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, Defining Mum, in 2018 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.