in other aspects of life – particularly at work.
Not only is there the enormity of the emotions involved, there is also a real stigma surrounding infertility – it’s something people don’t talk about, a vicious cycle, as the reasons that people don’t talk about it only fuels the silence. We don’t tell anyone as we fear we are the only ones going through it, we fear others won’t understand our feelings. In the workplace we fear that we may be discriminated against for openly admitting we want to have children, which consequently results in time away from the workplace.
What’s needed is to break the silence, encourage understanding and to put some practical steps in place to provide much needed support – something that the Fertility Network UK are hoping to do with the launch of their ‘Fertility in the Workplace’ initiative.
To support this initiative, I wanted to highlight the impact fertility struggles can have on an individual the workplace by sharing my own story. There can be a real lack of understanding amongst those who haven’t faced the prospect of not being able to have a family and by sharing I hope to show just how impactful it can be. Through my Defining Mum blog others have shared their stories with me – with some on extended sick leave whilst going through treatment, some like me have reduced their hours to cope with the strain, and some have even gone to the extent of quitting their jobs. This is not just a minor illness people find easy to accept and live with, it can be potentially life-changing and lead to a whole host of complex emotions.
April 2014 – I gave my all in an assessment day for the next ‘step up’ in my career to a development role. I wanted a career in HR, one that would eventually take me to a senior level and I hoped this was a company that I could progress and develop within. They were looking for a future successor, someone with potential that could become an HR leader. I was beyond excited when I was offered the job, I accepted right away and started counting down the 3 months until I would start.
May 2014 – Just a few weeks later I was diagnosed with Premature Ovarian Failure, told our chances of conceiving with my eggs were small and that if I wanted to have a genetic child we would need to start IVF straight away, before my ovarian reserve ran out and I went through the menopause.
Suddenly, in that moment, my whole perspective changed. Previously, I thought that I could have both a successful career and a family, no problem. Before hearing this news, I would have happily waited on starting a family whilst I began to grow my career with my new organisation. I thought that when the time felt right, we’d try, fall pregnant, I’d go on maternity leave and then go back to work. This all changed when suddenly I faced the prospect of not being able to have what I thought was half of my ideal life – the family. Now I realised it actually wasn’t an equal split; the family was ALL I now wanted and all I could think about. Yes, I wanted to feel fulfilled and successful in my career, but more than anything I couldn’t imagine my life without being a Mum.
I knew I needed to tell my new employer, particularly as my treatment was due to commence the same week I started the job. I had an overwhelming and probably illogical feeling that in telling them I was about to go through IVF, I had been somehow been dishonest in my interview. Yes, I hadn’t said openly that I wanted more than anything to be a Mum but at the time I didn’t think getting pregnant would be a problem for me. Let’s face it, who would feel comfortable saying this in an interview without fear of being discriminated against?! In the position I now found myself in, I felt that by telling them in my interview that I wanted progression and a career I had misled them in some way, almost giving an impression that family wasn’t on the cards in the near future. I know it’s not how you should feel but this is exactly how I did feel.
I started the job, eager to impress and hoped that I could do it all alongside my first IVF cycle. I was thankful to have been given the flexibility to attend appointments but I constantly felt guilty as I tried to sneak into the office unnoticed after a rushed 1hr20 commute post appointment from the clinic. Meetings had to fit around the many appointments whilst I tried to build networks and make good first impressions. Rather than it being exciting, motivating and energising – it drained me, work became unimportant and trivial. My usual love of building connections and relationships had disappeared as all I wanted to do was retreat and be on my own, consumed by my situation (not even considering what the hormones being pumped through my body were doing to me.)
I sensed my manager was eager for me to spend more time with my client group, to be more visible and proactive – usually not a problem for me but all my energy was taken up by my fertility struggle. I’d lost myself and felt I was constantly letting them down, unable to be the confident person they hired when I was blissfully unaware of my situation. Everywhere I looked I was met with guilt. Guilt for not being ever present due to the many appointments. Guilt due to not being fully present mentally. Guilt as I knew that if this cycle didn’t work then I would feel even worse. Guilt because if this cycle did work then I would not be present due to maternity leave. Obviously, the latter was the guilt I would have been most comfortable with, but still, it was one of the overwhelming complex emotions I experienced during this time.
