One of the biggest questions women often have with regard to pregnancy and work is “How to tell your boss you’re pregnant,” but what about when getting pregnant becomes more difficult than you imagined? For those of us who need fertility treatments to grow our families, there comes a time during our journey when we need understanding and support from our colleagues, but it can be difficult to bridge those kinds of conversations at work.
So how (and who) should you tell at work that you’re trying to conceive or going through fertility treatments? The question is more common than you might think. In fact, in a 2019 study, approximately half of the women experiencing infertility rated it as the most stressful experience of their life.
So, what is the ‘Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why’ of navigating infertility and work? I spoke to Rescripted’s Co-Founder Kristyn Hodgdon, who shared her insight, because “no one can get through this alone, and no one should have to.”
Talking About Fertility Treatments At Work
Kristyn shares, “I think it's difficult to tell your boss when you're going through fertility treatments because it feels like really personal information. Some people don't even feel comfortable disclosing their fertility struggles to friends or family members, let alone their colleagues. It's also natural to worry about sharing family-planning details with your boss when you know it will lead to a potential pregnancy, maternity leave, time off from work, and more, and you don't want to compromise your career in any way.”
It's true: often our first reaction to the idea of sharing our fertility journey with a boss isn’t who – it’s rhetorical, why? Especially when it can be months or years until you reach your goal, and the fear is that once you share the news you’re being “watched.” But it’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to disclose every detail; share as much or as little as you want to. Depending on your “who,” it may just be a matter of saying, “I’m going through something personal right now and will need some flexibility for the next few months.” And that “who” may not even need to be your boss at this particular moment.
Kristyn continues, “I think looping in HR first is the best way to go. That way, your bases are covered no matter how your boss ultimately responds. But I think the best-case scenario is to be completely honest about the time commitment fertility treatments require and explain why you might be late or take time off work over the next several weeks. Hopefully, your boss is empathetic and can come up with a plan to help you feel supported during this time.”
These conversations can be super uncomfortable even for the most confident communicator, but if you break it down into a two-way dialogue, it can help to ease your mind and, most importantly, get your “what” across.
Consider who you are as a communicator as well as the communication style of the person you’re speaking to. This will help ensure that what you’re saying is heard and sticks, encouraging the person that you’re sharing your news with to follow your lead.
For example, if your colleague likes more concrete communication, then you may want to come to the conversation with organized points to minimize any uncertainty from their end. For example: “I have some personal news I’d like to share: I’m undergoing fertility treatments. Right now, I wanted to let you know that I may need to book a few early-morning appointments, but otherwise, it’s the status quo for me. I’m really enjoying my role and am looking forward to the next few months. I’ll check in with you as needed during these regular weekly meetings.”
If they have a different style – perhaps more objective – you may want to bring up anything that’s weighing on your mind. For example, “I would still like to go on XYZ work trip for now and will play it by ear if my appointment schedule changes. I’ll be sure to check in with you on how I’m feeling before it could potentially affect the team or project.” In this case, you’re acknowledging that this journey isn’t always straightforward, and things may need to be a bit more fluid during this time.
It’s important to keep in mind that this person may meet your news with a neutral or less-than-empathetic response, and that’s okay. It’s also acceptable for you to say, “It’s a big deal for me to be sharing this news with you, and it’s very important that you keep this between you and me.” Set the tone at the outset for how you’d like the conversation to go, and then manage expectations from there.
What and How
Before any conversation about infertility at work, you should also think about what your objective is. Are you simply making this person aware of something? Are you asking for support? What does that look like for you?
When communicating what you need, be organized, clear, and concise as to what your priorities are. Ask yourself: what is the stated fact? what is up for discussion, and what do you want from the other side of the conversation? By thinking through these questions and having clear answers, you can keep your emotions in check and be prepared as to what to say (and what not to say), keeping in mind that being human and vulnerable in these moments is only natural.
If you’re having trouble with what you want to say, consider a “What this means for me” and “What this means for you” framework. Essentially, it boils down to why you care and why those you are communicating with should care. You don’t have to say, “I’m trying to get pregnant, so what this means for you is…” exactly, but by framing your news in this way you’re ensuring that your boss understands your expectations and that you have thought through how your experience may affect your work and the people around you.
When and Where
When it comes to uncomfortable work conversations, be aware that there is a right place and time. Put a meeting on this person’s calendar so that they can expect the discussion and aren’t blindsided. This will help you feel more prepared and unrushed, too.
The idea of talking to your boss about your family-building plans can be daunting, but it’s important to remember your ‘why’ throughout this process. You work to live; you don’t live to work, and this is your life. Remember, infertility is a temporary crisis – a moment in time – and this won’t be forever. Having difficult conversations and setting expectations at work can make all the difference in how this experience goes for you day-to-day, so stay confident in your ability to do good work despite infertility, and advocate for yourself. No one else is going to do it for you.
Stephanie Kramer is the Founder of The Carry Strong Project. Her book, “Carry Strong: An Empowered Approach to Navigating Pregnancy and Work” (Penguin Life, May 2023) is available now for pre-order.