“To tell or not to tell my boss about my fertility challenges?” This is a question I often get from my clients and there is no right or easy answer. It could be a double-edged sword and for many and it can be daunting to have to discuss intimate fertility problems or treatment with people who are not close to you.
It can be so stressful juggling the medical appointments with work, trying to get in and out of the fertility clinic before work starts (like many others vying for the early appointments!), hoping that no one will notice your distress when you finally do arrive to work, or, if that cant be done trying to come up with other appointments that are more run of the mill, like “dental or gynae” appointments, that nobody will really question (within reason) or taking holiday days that aren’t really holidays because you don’t go anywhere or do anything other than see your consultant or have a procedure. When you do return to work the stress mounts internally as you keep your fingers crossed you will not get any sticky questions!
I have to admit, when I look back, the thought of my co-workers and my boss knowing about a very personal and intimate medical problem made me feel really uncomfortable. Growing up I was told never to bring your personal problems to work so it really didn’t sit easy with me. I think in general when we tell someone about our fertility challenges in work or out of work that it feels like we somehow expose ourselves or make ourselves more vulnerable to hurt and potentially judgement and (god forbid!) questions about it all. It just felt so wrong to me. Why would I open up about a private hell in work that would just make me even more fragile than I already was? I felt that if I spoke about our infertility challenges I would just cry and cry and cry some more, saying it out loud was really hard and even more so in work.
On reflection, my fears about opening up about my infertility in work were ultimately about the loss of my career (like many others) and the loss of a promotion that I had been striving towards for years. I was afraid my profession would be compromised, that I would be viewed as weak or less able and emotionally unstable and definitely not able for the next step on the corporate ladder because I would be a blubbering mess. Underlying that I guess was a fear of lack of compassion and understanding.
At the time, my dream of having a family was becoming more and more unreachable so I argued with myself as to why my career should be compromised because of infertility too? I wanted to protect that part of my life, hide it from 9am to 6pm, after all this was a part of my life I could control. So, with the make-up every morning a façade was created.
I also grew up with another belief, the belief that if you work hard you get what you want, that holds true most aspects of life, work, education, fitness and so on but I was learning fast this equation was not necessarily applying to having a family. So eventually, I had to open up and tell my boss about our challenge as the amount of treatment and appointments I needed became unwieldy and there was no end in sight as failed IVF’s became the norm for me. I was left with no choice but to blurt as I became tired of trying to cover up what was going on in my life. Deep down I felt they really knew anyway, we had now been over three years married, I was very late 30’s, I spoke fondly of my nephew (all of the time!) but yet, there was no announcement and everyone in Ireland who gets married has babies just like that!?! Don’t they?
When I finally got the courage to discuss it, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, there were tears (and this would become a regular occurrence!) but it was ok, in fact it made me feel somewhat relieved because my boss was so empathetic and understanding and I did not have to waste energy hiding my infertility anymore. With retrospect, I actually don’t think I would have reached my happy ending without the support of my boss and the wider team.
So, what was it that actually helped? It was the talking, it was being comfortable with tears in work and the active listening on my boss’s part that really helped and also a colleague I confided in was so supportive. I believe on the whole that people have genuine empathy and compassion for others who are struggling with any of life’s challenges, not just infertility. We just got on with our normal day to day workload and if I needed to discuss it was on my instigation. Not having to hide it anymore definitely helped reduce my stress levels.
My boss could not truly understand how I was feeling or what it was like for me because we all deal with it differently and I didn’t expect her too but what she did understand was that having a family was really important to me. I reassured her I still had ambition and wanted my career but I needed to redirect some energy elsewhere and that my work structure might look a little different for a while but my long-term career goals and work ethic still remained the same. The flexibility I received was invaluable.
Life has to go on around infertility, hibernating is not an option, but we are only human and infertility is one hell of a rollercoaster that impacts your whole life and your very emotional, physical and mental being. Therefore, we need support in all aspects of our lives to get out the other end with our sanity and identity intact. The bottom line for me is that infertility is a medical condition, as defined by the World Health Organisation and we need to acknowledge that and talk about it as such.
I hope this insight will provide guidance to you if you are pondering this question but also if you are an employer or a manager that it will give you insight into what someone with infertility might be going through or how they might be emotionally and what you can do to support them.
As always I am here to support.
Take good care of yourself and if you have any questions or queries please do not hesitate to contact me.
Alison Reede is a Life & Fertility Coach working with women and men struggling with Infertility – when having a family is not so straightforward. Alison was inspired to focus her Coaching Practice on Infertility after her own difficult journey to motherhood. Whether you are trying to conceive naturally, or with fertility treatment such as IVF, coaching can support you, help you make sense of your options, help you work through negative thoughts and emotions, help you to manage your stress levels, give you skills to cope and adapt whilst ensuring you achieve a better balance, improve your wellbeing and fertility in an empathetic and non-judgemental place.