(Photo by Drazen Zigic/iStock by Getty Images)

“Fertility is not an episode or an expense, it’s an emotional journey.”

Sonia Millsom, the chief commercial officer at Maven, a virtual clinic for women’s and family health, weighed in on the emotional labor of the path to parenthood during a recent webinar hosted by From Day One called “Helping Your Employees Navigate the Fertility Journey.”

That the path to parenthood is a journey with no single map was the consensus during the conversation. Millsom and four other panelists discussed how HR professionals can inform and support prospective parents as they travel this life-changing journey, one that will take time and may unfold differently than expected.

“Your journey may deviate from what you planned, and what I see is a lot of couples have trouble accepting that,” said Jaime Knopman, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist and the director of fertility preservation at CCRM Fertility in New York City. “And sometimes we have trouble accepting that. We can quit, right? We can stop too early, or we can let it take us over.”

This is what can make the process so draining for prospective parents, which is something that employers should keep in mind when considering how to support team members taking this step.

“Forty percent of women that are going through their fertility journey struggle with anxiety and depression,” said Millsom. “And research actually shows that it’s the same level of anxiety and depression as those with cancer or heart disease. The physical side is doable. It’s hard, but it’s doable. The mental health side of things is really where you need the support and somebody to come help guide you through that.”

Panelists said one way employers and managers can support employees through this is by providing plenty of time off for things like doctor’s appointments, yes, but also for mental-health recovery days and medical emergencies. Considering that 10% to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, this kind of flexibility is essential. Also crucial is a culture that makes taking time away for such things normal.

Simply having access to financial resources doesn’t necessarily make the process of becoming a parent easier. It’s mentally and emotionally draining for all, regardless of income or wealth, said Jake Anderson-Bialis, co-founder of FertilityIQ, an educational platform for adoption, foster, surrogacy, and natural conception. “I’ve really never met a rich patient or a rich adoptive parent who says, ‘This process is no problem, I’ve got all the money in the world,’” he said. “Money won’t solve some of these issues. Great information, in our minds, is really important.”

Speaking on parenthood, top row from left: Marti Cruz of Warner Music Group and Jake Anderson-Bialis of FertilityIQ. Middle row, from left: Sonia Millsom of Maven Clinic, moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, and DeShaun Wise Porter of Hilton. Bottom row: Jaime Knopman, M.D., of CCRM Fertility (Image by From Day One)

Anderson-Bialis believes that “mental health goes hand-in-hand with education,” and emphasized the importance of understanding all of the options for becoming a parent–and all of the risks as well. Employers who connect workers with abundant educational resources can help equip prospective parents to make the best choices for their family. The good news is, education is usually the most affordable part to supply, he said. “Arming people with education–that’s dirt cheap.”

DeShaun Wise Porter, VP of diversity, inclusion and engagement at Hilton, said another way employers can mitigate this emotional and mental strain is by training empathetic leaders. “There are so many individuals that are facing it privately and publicly,” said Porter. “You need to have the proper support system, and so some of that needs to be coming from your leaders.” To do this, Hilton is training managers “to be all-inclusive leaders to make sure that they can lead a full person and allow them to bring their authentic selves to work, as opposed to focusing just on the performance piece.”

Empathetic leadership encourages more-open, less-stigmatized conversations about fertility, infertility, and family planning. Porter said this has evolution has been helped, in part, by the racial-justice movement sparked in 2020. “Corporations as a whole have had to take on a different life form in terms of what we are willing to talk about in the workplace over the past year. What we’re also now getting into is that space where individuals as well as leaders are willing to now engage in some of these conversations that have actually been so private, and the family-planning journey, the fertility journey, has become one of them.”

Knopman endorsed such candid conversations, saying, “You’re taking control of your destiny, you’re shaking your journey and your future, but I think if people don't talk about it, then they’re alone, and they sometimes go down negative pathways because there aren’t people around to support.”

However, Porter noted, employers shouldn’t expect to be able to have honest conversations about family planning if they haven’t already established their credibility in conversations on other challenging topics, including social issues. “Just deciding you’re going to talk about this, without that established foundation, it actually gets you nowhere and it can just cause greater dissension and distrust if it’s not handled with care,” she said.

Holistic care, panelists agreed, is required to support employees’ family-planning journeys. Marti Cruz, senior director of benefits at Warner Music Group, said that has been her goal. “It’s family planning,” Cruz said. “It’s not infertility, it’s not fertility, it’s to support you wherever you are in your life. That’s been our theme since we rolled it out–that this is a holistic program. It has nothing to do with medical issues or anything, it’s where you are in your life.”

An employer’s family-planning benefits package shouldn’t cover only procedures like IVF and fertility treatments and egg freezing, panelists agreed. It should include things like adoption assistance and surrogacy and education about all of the above, which is necessary to support same-sex couples and those who plan to have children by means other than the typical biological route.

Family planning is not necessarily about the immediate future, either, Cruz said. “It’s not necessarily about getting pregnant right now. We really wanted people to be educated on all of their options, getting treatment when and how they want, offering them the best in class.”

This includes connecting employees with the best and most comprehensive clinics and practices before employees choose a path to parenthood. Millsom said consistency of care from start to finish is important. “Have a partner that can help at the very beginning, or preconception fertility, and then carrying through maternity and all the way through delivery and postpartum,” she advised. That way, “you have consistency, not multiple solutions that are just kind of taking a slice of the journey. That’s really what drives the best outcomes–the ability to be comprehensive.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in Richmond, Va.