I have always been very career driven – keen to make my parents proud and to set a good example for other women in the workforce. I put off having children, because I felt I needed to be in a certain stage of my career before I could even afford to think about starting a family. I loved my job and achieved some great successes which I’m still incredibly proud of.
When I hit 30 my maternal hormones kicked in – I was more than ready to have children. However as cycles went by and aunt flo reared her ugly head month after month, year after year, I suddenly began to question whether I’d ever become Mum. I had a great support network both in friend and family, and also in the virtual world of Twitter. I’d describe it as a real emotional roller-coaster and a truly life affirming experience – knowing how lucky I was to have great successes in my working life and more importantly to be surrounded by such great family and friends. However as time went on, I knew more than ever that my biggest ambition and greatest achievement would be to become Mum.
Five years went by, and despite the roller coaster I still gave my job my all – I was promoted twice within a great organisation that I truly loved working for. However, by the very nature of the work, I was surrounded by lots of ladies who were the same age as me who seemed to be having child after child. There even used to be a running joke about my team and that there must be something about the seats we were sitting on (I so longed for that to be true). On one team night out, my own department head used to make sure we’d have a large glass of wine so that he felt reassured he wasn’t going to lose another staff member to maternity leave. I was always the one he could rely on to have a glass of wine. I began to feel like one of those stop motion videos, where I was standing still in the centre and colleague after colleague around me fell pregnant and got to move onto that next stage in their life.
By this point, my husband and I had started seeing fertility specialists at the wonderful local NHS clinic. We learned that the likely reason we weren’t falling pregnant was because I had low AMH, which effectively means a low egg count. We were accepted for IVF, but told we had to wait another two years. I realised then that I needed to channel my energies into another career challenge while we waited.
A job came up for a fantastic organisation working with children. It was a step up and given the nature of those who I’d be helping, I almost thought it was meant to be. And for a while it seemed so, I interviewed successfully and was offered the job. It was a great salary too, but it was more important to me to be making a positive difference for children. When I started, I was informed that it was a change management role, that would require a new way of working for the team I was managing – I relished the thought of making my own stamp and really making a difference for those in need. There were some real long-term issues of under performance, which hadn’t ever been addressed before and so I would need to handle these separately. It was a tough challenge and there was some real internal politics to overcome, but seemed the perfect way to channel my energies. Initially the senior management team were delighted with my strategic approach and it was acknowledged that the team started to make some great achievements. I’m still very proud of the achievements my team made and that I made as an individual in that role. However, it was draining and ultimately led to me reaching my lowest ever ebb.
Due to various factors, at one point delivering three full-time roles myself and still expected to achieve the same results. My manager acknowledged she knew I was working very hard and took on one or two things herself, adding that she would look to do more if I needed her to. It was all very well to say this, but another thing in practice. The real challenge was that, while she was responsible for my department, she was not experienced in the discipline we were delivering, so it was impossible for her to take on certain tasks.
I had another business director take me aside to confidentially let me know that they thought the expectations that the senior management team had of my team were unrealistic. He added that he’d tried to manage their expectations, but was unsuccessful. He wanted to let me know this so I knew I had a sympathetic ear, but also to be careful not to beat myself up to much when the team wasn’t meeting some of the expectations.
I worked incredibly long hours and took work home to ensure the team was still achieving its goals and making a positive difference for those who needed our support. For a time this was acknowledged by my manager, but things changed when I learned that the IVF waiting list was shorter than had been expected and that we were to begin our first cycle.
I felt the need to tell my manager about the IVF. At first she seemed incredibly empathetic and supportive, telling me if I needed her support through the treatment process to let her know. She had to go on a few weeks holiday just as I was beginning the cycle, but told me to speak to the CEO or Deputy CEO while she was away if I felt things were getting too much – both in terms of workload and health. I was taking a couple of weeks holiday at the end of my cycle, but there would be no overlap time with my manager to do a in-person handover, so she asked me just to give her it in note form via email.
