Episode 137: Pregnancy Loss and Work

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…it happens to so many women, but we rarely talk about it. You’re pregnant – you’re excited – then it all goes wrong…

“It is one of those things that from the outside just for practical reasons you have to keep it secret, but then you also can't be like grieving or emotionally affected outwardly in any way.”

And even if you confide in your boss about what’s happened…

“I remember Googling what to say when you experience a miscarriage at work. And all the advice was all about what do you tell your manager. I found absolutely no advice anywhere on what to do about people you actually manage.”

And when a colleague suffers a pregnancy loss or the loss of a baby…how can the rest of us do the right thing?   

“One of the concerns that I've had other women share with me is that when the most painful things for them in their work environment is even when there's support there at the beginning, people say well, you know, it's been three weeks, like, now it's time to get back on board.”

Pregnancy loss and the workplace – coming up on The Broad Experience.

Early last year I heard from a listener in London. She was a pediatrician at a big hospital and she said she’d just had the tables turned and become a patient. She’d been pregnant for the first time but it had ended in miscarriage. She said the whole experience was distressing and anxiety provoking. I’m gonna read you part of her email. She said…

“Even as a doctor, working in a large, prestigious public hospital, I did not feel comfortable telling my colleagues what was going on, and instead hid behind the excuse that I had to have 'gynaecological surgery'. Why? Lots of reasons. A generally distant relationship with colleagues and a lack of pastoral care within the workplace. A fear of being labelled 'just another 30-something woman trying to fall pregnant', shafted to the 'no ambition' sideheap. Self-consciousness that the main reason for needing time off work was in fact emotional, rather than physical, and a fear that that is perceived as indulgent or lazy...”

She is not alone. There are varying statistics on pregnancy loss – but it seems anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Usually this happens within the first 12 weeks. But not always. Within weeks of getting that email, I had my own first miscarriage.

I kept the idea for a show on this topic in my back pocket but to be honest I wasn’t sure it was gonna work. I thought people might be squeamish about it or just not interested because it hadn’t affected them.

But earlier this year I read a blog post on pregnancy loss and the workplace and I posted it to the Facebook page asking if anyone was interested in this topic. I got far more responses than I ever expected – two of the women who responded to that thread are in this show. A common theme emerged from many of you who did respond: you hadn’t told work you were pregnant so no one knew when you miscarried. If work knew you were planning a family they might not promote you, so why let on until you had to? But one of you mentioned just how hard it was to push through at work after a late miscarriage when no one else knew what was going on, and you just kept working.

In this show you’ll meet three women from three different countries. Each had a different experience, and a different work culture, but there are some common threads. And if you’ve just had a miscarriage or ever lost a child then some of this may be upsetting.

Also I want to say that I get that with a topic like this it can be quite jarring to hear ads in some of the breaks – I want to acknowledge that. I don’t have any control over the ad schedule but it is the holiday season as I’m putting this together so you’re likely to hear some.

With that, let’s meet my first guest.

Several years ago Jorli Pena was working in marketing for a big company you’ve all heard of. A corporate giant. She lived in New York City. She and her husband had a little boy who at the time was about three. They wanted a bigger family, and part of the reason Jorli had been so attracted to this company was that they had this program that let people work 4 days a week for 80 percent of their regular salary. Jorli’s manager was a director, and she was part of this program…

“…that was a huge plus for me because I hated the idea that like, wanting to have a family seemed like mutually exclusive in some people’s eyes with wanting to have a great career. So here were these women at this company who were getting promoted it seemed and were working four days a week. So my plan, and it turns out you can’t really plan these things…was  OK great, I’ll take this job and as soon as I have my second baby I’m gonna switch from the five day to the four day, and …it was this huge, it was just this lovely idea.”

She was 37, and she her husband set about trying to create that second baby. She got pregnant quickly, just as she had with her son. Everything was going well. Then, at 11 weeks, she went in for a scan, and there was no heartbeat. The baby had died. She could have had what in the US is called a D&C – the procedure basically where they go in and get everything out – but she was about to go on vacation, and she opted to wait until the miscarriage happened on its own. Which she says turned out to be a really bad idea…involving a trip to the emergency room while she was away.

