Several years ago, in the lobby of my therapist’s office, I saw a magazine with a cover story talking about women “having it all” (or something similar). This may have been in the wake of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” or it may have been after Hillary Clinton won the democratic nomination for president, but whichever incredibly successful woman inspired the magazine article, it seriously pissed me off. I remember taking a picture of the cover and starting my session off in a terrible rant about the unrealistic expectations placed on women. I’m guessing the article (I didn’t read it) talked about home life and work life and not having to choose. Much has been written about this and I don’t want to rehash the debate other than to say that I read “Lean In,” and while I thoroughly enjoyed it and discussed it with many colleagues, both male and female, I agree with what Michelle Obama said during the Brooklyn stop of her “Becoming” tour – that leaning in doesn’t always work – we can’t have it all, at least not at the same time.
In the throes of recurrent miscarriage, I couldn’t lean in at work and at home. It proved impossible to maintain my pre-miscarriage level of commitment to my job. I had too many balls in the air and not enough time to manage my feelings. My efforts to juggle everything at once ended with me in total burnout, curled in the fetal position in my shower, sobbing.
I have always expected big things from myself, and I have usually been successful in achieving them. Therefore, I expected to be able to overcome my infertility by simply applying the same focus and tenacity I used to tackle problems at work; and I expected to do it without sacrificing my professional dedication or compromising my career progression. But often unconsciously, and occasionally unexpectedly, my career ended up taking a backseat to family planning. Sometimes it was for little things like needing leave early or come in late due to doctors’ appointments. Other times it was for big things like missing key strategic meetings with affiliates because their office was in a Zika zone.
These choices were completely understandable. The problem was that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing why I was making them. I was ashamed of my miscarriages and terrified of showing signs of grief in the workplace. My work persona was strong and confident – a responsible, engaged, go-getter – and I was afraid my colleagues and management would view me differently if they glimpsed any vulnerability. So, I put on a mask of stoicism and pushed through. The weekend after my first D&C I got on a plane to Japan for a two-week business trip. In the hours after I learned my 4th pregnancy was not progressing, I flew to Germany to see a supplier. And the morning I started bleeding during my 5th pregnancy, I drove from Chicago to Milwaukee to lead a half-day business meeting.
In retrospect, it’s almost laughable that I didn’t anticipate an eventual collapse. But I was so focused on maintaining control, I didn’t couldn’t heed my own warning signals.
After the half-day meeting in Milwaukee, I went into my supervisor’s office intending to tell him, very calmly, what I was dealing with. Instead, I burst into hysterical, uncontrolled sobbing. He was dumbfounded and probably frightened. I was mortified. One of the best ways to avoid burnout is to turn to other people to ask for help. Had I been more willing to share the news of my current pregnancy and history with him earlier, he would have understood my reaction and probably given me the option of not attending the meeting in the first place. By staying silent, I never gave my employer or supervisors the opportunity to give me the support I needed.
Burnout is “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” This article explains it well. It’s hard for me to determine whether work stress or miscarriage grief contributed more, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. My miscarriages made me feel like a failure, and suspicions of insufficiency crept into my work. My role was demanding, and my fertility treatments were overwhelming, so I was emotionally and physically drained and lacked energy to engage in activities that might have filled me back up. My deep sadness over not having a child made it difficult for me to find meaning in my job. Top it off with perfectionist tendencies and facing the stark reality that I was not in control, and it was a recipe for disaster.
If I could go back in time and talk to my former self, I would ask her to slow down and give herself the space to feel. The suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “The woman is uniformly sacrificed to the wife and mother.” I sacrificed myself trying to become a mother. I became an unmotivated, dispassionate, depressed version of myself that I neither liked nor recognized.
My husband and I stopped trying to build our family naturally last March. This released some of the day to day pressure of treatments, but my feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness were too deeply rooted, and in November of last year I resigned. It was undoubtedly one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life. It felt like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. I felt like failure and a quitter. I feared I would go broke. I worried I’d never get rehired. But when I finally did it, my body exhaled. I held so many things so tightly for so long. When I let go, it was as if I jumped into the Frou Frou song of the same name: “It’s so amazing here. It’s alright. ‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown.” The release lives in my memory and my muscles. Even as I type this, I can feel my breathing slow, and my shoulders drop.
It’s been six months, and I’m slowly recovering. The first month, I didn’t do much of anything. It was December; I decorated the house and watched Christmas specials on Netflix. In January I went home to visit my family. In February I started this blog, which has been a cathartic exercise that’s helped me process my feelings, spark humor, and practice creativity. In March, I formally launched Recurrent Pregnancy Loss Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating recurrent pregnancy loss through the advancement of research into causes and treatments; to providing support and resources to those affected; and to increasing awareness of the impact of miscarriage and fertility challenges on women and families. This month I started to draw again – something I used to do endlessly as a kid. I got out pencils and watercolor paints and created something for just myself, just for the fun of it.
During these months “off,” I’ve remembered that I have passion and capabilities. But I’ve also observed that my productivity naturally comes in fits and starts, so I prefer flexibility to rigid schedules. I’ve recognized that that being properly rested makes me an entirely different person, and now I prioritize sleep. I’ve noticed how much being outdoors rejuvenates me, and make sure to get outside with my dog each day. I’m slowly coming back to myself. By letting all my balls drop, I was able to choose which ones to pick back up – my personal relationships and my mental and physical health, for example. I may never return to full-time work in my previous field, and I probably will never restart infertility treatments; but I’m trying to ensure that the choice is deliberate. I still have more self-work to do, but for the first time in a while, I finally feel like I have the energy to do it.
[I recognize that not everybody is able to leave their job; and I wouldn’t have chosen the circumstances surrounding my departure. So, I feel compelled to mention that it might have been possible for me to stop my burnout from getting as bad as it did. I was not practicing self-care – I wasn’t exercising, or getting enough sleep, or sharing my feelings with a supportive community of friends or colleagues. I didn’t ask for help early enough and I also didn’t take advantage of paid sick leave or benefits like FLMA to manage my health. I encourage others to do as I say, not as I do.]