In that two weeks, things intensified at work. We had absolutely no capacity to take on any additional projects, however when I tried to turn down a project that would be very time intensive and would not make a great impact for the organisation, I was called into the office by the Deputy CEO and told to get on with it. I tried to explain that the team did not have the capacity or the skills needed to deliver what was expected, but I was told that I needed to stop saying we couldn’t deliver it and to find a way of making it happen. I should add that in every other role I have worked in, I developed a reputation for having a real can-do attitude, and that often I was encouraged to say “no” more, but not in this role. It was clear that I was not going to have the support I needed from either a work output or personal health perspective.
I found a way to achieve the ask and as predicted it made very little impact and instead had a detrimental knock on effect on other influential projects that would have achieved a greater impact. I could not achieve everything before I went on my holiday, so had to write in my handover notes the areas which needed addressed. There was one particular project that I asked my manager to follow up on, knowing deadlines were looming shortly after I would return from my break. A fellow manager had also been aware of the pressure I was under and offered to let my own manager know about this, and that she too felt I needed some more support.
In that two weeks break, my first round of IVF failed. I didn’t even have any frozen embryos to try with. I was devastated. I really needed that holiday. I notified my manager it had failed, so she was aware.
On return to work, I was called into an office by my manager. She hadn’t picked up the imminent deadline I had referenced to her and there had been an issue with the project. She made no supportive gesture towards how I might be feeling at that time and offered no empathetic ear for how overwhelmed I was feeling in work. Instead she started telling me how disappointed she was about the project and felt I had let the team down. She continued to say that due to this incident she had considered putting me on a formal disciplinary procedure for performance improvement. I questioned if there had been anything else that had made her think of doing this, and she said not which is why she had decided against it. She had been delighted with my work prior to this, so it was a bolt out the blue for me. She told me that the entire senior management team were really disappointed in me for this incident, and as you can imagine, having experienced the devastation of the failed IVF together with the overwhelming workload and a desire to the best I can in every role, I broke down. There was no offer of support, instead she told me if I was to do another round of IVF, I would need to consider if I could continue the role. I felt like a failure.
As it happens, the issue with the project is not something that could have been resolved even if I had dealt with it sooner. This was acknowledged by others concerned. I also learned that she hadn’t discussed it with all senior managers and I found a supportive ear in the director I previously mentioned who was alarmed to hear that she’d even suggested this.
However it was too late – I had taken my manager’s words to heart and was truly at my lowest ebb. But thanks to the great support of my family and friends – and particularly an inspirational former manager – I took the huge decision just to leave the role and set up my own business. It seems dramatic, but it was the best move I ever made. It was the first time I began to realise that the expression “taking a weight off your shoulders” was physically true.
I worked my three month’s notice, continuing to drive forward the team. I also had advice from some experts that I should have challenged the organisation for constructive dismissal, however I chose not to for two reasons a) as a whole they do amazing work for children and I didn’t want to take away from that; and b) I knew at this point I did not need the stress in my own life. Instead I gave very clear feedback in my exit interview and received an apology from my manager. She said she had perhaps been a bit strong in her disciplinary conversation and that she hadn’t meant for me to leave, but instead was meaning I should consider unpaid leave for IVF. She said she should have given me more support in some of the challenges. She added that if she had known that she was the reason for me leaving, she would have tried to stop me as she was delighted with my achievements in the role – confirming there was nothing before or after that one incident that gave her cause for concern. I can only hope that she has sincerely learned from this experience and it has benefited other individuals (though since leaving I have learned that I was the longest standing manager in that role for about 4 years prior and that no-one has lasted longer than that since (males and females)).
Most importantly, one month after I left I went through round two of IVF and my body responded in a dramatically different way. I am now an award winning mumpreneur with two beautiful miracle children. It was financially tough going through a mat leave with no maternity pay and on occasion I did resent my manager for forcing me into this decision, but then I have taken a step back and realised it has been one of the happiest times of my life.