Working Through: Fertility issues in the workplace

 

My husband and I stopped trying not to get pregnant 6 years ago. About 3 years ago we started trying to get pregnant and just over a year and a half ago I had my first miscarriage. We found out that there was no heart beat at 9weeks, confirmed it at 10weeks and had a D&C at 11weeks. One of the reasons why it took us so long to actively try to conceive was my fear of losing the pregnancy. I remember thinking that it would be an unsurvivable experience for me. Now I’m at a point where I can say that I appreciate the extra time before starting my family and the strength I found in myself and my relationship with my husband. That being said, miscarrying is horrible. Each time I lost a pregnancy I obsessed about all of the things I might have done wrong to cause the loss. Was I too stressed out, did I eat the wrong thing, was my shampoo poisoning the baby, did I touch the wrong thing at work?

 

A number of my closest friends and my sister were pregnant right around the time of my first pregnancy and it felt like my miscarriages made things awkward for us. They were worried that talking about their pregnancies/babies would hurt me, (and maybe they were a little right, I swore off of facebook for a while because it seemed like everyone was pregnant except me) but when they stopped complaining to me about swollen feet and colicky babies or telling me about the little joys like feeling the fist kicks and seeing first steps I felt even more isolated. I worried about talking to them too much about my miscarriages, I didn’t want to worry them about the viability of their own pregnancies. I knew it was irrational, but I felt that by talking with them about what happened my dark cloud would contaminate their happiness, which was the last thing I wanted. Friends asked me if I was seeing a fertility specialist (I’ve learned I shouldn’t call them infertility specialists because that sounds negative) which is a totally reasonable suggestion, but one that I was reluctant to follow up on for a long time. For me, this whole process has been confusing. On one hand, I want to be a strong feminist and be outspoken about the fact that I have had miscarriages to help other women feel less alone. On the other hand, I want to curl up in a ball and cry while telling myself/everyone that everything is fine and the next time will work out.

 

It has been almost a year since my last pregnancy. 4 months ago we finally started seeing a specialist. We did all the tests our Dr. recommended and everything is normal. There are little things that the Dr. points to and says this or that maybe on the low or high end of normal, but nothing that we can point to and say, yup that’s why it’s been so long or that’s why I’ve lost all of our prior pregnancies. The one good thing about all of this waiting, is somehow in the last few months I feel like I’ve come closer to a kind of acceptance in regards to this process. I am cautiously optimistic each month and each month I am disappointed, but it doesn’t devastate me each time.

 

All the while I have been struggling with these miscarriages and fertility issues I’ve been working, and it has not always been easy. At my last job I told my boss that I had miscarried and that I would need a D&C because I needed to take the following day off. She is a great boss and mentor and was as supportive as I could possibly have hoped for. About a year ago I changed jobs, and while I like my bosses, I chose to try to be more professional and less open about my struggle. It might be misplaced, but I worry that they will be mad/frustrated/disappointed/concerned-about-how-the-work-will-get-done if they find out that I am pregnant, and since I have had so many false starts I don’t want to have that negative interaction before I have to. Industry jobs are very volatile and I always want to put my best foot forward. Reasonable or not, I worry that people would consider (consciously or not) my future maternity leave against me if there was a restructuring of my department. While I stand by my decision to maintain my privacy in my professional life, it does pose some problems. Infertility testing and treatments are time consuming. There are a lot of timed tests that I/we have to go into the lab or clinic for. At first I would let people know that I had a doctors appointment, but then my boss started asking if I was ok and I got paranoid that he either thought I was really sick or he would assume that I was already pregnant or he would think I was interviewing for other jobs. So I now I’m trying to be more vague or slip out without saying anything, but that also feels very obvious and slightly disrespectful especially when I am missing meetings.   I worry that people will think that I am just shirking my work. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. It would be great if more of the appointments could happen before/after work hours or of the weekends… but that’s just wishful thinking as far as I can tell.

 

I’m writing this post on the eve of my first IUI (intrauterine insemination… basically they collect the sperm spin it down and stick it into my uterus through a catheter, woo hoo!). This morning we went for the ultrasound and unfortunately my follicles were a little more ready than we expected… so I had to run out to the pharmacy and take my (injectable) ovulation stimulating medicine immediately. I had a meeting at 9:30am so I got the drug and injected myself in my car in the parking lot (there are no sharps containers in my work bathrooms, I didn’t feel right injecting myself in the lab where there are tons of sharps containers, and I didn’t want to wander around work with my needle and medicine so I decided my car was my best option). I know to people who have to give themselves injections all the time it probably doesn’t sound like a big deal but it was my first time injecting myself ever and it took a little bit to convince myself to stick the needle in, maybe it was a good thing I was running late for my meeting. It makes me wonder what things other than having a pumping room would make fertility struggles, pregnancy and having kids easier to balance with work? Does how hard it can be to get pregnant (especially for those of us no longer in our 20’s) have anything to do with the high attrition rate of women in science? I know it has impacted how much of a go-getter I am at work and how much I “lean in” since I don’t want to have to back out if I have an appointment/have a crappy pregnancy/go on maternity leave (and yes, I know this is exactly what Sandberg says not to do).

 

Overall, I’m excited and a little nervous about the IUI but I also appreciate that for the moment my life is beautiful as it is. My partnership with my husband is stronger now than ever and I have hope that our family will grow one way or another. In the mean time I’m trying to learn to be more chill/sneaky? about this personal process at work and I’m having an amazing time being an aunty to my niece and all my friends’ adorable babies.