Six weeks into my new job I found out that, against the odds, I was pregnant. With what I thought was the hard part over I began to relax, before being cruelly knocked for six when I suffered a missed miscarriage. After having been in and out of work for IVF I was now facing time off for my pregnancy loss. I vividly remember suddenly having to leave in floods of tears when I began to bleed and I was just too emotional to go back into the office. Overall my miscarriage was drawn out over a long 3 weeks, finally resulting in needing to have the pregnancy surgically removed. I was thankful for the flexibility I had been afforded so far but I began to sense the goodwill was wearing thin. Soon after my surgery I was asked when I would be back in the office and reminded of the amount of time I hadn’t been around, even though mentally I was nowhere near ready I felt unable to take any more time off.
With my confidence now at an all-time low, I embarked on back-to-back IVF cycles and constantly felt the need to explain my absences, particularly as important first impressions were being affected. My manager was desperately trying to motivate me by challenging me, trying to get back the fire that she saw on my assessment day, but that only pushed me further away and for the first time in my life I felt I just couldn’t perform my job. I felt like a failure.
Something needed to give and so I went to see my GP who signed me off for 2 weeks with stress and anxiety. Having never had a day off for anything other than minor illnesses, these feelings consumed me. I was no longer the person that skipped into the assessment day smiling and full of confidence, my infertility had changed me and left me a shadow of my former self.
I even considered leaving as I wasn’t able to do both – put everything into my fertility treatments and be the person my manager wanted me to be. I wanted to take a sabbatical but due to my short length of service this wasn’t an option. I was offered and nearly took a career break which would effectively have meant resigning – I was so close to doing so but for some reason I just couldn’t, particularly as financially I needed to work now more than ever to privately fund our treatment. Eventually, I found some comfort in seeing a Counsellor, accessed through my workplace Employee Assistance Programme, which helped me with managing my emotions whilst remaining at work. I realised that what I desperately needed was balance, to allow me to feel like I was giving my eggs the very best chance…to ultimately have no regrets. I finally made the decision to reduce to a 4-day week, and eventually took a sideways move to a role that wasn’t in the development pipeline – to allow someone else to take that succession step. I couldn’t help but feel like I had let others down and failed in some way, it was hard to let the opportunity go but I just knew I wasn’t in the right place mentally. My priorities had totally changed.
In the space of just a few months, just when I thought I was taking a leap forwards into a job that would progress my career, my infertility made me feel like I had taken 10 steps backwards. Feeling very much alone, I believed that by letting infertility stop me from progressing in my career I had failed. I now see I had to accept that I wasn’t able to do it all, my focus needed to be becoming a Mum so that I had no regrets. On reflection, although it stopped me progressing in the way I had planned, it changed me as a person for the better and made me more confident with what I ultimately wanted from life.
After 5 unsuccessful IVF cycles, I’m now a stay-at-home Mum to three girls under the age of three, all thanks to IVF and Egg Donation. Going through fertility struggles has made me realise just how precious life is and what is important to me for a fulfilled life. I am now taking an extended career break to raise the girls – after everything I went through to get them, I just don’t want to miss a thing. I started to write my blog just a few months ago and in doing so have found a new purpose. Aside from being the best Mum I can be, my aspiration is now to help others who are experiencing fertility struggles, to change perceptions, encourage understanding and, most of all, to give hope.
When it comes to dealing with Fertility in the Workplace, not everyone will react in the way that I did, some will find work a helpful distraction but often work is another stressor that can become just too much. It doesn’t help that currently there is a huge disparity and inconsistency around how people are treated, some are given complete flexibility whilst others are given none. Many have no idea where to find information on entitlement and lack confidence to ask questions and seek help where there is such perceived stigma. Being a HR Professional myself, I have seen how managers can also lack the understanding and capability to best support team members. This is why I’m delighted to hear that FNUK are launching policy guidance and support for the workplace. Supporting an employee through something as personally challenging as infertility can only lead to greater engagement, productivity and loyalty, whilst helping to attract talent – why wouldn’t your organisation want to embrace this and become a ‘Fertility Friendly Employer’? Head over to the Fertility Network UK to find out more.
I wasn’t sure about sharing my story. Most people share once they’ve achieved their happy ending, it provides hope to others. I wanted to share mine, to provide that hope, but my happy ending is still en-route. I hope it can still provide some comfort, or support to others who may be in the same place
My path has been long and winding and taken many turns I didn’t expect. It has been heartbreaking and I have struggled at times to find hope again and carry on. The goalposts were constantly shifting. My dream of motherhood seemed to just get further out of reach.
