Originally published in Mogul HERE
As a coach working with women who struggle with infertility or miscarriage, one of the main challenges I often witness is the perceived lack of support from friends, family, and colleagues. Oftentimes when a couple reveals their struggle with fertility, it’s hard to know what the appropriate reaction should be. It can be especially difficult for loose acquaintances or professional colleagues to know how to show up for someone going through this difficult life event.
For other life challenges such as an illness or a death in the family, there is a prescribed way for showing support: we send flowers or perhaps a meal. I can even look back on my own eight years in corporate and recall anytime I had a surgery or big life event, a colleague would send a little bit of love my way.
This happened for the first time when I showed up my first week to my new job with two black eyes after I broke my nose running into a glass door. (So embarrassing, but it happened!) My co-workers got me ice packs and one even sent flowers to my apartment. Another time, I went through ACL surgery and got tons of cards and flowers while I was out recovering.
These small and silly injuries were not life-altering. They were not tragic. However, I did appreciate the fact my co-workers took the time to let me know they were thinking of me. If the event was more serious, like a miscarriage, how would I have wanted my colleagues to show up for me? What is thoughtful but not too invasive? How can a colleague show concern but still respect the privacy of the individual going through the challenging time? Here are a few of my recommendations:
1. If a colleague reveals she is struggling with infertility don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Emotional issues can be glossed over because others don't know how to make them better or offer support. Once you become aware of another's struggles, check in periodically. Always in private and out of ear shot of anyone else hearing.
2. Recognize your place- Women struggling with infertility often put up walls to protect themselves from being hurt any more than they already are. Be mindful of these reactions and simply let the woman know you are there for her and that she doesn’t have to feel alone. One of my clients eloquently said infertility is often so isolating, so throwing someone a life-raft can be an emotional life saver.
3. Connect the dots- If you know others in the office who have had infertility struggles, connect those people to your colleague. Having people to speak to who have gone through a similar experience can be invaluable.
4. Don’t gossip- This seems obvious, but I have seen this happen many times. Once a woman tells you her struggle, treat it as sensitive information. Consider it a gift the woman has shared with you and keep it close.
5. Be an advocate- Oftentimes fertility struggles require many doctor appointments. This can lead to co-workers thinking the employee is not as “committed to the job” as she once was. If someone makes a snide comment such as, “Wow Sally only works half-days now,” nip it in the bud. Tell the co-worker to pipe down. If you are a manager, take the person aside and tell him/her those comments are not appreciated.
While it may be more difficult to know how to show up for someone struggling with infertility than an injury like my broken nose, it doesn’t mean pretending the situation doesn’t exist is an option. In one of my earlier posts, I use the image of a well as a metaphor to be present to someone else’s challenges. Let’s resist throwing the rope down the well and trying to pull someone out of it, but instead jump right in there and sit next to them in their pain. We will be better colleagues, bosses, and friends if we are able to do this.