Whether through choice or circumstance, more people than ever before are starting a family through IVF, surrogacy or adoption. These alternative paths to parenthood bring different sorts of journeys and challenges for working parents-to-be.
The good news is that society and the workplace have moved on leaps and bounds in recent years. Whereas ten years ago, people often felt uncomfortable talking about IVF, surrogacy, or adoption. If we fast forward to today, employers are in a far better place to support parents on these different paths.
A Long and Gruelling Journey
While this is to be celebrated, it doesn’t diminish the fact that the experience is physically, emotionally and mentally demanding for many people. Some couples might have been trying to conceive naturally for years. For them, embarking on IVF can add another layer of mental and emotional trauma.
These are also experiences that parents-to-be don’t have a great deal of control over. Hope can be crushed in a heartbeat and there are many legal hurdles to overcome in surrogacy and adoption. Imagine how hard it must be to manage these challenges while working in a demanding role.
We’ve gathered insight from three professionals that have gone through IVF, adoption or surrogacy, and some practical advice from a senior HR professional to help anyone thinking about or going through any of these options. This advice can also help managers who want to understand how they can best support staff and colleagues who want to show their support but may be unsure of what to say.
Three Professionals Share Their Stories
IVF: An Emotional Roller Coaster
“I’m a gay woman and went through IVF over ten years ago. Times have changed; back then, I didn’t feel comfortable telling my boss. As a gay parent, I was worried some might judge me. Often, line managers and colleagues are in the dark about how to respond. It is helpful if an organisation invests time in educating them.
For me, the IVF journey felt so overwhelming and all-encompassing that I just focused on what was in front of me from one week to the next. Work collided with IVF. Specific stages of the treatment have practical implications that I had to insert into my work routine rigidly. I remember a work function where I stood in the toilet of a smart hotel injecting myself with hormones and then returned to my colleague’s table as though nothing had happened.
Emotionally, I found IVF exhausting – the process made me feel emotional and I worried whether that affected my reactions to colleagues at work. There’s so much uncertainty in the process that I felt like I was on an emotional roller-coaster. First, there is the uncertainty of whether I could get pregnant, then the unpredictability at each stage of a taxing process. I dealt with the emotion by compartmentalising what I was going through at work. Mentally, I don’t think that’s a good thing to do.
Sharing my news – I did tell a handful of people I was close to at work. I knew if I felt rubbish in a meeting, I could excuse myself without explanation. If a scan or appointment didn’t go to plan and I didn’t go back into the office, I could let them know why and they had my back – their support was invaluable.
I told the wider team when I was sixteen weeks pregnant. There was some curiosity about being a gay pregnant woman. Mostly colleagues just wanted to relate and converse with me. Some were worried about saying the wrong thing. I think it’s essential for inclusive organisations to educate staff, so they know the difference between asking empathetic questions and overstepping the mark.
Looking back – For me, IVF was a deeply personal matter, but I wish I had told my boss at the beginning. As it was, my boss and the organisation were incredibly supportive. You have so little control over IVF that it would have helped plan work around key treatment dates. I think that would have given me a greater sense of control and less stress dealing with the random nature of appointments that you can’t schedule because you have to attend them at the right time.
Adoption: A Game of Snakes and Ladders
“I’m a lawyer and after several unsuccessful rounds of IVF my husband and I decided to adopt. That was around 12 years ago when it was difficult for couples of mixed ethnic heritages to adopt. Our local authority told us we were unlikely to be given a child in the UK and should pursue international adoption.
So began a long and hard road of dashed expectations. It was like playing a game of snakes and ladders. I’m of Indian heritage and my husband is white so it made sense for us to apply to adopt a baby from India. The social worker asked very personal questions about our relationship, childhood, and suitability as parents – questions that couples who conceive naturally would never face. As uncomfortable as these felt, we accepted the intrusion to give her the information she needed for the adoption panel to pass us as suitable. During our application, India closed its doors to international adoption, so we slid back down to square one.
From Russia With Love
We then heard of many successful adoptions from Russia to the UK and put in an application to be told we had to wait a further six months before going to the panel. I had to marshal all my skills as a lawyer to challenge that decision successfully and after a hard-fought case, we were approved to adopt.
It felt like we were adopting in Russia without any of the support typical in the UK. We engaged and had to rely on a Russian agent to organise every stage of the adoption process. At short notice, we heard that we needed to hop on a plane to Russia for meetings, and after, to go home and wait to be told to return. Within three months, we were matched with a boy and flew back to adopt him in Russia and then waited to collect him from the orphanage.
If we thought it was tough up to that point, we discovered more challenging work was to come. There wasn’t much information available on how to bring up a child from an institution. No one educated us about the attachment issues our son would experience due to spending the first year of his life in an institution, the time when a baby’s brain rapidly forms. Despite these challenges, we were overjoyed to have our son.
Three years later, government policy changed to place a child with the “best available family”. Once again, we found ourselves fighting a system that wanted us to wait to allow a more significant age gap between our first and second child. Once again, we had to dig deep, argue our case, overcome interdepartmental and local government politics to be approved for adoption and to adopt this time from the UK.
I had to manage all the above alongside work commitments”.
Sharing my news with my boss – the first time we adopted, I didn’t tell my boss until we went to the panel. I’m not sure why, because my boss was incredibly supportive. I told very few other people, unsure how it would affect my career status – would they still see me as ambitious?
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long before being approved. Some people must wait a long time which can be soul-destroying. It’s challenging to remain resilient while the adoption process is whirring in the back of your mind and still be present at work. Looking back, I wish I had spoken to someone in the firm’s senior ranks with a sympathetic attitude. Someone who knew what I was going through and understood if I was having an off day at work.
Telling colleagues – just before we went to the panel the first time, we were advised to share our news with colleagues. By then, I’d left it so long to tell them that I’d built up doing so into a big thing. The second time around, I told them early on. It felt so much easier.
Curious colleagues – most people are kind and want to offer their support. What I found difficult was helping them understand the degree of support we had to give our first child. Any adopted child has trauma in their background that must be managed and worked through. It doesn’t simply disappear when they enter a loving home. And why would they understand unless they have experienced it themselves?
Looking back – I’d say be kind to yourself. Adoption is an incredibly stressful process. Acknowledge this and ask for support in suitable time.”
Surrogacy: Jim’s Story
Watch Jim, a Partner at a leading law firm, talk about his experience. He gives his advice to others thinking about surrogacy and shares some helpful pointers for managers and colleagues on how they can support parents expecting through surrogacy and some of the common thinking and assumptions to avoid.
How Are Best Practice Organisations Supporting Colleagues Through IVF, Adoption or Surrogacy?
We asked a senior HR professional who has built her career in global corporates in the Financial Services sector and smaller FinTech start-ups, what support an employee can expect from their employer, and how managers and colleagues can help.
“The experience of every person going through these routes is different. For some, it feels like an intensely private experience and others feel comfortable talking openly. Here are some practical ideas that I have found work for most people.”
If You Are Thinking About or Going Through IVF, Surrogacy, or Adoption
1. Find out what support you can expect from your employer – look at the detail of relevant policy and benefits. You may find it helpful to have a confidential chat with HR in the first instance. They can help you think about who to tell, what to say, how and when to say it.
2. Tell your boss and trusted colleagues early on – they can look out for you and support you.
3. Ask HR to facilitate this conversation – if you think it will be difficult to discuss with your boss.
4. Map out critical milestones on your journey – sit down with your boss early to identify what support you are likely to need at each stage. This approach will help you both to plan work and feel more in control of the situation.
5. You may want to wait a while before telling colleagues – but don’t leave it until it builds into a big thing in your mind.
6. Ahead of sharing your news – agree on boundaries with your partner around what information you are prepared to share and what you will keep private.
7. Feel confident to maintain your boundaries – you are not obliged to answer inappropriate or impolite questions from colleagues. Again, HR can help you rehearse what to say.
1. Educate yourself – there are some fantastic examples of organisations providing managers with opportunities to meet with employees who have experienced IVF, surrogacy, or adoption to understand their experience. Doing so has really helped them develop a more empathic mindset and see what support they might offer at each stage of the journey. Ask HR to set up an information event if one isn’t on offer.
2. Find out what support your organisation offers – check policies and procedures.
3. If you feel worried about saying the wrong thing – talk to HR about how to respond. If you find yourself caught on the back foot, it’s OK to offer your congratulations, thank your report for telling you, and say you’d like to talk to HR to find out how best you can support them through the experience. Set a date by when you will come back to them to discuss further.
4. If you find this conversation awkward – ask HR to facilitate the discussion.
5. Plan and control impact on work – sit down with your direct report and work out the significant milestones they will go through with likely dates. Use this to identify what support they will need and when, as well as to help plan work. This plan will help both of you feel more in control of work and takes the speculation out of what support you should offer at a particular time.
Most of us are kind people who want to support our colleagues but may be unsure of what to say or how to act.
1. When a colleague tells you they are going through IVF – say something. There’s nothing more isolating for them than going through IVF alone. Little statements that show empathy without pretending to know what the person is experiencing can go a long way. “This must be a challenging thing to go through; how are you? or “I’m here for you”. Don’t say things like, “At least you can always adopt”. Avoid statements like “The more relaxed you are, the better your chances”; while this may be true from a medical perspective, no couple going through IVF will be stress-free. Best not to offer unsolicited advice on fertility treatments or say, “don’t worry, you’ll get pregnant”.
2. If you are pregnant yourself – take care to include your colleague in any celebrations but respect the sensitivity of the situation, say something like, “I would love for you to be at my baby shower but please don’t feel pressured to come.”
3. Respect boundaries around what your colleague is prepared to discuss. You may be curious but there are other ways to educate yourself should you have further questions. For example, you wouldn’t ask a different-sex couple if their partner is the child’s biological father or how they conceived. Please afford gay colleagues the same respect.
4. When a colleague tells you their news – congratulate them, ask to see photos, ask about the children in an open, non-intrusive way that leaves the adoptive parent in control of what to say. When the child arrives, ask how they are finding being parents. Show kindness to the new parents. They will likely have waited a long time for their child and may be emotionally all over the place, physically exhausted, and mentally overwhelmed. Don’t say, “where did you get her from?” “I didn’t know you couldn’t have children”, “what do they remember of their other family”. We wouldn’t ask a pregnant or biological parent any of these questions.
5. Educate yourself – even if having a family in a non-traditional way isn’t on your radar, take advantage of any seminars provided by your employer on the topic. You never know when or how what you learn will help you on a personal level or to support a colleague. The more people that have knowledge of these experiences in an organisation, the more openly they will be discussed and normalised.