Figuring out how much to reveal to colleagues can be particularly tricky during this time, as Gabby Griffith knows first hand.
Along with her friend, Emma Haslett, the 37-year-old journalist has co-written a book, Big Fat Negative, with an entire chapter dedicated to the conundrum.
The book is an extension of the popular podcast of the same name, which the pair launched in 2018 to chat frankly about infertility and IVF with honesty and humour. There’s a lot of discussion about how parenting impacts women’s careers, they say, but not much about how trying to become a parent can impact your work life.
You might be trying to conceive (or TTC as it’s shortened to in many fertility forums) just as your career ambitions are in sight. You might want to progress in your chosen profession. You might want to dedicate all your energy to your fertility journey. You might want to do both, simultaneously, which can be exciting, confusing, draining and overwhelming on any given day.
Maintaining some boundaries between professional and personal during this time can be useful, says Griffith, because work can actually serve as a distraction during fertility struggles.
There may be a time when the balance tilts in the other direction, though, and you realise it’ll benefit your mental health to share with colleagues.
“I became such a regular toilet crier during my TTC years that I would keep a secret make-up bag in the loo with foundation so that I could cover up my red face during emergencies,” she says.
“Whenever I’d get my period, or start to feel like I was about to, my day would end up derailed – in the loo, trying to cover the damage.”
For a long time, Griffith didn’t tell any colleagues about her fertility problems, simply because she didn’t feel ready to. “It’s such a loaded subject at work,” she adds.
If you don’t feel ready to share your experience with anyone, there’s no obligation to, she says. How firmly or loosely you separate the “home you” from “work you” is ultimately a personal choice.
There are factors that women, unfortunately, need to consider before speaking about this topic at work though, such as your workplace’s track record surrounding pregnancy and maternity issues.
“The big weigh up is whether sharing is going to impact your career, and you’ve got to think long and hard about that because you don’t know how long a fertility struggle is going to go on for,” Griffith tells HuffPost UK. “You have to really weigh up what you share and what you don’t, and when you share it.”
The Big Fat Negative book includes testimonials from women who’ve faced this dilemma, like Sheila Cameron, who’s now CEO of Lloyd’s Market Association.
Cameron had multiple rounds of IVF while working her way up the ladder in a male-dominated industry and decided to keep treatment to herself for a long time in her previous workplace.
“There are two contradictory aspects to it: I didn’t want them to know because they might put me in less challenging roles. On the flip side of that, I went and took roles where I wouldn’t be too stretched,” she discloses in the book. “I guess I was protecting myself, and I was able to choose what would work for me; no one was making that choice for me.”
Deciding not to tell colleagues made her feel a sense of control, she adds. “I was making those decisions for me. And when you have so little control over your treatment and its outcomes – I needed control at work.”
But this approach won’t suit everyone, and it didn’t work for Griffith. “You spend so much of your time at work,” she says, “to be bottling something like that up is quite hard.”
She decided to tell one, trusted female colleague that she was struggling to conceive and now recommends other women consider this option.
“When there was a pregnancy announcement in the office, it was someone that I could just look at across the room and know that she understood what I was going through at that time,” she says. “It’s just a kind of an anchor to get you through.”
If you’re considering speaking about this topic in the workplace, Griffith says keeping one fundamental question in mind will help you establish your boundaries: “Is there going to be a benefit for you?”
“If that means that your colleagues are a little bit more sensitive around you, and they understand that you’re taking time off for some reason, then that’s possibly a good thing,” she says.
One big upside to sharing with colleagues is that there’s usually someone else who “gets it”. You may discover that a colleague has also gone through fertility struggles, miscarriage or IVF, or that they’ve supported a friend or family member through these difficult situations.
A downside to pre-empt is that opening up to colleagues can sometimes lead to well-meaning but intrusive questions. If you don’t want them to ask ‘how did your last appointment go?’ as you walk to a meeting room together, make this clear from the start.
“What you can do is kind of say: ‘Look, this is what I’m going through, but I will will let you know when there’s an update. Rather than you come to me, I will always let you know if I’ve got something to tell,’” says Griffith.
In our private lives, we can avoid social occasions such as baby showers and children’s birthday parties that might be triggering, but in the workplace, it’s far more difficult to avoid Jen from accounting who keeps moaning loudly about her pregnancy symptoms.
The pandemic and the option to work from home for many has eased some of these problems, says Griffith, but created new ones. “You’ve got this whole new thing of people at home on Zoom calls, potentially with kids in the background, which is another thing that you have to confront all of a sudden,” she says.
In these circumstances, Griffith says you might want to tell one person that you’re finding a situation difficult, and ask if they can quietly spread the word.
Griffith, who had a son in December 2019, decided to tell her own boss what was going on just before she started her first round of IVF.
“I felt like going into a round of IVF without letting her know would be more stressful than telling her,” she says. “I was very lucky in that my boss was an incredibly empathetic woman with two children. I kind of knew she would take it well.”
Her advice for speaking to your boss is to carefully plan how much you want to share first, and don’t feel obliged to do it face-to-face.
“When I told my boss, I couldn’t even get the first sentence out before snotty tears started rolling,” she says. “So if you think that’s going to happen and you want to avoid it, don’t be afraid to tell people over email.”
Cameron, too, did eventually speak to her boss about IVF and also had a positive experience.
Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong answer about how much of your fertility journey you share with colleagues, but Griffith hopes the book could help women confronting this decision.
“Dealing with infertility and your job at the same time is a real juggling act – one that occasionally means a few dropped balls. And that’s OK – you’re going through some big shit right here,” she says.
“Balls and spinning plates aside, it’s completely up to you how you choose to deal with work: whether you want to keep it all quiet or talk to your boss about what you’re going through. Both options have their merits.”
Big Fat Negative: The Essential Guide to Infertility, IVF and the Trials of Trying for a Baby by Emma Haslett and Gabby Griffith is out now.