Work and Fertility: A New Kind of Work/Life Balance Challenge
Sarah Savella, Executive Coach at Robyn shares her story of trying to conceive and gives helpful tips for how to manage work/life during that time.
My whole career, I climbed the corporate ladder. I worked really hard and loved every minute of the ride – the long hours feeling productive, building teams, and contributing to others’ success. Work has always been my number one priority, so it makes sense that I built a career helping companies engage their employees and coaching leaders to feel connected and productive in their jobs.
When I thought about starting a family, I knew I’d put my career first. In April 2016, I got pregnant on my first try. Just like everything else I put my mind to, I had a goal and accomplished it, beating my deadline. I immediately starting making plans for a future where I would figure out how to be a mom and continue to thrive at work.
A short four weeks later, I went for my first ultrasound and there was no heartbeat. Before this became my reality, I figured like everything else, a miscarriage was a quick setback that I could overcome with clear goals and hard work. I wasn’t prepared for how disruptive it would be. I was confused, disappointed, and angry. Despite that, I took one day off work and came back ready to go.
Instead of bouncing back quickly, what came next was a year of fertility clinic visits, surgery to fix complications from the miscarriage, waiting, losing faith – all while trying to continue building my career, leading a team that relied on my direction and composure each day, and being the strong person friends and family relied on.
This personal journey fundamentally changed how I think about life, relationships, and most importantly, work. Through this time, I also learned about and coached other high-achieving women in stressful jobs that were going through their own fertility challenges.
I chose to share my situation broadly with my team. I was blown away by the amount of understanding and support I received.
What follows are some insights on how to manage work and life just a bit better when you’re trying to conceive.
Find at least one person to confide in
A normal work day is chaotic, so trying to balance doctor appointments, injections, and emotional struggles can feel completely overwhelming. Women I’ve coached have shared that they don’t want to be seen as disruptive or incapable of leading the big meeting or delivering on the next project.
During my fertility journey, I chose to share my situation broadly with my team. I was blown away by the amount of understanding and support I received. No matter what your company culture is like, seek out at least one person to talk to. It will make a huge difference for someone to have your back, know that you may have to step out for a call or appointment, or just bring you a healthy breakfast to start your day.
Understand your benefits and fertility resources
I spent a lot of time talking with our Benefits department to fully understand my insurance coverage. This knowledge is power. A friend of mine shared that she cried at every doctor appointment because she spent so much time on the phone trying to figure out her benefits. Many companies are now changing their plans to include fertility treatments – whether it’s coverage for office visits, medication, or IVF. Get educated and use this information as a sense of control and opportunity.
Consciously build your resilience
As if baby showers and pregnant friends outside of work isn’t hard enough, we are not immune to reminders in the workplace. In the thick of my fertility journey, I covered maternity leave for someone who worked for me, and I sat 3 desks away from a colleague who had the same due date that I was supposed to have. A close colleague of mine who had been trying to get pregnant for a year had someone ask her at least once a month when she was going to have a baby.
You can’t control the people or circumstances around you, especially in the workplace. There is a lot of research about building resilience and how this helps us thrive from difficult situations. Check out this HBR article which talks about exercising mindfulness, compartmentalizing, taking detachment breaks, developing mental agility, and practicing compassion. There is also a great book by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg called “Option B” about building resilience in the face of adversity that is definitely worth a read.
Celebrate the small wins
I had one wonderful friend who would ask me each night, “What was the best part of your day?” This turned into me thinking about three things every night that I was thankful for. The day they expanded the Q train, which made my commute from work to the fertility clinic 15 minutes instead of 45, was one of the best days I could remember. If I had a great presentation or interaction, I took a moment to reflect on that small success. A very senior colleague of mine told me that picking out the right underwear on the days she went for her IVF treatments, or wearing white jeans the days she didn’t, was a huge win.
Sometimes it was my job, my family, or my overall health, but usually it was the small things like the Q train, The Bachelorette, or Edy’s French Silk ice cream. Over the long-term it helped me remember the bigger picture, be more in the moment, and appreciate the great things that I had around me.
Use work as a distraction
When I was first adjusting to this new normal, I asked a friend on her fifth round of IVF how she dealt with infertility while still going to work. She told me that work was her best distraction. I’m not sure I ever fully appreciated how the sense of progress and accomplishment I felt at work would offset the lack of it I felt going through fertility challenges. I tried to pay attention to this and separate the two as much as I could.
I got to work on some career-defining projects during this time and had the comfort of feeling productive. When you are at work, focus on what is within your control. Discover relief in the routine and the relationships. If you can handle it, seek out stretch projects and different kinds of work that will provide new exposure and learning.
Stress is a real thing – find a way to manage it
I initially asked my fertility doctor why my body wasn’t rebounding. He told me that stress was most likely a big factor. I actually laughed at him and told him I’d been stressed my entire work life and this was no different. I later learned that stress is a very real barrier that impacts us not only emotionally but physically.
For hard-working, ambitious people, reducing stress often means a tangible lifestyle change. I promised myself I’d leave work no later than 6pm each day, I stopped working on weekends, and the only events I participated in after work were personal plans. Whether it’s increasing your exercise frequency, rethinking your commitments, or spending 5 minutes a day meditating, the key here is to find what works for you.
Using work as a distraction was by far the most difficult for me. In the end, I decided to make a big change. I left my full-time, “high-powered” job to start my own business. While this was still an ambitious career move, it was an extremely hard transition to leave the corporate, fast-paced world I always saw myself in.
Huge transitions are not what I often advise my clients to do – it’s the little changes that can make a big difference. Even if the work/fertility challenge makes it hard to “do it all,” the goal is to try your best to “manage it all.”
The week after I resigned, I got pregnant. I’ll never know if it was the stress release (or the fertility drugs), but I reflect on this time as having tremendous career growth, supporting others in their journey, and taking an exciting path that I never would have anticipated.