How we found our way through our fertility issues in academia

Negative pregnancy test on a blue background

Constantly testing negative in pregnancy tests can take a huge emotional toll on those trying to conceive children.Credit: Getty

Early in an academic career, when job instability, long hours and high pressure are part of the experience, many people understandably choose to delay having children or not have them at all. But delays can increase the risk of infertility, forcing people to face the prospect of completely changing their view of the future.

Infertility affects an estimated 15% of couples, with age being the single most prominent factor affecting conception and birth, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s an experience that leaves many people feeling lonely and exhausted, and often invisible. If you are facing this situation, regardless of your career stage, you are not alone.

CM was in her mid-twenties and about to start her PhD when she became pregnant but miscarried. After more than a year of trying to get pregnant again, she started in vitro fertilization (IVF), and she went through several unsuccessful cycles during her second and third years of graduate school. She struggled to reconcile her infertility journey with her role as a PhD candidate, and was relatively quiet about her experience with colleagues. It wasn’t until she stopped fertility treatments and entered a new phase personally and professionally – securing a contract position as a lecturer in biological anthropology and gaining access to the research opportunities offered by academic work – that she found the network she needed to open up about. her infertility. It helped her come to terms with the end of her IVF journey and adjust her goals to a life without biological children.

AB conceived her first child naturally when she was in her mid-thirties. She assumed the same would apply to her second. But as she neared 40, she ended up having several rounds of IVF, experiencing canceled cycles, a failed implantation and a miscarriage. It left her emotionally and physically exhausted. Although she eventually gave birth to another child, the journey through infertility took a significant toll at home and at work.

Fortunately, she had a supportive network of colleagues, who knew about her experiences and encouraged her to stop apologizing and feel her polite experience. This gave her the necessary motivation to talk freely about her experience and not feel ashamed if she became emotional at work. It was essential for her to continue.

Our respective experiences of infertility also changed the focus of our research. CM shifted more to desk-based work using accessible published datasets, which eventually led her to focus on population fertility. In the process of trying to humanize the narratives of people in the deep past, CM was often reminded of her own emotional and physical burden. Although the research was emotionally challenging, her experience made CM more aware of the sensitivities and social aspects of infertility.

AB has transitioned her work on stress and health from non-human primates to humans, with a special focus on prenatal stress and birth outcomes. As she went through her infertility journey, she interviewed women about their pregnancies and subsequent births. Although painful at times, she also felt it was cathartic to hear about the different ways people experience conception, pregnancy and birth. This made her a more empathetic researcher and better equipped her to understand what some of her participants experienced.

Here we share how we dealt with the challenges of infertility and academia.

A knack for research is a blessing and a curse

As researchers, we both felt that we could decide on treatment strategies and understand statistics without the input of fertility specialists. We read the literature, checked numbers, decided on our own plans and sometimes predicted outcomes.

As a relatively young person with unexplained infertility (that is, no identifiable cause), CM searched through medical studies for conditions that might explain her inability to sustain a pregnancy and to identify seemingly suitable treatments. Often she was devastated to learn that neither the condition nor the treatment applied to her, further fueling the uncertainty and anxiety of her reproductive journey. AB spent hours reading statistics and research articles on how biological and lifestyle profiles affect IVF success rates, and would have decided long before a cycle what her chances of success were.

This is what good researchers do: interpret data and draw rational, emotion-free conclusions. But it was not an emotion-free process. Research skills can help you feel some understanding and even control over the situation you’re in, but taking it too far can lead to disappointment when your ‘treatment plan’ turns out to be inappropriate. It’s important to remember that it’s okay to feel all of your emotions and to maintain trust in your doctors and their plan for your reproductive success.

Although reluctant, and unpleasant, you cultivate valuable skills in resilience

People with infertility are often left with many unanswered questions. There is a large literature base on how to deal with uncertain futures (we recommend the 2017 book Option B: Facing adversity, building resilience and finding joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant), but whatever strategy works for you, it’s helpful to remember that rejecting or accepting uncertainty has no bearing on what will ultimately happen.

We both also found that seeking professional counseling helped us gain perspective and focus less on our infertility and more on the other joys in our lives, including our careers and support networks. It helped us come to terms with the lives we were living, rather than the lives we thought we were going to live. For our academic careers, it was crucial to making research plans and pursuing opportunities for intellectual growth and career advancement. In our personal lives, this has given rise to greater optimism and gratitude for the experiences within reach. It also helped us deal with and even celebrate the reality of colleagues and friends getting pregnant.

Facing such challenges has helped us to cultivate resilience by actively accepting the uncertainty. Academia is a profession fraught with uncertainty. With the scarcity of permanent jobs and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector, many of us are either constantly looking for work or dealing with the stress of an uncertain future. Accepting uncertainty is grounding, and encourages us to have greater fluidity and adaptability to challenges and opportunities.

Your infertility does not define you, and neither does your job

Despite our diverse experiences, we both came to the conclusion that success can be defined in many ways. CM aspired to be one of the fantastic parents we see everywhere in academia: working tirelessly to juggle their academic career with the parent they want to be. When her future as a biological parent disappeared, she felt she had only her academic career left. For a while it was a good coping strategy: she threw herself into her work to feel like she excelled at one thing when the others failed her. But with the uncertainty and pressure of early career academia, she quickly learned that she must place weight on personal and professional achievements. She found balance in disarticulating her passion for research from a steady academic job, and pursuing personal goals put on hold during fertility treatments.

We both learned that we don’t have to define ourselves just by our fertility journeys and careers. Rather, ‘success’ can be defined collectively across the many facets of our lives, allowing us to change what it looks like as we encounter insurmountable obstacles.

Be gentle with yourself about the challenges you face and the ones you choose not to

Both of us had to give up funded fieldwork and conferences to undergo treatment, which was difficult to explain and justify to colleagues who did not know about our situations and who could not understand why we would want to miss these career opportunities. This added more pressure to an already difficult situation.

Going through such a struggle pushed us. This made us more innovative, identifying research questions and approaches that were meaningful to us that did not rely on fieldwork, and using technology to maintain our networks and conference presence. Sometimes we’ve decided not to attend events about childhood and motherhood because we’ve found them to be triggering, and that’s okay too.

By sharing our infertility stories, we hope to normalize the variety of choices academics can make for their research careers based on their personal health and well-being. Decisions related to the fieldwork, conferences, and research topics you choose to participate in must be made courageously and with your own best interests at heart, and the ability to do so should be at the heart of our academic freedom.

These lessons may do little to ease the pain of infertility, but we hope that they help people going through this struggle to become more resilient, more adaptable, and perhaps even a happier academic.

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