Trigger warnings for discussions of childlessness, infertility, brief mention of miscarriage and endometriosis rates.
It’s late and I find myself staring out the window of a too-high-up floor flat in Manchester while the rain comes down relentlessly outside. So, I settle down to read while my sodden shoes and umbrella pool in the corner. This afternoon is destined to be lived indoors.
I hit page 64 in Harper’s Bazaar, the May 2023 issue of a magazine I have never read before, but turned to after storming through two issues of Vogue in a week. Upon this spread of pages is a report titled, ‘Conspiracy of Silence: From menopause to miscarriage, conversations about women’s health have been stifled for too long. Frances Hedges meets some of the campaigners advocating for change.’ Specifically, the report focuses on where the discussion is decidedly lacking in the workplace around these issues and I found it to intersect rather aptly with a topic that recently has taken up a large amount of my focus, childlessness.
Hedges’ article is rooted around research, reports, and campaigning that highlights how women’s health is typically overlooked, including one initiatied by Caroline Nokes MP, who delivered one of our recent events through the Women’s Network, the cross-party report on menopause and the workplace.
It also featured the Ginsberg Women’s Health Board – founded by Nimco Ali, Mika Simmons, and Geeta Nargund. Ginsberg wants to build a “culture of transparency” so these issues can be discussed. “These issues” extend to matters of endometriosis and miscarriage. One in 10 women suffer from endometriosis and yet it takes, on average, eight to ten GP appointments to be correctly diagnosed. Ginsberg’s latest campaign is aimed at supporting those who go through miscarriage, the outcome of one in four pregnancies, and who often have to use holiday leave to grieve. In cases where people do not have adequate time to grieve, they are “’forced to continue working as normal, which contributed to a “suffer in silence” culture.’”
I put down the magazine and resumed staring down the long street outside. I know outside there are the sounds of traffic horns, rain turning umbrellas into instruments of percussion as it drums down everywhere, people laughing loudly while their footsteps thunder against the road as they head for cover. But I hear none of it with the windows closed. When it comes to discussing the uncomfortable, we shut the windows of awareness to the reality on the other side, but that doesn’t stop it raining or cars from almost colliding, or people laughing as their clothes are soaked through. It just anaesthetises the experience. In the case of childlessness, the impacts of scoping it out of the realm of ‘acceptable’ and into the landscape of ‘taboo’ can be disastrous for those people who are experiencing these things and trying to come to work without the support they need. Though they may be inside the building, their needs cannot be heard through the metaphorical window.
We are fortunate at Reading to have a Women’s Network that hosts Women’s Health Cafés monthly (the next one is today, the 3rd May and the following one is on the 7th June). However, we are in much earlier stages when it comes to discussing the somewhat more taboo topics of being childless not by choice (cnbc), infertility, and disenfranchised grief. These are complex issues that can impact anyone of a range of genders, ethnicities, ages, abilities, and sexualities.
As mentioned by Heather Girling in her blog about being childless not by choice, the vast majority of people are childless by circumstance, not through choice. People who are childless, not by choice, may be so because of lack of opportunity, resource, or due to medical reasons. You may also hear this referred to as involuntary or circumstantial childlessness.
Childlessness was not a topic that I had previously come across before at work until I watched a webinar through the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (enei). I was moved so deeply by the speaker’s story and the thought that people may be suffering every time someone made an assumption that they had children in a Teams meeting, or a child was brought into the office unexpectedly, or if they had to fill out a return to work form and tick the ‘pregnancy’ box as their reason for absence when they had just lost theirs, that I decided to contact other universities in the United Kingdom who have networks and support groups for people who are childless not by choice. I am so grateful for their knowledge, advice, time, and willingness to share.
The point of this post is to start opening up some space to talk about and give voice to these overlooked and underdiscussed topics at work and to recognise and legitimise the very real cycles of hope and grief that can accompany coming to terms with being childless.
“Disenfranchised grief, also known as hidden grief or sorrow refers to any grief that goes unacknowledged or unvalidated by social norms. This kind of grief is often minimised or not understood by others, which makes it particularly hard to process and work through.” Heather Girling, 2021.
Socially, grieving a loss of fertility is not seen as legitimate because what has been lost or what is being grieved cannot be seen. Not being able to appropriately grieve will, inevitably, impact people in their everyday lives, including when they are at work. With one in seven couples experiencing infertility, which is one of many reasons that someone may be childless, it becomes important to start opening up space to discuss (in)fertility as well as complex fertility journeys and circumstantial childlessness at work for those who wish to talk about it. Only then will we start to generate a culture of transparency and break the conspiracy of silence.
To find out more about why fertility matters at work, The Henley Partnership are running a webinar discussing “the many routes to parenthood, explaining what infertility is and why people need fertility treatment and how common it is…[including] routes to parenthood for the LGBTQ+ community, including discussions around surrogacy, adoption and solo parenthood.” The webinar is on the 11th May at 11:00 – 12:30 GMT.
If you feel you are in need of external confidential support, you can make use of the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). The University of Bath’s blog post provides really simple Dos and Don’ts when conversing with colleagues who do wish to discuss childlessness in the workplace. And, as always, my virtual door is always open should you wish to talk about childlessness in the workplace, if you have questions, or if you want to know where you can access support.
Best and be well,
Ceara, your Diversity and Inclusion Advisor.