Fertility is something many of us take for granted, and the realisation – at whatever stage of life – that we may have difficulty or be unable to conceive to build our family can be an unexpected and devastating blow. For many individuals and couples the journey that follows presents many mental and physical challenges. Especially as we are part of a caring profession, where the qualities of parenthood are often similar to the drivers which first caused us to pursue veterinary careers. As National Fertility Week draws to a close, we discuss some of the challenges which arise for those impacted by infertility and how we can provide support as employers and colleagues.
Infertility – Facts, figures and trends
Infertility is increasingly common in the UK and particularly developed countries. There are two elements which can impact individuals and couples:
- Biological infertility – In about third of cases biological infertility is due to the male partner, and in another third it is the female who is affected. The remaining third is due to both partners being affected or unexplained infertility. Around one in seven couples in the UK will experience difficulty conceiving without medical intervention.
- Social infertility – This is where people who want children as part of a loving relationship do not meet the right person during their fertile years, or who delay starting a family due to socioeconomic reasons (careers, financial security, home circumstance etc).
Social infertility is increasingly common, especially in developed countries. For women born in 1950’s one in ten over 45 years of age was childless. For those born in 1960’s it’s one in five women, and it’s expected to be increasingly common for younger generations. In Germany and Japan it’s already one in three. For a predominantly female profession we need to change the conversation to be more accepting and normalising of women who either choose to be childless, or who experience infertility. For a profession dominated by women of childbearing age, we need to take heed that this is an increasingly common experience among colleagues.
Infertility and Identity
Our sense of identity in current times faces assault from multiple angles. The identity dissonance of working in a veterinary career which may not match up to expectation. The body dysmorphia created by Snapchat filters and the selective reality of social media profiles. For many of us, parenthood is something we identify with as an almost inevitable part of our life story, and the realisation it may be difficult or impossible to realise can be a devastating blow. Many men describe the knowledge of a biological cause of infertility as negatively affecting their sense of masculinity. For women with a strong maternal instinct, to be denied the chance to realise motherhood can leave a huge void.
These are not easy feelings to rationalise and move on from, but rather deep, core, evolutionary drivers that are deep-seated within our psyche. Especially in a caring profession, where many of the qualities of parenthood are what made us follow this career path at the outset and make us good at our day job.
Creating a strong sense of identity, of what makes you who you are, to be able to move onwards and lead a full life may require time and support. Here is where coaching can be invaluable to open doors to versions of yourself where you can be happy and fulfilled, whatever your fertility story may be. And in some cases this may parallel your career story – the time career dissatisfaction and attrition rise within the profession coincides with the peak in family planning. Guidance through this fog of identity challenges can help to set a positive course. The More To Life campaign has a free online, evidence-based self-help tool to work to work through if you’re not sure about the coaching route.
Challenges in the veterinary workplace
Within veterinary practice, a few themes consistently recur which may impact negatively on those struggling with infertility in the workplace. While each person’s experience is very different, being aware of these potential trigger points and challenges can help us to be more sensitive and mitigate some of the negative experiences. These include:
- Stress in the workplace is common, and the knowledge that stress is known negatively impact fertility can lead to concern that work may be a contributing factor.
- Having to deal with the physical and mental impacts of fertility treatment, often silently.
- Having to deal with well-meaning clients asking about if you have a family.
- Appointments and visits discussing fertility and pregnancy of pets and farm animals, especially where fertility is related to (economic) value.
- Others in practice announcing pregnancies – the challenge of being ‘happy’ for friends and colleagues when they fall pregnant while you are denied.
- Work WhatsApp groups getting overtaken by childcare conversations.
- Always having to see emergencies as you don’t have to ‘run off’ for childcare. Your time and hobbies seemingly valued less than parental commitments.
- Parents getting holiday prioritised when it’s school holidays.
- Covering maternity leaves when teams may be short-staffed – and maybe not getting the extra pay or thanks.
- During Covid – maybe less likely to be furloughed or more likely to be called back from furlough.
Graduating relatively late and having to plough a lot of time and effort into career – less likely to meet someone, then less time and energy to start a family until fertility starts to drop off. Feeling trapped by career, then guilty and resentful if ‘fertile years’ are missed.