From my earliest memories, I knew I was a mum. Its who I was destined to be, its what I could relate to. I would have children. The rest was all rather sketchy and changed over the years, marriage was never a massive priority, although it would be nice to be asked, career, yes I wanted one, but what exactly? But motherhood was never, not once, in question.
The truth is, infertility and recurrent miscarriage is a painful and emotional rollercoaster journey, filled with an endless whirlwind of hope, despair and grief. It requires strength and resilience and often compromise. You have to deal with your pain and also deal with the judgements of others, who have not struggled. Who do not understand the difference between not having children and childlessness. Its a hugely painful difference. The perception that if you are in your late 30’s or 40’s with no children, and you didn’t chose this, then you did something wrong, you put your career first, you were too selfish, you wanted to travel, wanted your own life. Or, if you have suffered some sort of infertility, then perhaps you’ve just not tried hard enough, or didn’t relax enough. Somehow you are to blame. This perception is wrong, but only by sharing stories will this be changed. Since the perception is generally from those who have not trod the path of infertility.
I have now lost 7 babies through miscarriage. I have had every test going in the UK, there is no evident reason. I have only one working ovary due to endometriosis damage, a very low egg count in my remaining ovary and age is not on my side. The dream of having my own child has been fading, but I was not ready to let it go. I held on, too long perhaps. After my last miscarriage in January last year, I finally accepted that me carrying a child was probably not going to happen. I looked into alternatives. I considered egg donation, it had come up previously when my eggs did not respond to IVF drugs, but they had always kicked in at the 11th hour to provide 2-3 eggs. My worry was, since there was no reason for my miscarriages, it was impossible to know if it was something within my body or the baby’s. Egg donation could then also lead to miscarriage. Could I really put myself through that once more?
The other options were surrogacy and adoption. I joined a surrogacy site to find out more. Apparently you cannot advertise in the UK, you have to wait to be asked. That felt like such pressure. It can also end up costing quite a lot and there are no guarantees. But isn’t having a child a gamble anyway? That shouldn’t matter if I really wanted a baby should it? What if we went through all of this and the surrogate miscarried, or worse yet, wouldn’t give up the child? From what I’ve seen on the Surrogacy UK site, this is rare if you go through them. The women there seemed to genuinely want to give hope to families who could not conceive. However, something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Perhaps I still hadn’t let go of having my own child? I have found pregnancy exceedingly difficult to be around since having miscarriages. Perhaps its the idea of being close to a pregnant woman, even if she is carrying a child which would be mine?
We signed up to a social event to start building connections and potentially find a surrogate. On the morning of the event, my partner and I got ready, then we looked at one another and both said we didn’t really want to go. It felt like a sign, perhaps this wasn’t for us? I cried that day, was I letting go of my dream of motherhood, why was I not grabbing this opportunity?
I had already considered adoption, years ago, when I was single, so it felt more familiar in a way. Initially I looked into foster to adopt, where you become a foster parent to a newborn, then when the court agree the child should go up for adoption, you can then become their adoptive parents. However, its high risk, what if the baby has to go back? Could I bear losing another baby? Apparently this also means that you have to wait quite some time before being able to adopt another child. I am done waiting! Then I just mentioned to the social worker that maybe a sibling group would work? I’m not really sure where that came from, but it just made sense.
For a long time my head knew this was the answer, but my heart couldn’t fully commit. Slowly my mindset has been changing. I started to realise what I wanted was to be a mother. I wanted the every-day, the caring for little beings, the sleepless nights, the smiles, the giggles, the tantrums, the school runs, the family days out, the Sunday dinners, the Christmases. The full shebang. To make a family. It didn’t matter how. I started to think my babies are out there. They are waiting for me and I’m wasting time grieving for what I have lost.
Slowly I have shifted from heartbroken, to impatient. I just want to meet my children and the waiting is too long. We’ve had some set-backs, we are not allowed to continue with the process until we’ve finished the work on the house. I resent waiting, making my children wait. I’m here and I want to be with them, they are alive and well and I need to be their mum.
