Fertility In the Workplace

Pronatal workspaces, infertility, IVF and me.

 I’m Berenice. During my six IVF cycles I worked for two employers and I have also freelanced so I’ve been inside and outside the workplace. My IVF cycles either failed or miscarried, and I have had multiple miscarriages. I speak to diverse groups about my experiences of childlessness to raise awareness of what it’s like to live in a pronatal world without a child, not through choice. I also studied for two degrees during IVF; an English Literature degree with the Open University and a Masters degree in Graphic Design and Typography. During my Masters degree I designed this website, Walk In Our Shoes, a social design project that tells real life infertility stories with feet selfies. I am proud to be a Champion of the global campaign, World Childless Week and their website designer.

Infertility and work

If you’ve wanted to be a parent, as my husband and I did, when we began trying for children, you may have false starts. Trying for a baby should be fun, so says everyone with a cheeky wink (often the same who tell you to ‘just adopt’ later). Then you may find that there are devastating miscarriages and investigations by doctors, often held on maternity wards where you may bump into blooming colleagues who mistakenly think you could have doula potential (yes, this happened to me).

You might be one of many who are childless by circumstance. Whatever our story, we all may have stayed in hopeless jobs with no prospects because of maternity rights. As our dreams of being mothers or fathers were replaced by desperate longing, so our self confidence and worth nosedives.

Finding the passion of what we wanted to be before throwing our lives into being a parent is impossible in the same way one forgets that sex is about love not temperature charts and taking ones pants off is something we do in private not in front of yet another doctor who you think is your school friend’s dad (yes this also happened to me). Thus we may remain stuck in a groove of a dull job, sat next to the fertile Sandra from Marketing or Mark in Sales whose wife seems to be pregnant every year. We bravely smile as we dig into our purses and throw coins into a collection, unable to find words to describe our darkest feelings to our closest allies never mind a colleague.

Handling pronatal events

All that said, I’ve never been able to find the words to explain what it’s like in a pronatal workplace, but I do know that it’s lonely and emotionally knackering. My friend, I have done all this too.

Do we brave the baby shower and why is this a work event now? Must we listen to everyone bonding over the nappy cake and how tough life will be forever more?

Worse are the baby visits. What does one do? Join in and deal with the agony of loss later? Hide in the toilets but for how long? Sit at our desks and feel the curious glances from colleagues and the visiting parents, who may assume we don’t like children at all. Risk being dragged over by unsuspecting colleagues who won’t read the post in the Facebook support group or hear you crying in the loos later. Or say the very private truth and risk pity, judgment or fixes.

None of these scenarios are workable but restricting babies and mums to coffee areas, off site or away from desks, gives that all important choice. Its shows balance and understanding that will protect the mental welfare of everyone. I know that when someone lets me know in advance, so I can make a decision that suits us all, it makes me feel valued.

My experiences of work and IVF cycles

I began IVF whilst working in a high pressure job leading the design and production team in a company ran by an ex Fleet-Street advertising director who like to use the F word as a motivational phrase. Whatever you’re thinking about that, you’re probably correct. Deadlines meant little time off, and leaving on time was rare - an insult indeed. The thought of trying to get home to do an injection seemed impossible so I had tell him this most private news. Reveal a weakness in a carefully cultivated persona that had allowed me to slip through this often bullying environment with apparent ease (it wasn’t until I left that I realised I went to work with a ball of nerves in my stomach every day).  It was the first time I’d said to anyone that we were doing IVF, the only other person who knew was my brother. I didn’t feel this boss had a right to know. I’ve never felt any colleague has had a right to know at any time.

At first there was empathy. Then as it became clear that I really did need to leave on time to do injections, there was a ‘moving’ of my job and the recruitment of another short lived design manager. Then came the fourth IVF cycle failure and another miscarriage months later and the devastating death of my lovely mother-in-law. I began to look for something better, still just about able to see that design might still be my passion.

I found hope at a FTSE 100 company and within a year or two, tentatively went through IVF again. Once more, it felt like I was revealing too much albeit in much more supportive environment. Failure again hit me hard, worse because my close team were all cheering me on, unaware perhaps that the failure rates for IVF are so low (76%).  Rates I didn’t want to consider either. Having to return to work and bear their grief with mine was a terrible time.

Don’t think, don’t feel

Looking back I seem to think I spent a lot of time in denial. I listened to music to give colleagues the space to talk about what brought them as parents together; their children. I probably should have been in counselling. I don’t imagine it was always like that but I floundered, burying my head in work and study to stop the tears, avoiding a colleague whose apparent miracle baby arrived without any IVF but acupuncture and rest. Stay strong, be reliable and maybe I’ll be rewarded with a baby.