Make new choices now. Chose to find ways of altering your life to reduce stress. Chose the best and most supportive people to have around you. Most importantly chose to worry less. IVF is a rollercoaster but you just have to ride it – Shona, VetMINDS member
Supporting those affected by infertility
All individuals vary in their experiences and needs. Conversations about how we can provide support for a person undergoing fertility treatment or the impact of infertility can be difficult to start for both parties. There is both cultural stigma and a wide range of negative feelings and emotions which accompany infertility. However, there are very practical things we can do to help and support, and it’s only possible to determine what these are for each person affected when we have a conversation. It’s not about saying the right thing, or avoiding saying the wrong thing. It’s about asking the question. These are extremely challenging topics to talk about, but simply asking the question and presenting some options – then reviewing as and when needed – can make a huge difference to that individual’s daily experience, especially in the workplace. These can include:
- Flexibility at work – the impacts of fertility treatment can be huge and unexpected, both mentally and physically. The support and understanding of employers and team members are so important through this time to allow for the short notice of appointments and potential need for time off to recover from treatments.
- Openness – to make it okay to talk about if people want to.
- Awareness – other team members being sensitive. It can feel like those who become parents have moved to another world, which speaks a different language with totally different life experiences they cannot share. Simply being aware of how this may cause feelings of loneliness and exclusion, and focussing on common ground to talk about can be helpful.
- Sensitivity – practice communications and outings being sensitive about the degree of focus on childcare and families.
- Banishing discriminatory language and talk of ticking clocks; ‘you sacrificed too much for your career’ etc. Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was accused of being ‘deliberately barren’ by the opposition, probably because she was so effective channelling all her energy and talent into her job.
Finding a WHY to bear the HOW
There’s a great quote by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche paraphrased by Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women: ‘We can cope with any HOW provided we have a WHY.’ Jody describes her own journey of social infertility and the how she set about redefining her ‘WHY’ to move forwards with a positive mindset. In our Facebook Live discussion with SPVS senior VP, Cat Curtis, she describes how she’s always had a plan B at each stage of her fertility journey. Whether it’s world travel, career focus, or getting a new dog (in Cat’s case), having strong reasons and motivators to keep enjoying being you is important to stay positive. This can involve:
- Resetting your mindset – focussing on alternative positive things to look forward to and work towards.
- Exploring other options to parenthood such as adoption and surrogacy.
- Finding peer support – whether it’s other men struggling with fertility issues, or a sisterhood of childless women, finding your tribe who can empathise and share experiences can be incredibly helpful, such as VetMINDS Facebook group and Gateway Women.
- Don’t feel burdened that you have anything to ‘make up for.’ If your time isn’t taken up with childcare, it doesn’t mean to you have to be the next Mother Theresa. As one blogger writes: “I want to be cool with the fact that I don’t need to be Oprah Winfrey – I am allowed to not have children and just be my average, non-overachieving self.” Don’t feel you have to have a big life on the outside, but you do need a big life on the inside.
Ultimately, we have limited control over our fertility journey. While it helps to be well informed of all the options for the elements we can control, and proactive in seeking medical and emotional support, it’s also important to enjoy life’s journey. Whether that’s through the rollercoaster of investigations and IVF, or working your way through the process of re-setting your life goals and purpose, we have to be kind to ourselves. Take time to indulge in self-care; a vital and necessary indulgence. And in the workplace, offering understanding and support can make a huge difference to the working life of staff affected by difficulty conceiving and infertility.
If you need to talk to anyone about the mental or physical health impact of infertility, remember Vetlife offer a 24/7 phoneline and email support service.
I am 2.5 years into our trying to conceive journey. I have had 2 operations to try to aid my chances and I am soon to start tablets to improve ovulation, I can only take these for 3 months then if no joy, it’s on to IVF. So I know I need to be as stress free as possible these next few months. I am having fertility reflexology and looking at changing my hours and shifts at work to try to take the pressure off! You have to put yourself first and do what’s right for you and your workplace should be supportive. I found telling my colleagues about my journey really helpful – Fiona, VetMINDS member
Useful Resources and links:
Facebook Live discussion with Cat Curtis, SPVS Senior Vice President and Talent Co-ordinator for the Pets at Home Group.
‘More To Life’ resources and self-help guide.
Inconceivable blog – working life
Finding my Plan B blog – encouraging black woman and women of colour to talk about infertility
Fertility Network – lots of resources, blogs, webinars and links to support.