I’m Nicole. By day I’m a Change Manager but in the evenings I’m a counsellor, with a hope to one day making a permanent switch. I live with my boyfriend, my cat, Matilda and my dog, Chloe. We are a great little family unit but we are still missing a vital component – children. I have found infertility and miscarriage to be a very lonely place.. A lot of my journey has involved burying what was happening to me and pretending I was ok, during some of the most painful experiences of my life. I became good at styling out heart ache. I felt I had nowhere to go with it and often, no right to experience it. I really want help others who may feel the same way, to offer support and understanding, but also to open up communication and increase awareness.
If anyone would like to ask Nicole any questions please do so via my email – email@example.com
We are all guilty of making assumptions, imagining that something is happening or going to happen without any proof whatsoever. We put two and two together to make five and believe a certain ‘reality’, especially if it is considered to be ‘the norm’.
I see this so often when it comes to fertility, where it is assumed that it is acceptable to comment on someone’s future family prospects, without any knowledge of what might really be going on behind closed doors. This assumed wisdom can make situations awkward, placing added pressure on someone who may be struggling to conceive. When an assumption is wrong the individual may then feel the need to either agree (by lying) or to correct whatever the assumption has actually got wrong.
When it comes to fertility or family situations, maybe just take a moment to think…don’t assume. Perhaps there is a different story to what you assume – one that you don’t know about.
You don’t choose infertility. By making assumptions about something so very personal it may suggest that they have actively made a choice – to put a career above having children for example. It may potentially put them in an unwanted situation where they have to uncomfortably lie and go along with the assumption. This avoids them having to explain a situation that they may prefer to keep to themselves or share in their own time and way. When it comes to discussing starting a family, only the individual can lead this conversation. If they want to talk about it they may feel more comfortable to do so if assumptions haven’t already been made.
Remember, behind closed doors, things may not always be quite as they seem.
Here are just a few that spring to mind – please share any more that you have with me!
Last week I sat in the Doctors waiting room with Eska and Lena. I had the usual comment of “Ooh, you’ve got your hands full 🙄” before someone else asked “Do twins run in the family?”. Quite an intrusive question I thought, but also one that suggests they were unaware that many twins born today are a result of fertility treatment. I’m not sure they realised that they were unknowingly asking about their conception! I answered, as I always do, with ‘No, they are here with thanks to fertility treatment – we actually underwent IVF’. With this response, I couldn’t believe how it opened up a conversation – all 9 people waiting for the Dr actually joined in! They became curious about how twins resulted from IVF and I quite enjoyed educating them on the wonders of modern science!
It got me thinking about the opportunities that can arise in an everyday situation where, if we feel comfortable enough, we can start a conversation about infertility and by doing so raise awareness. I never expected that morning to share some of our story with complete strangers but I came away feeling like I had gone some-way towards helping them understand that fertility treatment and IVF is completely normal and so very many of us go through it.
I’d love to hear how you have taken unexpected opportunities to speak out and share stories about fertility struggles, no matter where you are in your fertility journey. Or maybe you don’t feel comfortable doing so – which is absolutely fine. In the midst of my struggles I’m not sure I could have coherently spoken out without ending up in floods of tears!
It’s a vicious cycle– nobody talks about infertility and so you worry about people’s reactions, and because you think that people will react negatively you don’t say anything, therefore perpetuating the cycle.
On top of feeling like a failure (and that we are the only ones going through it) we also worry about perceptions, what people will think, what they might say – after all, everyone seems to have an opinion. How are we supposed to react to them when it’s so raw and such a personal, emotional experience? Here are just a few reasons my followers shared with me as to why they don’t feel able to open up…
“We worry others won’t agree with the process. The fear of having to justify it.”
“My Grandpa made a comment that my adopted cousins weren’t real carriers of the family name”
“Everyone seems to have an opinion. I just can’t think on my feet to respond to people’s comments”
“In case we say the wrong thing”
“Not being able to think on my feet to respond to people’s comments, instead I carry it around and mull it over”
“If it doesn’t work then I’ve got to share the loss with everyone too”
“Others will have so much hope for our IVF that it will hurt doubly or more if it doesn’t work”
In my experience there were three different types of reactions. The ‘generational’ reactions, those who say totally the wrong thing, and those who react with (sometimes unwanted) curiosity.