So after all that – the physical toll, the psychological toll, she landed back in New York and went straight back to work.

“You’re dealing with sadness and also shame, and just embarrassment, and you come back to work and they had just been congratulating you, and you still sort of look pregnant, and nobody talks about it.”

Unlike a lot of people in early pregnancy Jorli had told her boss and some of her workmates she was pregnant. But no sooner than she had begun to adjust to what had happened, she got pregnant again…

“I got pregnant again very quickly after, maybe the first cycle after the miscarriage, which was again amazing. Great. You know I'm kind of an optimist, I thought this would work out, but I knew enough to keep it more under wraps that I didn't really tell a lot of people. I mean almost nobody. And then actually again at 11 weeks…so right when I was like quote ‘safe’ it happened again.”

Now her direct manager was in the know about this pregnancy. And Jorli says she was kind and empathetic after the miscarriage.

“But it is one of those things that from the outside just for practical reasons you have to keep it secret, but then you also can't be like grieving or emotionally affected outwardly in any way. You don't take time off. And it's is devastating.”

AMT: “Hang on. You say you don't take time off. Did you think about taking time off this time?”

“I mean it sounds crazy, but I didn't even consider it. I just, maybe I didn't want to ask or I didn't want to deal with it, I just, no, I mean I this time I did get a D and C which was actually much better for me in terms of the physical aspects. Yep. And so I wish I knew that the first time. But you know, I maybe took that day, the day that I had that procedure.”

 I wonder how much this tendency not to take time off Is tied to US work culture. I also found out through a scan that my pregnancy last year was in medical terms ‘non-viable’. After dissolving on the sidewalk outside the doctor’s office, I was in a dilemma because I had to travel for work in 6 days. There was no way I could jeopardize this trip by having a natural miscarriage. So I scheduled the D and C for the next day, a Saturday to give me what I thought was enough time to recover before heading out on a 5-hour flight on the Wednesday. And it kind of worked out. Except I ended up having some pretty intense pain while I was on the work trip – it was as if my body was saying to me, haha, you think you’ve dealt with me, you think you’ve arranged everything so perfectly around your schedule. But I’m here to remind you it’s not that simple. 

When Jorli had yet another miscarriage, this time at 6 weeks, it began at work. And this time she knew something had to change.

“…because in the midst of all of these losses I did have another child that…I said I may not ever have another kid, let me spend more time with him.”

She decided to go down to that four-day-a-week schedule.

“So I knew with certainty, I walked in on Monday and told my boss, this program I've heard about, like, sign me up. How do I do it? The four day. Which again was a big draw for me to be in the company, and I was told, oh, we've discontinued that program. Oh yeah. And I named this vice president and this director, and they were like, oh, they were grandfathered in. Not happening.”

She was gutted. And she began to think more and more about whether she really wanted to be there at all. She was trying to perform at her usual level but it was tough…

“To have worked at this company right for just over a year and to have had three miscarriages in nine months to like, that profoundly affected my productivity whether I wanted to admit it to myself or not.”

I wanted to go back to something she’d said earlier about coming back to work after her first miscarriage and how that felt.

AMT: “Also you mentioned the word shame when you talked about that, you said you felt shame. Why?”

 “I mean I don’t think shame is very rational. It is so, and it's funny that I said that word but it's probably more embarrassment than shame. But it's just you know it's just this overwhelming feeling of loss. And again, I do think a lot of women can…this wasn't the case with me, but like you know, people can blame their schedule, you know, and their stress and that's certainly a thing with when you're trying to get pregnant you're supposed to not be stressed and it's one of the most stressful experiences of your life and so it's very easy for people to beat themselves up that they're somehow the cause.”

Not long after that third miscarriage, Jorli was laid off. That might seem like the fourth terrible thing that happened to her but actually she was kind of relieved. She’d always been brimming with business ideas and she struck out on her own, first with a resume-writing business, now with a copywriting business. Her husband quit his job in retail and went to work for a small foundation. And the change has worked out well. She says back when she was still at the big company, losing pregnancy after pregnancy, she used to joke with friends that her body was rejecting working there.

