“Fertility takes up your entire life, and it finds ways to seep into your career whether you want it to or not,” says local TV news anchor and reporter Kaci Aitchison. She endured months of invasive fertility treatments that impacted her work life so much that she ended up taking a monthlong (unpaid) leave and negotiated a change in her early morning hours to accommodate her treatment.
Dealing with the intensely emotional, costly, and time-consuming ordeal of infertility at work can be overwhelming, to say the least. But Aitchison is far from alone. An estimated one in eight couples will struggle to conceive or sustain a pregnancy, with nearly 12% of women opting for some sort of fertility assistance. And while infertility impacts both men and women, women usually bear the brunt of the responsibility.
Here, inspiring professionals share how they navigated infertility at the office:
“The pressure of keeping it under wraps . . . was more stressful than just being honest”
After a few years of being happily married and enjoying their freedom as a couple, Aitchison and her husband decided to start their family. What they didn’t anticipate was how difficult it would be to get pregnant. Their journey included many months of IUI (intrauterine insemination), IVF (in-vitro fertilization), several embryo transfers, and two pregnancy losses. Last February, they decided to try “one last time”–and became pregnant with their now 5-month-old baby, Scarlett Ann.
How It Impacted Her Career: For Aitchison, battling infertility made her question if she could have a successful career and a family. She often felt at fault and as if she needed to do everything she could to control something that, ultimately, was out of her control. Since there is never a guarantee with fertility treatments, she and her husband had to let go of their expectations. Even so, she never wanted to look back and wonder if stepping back from her job might have helped, so she negotiated a way to have a monthlong leave–fully unpaid. And she bargained for better hours, since at the time, she was waking up at 2 a.m. to work as a morning anchor for a local Fox affiliate.
Though she shared that it was difficult to de-prioritize her career briefly, her infertility journey demanded center stage, prompting her to be transparent: “When we lost our pregnancies, that meant having to involve my bosses in my reproductive health in a way that I would have typically wanted to keep to myself. This made it easier for them to understand my need for time off around these really awful times,” she says.
If her company wouldn’t have been so understanding and patient, Aitchison says she would have felt like she had to pick between having no job but a baby–or no baby, but a job. Luckily, she didn’t have to since she was vocal: “My husband and I learned pretty quickly that the pressure of keeping it under wraps and coming up with reasons for missing work for appointments, etc., was more stressful than just being honest. I am very lucky in that my managers were overwhelmingly supportive and worked with me,” she adds.
Her Advice to Other Women: If you don’t feel comfortable baring your soul to your manager, Aitchison stresses the importance of finding a support system within your team. Not only can this person step up to the bat for you when you need to make yet-another doctor’s appointment, they can be your listening ear when you need it. Especially since you can’t hold in all of your scattered emotions, merely because you’re technically on the clock. “Being able to quickly vent to someone at work, or even just having someone who knows you had a rough week and not having to explain to them why you need to leave a few minutes early can take a ton of pressure off,” she says.
“Managing really high hopes and wrenching lows”
It was following two years of attempting to get pregnant that Leslie Hobbs and her husband decided to seek help. When she began consultations with a fertility specialist, she worked as the director of communications at a small startup, but began lengthy, complicated treatments after switching to a new gig at another Silicon Valley company. Her diagnosis included injections, ultrasounds, and more, eventually resulting in her now two-and-a-half-year-old son. Today, Hobbs is the founder of Grace Strategy Group, an executive communication consultancy, and along with her husband is in the process of attempting to have their second child.
How It Impacted Her Career: Hobbs says she was incredibly lucky to have understanding and supportive management that aided her every step of the way. Even with their kindness, Hobbs says the most difficult part was dealing with the self-inflicted pressure that infertility added. This was only maximized when paired with adjusting to a new job simultaneously. “You’re managing really high hopes and wrenching lows, along with the physical effects of the medication. It’s very challenging. And when you’re beginning a new job, the reality is that people don’t know you, not yet. I was very sensitive to working hard and being very conscientious as a result,” she explains.
Though it was a tough topic to approach with a new manager, Hobbs made a point to be honest in an effort to ensure she could meet her doctor’s appointments without eyebrows being raised. As she explains, “I never wanted her to wonder where I was or if I was committed to the team.”
Her Advice to Other Women: Much like you’d plan out a meeting, set a time line for a project, or strategize to meet a client’s needs, Hobbs suggests approaching the infertility discussion with your boss the same way. This will help your employer understand the gravity of the process, and the importance of flexibility to make it to the doctor for tests and injections, work from home when needed, and when you’ll require different resources. If you can stomach it, Hobbs says try not to emotionally supercharge your chat or apologize for the request, but rather be matter-of-fact and straightforward. “Good managers are happy when you can offer a thoughtful approach to managing the work/life blend, and are generally more than happy to support you as a result,” she says.
“I declined positions because of intense self-blame. I know now that I was wrong”
Karin Ajmani had no trouble conceiving her first child with her husband at the age of 30. But once they were ready for their second child, three years later, she was devastated to face infertility. For three years, she suffered seven miscarriages, with her doctor categorizing her case as “bad luck”–and later, “bad eggs.”
As the CEO of a healthcare company, she exhausted everything she could think of–including genetic testing and other invasive treatments. Throughout the process, she privately tried to keep her cool at work as she battled PTSD and depression as a result of her loss. As a last resort, she turned to IVF once her doctor broke the news she would need a surrogate to get pregnant (she ended up having a baby from one last round of IVF). After all she went through, she wanted to make this process easier for other women. “I realized I was not provided with all of the latest medical information and treatment options available to help me earlier on in my struggle, and I knew there had to be a better way to help women like me,” she says. Today, she works as the president of Progyny, a company increasing access to fertility care by carving out a fertility benefit for employers.
How It Impacted Her Career: When she was in the throes of her infertility struggle, Ajmani made what she calls “very stupid career decisions”–including turning down CEO opportunities to lead healthcare companies. At the time, she was worried about adding stress on her body and impacting her ability to conceive, but in hindsight she also knew her self-confidence was speaking, too. “I declined these positions because of intense self-blame, feeling as though I caused my infertility somehow because of my rigorous work schedule and that I needed to put my career on the back burner. I know now that I was wrong on both fronts,” she shares.
She also didn’t disclose her trials with her employer for fear that her commitment to the company would be questioned. Looking back, she wishes she would have taken the risk, especially since being transparent can sometimes create a ripple effect. “Most women–and men–don’t feel comfortable discussing their personal life at work, especially fertility struggles, but one voice can really have an impact. There is likely another coworker dealing with infertility, and one of the hardest parts of the disease is that most people have to struggle in silence,” she says.
Her Advice to Other Women: As much as you try, Ajmani says you can’t be superwoman. This is especially true when your mind and body are being continuously drained as you try to grow your family. Recognizing you’re going through a strenuous, demanding period and being open about your needs will work to lighten the burden you already feel. “Recognize that infertility is a difficult medical condition and allow yourself to discuss your struggles with your coworkers and HR department so that you can understand the medical and mental health resources available to you,” she says. “It doesn’t hurt to be open and honest and to ask your employer for fertility coverage. And if you do have fertility coverage–ask what it covers, is there a dollar maximum? What tests are covered? Are there additional resources provided by your employer such as a support group or counseling?”
Considering a recent study found that 61% of people rated infertility as more stressful than divorce, knowing what’s available takes one task off your plate, and toward the direction of creating the family–and career–you desire.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Karin Ajmani didn’t have a second child.