Two months ago, I returned to work after taking Adoption Leave. I thought my main dilemma would be navigating working and childcare. As it turns out its been a very emotional journey of reflection.
I wasn't looking forward to going back, I was worried about the logistics, childcare and my children being ok with the changes, its something they struggle with. Deep down, I was also filled with dread.
My relationship with work is closely entwined with decades of heartache. Work has been the backdrop to all the most difficult moments in my life. None moreso than my fight for motherhood. The link between them is so tight, that work has felt like a silent partner on my journey. A partner I wasn’t keen to see again.
Being at work through infertility, recurrent babyloss and the adoption process was gruelling. It also seemed to be a place with unnaturally high pregnancy rates around me. I guess because most of our working years are our fertile years. Pregnancy announcements; bumps; collections; baby showers all led to tears in the toilets and so much shame that I couldn't just be happy for everyone else, why was I crying? I stayed quiet, kept my head down and focused on what I needed to do during the day, using all my energy to be 'ok', when every evening I was having to scrape myself up off the floor to fight on.
My whole life was a build up to motherhood. A promise of a future with a crescendo of my family at the end. My every career move, or non-move, focused on this future. Safety first was my motto, progression or enjoyment came in as secondary considerations. Its difficult to plan when you are trying to get pregnant. Your life becomes pockets of time, of enthusiastic ‘this month is the month’ to hopeful ‘might-be’ to devastated ‘am-not’. Following loss, you have the added pocket of, ‘will this one make it?’ But these are not things you can bring up honestly in a development 121. You can’t sign up for a training course if you will need to be having daily scans ahead of an egg-retrieval. You can’t look for another job when you know you are pregnant. But then the cycle fails, or you lose your baby, you are then in the pits of grief and not really in the right place to be hunting down a promotion.
I stagnated and this started to impact my confidence at work, together with the shame I felt, at failing something everyone else seemed to be managing. I became a shell of the person I was and maintaining an air of nonchalance cost me my mental health.
The commute was a different story. On the journey in, my mind was like a pre-match coach, gearing me up for the day, carefully choosing songs to listen to which didn’t trigger me. Avoiding looking around me for what I might see. The journey home, my guard came down and it took the final reserves of energy to not fall apart. Some days, it wasn’t enough. When the infamous “Baby on board” badge came close, or I spotted or heard a baby, a sound which tears at your soul when you’ve just lost your own. Travelling to and from work became my very own personal torture.
I could feel the tightening in my chest at the thought of returning to the office. Working from home before I left on Adoption Leave had allowed me to not need to muster such gargantuan effort to put on my 'office face'. For years holding it together was all I had the energy for. Some days taking the stairs instead of the lift, to give me just a bit longer to catch my breath, before smiley Nicole resumed her performance. Then the journey home, my façade would crumble. I was that person, pretending not to be wiping away a tear on a busy commuter train, whilst my pain just kept escaping through my eyes.
Adoption is not a cure for infertility, it’s a choice. The two do not cancel one another out. The decision to move away from carrying a child is a painful one, it’s a huge loss. Yet another disenfranchised grief on this journey. The process to adopt is an emotional rollercoaster, similar to fertility treatments. There are so many unknowns, you cannot plan. Once you are approved as an adopter you then need to be matched with the right child or children. This is dependent on so many external factors you have absolutely no power over. This matching can happen really quickly or take years, again making planning anything close to impossible. The heartache of remaining childless in that time also does not lose its intensity.
The matching process is painful, as you look through profiles of strangers, you feel that perhaps no child will ever feel right. Will that ever feel different? And then it does, you see a profile of a child and something clicks. They are yours. Then you learn a little about what they have been through and the lasting emotional; physical and developmental impacts this may have caused. Self-doubt creeps in. This wasn’t what I had dreamed motherhood would be. Can I? Should I? What if I can’t?
Adoption is something everyone knows exists but very few really understand. It only directly impacts so few families. Only 2,950 children were adopted in the UK in 2022.
Many didn’t understand why I’d need a whole year off, since I didn’t have a newborn and had nothing to physically recover from.
Adopted children are traumatised children. Every single grown up they knew, home they lived in, routine (or lack of) they were familiar with has changed. Sometimes several times.
There is no trust, you have to earn it.
There is no love, you have to build it.
There is no sense of permanence, this is something only time, consistency and routine can provide.
Mummy and daddy were words which had belonged to others. They are a name to call you, but they have no meaning.
People are not the same with an adoptive mum, or certainly the people around me. I knew we were matched with our children 2 weeks before starting Adoption Leave. I didn’t have excited conversations about my upcoming motherhood, because at no point was this a certainty. No discussing symptoms, scans or nursery preparations, there was not even a congratulations card. Because I didn’t carry my baby? Because my motherhood isn’t worthy of being celebrated? Because there is discomfort around infertility? They don’t sound like much, but they are rights of passage into parenthood I have watched everyone else have the privilege of.
Even outside work, one of the first interactions I had as a new mum outside the school gate was with a lady who started coming over to stand with me every morning and chatting. Very early on, the subject of breastfeeding came up and she asked what I’d done. I replied my girls are adopted. The next morning she did not come to stand next to me. Coincidence maybe? Perhaps she'd done enough to befriend the new mum in town, but I couldn't help but feel this was because I’m not a ‘real’ member of the mum club.
My children moved in one year ago, but we are still in the process of becoming. Their grief over leaving their foster family has weighed heavily during our first year. As a new mum it is hard to deal with your child’s grief because they have moved in with you. Strangers.
We are also still facing unknowns, legally we have yet to have our Adoption Order granted. The uncertainty of this means none of us have really relaxed into just being a family yet. We still have regular contact with Social Services and visits from Social Workers, we still have to tick boxes and all too often I am treated like a foster carer, not my children’s mum.
Infertility, childlessness and trying desperately to create a family are life-impacting. If we want people to bring their whole selves to work, if we want people to succeed and feel empowered at work, then we need to be willing to see and support a whole person.
1 in 7 couples in the UK struggle with infertility. IVF is an extra push but not a cure. Many walk away from treatment without a baby. Whether you then chose to continue pursuing motherhood by other means or decide its time to stop, your heart WILL break.
1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. It. Is. Devastating.
The trauma of years of infertility and of losing my seven babies is something I still carry.
I am lucky that my team at work have been incredibly supportive and I am able to work flexibly which has removed a lot of my worries about navigating childcare, but also, indirectly helps me manage my trauma and grief. But how much easier would this journey have been, had I felt able to be honest about what I was going through. How much less splintered would my relationship with my career be if I’d have felt protected by policies. If I hadn’t had to use sick leave or sneak out at lunch for fertility appointments. How much easier would my grief have been to bear if I had had time to process my losses.
Infertility, baby loss and creating a family are work issues, whether its recognised or not. All organisations will have colleagues going through this and their daily lives will be impacted. The less they have to pretend its not, the more energy they will have to be fully present.
My relationship with work is something I need to rebuild. Although it often felt like the enemy it did also provide me with the only thing I could rely on for a long time, somewhere I could hide from my personal life for a while. I suspect thats why I loved being busy and often found myself volunteering for side-of-the-desk projects. Unfortunately my personal life more often than not followed me there. I still struggle on the commute and I suspect traumatic memories will remain for some time yet, however, I feel like I am ready for more from work. I want more from work now. I have more of me available to invest in it.
For so long motherhood felt out of reach, now I'm a working mum. Its such a pleasure to be included in this group which escaped me for so long.