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I Kept My IVF a Secret at Work Because of the Stigma Around Fertility Treatments

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

First seen on Working Mother.

“The test is negative. I’m sorry, Kelli.”

My doctor’s words rang through the still air and pierced right through my stomach. It took me a few seconds to fully digest what she was saying. I was not pregnant. Our embryo transfer was unsuccessful because it did not attach. And my last chance of getting pregnant was gone.

My body felt heavy and I struggled to breathe. The future I imagined for my family was crumbling around me, and I only had 45 minutes to come to terms with it because I was booked to run a leadership session. I swallowed my pain, painted a smile on my face and spoke on a call with 13 eager women. Once I hung up the call, I sobbed.

My infertility journey began with two miscarriages, an ectopic pregnancy, and evolved into two rounds of IVF, a miscarriage and a surprise natural pregnancy, followed again by another miscarriage.

My husband, Jason, and I began our IVF journey in 2018. At the time, I was 37 and he was 35. While I had my daughter when I was 24, with no fertility complications, my husband did not have any biological children of his own. We wanted to have children together. We tried for eight months before considering fertility treatments, which we were only able to do because Jason is lucky enough to have an employer that offers fertility coverage.

Every day, I had a needle jammed in me while my hormones threw a tantrum. I could barely handle sitting because of the pain from the injections. The racing thoughts and insomnia made this whole experience worse.

Fertility is not a niche issue. One in eight women (WHO estimates 1 in 6 in 2023) of reproductive age experience problems when trying to conceive a child. This makes infertility about as common as breast cancer and more common than Type 2 diabetes. And yet, discussing such matters, especially in the workplace, is taboo. Many women resort to suffering in silence for fear of being labeled, because of gender bias, “unreliable” or “too emotional.”

I was one of these women. At first, I chose to keep my IVF treatments private. Without IVF, conceiving a baby for heterosexual couples is an intimate and personal experience. You can hide the process until you are several weeks along and make an announcement on your terms. With IVF, Jason and I stayed silent because we wanted to honor our privacy. On top of this, I worried that I’d be seen as a less capable leader and business partner because I found myself turning down jobs, rescheduling clients at the last minute, and failing to support my business partners due to unpredictable IVF monitoring appointments. The excuses that I often had to provide were rushed and I questioned if they were believable.

I felt frustrated, and I know I’m not alone. My friends have shared stories of sneaking out to meet their partners in the company parking lot to administer shots. They’ve had to fake illness to get the time off to make fertility monitoring appointments.

For women, the IVF journey is so much more taxing than hiding emotions and sneaking to appointments. When workplaces have no clear policies on the kind of support they offer to those undergoing fertility treatments—this creates a culture of silence and stigma. Since I spent so long working in corporate, I couldn’t shake the need to hide and stay silent, even though I was running my own business during my IVF journey.

A culture of openness, understanding and support needs to be nurtured. Then, perhaps, women (and their partners) wouldn’t feel as isolated during their IVF journeys.

Here is what employers can do to support employees:

1. Examine job flexibility policies.

Employers should recognize that fertility appointments are not predictable since many monitoring appointments are determined within a 24-hour timeframe. Some employers make you take an entire day off, even if you only need to be gone for an hour. Having flexibility without needing to use a half or full day of PTO is a great start.

2. Normalize seeing and honoring private appointments on employees’ calendars.

This shows your employees that you trust them and offers them some privacy. Better yet, normalize the conversation around family planning and make safe spaces for employees to connect and share this information with their leaders (without fear of negative job impacts).

3. Offer fertility coverage.

Dr. Stephanie Gustin, FACOG, Reproductive Endocrinologist and advocate for infertility warriors everywhere, explains that employers can be in the driver's seat to enable fertility coverage. Employers can purchase supplemental fertility coverage, such as Progeny, which allows couples coverage for both IUI and IVF cycles.

With some of these in place, perhaps women undergoing IVF treatments will no longer be hindered by the need to hide appointments, suffer losses and obstacles in silence and feel guilty about their secrecy.

While these may not be perfect solutions, it is a start. Supportive resources and normalizing the conversation around fertility and family planning is a win-win for employees and employers. Women are empowered to confidently show up as their full selves without worrying that their career is in jeopardy while employers benefit from retaining top talent.

More about my IVF journey is in my new book, Closing The Confidence Gap: Boost Your Peace, Your Potential & Your Paycheck. Get the book!

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