National Infertility Awareness Week is April 21 – 27, 2019.
This essay includes personal experience with infertility and pregnancy loss.
One of the ways I work a little happier is by finding opportunities to get involved at the office outside of my day job. My company recently launched an employee resource group for caregivers: parents, children of aging parents, really anyone caring for someone else. As part of that launch, I wrote a post about my own experience becoming a parent.
This year, my spring cleaning started with letting go of no-longer-needed IVF supplies. My son turned three in February. He is proof of better living through science: IVF can work.
When my wife and I made the decision to grow our family, we knew we were deliberately choosing a bigger life. The calculation seemed simple: Us plus a baby would equal one awesome family.
Getting to motherhood meant awkward conversations at work. My work is a Career with a capital “C”. Infertility treatments required appointments which took me away from the office, often without much notice. I was lucky to have a close and trusted relationship with my manager. My manager and I agreed that if she noticed changes the impact I was having at the office, we’d regroup and troubleshoot together.
Getting to motherhood also meant one day I had to leave work because I just couldn’t hold it together after learning my positive pregnancy test was a chemical pregnancy. My body let me down over and over, and through all of it I was still coming to the office and doing my work. Those early awkward conversations meant I didn’t need to share with manager what was happening daily, just “I’ll need to be out Thursday, I’ve managed my schedule appropriately.” Setting that expectation at the start of the process meant that on the one day I couldn’t get it together to be in the office, I just needed to send an email. Work expectations were clear, too – I pushed off a critical appointment because I was facilitating a training session that couldn’t be rescheduled.
I found out on my birthday, while traveling for work, that I was pregnant. Suddenly, it seemed like the whole process hadn’t been that big of a deal.
When my son was 18 months old, my wife and I decided to choose a bigger life again. We hoped for siblings; a newborn to benefit from all our new-found parenting “expertise”.
On to more semi-awkward conversation with my manager. I juggled doctor’s appointments with conference calls, bloodwork with deadlines. I learned what to do so I could ship refrigerated injections and still take a family vacation.
Then we found out that I’d need surgery to repair scar tissue to move forward. We had to decide what a bigger life looked like, now with my son’s needs and experience added to the equation. We decided that this time, our bigger life didn’t include lab visits, appointments and surgery. A new equation: IVF plus work plus a toddler made this second attempt much more difficult. I was tired, unhappy and missing out on the toddlerhood of the child we had.
Cleaning out those syringes last month was proof that science doesn’t always come through: IVF can fail.
It’s easy to talk about my son, the success half of our story. Now I’m starting to share failure half of our journey, the half with a bag of medical supplies no longer needed because there won’t be another child. Feeling like a failure and being a happy wife, loving mom, good friend, and successful employee wasn’t working.
In my day job in Human Resources, we talk about authentic leadership. I define authenticity as embracing the paradox and tension that’s present when we’re open about all the facets of who we are. I was having a great year professionally, but personally I was navigating repeated disappointments. We say “bring your whole self to work.” But I didn’t want to bring all of this to work with me. Being at work was a way to focus on something else, to not have to think about timing injections and toddler sleep schedules. If you work with me and didn’t know this was happening…well, that was my goal. Coming to the office was a break and escape.
My coworkers hear about my parenting adventures often – maybe more than they want to! Saying “We didn’t sleep well” gets nods and empathy. After all, I have a son, the part of my journey you can see. You’ll never realize how much we talk about kids in the office until you want and don’t have a baby. I remind myself that everyone has invisible experiences they bring into the office. Personally, I try to ask about what someone’s already shared with me, like vacation plans or a book recommendation. If I’m in a meeting where one or two people don’t have kids, I’ll try to make sure the kid talk doesn’t take over. The key is try – I can think of times even in the last month when I’ve put my foot in my mouth not knowing someone’s story. Rather than making a huge deal of it in the moment, these missteps help me recommit to getting better at recognizing my own assumptions.
If someone does share that they are trying to have a baby, I recommend asking how they want you to check in. For me, no news was bad news, and I didn’t want to answer unexpected questions while waiting in the cafeteria line. I did appreciate “I’m thinking about you notes”, though.
Ask. There’s no other way to know what will work for someone.
If any of this feels like your story, too, I know it’s hard to decide to keep going and hope for the best. I know it’s hard to give up and try to move on. I know it’s possible to grieve for someone you never knew. I know my decisions might not be the same as yours. More than anything, I know that the hard work of choosing our own bigger life is worthwhile.