 

One last thought for the moment. I really appreciated what Mark Zuckerberg did by posting his fertility struggles along with his pregnancy announcement. One thing that makes me extra thankful for the opportunity to share my experience anonymously is the ability to talk about the process before we have the safety of having a successful pregnancy. Thanks!

12 responses so far

  • biopostdoc13 says:

    I am a postdoc in the biological sciences and have been on the infertility roller coaster for the past several years. We tried for a year, tried with help, tried with IUIs (2), tried 2 localish IVFs, and then finally are expecting in November from IVF #3 (with a top tier, out-of-state clinic).

    Infertility is miserable. It is lonely and isolating. It is traumatic and emotional (all those extra hormones don't help). While we didn't go through any miscarriages, I know many women who have and I know that involves its own unique heartbreak. And, relevant to being a scientist, infertility is certainly hard to balance with an already full plate of mentoring, benchwork, thinking, writing, and career planning. I also think that, for me, all of the life uncertainty has combined with career uncertainty in incredibly powerful ways.

    I think talking about it is cathartic and I'm glad you're doing so. I imagine it's more common than we realize and hopefully this will help you and also help other people going through the same thing. Feel free to contact me if you want someone to talk to about it. I'm glad to share my experience and commiserate. I also eventually did tell my (male) advisor, prior to IVF #3, when I had to be out of the lab (and out of state) for two weeks. It was hard to do, but he was very supportive. For most of the time I was doing treatments, only one close friend in my lab knew.

    I also just wanted to tell you that you aren't alone.

    Will keep my fingers crossed that your IUI is successful and that all goes smoothly in your work-life as well.

    • curiousercuriouser says:

      Dear Biopostdoc13,
      Congratulations on your pregnancy! Thank you for sharing your story, I think you are right it is cathartic - but also very scary - to write about it. I'm so glad to hear that your boss was supportive and that your IVF turned out so well, it sounds like you did a lot of research on how/where to get the best treatment! Thanks for your support, it really is nice to know I'm not alone!

  • tribble says:

    Best of luck with the IUI.

    Everyone is different, and my infertility struggles were not as prolonged as yours, but I found that the monthly small disappointments and the larger loss of miscarriage constituted a real emotional load. I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but I had less ability to "lean in" just because I needed to save a bit more energy for myself.

    • curiousercuriouser says:

      Dear Tribble,
      Thank you, it is hard to "go easy" on myself sometimes, but you are totally right I'm keeping my energy for where I need it most. =)

  • Anonymous says:

    Also wishing you the best of luck! Please don't feel one bit guilty or bad about not "leaning in." Who cares what Sandberg says! This is *your* life, *your* family, and *your* future -- only you can/should decide what's best for you. Despite books like Sandberg's, there is no magic formula or solution for people (both men and women) who want to combine demanding careers with being involved parents. Trust yourself and your partner; the two of you will figure it all out.

    And yes, I think keeping most of this to yourself at work is wise. Even the most well-intentioned people can be really insensitive at times without realizing it. You don't need that -- especially not at work.

  • Joseph says:

    Thanks for posting this. So many folks have been dealing with infertility, but it is so seldom talked about.

    Best of luck with your IUI!

  • DJMH says:

    Good luck. It is extremely hard, and it often (to me, anyhow) felt unfair that we had to deal with this when our friends and relatives got pregnant quickly. One silver lining, which you touched on, is that you and your husband will have already gone through a difficult time together before you have your child. That will leave you feeling more like a "team" when the kiddo is crying at 3 am.

    Regarding doctor's appointments, I would recommend telling your manager that you're going to them. It is worse to have an employee who is gone with no explanation than to have one who is gone for a stated reason. You can simply say doctor's appointment; you can deflect further questions by focusing on, "Here's how I'm going to get the work done anyhow: I'll be here late on Thursday" [or whatever]. That way, your manager will see you're still dedicated, and s/he will have a chance to let you know if there's a no-miss meeting.

    If questions become too probing, you can choose to say something vague, like "I'm healthy enough, but there are some things going on that I need to check out." But scurrying out the door without explanation is probably not a good idea.

  • a says:

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Kiki says:

    This pretty much sums up our quest to have a second child. Infertility is "easy" in the summer, when you have time to run to appointments and ultrasounds and bloodwork, but as soon as the semester hits... bam! Here comes the stress. I love the one comment that mentioned the emotional toll of the monthly excitement/disappointment and how you have to save a little bit for yourself. I've notice myself holding back on my research for so long because I play the "well, I might be having a baby in 9 months!" mind game with myself every mother loving month. And it is exhausting. I'm truly trying to live in the moment and not be such a planner, but it is so hard.

  • curiousercuriouser says:

    Thank you so much, everyone, for your support, stories and advice. Unfortunately, the IUI didn't work this last round. I underestimated how much of an impact going off the hormones would have on my mood. I thought I was "disappointed, but not devastated" when we found out we weren't pregnant.... until about half an hour after I usually took the progesterone... and then I felt like I lost my mind! I felt terribly sad, angry, frustrated and just unhappy. It was horrible. Luckily, it only lasted for about a day and things are back to normal. Our Dr. has started me on the daily injectables for this months IUI (ouch!)... fingers crossed!

    • Biopostdoc13 says:

      Curiouser,

      I'm sorry to hear about the last IUI. It is already hard when cycles don't work out, but the hormones do add fuel to the fire. At one point, we had to take a few months off and I was shocked at how much I felt like myself again (despite still being in the middle of the infertility struggle) ... I'm sure it was kind of a detox from all of the extra hormones.

      It sounds like you did exactly what you needed to do-- feel your feelings and honor them... then pick yourself up and keep moving. Best of luck with your next treatment cycle. The injectables stink but it gets easier!

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