Several years ago, my leader asked me to come into his office.
“Emily, I noticed you were acting distraught this week. Was there something going on?”
Something indeed was going on. I was not ok.
I took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, then mustered up my courage and said, “Actually, yes. I had a miscarriage last Friday.”
“Oh,” he replied, looking at me with a puzzled expression and his head cocked to the side. “That’s it? That’s why you’re upset?”
He then switched topics and went on to discuss business. But I wasn’t listening. Here I was, sitting in front of someone who frequently delivered talks about the importance of human empathy, listening to him dismiss my grief.
That’s it? That’s why I’m upset?
Infertility: Invisible and isolating
Infertility is a common health condition that plagues many couples. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 12 to 13 couples out of 100 struggle to conceive. In the U.S., with more men and women determined to focus on their careers and wait to grow their families, we can only expect this number to rise.
However, many people who suffer from infertility keep it a secret. While our Slack channels and water cooler conversations are full of shop talks, birthday messages and the occasional pet photo, it’s uncommon for people to come to work and admit their struggles at home. We are not used to sharing our personal problems with our colleagues. For many of us, we have been groomed to keep these discussions out of the workplace.
But infertility is a stressful experience for many people. There’s the uncertainty of not being able to attain what you want. For women, there are the needles, the drugs, the bruises, the nausea and other undesirable side effects on your body. For men, there’s the feeling of helplessness and loss of control. There’s a strong feeling of shame for both women and men, because our society is not used to openly discussing issues such as miscarriages or infertility.
While employers such as Facebook, Netflix and Amazon are now starting to offer infertility insurance coverage and counseling services to employees, we are still in the early stages. Most couples are reluctant to speak to their employers, because they fear doing so will detrimentally affect their careers. But the families who undergo treatment need healthy support systems from their employers so they can remain high performers at their jobs.
Building inclusive cultures starts with being vulnerable
My company Catalyte has always prided itself in its culture. We try to be kind and humble to others. When we climb mountains, we reach out and bring our colleagues with us, because we are in the business of helping people become successful. We want to build an inclusive culture to celebrate the diversity of our employees. In order for us to create inclusivity, we need to first be vulnerable.
Back in 2018, as I was leaving the office, a new colleague asked whether I had children. When I told him I didn’t, this colleague made an offhand remark and said I had to have kids. Instead of simply smiling and politely nodding, I decided to open up and engage him. I told this colleague about my personal experience. The next day, he profusely apologized, and for the rest of the year, he became one of my biggest supporters at work. With his apology and allyship, I was able to perform well at work while sorting through my personal situation in the background.
Inclusivity means being courageous
The acclaimed author Brene Brown said, “Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage. People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses.”
It wasn’t easy for me to share and open up about my experience. When I did, not every colleague was empathetic. However, had I not taken the risk and shared my story, I couldn’t have changed behavior and turned an otherwise awkward situation into a positive experience. I would not have been able to face the challenges at work while dealing with my personal situation in the background without the support of my colleagues.
Today, I am back from maternity leave with a healthy and happy five-month old, and I look forward to tackling my new challenge as a working mom.
If we want to foster inclusivity, then we need a safe environment for everyone to step forward and share their stories. We need to be vulnerable to identify and learn from our mistakes. We’re all just humans. Let’s be badasses together.
Emily Chong is a marketing executive at Catalyte.