How infertility turns my office into a freakin minefield

by Amy Fowler

Photo for article on coping with infertility at work. Woman in army fatigues sits in a doorway looking exhausted.Her right arm rests on her right knee which is bent. The scene is quite dark and you can barely see many details except for the door. There is a cloudy light coming from the left of the image towards which the woman looks. Photo for article on being infertile in a fertile world.

For someone trying to survive infertility, working in the matriarchy can feel like traversing a minefield. Sometimes, I'm not quick enough at fastening my emotional flak jacket, and I'm more vulnerable to attack than I'd like to be.


©flywish / Adobe Stock

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As an American Sign Language interpreter, I work in a field that is historically and consistently comprised of about eighty-five percent women. In a society which is historically and consistently controlled by the patriarchy, working with mostly women can be a welcome relief. But for someone trying to survive being infertile in a fertile world, working in the matriarchy can feel like traversing a minefield. Sometimes, I’m not quick enough at fastening my emotional flak jacket, and I’m more vulnerable to attack than I’d like to be. Coping with infertility at work is a constant battle.

Coping with infertility at work

The first thing you see when you walk in the door to work is a large, framed bulletin board. This is the Family Board. Staff members use it to post pictures of their families, their holiday cards, and, of course, their pregnancy and newborn announcements. The simple act of walking in the door to work causes my heart to race — I haven’t even gotten to my desk yet – and that’s just an average day.

A couple of years ago, TEN women in the office had babies in one calendar year. That fact alone elicits an array of DSM-worthy responses in someone like me. Through my eyes, these women, who were at least my colleagues if not my friends, grew into walking social landmines.

I quickly became adept at avoiding eye contact with each of them. I certainly was not going to ask any one of them how she was, because, frankly, I was too emotionally fragile to entertain the probability of her response. And if one of the she-mines were to take my eye contact as interest, and ask me how I was doing, I’d really be hosed. First of all, there’s no way I’d tell the truth, and, secondly, there’s an expectation of reciprocation of the question, that, if left unsatisfied, exposes my jerkhood, and, if fulfilled, twists the stabby things in my thoracic cavity. In the business vernacular, this is what’s referred to as a “lose-lose” situation.

Coping with infertility at work is a constant challenge for me. It’s difficult being infertile in a fertile office, constantly being reminded of something you really want, and will never get. It’s particularly difficult when those reminders come wrapped in a human package – a human package you like and for whom you are genuinely happy. A human package who has no idea what your struggles have been, and who, therefore, has no idea that her very presence, or even the sound of her voice, is enough to put you on edge, if you’re having a good day, or, if you’re not having a good day, causes that particular voice in your head that you always try to keep buried to stir and whisper to you that you might be better off not living.

Read more: Miscarriage: how can we help parents grieve if we are left unaware of their tragic loss

The difficulty does not end there, at the human-growing human package. Once a pregnancy is announced or obviously visible, it becomes part of the public domain in whatever social space the pregnant woman is; her being becomes a topic of conversation. Every other person who has children will offer copious advice, solicited or not. Advice about how to be pregnant. Advice about how to labor and deliver. Advice about which baby-care items to invest in, and which to forego. Advice about feeding. Advice about getting through those first sleepless weeks.

They share their stories about all of these things, in a bonding ritual of commonality. They share all of these things, and with nothing to contribute, I slink away, unconnected and unnoticed. Feeling like you’ll always be on the outside looking in is lonely – you don’t have to experience infertility to know what that feels like.

One day last week, after working for about an hour, I stepped away from my cubicle to fill up my water. I had barely set foot into the break room, when I stopped, momentarily frozen. There it was, on the far dining table: a large, square container, filled with cupcakes. Normally, such a sight would be most welcome. I mean, who doesn’t like a lunchtime cupcake, especially a free one? But even from a distance, I could easily see that these cupcakes were iced, alternately, in pink and blue frosting.

“Who’s having a baby,” one co-worker asked another.

As the other colleague filled her in, I tottered back to my desk in a daze, still reeling. It hits me like a ton of bricks, nearly every time. They say, “time heals all wounds,” but fifteen years haven’t blunted the blow one bit. They are so full of shit.

Here’s the thing about triggers — once words are heard, or a picture is seen, the damage is done; there’s no unhearing nor unseeing. It feels like what I imagine a punch to the gut feels like, dull and heavy. In my head, I’m grasping at Everything and Nothing, the wind knocked out of me. But nobody sees that. At most, someone may notice that my stare goes vacant, as I focus on mentally being Anywhere but Here. Usually, people don’t notice at all.

There may have been a moment when I wanted to take the whole container back to my desk and devour every last one of those cupcakes. And, honestly, had they been iced with real buttercream and not that shitty, whipped frosting, I would have.

“Whoever said time heals all wounds was so full of shit”

Being infertile in a fertile world is not a conscious focus in my day-to-day life, anymore.  I’m not currently under treatment; not actively trying to conceive. Actually, I’m at the age where even thinking about it is a Fool’s Pursuit. But that doesn’t mean that it escapes my notice when others are going through the one experience I always knew that I wanted for myself, and will never have. That smarts, keenly.

It’s hard to talk about the icky emotions, the prickly feelings. We tend to vilify ourselves for feeling such things, instead of affirming our humanity. It’s hard to give voice to the fact that the source of many women’s most profound joy is the source of my most profound sadness, without leading to some unwanted and unhelpful guilt dynamic on their part, and some unwanted and unhelpful feeling-like-an-asshole dynamic on mine. It’s hard.

Like so many things in this life, there are no easy answers here, either. There has to be a place. There has to be a place where I can acknowledge both my happiness for you and my sadness for me. There has to be a place where I can acknowledge both my happiness for you and my sadness for me, and for that to be okay. There has to be a place where I can acknowledge both my happiness for you and my sadness for me, and for that to be okay — for you to not feel guilty and for me to not feel like an asshole.

There has to be a place.

I need for you to help me find it.

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Amy Fowler
Article by Amy Fowler



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