Updated: Apr 19, 2020
I feel like fertility is constantly on my mind at the moment and triggers are everywhere: TV programmes, books, friends sending me Whatsapp pictures of their children, families out on their daily lockdown walk and, most sad of all, my own body. Despite this, I’m trying to manage this maelstrom of feelings and be kinder to myself. It’s not easy, and sometimes I do feel very alone but then you stumble upon a gem of a blog.
And that’s what happened yesterday. I read Nicola Mooney’s (@nicksnook) blog Suffering in silence – infertility. As I read it, I felt pain, sadness, hope but also a connection. There was someone else who bought packs and packs of ovulation tests. There was someone else who had to manage very stressful life events whilst trying to conceive. There was someone else who’s journey to starting a family hadn’t been easy and who felt like life was on hold as you live life one menstrual cycle at a time.
Through the #MTPTproject, Nicola and her colleagues want employers to become more aware of fertility treatments and how to support staff. This is imperative; too many people have suffered in silence already and their work will massively impact on the lives of those of us who are feeling vulnerable and fragile. As I read about their mission, I reflected on my experience, the changes I made and the support I would like from my school.
1. Stress can affect fertility and if you’re trying for a baby and your journey is going to be longer than you thought it would, you need to ensure work won’t add to your stress and anxiety. I decided last year, when we knew IVF was likely, that my current role and, in particular the demands and leadership style of my Line Manager, were not conducive to me trying for a baby. I decided to make a change and got a new job. Drastic but my current work situation wasn’t going to change so I had to influence what was within my control. Work now causes me a lot less stress. Being a teacher is challenging enough and if you can make changes so you experience less stress, then do so. My Line Manager is female and for that I’m thankful as I feel more comfortable talking to a female about my fertility journey. Obviously not everyone’s Line Manager will be female so it’s important they have a line manager they feel comfortable talking to. Schools should be flexible if a woman is experiencing IVF and potentially change the Line Manager so the teacher feels more comfortable and able to communicate honestly. This should be in a policy so staff can request it and know it’s okay to do so without causing offence.
2. I’ve noticed this year that I can’t focus as much and, if we turn to cognitive science, it’s because my working memory is overloaded. I’ve learnt and am still learning so much about fertility and there’s so much information that I feel drained. I’ve had to think about my well being a lot more. I've left school at 4pm on some days, I’ve reduced working in the evening and stopped working at weekends. I also temporarily reduced browsing on Twitter and edu-blog reading because I could not cope with the influx of new ideas. I’m confident enough in my role to do this but a kind reminder from a Line Manager to go home and rest after an appointment would always be appreciated. Sometimes you don’t know what you need until some time has passed and you have already experienced burnout.
3. I’ve spoken to my Line Manager about starting IVF and she has been extremely supportive. I appreciated her listening and being fully present when I’ve spoken to her about it. She has not made a fuss when I’ve requested time off for medical appointments and approves absences straight away. She’s not made glib comments about how it will work or made assumptions about how I’m feeling about the process. She’s not patronised me or given me fertility tips because unless someone has experienced IVF or the pain of not seeing a positive pregnancy result after years of trying, their tips are not appreciated because, ultimately, you don’t feel like you’ve been fully understood. What else would be helpful? I’d like the guarantee of confidentiality and only my Line Manager knowing, not the whole of SLT. Do not comment on age - I looked younger than I actually am so I don’t appreciate comments about how there’s still time. With lockdown, I feel like time is trickling away and, with that, my chances of getting pregnant. I’d like less questions to be asked especially after appointments and the initial invasive tests. Sometimes, I can talk about how I’m feeling and sometimes I can’t and I just want to cocoon myself away. I understand that leaders want to check how you are but they need to phrase comments in a way that doesn’t require an answer e.g. “I hope you’re feeling okay after your appointment. Let me know if you’d like to talk.”
4. I’m worried about starting the hormone treatments and how that will affect me especially as I have another underlying medical condition. I’ve been honest with my consultants and they’ve reassured me but I’m wondering what it will be like when I start teaching. Will I be tearful? Will I be able to focus? Will I be so bloated that staff and students think I’m pregnant? I’d like my school to understand that women about to experience IVF are very uncertain and unsure about what’s to come. I know from talking to our consultant that everyone responds to the hormones differently so emotions and behaviours can’t be predicted. Schools should then offer to do what they can to take the pressure off teachers/leaders e.g. no cover, no lesson observations, no meetings during injection time etc. Leaders should also think about how they frame conversations and feedback; I’ve never felt so vulnerable and I’m suffering from extreme impostor syndrome these days so it’s important for leaders to show compassion.
5. I’m also worried about the two week wait, following IVF, as I’ve no idea when it will be or what my diary will look like. I do know that I have to take it easy so I’d like my school to support with this e.g. no meetings, flexible working times to minimise fatigue. I’m also worried about the result, a negative result. I don’t know what support I’ll need but knowing what I'm like when I get my period, I doubt I’ll be able to talk about it. I think I’d like to know that I can come in later or have a day to rest and recuperate if I need it. When I get my period, I’m grieving and it will be all the more potent should it be negative after IVF. What would be great is a fertility policy so you know what you’re entitled to and you don’t have to ask. The fewer questions you have to ask the better because, with IVF, you already have to ask a lot of questions.
6. I’ve spoken to fellow teachers who have had IVF. I found that really helpful because you can get tips from someone who’s lived it. It’s also another reminder that you’re not alone. I’ve also felt protected and been reminded not to take on any additional workload because this is an important time for me and work can wait. I needed that reminder. It would also be useful for teachers to know who has had IVF and if they’re okay to talk about it. Teachers can then seek out support in school and that again makes you feel connected and supported. A leader suggesting talking to another colleague would be helpful as not everyone, me included, publicly shares their IVF story.
7. Partners also need to be able to be absent from work should they need to accompany their loved ones. My husband works in the private industry and has flexible working hours so he’s been able to come with me to appointments. But, as a teacher, I do wonder if it would have been as easy for him to get time off. I needed him with me for some appointments and especially the initial investigative tests. The one appointment I thought I would be okay at was awful and I was in tears after and then had to go back to school. I know my husband wants to do all he can to support me so schools should support partners so they can attend appointments too.
School leaders need to know that during this time a woman is extremely vulnerable and raw and policies need to exist so fewer questions need to be asked. We need to know what we're entitled to. We should have time off for medical appointments, flexible working hours when going through the treatment and compassionate leave should treatment not be successful. I want to feel supported and want all women going through different fertility journeys, no matter what school they work at, to feel supported too.
With #MTPTproject, the future seems brighter and, hopefully, all teachers in the future will feel fully supported by their school and less alone.