“Not to fault this particular company but for me personally my work style didn't fit so well in that world and there is a part of me that, my body was rejecting working there. You know I mean who knows the miracles that happened behind you know getting and staying pregnant, but in retrospect it was not the best fit for me and it enabled me to become an advocate for myself and my family and my schedule and to carve my own path to showing that you can be ambitious and also want to have a family and that just may not look how, you know, a five day regular job.”

After those miscarriages Jorli went on to get pregnant again, and this time it stuck. She had another baby, and another one after that. Her three boys are now ages 9, 5 and 3.

Leaving a 9-5 job may have been the right choice for Jorli, but it’s not for everyone.

Ceri Napier lives in the south of England. She is deputy CEO of the MS International Federation. They help people with Multiple Sclerosis. She and I spoke on Skype. Like Jorli, she had been part of that Facebook thread on pregnancy loss earlier this year.

She’s in her late 30s now and about 5 years ago she and her husband started trying for a baby. They tried, and tried. Nothing happened…that ultimately led them down the road to IVF. And on the second round of treatment, Ceri got pregnant.

“Because it was IVF we'd had early scans, we'd had a scan at six weeks that had shown a heartbeat I was just over the moon it was the most wonderful feeling in the world after all that effort, all the injections everything, to hear that heartbeat was incredible.”

Ceri had some cysts on her ovaries and the staff asked her to come in for another scan a few weeks later, just to check a particular cyst.  

“So I went along to this second scan at around nine weeks without my husband. I was just so naïve I thought oh, it's just checking on the cyst and I went along and just…yeah, completely devastated, literally floor – it floored me. I was on the floor crying when I was told there was no longer a heartbeat and it was no longer viable. Yeah, absolutely. You know it was last year but it’s still…” 

AMT: “Really raw.”

“Yeah, absolutely. You don't forget. And my husband was luckily able to, he works in London. He was able to get the first train over and come and pick up the pieces and I just remember that day just lying on the sofa together holding each other. Yeah, really a very sad moment in my life.”

Meanwhile, she had to tell her manager what had happened.

 “I'd actually been very open with my boss about the IVF journey that we were on. I told him that afternoon because he knew I was going to a scan that day because I'd asked to work from home. I said, sadly it was a miscarriage, and he immediately says, don't come to work for the next week or so. So I did. I was able to take that time off which was incredibly valuable time for me and my husband to heal and to move through it.”

AM-T: “Yeah, no I can imagine and that’s so different from a lot of the posts I go on Facebook when I first posted about the idea of doing an episode on this topic. So many of the other posts were about people who hadn’t told anyone at work let alone their boss that they were pregnant. So when the miscarriage happened they’re going through all this but they’re completely covering up and most people weren’t taking any time off, either.” 

“Yeah, I think I'm extremely fortunate to have to work in an amazing organization with an incredibly supportive and open boss, maybe because of the nature of the work that we do we're about the right to work, and it is so important for people with disabilities, chronic disabilities like multiple sclerosis, that we like to practice what we preach. So my boss is a great believer in having that flexibility and the respect of the staff, to trust us. You know when we need that time we will come back and we'll be more loyal maybe, as a result.”

But even though her boss knew what was going on, she was a boss herself. And she hadn’t told anyone on her team about this aspect of her life.   

“I remember Googling what to say when you experience a miscarriage at work. And all the advice was all about what do you tell your manager. And I'd already moved beyond that and I was very open with my manager, which was a great support. But I found absolutely nothing or no advice anywhere on what to do about people you actually manage. So that left me in a quandary as well and I actually decided not to tell my team, and my boss let them know I was unwell but I was fine and I'd be coming back to work when I was ready, and left it a little vague which…I don't know. 

I sort of struggled with it at the time, and for several months afterwards what the right thing to do was. I'd actually gone on a senior management training course and that was a great, actually a great opportunity to be in a safe space to talk about miscarriage and my work and my career and my hopes for a baby in the future. The hope to get back on the IVF train as soon as possible, in a safe environment amongst peers and amongst other senior managers to work through this challenge together - and they all advised me to tell my team as well.”

But Ceri still wasn’t sure.

“…and I thought I'll go out for breakfast with them and if it feels right to tell them, I'll tell them. And if it doesn't, I won't. And one of those situations I started to say, I said, I'd like to tell you about why I was off work for two weeks, and they said, ‘you know what Ceri, you don't have to tell me, that's your private situation. I respect that you've had some difficult times recently and I'm here for you if you want to, but you don't need to go into it. Let's move on and know that I'm here and I can pick up the pieces if you want me to do that.’

So a really interesting response, and he was a male colleague and the other team member I ended up telling her and she was amazingly supportive and yeah, it was very freeing to do that, but it then didn't feel I needed to tell anyone else, and it's just personal. I had to follow my heart what felt right.”

And meanwhile she says she just kept working, kept achieving her goals at the office…

“…because there is another parallel universe in which I would never get pregnant, never have a child. And part of me was working very hard at work, at my career, because that could be all I had. So I was performing well and I wouldn't be surprised if you find a lot of high performing women having difficult personal lives and infertility throwing themselves into their work to have something to show for what they're doing at the end of the day.”

Now in her case it worked out. She gave birth to a little boy earlier this year. And she and her husband are thrilled. But her experience of pregnancy loss still feels fresh. Not to mention her experience of IVF. And she says the atmosphere at work can make a big difference in how you feel about being there when you’ve gone through something like this.

“The other thing I would add about the miscarriage and IVF was is the stigma and the things that people say because we don't talk about it, and the reason I wanted to talk about it on the show and just generally amongst friends, and I have since been open with the whole team at work, is because the less we talk about it the more people say the wrong things that upset people and hurt and make a difficult situation even harder.

And the common phrases that you hear when you have a miscarriage are, oh, but at least you got pregnant. Well that's a double whammy when you've got it through IVF for example. And it's just the kind of things that people say often with good intentions to try and make you feel better. Now the only way we change that talk, those things, is to educate people by being open and saying, well instead of saying this can you just say ‘I'm so sorry,’ can you just say’ is there anything I can do to help?’ or you know, more open ended support and empathy rather than, ‘why don't you adopt?’ or I heard, ‘Actually the world's overpopulated anyway.’ You know, the kind of hurtful things people say and that's the other reason I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about it in the workplace, because that sort of thing would make me burst into tears. And you've spoken a lot on your show about crying in the office. And how do you feel comfortable with that, especially as a senior manager, and getting that balance right between being real and being an emotional human being in the workplace, which I very much am in my office because I manage a lot of women as well, and men, and we all have emotions, we all have lives. You want to create an environment in which everyone feels happy being themselves because then they're more productive but also it's just a warmer in working environment. But on the flip side if it becomes too personal and you're breaking down every two minutes then that is maybe an unsettling place to work and can lead to a team feeling unsettled and maybe like they're not in safe hands to get on with their job.”

It is a tricky balance. We’ll talk more in a bit about how to support a colleague who’s gone through a loss.

Finally, Ceri raised something that came up with all three of my interviewees – the role of the partner in all this. 

“This wasn't something that I was going through alone. My husband also had to go back to work much sooner than I did. My return to work…I mean I was working by the end of that first week even though I was sort of signed off work. I did work from home. I did the odd phone call, answered the odd email as a distraction, and then I worked from home the second week and went to this strategy course, but my husband had to go back to work…I think he had some compassionate leave for a day, then went back two days later which is pretty rough.

And so men often get missed out of these topics. I know that The Broad Experience is focusing on women in the workplace but also a great part of what's helped me come to terms with and work through the miscarriage has been the support I've been able to get from my husband.” 

The same thing goes for a partner of any gender of course – often as the person who is not carrying the baby, their feelings are overlooked. 

Coming up…when the worst happens how does someone start to heal herself. And how  colleagues can help…or not.

“We have all of this discourse going around about the importance of vulnerability and the value of vulnerability. But I think you know the reality is that we're sometimes setting people up to almost kind of bare their soul in environments where it's not actually safe to.”

April Boyd wrote to me last year as well. She’s from Ontario, Canada. She’s a social work therapist by training – she used to work both in a hospital and her own private practice. Her work was with people going through some of life’s hardest times. But despite working in the field of trauma, she was not prepared for what happened to her almost six years ago.

“I had got pregnant, I had had a healthy, happy pregnancy, there was no known issues or concerns noted. And I had a little girl named Nora and she just stopped breathing when she was one day old.”

