It's surprising to think that, just a few decades ago, women disguised their baby bumps in tummy-concealing maternity wear. And it was just 11 years ago, when I was pregnant with my first child, that I was asked regularly whether I would leave the work force for good.
Fast-forward to today, where in many respects, we are experiencing a golden age for working mothers. Even when some working moms take role models like Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer to task for setting unrealistic expectations for the rest of us, it's a far cry from having no role models at all. Even technology giants and Apple and Facebook appear to believe that women and their reproduction cycles are a talent management issue and confirmed that they will offer free egg freezing to female employees. They may be the first companies in the U.S. to offer this perk for non-medical reasons.
While pushing egg freezing is rife with ethical complications, this move suggests that the physical act of bearing children will be more discussed at work. This change couldn't come soon enough. While many companies laud their generous maternity benefits, we almost never discuss the no-man's land before the baby, when many women yearn for that little miracle but their bodies have other intentions. Undergoing fertility treatment has none of the glamour of pregnancy, yet it can take up much more time and energy, not to mention have a huge impact on your wallet. Many of us, myself included, keep these painful episodes to ourselves but they can affect our professional lives in a major way. So it's time to bring infertility out of the closet at work.
Reva Seth, author of The Mom Shift, which includes interviews with 500 professional working mothers, said that many of her subjects brought up the topic of infertility and acknowledged that, while being on maternity leave may be easier than ever, "it is the process of becoming a parent which is now isolating and something to be hidden away and worried over in the workplace."
Infertility is far from rare. More women in the United States require medical assistance to have a baby than ever before. Infertility is also on the rise in Canada, ranging between 11.5 per cent and 15.7 per cent of married or common law partners.
Despite the prevalence of infertility, few companies or workplaces appreciate the impact it has on their employees, Ms. Seth said.
"IVF and infertility are what maternity leave was two decades ago … and just like we needed to have discussions and best practices on pregnancy and maternity – we now need to do the same with IVF and infertility," Ms. Seth said.
Should workplaces and companies weigh in on women's infertility? There is no doubt that the onerous schedule that one needs to keep in an effort to get pregnant restricts one's career options.
"These women are required, because of their treatment, to balance the visits to the clinic with their work day. Also, the news of their progress or success (or lack thereof) is shared with them in the afternoon after a visit. This is a huge emotional toll on these women and this has a significant impact on their ability to work," Lisa Mattam, of Toronto-based management consulting firm Mattam Group, said in an e-mail interview.
"For many, fertility treatment can put someone's life on hold – so their ability to engage, their investment in professional growth and their interest in progression may seem lacking in this stage of life, and employers need to understand this so they don't misunderstand what is happening with their key talent," she said.
Even professionals who "come out" to their colleagues in a supportive environment can still take a career hit.
Dunniela Kaufman, a Canadian trade lawyer based in Washington, D.C., underwent IVF treatment for both her sons. With her first child, she got pregnant on her second try, but the second took two years and five IVF cycles.
In retrospect, she believes the emotional turmoil of her treatment had a negative impact on her career. During one IVF cycle, she decided not to fight a ruling that affected her ability to appear before a U.S. court as a Canadian lawyer, which in turn affected her ability to work on certain cases and meet her billable-hour targets. Looking back, she thinks she could have successfully fought the decision but agreed to let it stand since she "did not have the energy or focus to fight it."
"IVF is an emotional roller coaster, not just because of the hormones, but also because of the excitement and disappointment that comes with each cycle, transfer and test result. If you are operating in an environment that requires 100 per cent [such as a Bay Street law firm], it is very difficult to consistently perform at the level that is expected," Ms. Kaufman said in an e-mail interview.
There is an acceptable amount of time women can step back from work to have a baby and, for most women who get pregnant without medical intervention, they remain in control of that process. For those in the unlucky minority, it's the equivalent of being pregnant for years.
"I believe that if you have worked somewhere long enough, and have proven yourself, you can check out for a bit to have a baby, but nobody factors in the time that it can take to make a baby," Ms. Kaufman said.
Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler