If you walk into my office, one of the first things you’ll see is a picture of my twins dressed as garden gnomes, under the trees in total giggling glory, looking delighted and magical.
My twins are magical; they’re miraculous, in fact. They are my sixth pregnancy and my only children. They are the pot of gold that waited at the end of the rough rainbow ride that was my journey to parenthood.
I’ll be honest: Up to that point, I led a very easy life. I have supportive parents; I thrived in school; I got every job I wanted; I dumped every boyfriend until, that is, I met and married the love of my life in grad school. Without much baggage to shoulder, life was moving ahead at a steady clip. But I lacked empathy for loss and suffering and simply hadn’t developed the strengths that come from perseverance — the battle wounds that make you a better leader.
So, when, at 30, I lost my “right-on-time” first pregnancy, I was more than surprised. I knew the stats, that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage — but not mine, I’d thought!
Losing My Heartbeats of Hope
My first miscarriage was both shocking and physically torturous. The subsequent miscarriages were worse. Beyond the physical, they were psychologically draining, all the more so as they became my norm.
My second miscarriage instilled fear and anxiety, my third miscarriage sent me into a dark hole of doubt and pain. On New Year’s Eve, during a routine scan, we found out we’d lost our third baby — that third blinking heartbeat of hope. The miscarriage began while I was interviewing a candidate a few days later. By the fourth and fifth losses, I was numb to it all. Each pregnancy would start off full of love and possibility… ending, always, with a deepening sense of powerlessness and despair.
The Surprising Parallel Between Infertility and Innovation
While I was experiencing the lowest times of my life, personally, my career was thriving. I became an Associate Partner at IDEO, a world-renowned design and innovation company, and was actively carving out my future focus of radically changing the world of financial services.
So there I was, helping clients who sought our support in order to innovate, who had often failed at their previous attempts. The parallels between “their” struggles to “give birth” to something new and my own led me to understand that, in many ways, I was acting as an infertility specialist to the business world. Only this time, I was on the other side of the gurney — the doctor instead of the patient. And, boy, how much had I learned from being the recipient of such care. I began to apply my personal experience to build out my professional toolkit, and in so doing, step-changed my clients’ efforts to drive innovation.
Lesson 1: Give the Gift of Diagnosis
The only thing worse than being labeled a “multiple miscarrier” is to have “idiopathic” stamped on that same folder. Turns out idiopathic is a medical term for “problem unknown.” I knew I was in an odd place when I found myself wishing for bad eggs, chromosomal abnormalities, a thyroid condition, anything to name the problem.
I learned from that experience: It’s hard to solve a problem if you can’t pinpoint its cause.
Prior to my own struggle, I felt awkward sharing my candid perspective with clients on their problems, some of them significant and foundational. After that experience, however, I wanted to give them the gift of identification — the gift I did not receive — so that we could confront their challenges head-on and create clarity around a path forward.
If you are someone who drives change in organizations, don’t leave your team in a space of uncertainty out of a desire to protect feelings or avoid taboos. Offer them hope by gifting them answers.
Lesson 2: Face the Worst-Case Scenario
After my third miscarriage, I sunk into a deep funk.
The lurking question haunted me: “What if I couldn’t have children?” It wasn’t until a hike in the woods with my sister-in-law that someone finally asked the un-askable. Gently, she prodded me to ponder: “What if that was true? Then, what would you do?”
I cried out… freed to face down my fears:
“And…how would that feel?”
There it was. My truth was out. I stared down my worst-case scenario and fell in love with what I saw.
We tend to avoid these worst-case questions in both our personal and professional lives because the sheer thought of them can be both paralyzing and petrifying, and hard to confront — even for the questioner. By looking our fears straight in the eye, embracing the reality that actions and options exist in the aftermath, you can move beyond the dread to embrace change, de-risk your explorations, persist with presence of mind, and brainstorm different, even wonderful solutions that lie beyond your current approach.
Lesson 3: Shift Weaknesses to Strengths
By the time my miscarriages became multiple, body-hate sank in. I was broken. I felt female-less. I knew I was in need of a radical reframing.
As it turns out, only 1% of women are multiple miscarriers. Well, hell, I’d always been in the 99 percent! My womb wasn’t “broken,” it was just “highly selective.” It was an Ivy League womb! And, suddenly, with that flip in terms, I had control of my condition. As silly, even flippant, as this may sound, my “Ivy League womb” brought me back my sense of self, and recast my weakness into a strength. I needed to borrow that confidence to keep my head up and persist.
Most perceived limitations can be reframed. And by so doing, they are transformed into a new mental model — they cease to be shortcomings and emerge as strengths. As an innovation leader, I challenge my team to rethink the limitations we live within and recast them as opportunity. There’s power to be had in the creative construction of an alternate model.
Finding Meaning in Pain
This painful chapter in my life not only yielded my two magical children, but a wealth of insight that continues to shape me into a better leader, a better parent and a better human being. I extracted durable meaning from my trials and tribulations — learning to persevere, to truly empathize with struggle, and to embrace candor and constraint with creativity. Like the stretch marks that bear testimony to the gift of motherhood that finally was mine, these scars are ones I wear with pride.