No one could ever tell her why Nora had died. She and her partner had to try and pick up the pieces of their lives.

“I remember somebody saying to me at one point in time you know April you're probably going to be better able to get through this because you're a therapist. And I just thought that's the craziest thing I've ever heard in my life because in no way have I felt trained to be able to survive the death of my daughter. But what I realized was you know as some time went by there was kind of some truth in what that person had said to me because what I realized was that all the clients I had worked with over the years really had taught me some really important things about how to get through the really intense traumas in our life and how to survive the hard stuff. And so I really felt compelled to start to share what it was that had got me through some of the darkest points of that time especially because when we're talking about infant loss and baby loss and pregnancy loss these really are incredible taboo topics in our culture.”

She runs the Love and Loss Project – it’s a website where you can find resources to help you if you’ve lost a baby or a pregnancy. She’s also in private practice as a coach and therapist for people who’ve experienced pregnancy loss.

In Canada, you’re entitled to a year’s maternity leave. As someone whose had baby had died, April was entitled to four months off work. Which she decided to take in full.

“And that was really challenging for me in a couple ways. So one, there were days when I felt like I could probably be at the at my work, right, or I could probably be doing OK and handling stuff. And it certainly was not my nature to kind of just sit on the bench. But I really wanted to honor my decision to give myself that time because I do believe that that's one of the things that my work with my previous clients had really taught me is I really understood the magnitude of what it was I was dealing with in my life and the significance and the ripples that this experience had in ways I could not even articulate or put my finger on. And so for me, I really wanted to honor that and I really did not want to be in a position where I was going to have to compartmentalize my process or my grief. 

She knew she’d do better when she did go back to work if she took some time to try to come to grips with what had happened to her. It was tricky financially – she wasn’t paid her fulltime salary when she was off. But she says before you decide to soldier on through your grief, think about whether you really have to.

“The reality is it going off work is never a good financial decision. But what I really had to weigh was the difference between the short term reduction in money coming in versus the long term that I didn't want to not be functional later on in some way. So for me that was a little bit of a long term plan, and I think that a lot of people really wrestle with that because there is so much pressure. But one of the things that I really encourage people to do is really kind of break apart you know, what is your reality really, between the fear and the fact? Right. The fear is that I might not have enough, but when you really kind of do the budget I think sometimes we can surprise ourselves by really what we could make work really when we need to. But it is making ourselves prioritize our own healing. And I think often that's the other part of that reality that is really challenging right especially as women we're not really used to giving our own care our own health and wellness that kind of treatment in our life.”

After she went back she says her boss was amazing – very understanding and supportive. And some other colleagues she’d barely known before approached her with offers of support. But she says there were triggers that would crop up during the day that other people didn’t even recognize. One day, a few months after coming back to the hospital, she was walking down the hallway…

“…and one of the women had brought in her newborn grandbaby. And so she is of course is very excited Grandma wanting to share and show off her new little one in the family, which is of course completely understandable. And usually this would be something that would be you know a beautiful bright light in the work day. Right, usually that's the kind of thing that we would get excited about and that would be a special treat.

But I remember walking by and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. It just knocked the wind out of me. And I remember like literally walking past her and she's calling me over like literally being like, April, come here, come here. And I truly just had to look at her say hi. And I just kept going and she called me over again and I just ignored her and kept walking down the hallway. I remember coming into the kitchen. That was the only room there, and I just started bawling.”

Now obviously the woman with the baby didn’t mean any harm. She just wasn’t seeing the world through April’s eyes. And that’s the problem when you come back to work after a terrible loss. Everyone else’s life seems to be going on as normal while yours has been turned upside down.

April was working with a woman recently who’d had a miscarriage. She found it really hard being around colleagues who kept talking about their kids. In her workplace that was what a lot of women did during their lunch hour. She didn’t want to look snobby by not hanging out at lunch, but she just couldn’t take it. She hadn’t told anyone about her pregnancy or the miscarriage…

“…she didn't feel comfortable really letting people know, you know, what had happened, for her that wasn't appropriate in her setting. So we talked about that idea of having an ally. So it's one person that she feels a little more safe with and that she can share, ‘Here's what my reality is, here's what I've gone through, and here's what it's like for me to be in that staff room,’ so that when she would be sitting there, because sometimes when we hear those triggers, right, those stories that people tell we kind of freeze and our speech kind of leaves us in that moment and we end up just being that deer in headlights, right. And so we had talked about that idea that if she had somebody who knew what she was going for that person could help change this topic, they could maybe even kind of follow her out of the room and go for a walk with her.”

