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Caroline Jones on getting pregnant through IVF and how an unsupportive employer made the experience a lot more stressful…
Caroline Jones* is currently enjoying her maternity leave with her eight-month-old son, but getting to this point has not been easy. Caroline had to go through two rounds of IVF before she was able to get pregnant and give birth to a healthy baby. That is difficult enough, but on top of that she faced a complete lack of support from her manager when she went through her first round of IVF, something that made an already stressful experience much worse.
Caroline is a secondary school drama teacher and was head of department when she had IVF for the first time. She and her husband had been keen to have a large family and, after getting married, they started trying for a baby. Eight months later they started questioning if anything was wrong and found, after investigations, that Caroline’s husband had a very low sperm count and motility. The couple were told they had a 1% chance of Caroline getting pregnant naturally and opted to be put on a waiting list for IVF at Birmingham Women’s Hospital.
Caroline researched IVF thoroughly, changing her diet and lifestyle to raise her chances of success. The couple kept the fertility treatment to themselves and very close family. To take time off for appointments Caroline had to give her head teacher letters from the hospital.
The first letters – when the couple were undergoing investigations – were headed gynaecology and Caroline had no problem taking the time off. However, as soon as she was transferred to the Birmingham Women’s Hospital the heading on the letters was infertility treatment. She was called to a meeting with her head teacher and told that the school would not allow paid time off for “elective treatment”.
“That word elective did not feel right. It was not a vanity thing. I felt like I was being punished for wanting a family when everyone else who is not infertile can have a child as and when,” says Caroline. “When you are an employee and really care about your work you go that extra mile and you feel the least your employer can do is to do the same for you. All I was asking for was two hours off for appointments. I would have made the time up.”
Her husband’s workplace, by contrast, was very supportive. Caroline had to inject hormones twice daily as part of the treatment. Apart from feeling very bloated, she had no other side effects and she said work was a welcome distraction from the treatment. After a month she took one day of unpaid leave to go to the hospital to get her eggs collected under general anaesthetic. Twenty eight eggs were collected, but doctors deemed she was at high risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome so she could not do the transfer immediately.
After the collection process, however, she could not walk properly and was in a lot of pain so she had to take another day off. She returned the next day, despite not being properly fit rather than take more unpaid leave. She didn’t think at the time to call in sick as she says that is not in her nature. Of the 28 eggs collected, 13 embryos were frozen. Six months later when the embryos were thawed only two of these were suitable for transfer in September 2017.
Two weeks after the transfer Caroline had to do a pregnancy test. It was scheduled for a Monday, but she knew she couldn’t go into work the same day so she did it early. It was negative and she had the rest of the day to get her head around it and to grieve. She got through the next few days at work in survival mode then grieved when she got home. The hospital offered free counselling, but it was on a work day. Caroline asked for time off, but her head teacher said she would have to have half a day’s pay docked for an hour’s appointment.
“I went to see her to complain about her lack of support throughout the IVF process,” she says. She felt the head teacher was looking for an argument and she angrily told Caroline that she was being unreasonable. In the end Caroline decided not to go for counselling as she was aware that she needed to save for the next round of IVF. The head teacher said she could really do with counselling. “She said it as if I was mental. She was shouting and I was crying. I couldn’t understand why she was behaving in that way. I realised I could not go through IVF again at that school,” says Caroline.
In the end she did do the counselling, taking half a day’s unpaid leave. She says it was useful and helped her when she had to work her notice after she found another teaching post at a different school. It was a step down from her previous role, but her new head teacher was supportive and that was more important. Caroline was able to tell her new head from the start about her intention to do IVF privately and he thanked her for her honesty and was supportive, asking her how she was and telling her to take time out when she needed to. She in turn fit her appointments around her free periods. “It was really empowering and refreshing,” says Caroline. “It felt like a very safe place to work.”
The first embryo transfer was unsuccessful, but last July after her second transfer she discovered she was pregnant. “It was third time lucky,” says Caroline. She was over the moon and enjoyed the first few months of pregnancy. However, she started to get anxious as she got into her third trimester when she felt the baby wasn’t moving. Eventually she had an emergency caesarean section.
Caroline started an anonymous blog about her experiences after her first failed transfer. It was a safe space where she could write about how she was feeling. She had been on IVF forums with others who were on the same transfer cycle as her and found that difficult when the people she bonded with on the forum all got pregnant and she didn’t. She felt a burden to them and that she had to put on a brave face. “With the blog I didn’t have to worry about what other people were thinking,” she says.
She has stopped writing it since having her son, but wants to start it again, focusing perhaps on how workplaces can better support employees going through IVF. “I was really horrified after I spoke to my union who said that my first head teacher had not done anything wrong by saying it was an elective treatment,” she says. “That needs to change.”
Despite the support she received from her second school, Caroline will not be returning after maternity leave as her request for flexible working was turned down. She says: “Having waited so long for my son it did not make sense to me to work full time. I want to spend time with him rather than work full time and pay for someone else to enjoy time with him.”
*Not her real name