Then I was made redundant with about 400 colleagues around the world. I remember my manager looking across the desk and mouthing ‘what about the IVF?’ as it dawned on us both that without a salary, more private IVF would be impossible. As my colleagues cried about their job loss, I think I was immune,. The loss of children and miscarriages had put me in worse places and if I had tears it wasn’t for work but for the embryos left in a freezer.

I fell into the MA by accident after the redundancy. I was offered a job as a design manager at a publisher in London. It was a hot July day and the train commute was sweaty and overpriced. I’d never been able to get a baby on board badge during IVF and it’s incredibly painful to stand for any length of time ( I’ve gasped in pain when I’ve been jostled in a cramped carriage). I’ve also cried in the railway station when I tried to explain why it mattered to a stern Greater Anglia man who’d beat a donkey in a stubborn race.  I’d spent four years on a train in my last job. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again. At the time we had a new rescue dog, Molly, and my husband hadn’t been well. If we were to do IVF again, I didn’t want to do so at work and deal with trains. I prevaricated.

The following day, I had my interview for the MA and was shocked to be told I was good enough to study (my self worth was still rock bottom). My decision was made and I guess that design did indeed save me again. It’s also why a only recently a former colleague who questioned this, affected my mental health so badly that two years ago I wanted to leave this life - my lesson here is that your job isn’t you (and neither is your education) and it’s only the rare and special colleagues who can be friends.

Together we bear the mental and physical scars

Colleagues who came to my Masters degree show and realised the story I had told, wished I had told it sooner. So now I do explain when asked because I tried oh so hard to keep it private. But I’m lacking in advice to the optimist colleague who wants to freeze her eggs in her late 30s and asks for my opinion. How do you tell someone that her chances are less than 23%? This is the danger of going public.

Challenges I’ve faced

I’ve read too many stories both on Walk In Our Shoes and forums to know that supportive colleagues are in very short supply. I’ve been at a women’s lunches only to listen to those at my table openly bitch about childless colleagues and attended training courses where ‘our children’ were mentioned so many times, that I openly objected. I’ve watched colleagues come and go on maternity leave knowing that none of the companies I’ve worked for have any official advice about fertility treatment. My request to have childlessness on a diversity policy was acknowledged and, I suspect, filed away by a diversity committee as I’ve heard nothing since.

A networked life

My new challenge has been networking and information sharing groups with mixed demographic members. Only recently someone asked in an online forum about a delegate bringing a new born baby to a training event . Sixty replies mostly agreed that the delegate should bring the baby, and how isolating it was for mums - which I have no doubt it must be. A few hardy souls said it was unprofessional and were shouted down. Only one person said that the trainer must check with the other delegates in case they had suffered a loss or were going through fertility treatment. Yes, that was me. What disappointed me more was that several of those 60, had been on a talk I delivered about infertility and the workplace. Yes, it’s isolating for mums but being the only person on a forum of some 2,000 people defending childlessness is also very lonely too.

Awareness means loyalty

Being aware is at the heart of any fertility policy in a workplace. The right to be given privacy too. To not have to explain to their male manager that they need time off only for it to be denied. This happened to my friend Carol who had only four sick days a year. She left because IVF was more important. This was ‘unfortunate’ according to her older male manager and father of 4, as she was ‘bloody good’ at her job which sounds worthy of a 1970s women’s rights but happened eight years ago in a call centre.

Losing good staff can be avoided if we remember that childlessness not by choice is life long. It’s not a blip that we all get over. That fertility treatment is bloody hard, no matter what you may read in the Daily Mail or Hello mag. It’s unspeakably painful and emotional, yet outside the treatment, few know how hard it is and what to do if it fails. A fertility policy created through collaboration would enable both managers and colleagues.

It’s being given the choice to be allowed time away from the office when there’s a baby shower (or better still a ban on baby showers from offices). To not have visiting babies, or designate an area or time so that there is a choice. For that trainer to have thought of her other delegates without ever having to ask on a forum. To be mindful that when employers offer wellness, that it includes mental health care for those who are childless not by choice and anyone going through treatment.

It may well be that you have a senior role in a company. You maybe reading this and assuming there isn’t anyone in your workplace who is tackling fertility problems. One in 5 are childless not by choice and may not speak about it. The reason they may never talk could be that your workplace is too pronatal and that has to change.

I’d love a company to really look hard at this campaign and what it means to be supportive of fertility at work. To be brave and dynamic - that means more than agile working. We’ve done so much in our workplaces to be diverse and there is more to do. Let’s make infertility and childlessness not by choice part of these policies too. Be that leader.