Which is exactly what ended up happening. She confided in a colleague and asked that person to help her out. 

“…because at the end of the day I think her biggest fear really tends to boil down to if I lose my cool here, if I end up crying in the kitchen, if I end up kind of losing it, what if I end up being really judged, right, or what if I end up with that horrible awkward silence where people don't know what to say and then they kind of just avoid me?”

April says colleagues who know about the loss often feel awkward because they don’t know exactly how the woman feels herself. And women can feel quite differently about miscarriage.

She says to some women she’s spoken to, a 6-week miscarriage is devastating – they’d already been thinking about names and begun to plan ahead. Other women see it more as an act of nature they can move on from. But if a pregnancy loss of any kind has really thrown you, the workplace often doesn’t help.

April says only about 15 percent of her work comes from companies.

AMT: “Those clients who do come to you, on the workplace side of things, how do they hear about you and what do they want to talk about?”

“So mostly I’ve had contact from people who've said, you know, I know someone in my office has gone through this and I'd like to support them better. 

And so one of the key things that we talk about is really the idea of becoming more flexible with the concept of time, because I think there's often this notion that someone's going to grieve for a couple days and then they're going to be fine. But you know that's certainly one of the concerns that I've had other women share with me is that when the most painful things for them in their work environment is even when there's support there at the beginning, people say well, you know, it's been three weeks, now it's time to get back on board. And you know in many ways they feel like they've been very generous and very tolerant for somebody not being their go to gal anymore. But in reality it doesn't quite work like that all the time, right. There's the good days and bad days. And so some of that piece is it just comes down to really education of here's what this looks like behind the scenes for the person really. And again you know, I really encourage people to think about this in the context of just humanity in general.”

Because anyone can suffer a loss of any kind and find it hard to function at work. And going back to the topic of other people’s responses to your situation, April says it’s understandable that colleagues may feel nervous about saying anything, if they knew you were pregnant. But of course what some people do in that situation is simply say nothing. Which can feel hurtful and add to your isolation.

“So what I would encourage you to think about is I think we can just kind of open that up to say, Hey, I just want to let you know I was thinking about you, I know you've been having a really rough time lately. We're really not making any assumptions about what this means for that person exactly or where they're at. And we're also not prying. Because there's times when I know that people have wanted to show care and support by really asking me a lot of details about it that I really didn't want to get into at work for instance. You're like, I don't want to have this conversation here. So I would say that really the fact that you're even just stepping closer is going to be appreciated because you're identifying yourself as a safe person.”

Finally, she says, not everyone at work IS a safe person. They don’t deserve to hear about your situation. 

“We have all of this discourse going around about the importance of vulnerability and the value of vulnerability. But I think you know the reality is that I think we're sometimes setting people up to almost kind of bare their soul in environments where it's not actually safe to. So for instance I had a client one time that had was not doing her best at work and she actually got a really terrible performance evaluation, and she was really torn about how does she want to address that with her boss. And so what we had looked at was you know is it safe to really do that in that context because she was going to tell him the whole story. Right, as in like the whole details of it, and really this man had given her no indication ever before that he was somebody who was either interested in people's personal lives or willing to be compassionate to that. In fact he had actually been quite harsh with other people in other circumstances. So what we'd really looked at was not just this vulnerability because this feels like what we're supposed to do, but really intentional sharing. And I think that's where we can start to really protect our own hearts and protect our baby's memories. It's really with the idea of what am I choosing to share and with who, who has really earned the right to hear this story? And that's not everybody.” 

April Boyd. You can find out more about April’s work at LoveLossProject.com. Thanks to her, Jorli Peña and Ceri Napier for coming on the show and talking about this incredibly personal topic.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Of course I would like to know what you think. I hope the show has been helpful.

You know where to find me – you can email me via the website or tweet me or post to the Facebook page.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.