Starting with the generational reactions. We have to remember that the whole concept of IVF (never mind something like donor conception) is only 40 years old, it is still so new for those that were having children with no medical intervention way before this. In the past if you couldn’t conceive you just wouldn’t have children, you may carry the pain around with you and not tell a soul. When I launched my blog, someone told me “Back in the 70’s it was something you never talked to anyone about, you were expected to accept your situation”. I don’t know about you, but I just cannot imagine having to just ‘get on with’ a life without children when it’s all you ever wanted, and never tell a soul about it.
Recently, my Mum told me that she worried about telling my Nan about our struggle to conceive, for no reason other than she worried that she might not fully understand and may have a view that things should happen as nature intended. Not only was she telling her about us needing to use IVF but also that we may need to use donor eggs. Thankfully, she totally understood and was hugely supportive, but it doesn’t surprise me that there is a still a misunderstanding amongst people.
A good friend of mine recently contacted me to ask for advice on telling her in-laws. She is being open with her son about his donor conception but knows that her in-laws “are very old fashioned and just wouldn’t understand. They’d say things like ‘so, he’s not yours then’?” With responses such as that you can see why we don’t speak out!
Often these generational responses come from a place of ignorance, in these cases sharing some general information about infertility such as letting them know that is actually a common issue and affects nearly 1 in 6 couples might help. Sometimes however, it isn’t easy to change minds on something that is so unfamiliar – you have to remember that opinions can be hard to change, especially where there is a lack of understanding. It is also important to remember that you are not responsible for changing their minds. It may be wise to limit how much you share, if this is the case. I believe that these reactions will get easier over time, as generations move on there will be a shift, but it still doesn’t change the difficulties of speaking out now.
Personally, what I found most difficult were the (mostly) well-meaning responses, with useless bits of advice that people like to try to give. Those who would respond with some assumed medical knowledge based on no experience whatsoever and those that would tell you about someone who ‘just relaxed’ after IVF and got pregnant. I remember getting the odd comment that would rattle me such as:
“I know someone that was struggling, they went on holiday, relaxed and just fell pregnant!”
“Did you know a miscarriage can make you more fertile, so it could just happen naturally now”
Through gritted teeth I’d think… Yes, of course, that’s what I need to do – relax! And I’m sure the miscarriage I have just been through will totally resolve the problem with my rather lacking egg reserve! I wished that people would just think before they spoke.
Although comments such as these can be very upsetting, what I did find however was that the majority came from a good place. As it is something people aren’t used to hearing about, (because we don’t talk about it!) being open about something such as this can make others feel uncomfortable, especially if infertility isn’t something they have come across before. Human nature can mean that we automatically want to fix things, and so we say the first thing that comes to mind to offer a ‘solution’. We shouldn’t necessarily feel the need to apologise for making people feel uncomfortable though, raising awareness can only help reduce this feeling. You can respond to these types of comments by reminding them you are focusing on the advice of fertility experts and that what you need is for them to listen to you, not try to solve the problem. This then allows for the conversation to end if you so wish, or for you to then expand and educate them about the fertility advice you are following.
The third type of response I found was curiosity. I found some people were fascinated and, in wanting to know more, they would fire questions about how it all works. This was a reaction I actually didn’t mind. Curiosity can be a great response and one I would encourage – it means we can open up a meaningful conversation and actually educate people about fertility struggles. Without this, there is no way we will break this vicious cycle. When you are facing fertility struggles you almost become an ‘expert’ on the subject, I know I self-‘taught’ myself about all things fertility related with hours of trawling through the internet. I believe that if you are able to help them understand a little more about what is involved both medically and emotionally, they will be able to support you better.
Throughout our journey I found that by choosing to be candid, I experienced many reactions. On the whole, I found that most people reacted positively and being prepared to respond to different types of reactions most definitely helped. Preparation still doesn’t take away the raw emotion that can easily take over when talking about such a personal journey, although I don’t believe this is a bad thing. Allowing people to see emotion can only emphasise the enormity of what you are going through – thus educating people that it isn’t just a ‘trivial’ thing.
As I always say, I’m not saying you have to talk about it, I want to say that you shouldn’t feel that you can’t talk about it, just because of an ignorant or misjudged reaction.
Everyone is different and will respond to reactions in their own way – no way is right or wrong. I’d encourage you to remember my previous posts on the Vicious Cycle of Infertility -you are not alone and you are not a failure. You have an opportunity to educate and raise awareness, don’t be afraid to correct people or open up a conversation – without this we won’t be able to break the silence and the taboo.