The Respectful Conversation

Ah, Australia! Land of Kylie and Jason, home of the tim tam, the sweet, sweet Down Under has given us many gifts: the flat white, Bondi Rescue, Nats What I Reckon, Natalie Imbruglia (who BTW had her son at 45 with IVF and a sperm donor) Neighbours, the Great Barrier Reef, Alf Stewart’s “you flaming gallah”; but perhaps none greater than its exacting command of the English language.

Working late in the London office of our Australian company the pressure was on and E numbers high. A key piece of work, due for submission in less than 24 hours, had barely made its way out of the early learning centre. Those of us tasked with remedying this clusterfuck were rapidly calculating how much of the night it would take to glam squad this particular turd. The clock was ticking, pizza had been ordered, the business urgency understood. Tempers were beginning to fray as the magnitude of the task became clear. Valli and Josh, two of my Antipodean colleagues, agreed the situation was a bona fide FUBAR* (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition). Valli, razor sharp with a personal dictionary that took the best of Townsville, Queensland mashed up with London via zero fucks, observed that senior management were going to “cut sick” and it was down to everyone to pull together tout suite to sort it: “We’re not here to fuck spiders.”

HR klaxon in Sydney HQ! What was this gloriously professional phrase and what did it actually mean? The Aussies pondered; the Brits wondered. Amongst the head down, rapid fire work rehab going on, none of us were entirely sure. What was obvious was that WNHTFS was a keeper, to be rolled out in the most critical of scenarios. A quick straw poll saw us concurring that a) fucking spiders would be difficult b) maybe they found it difficult c) wasn’t it the female spider who ate the male? d) right now, nobody was up for it. Surely this had to be the Aussie equivalent or higher of a JFDI, a standard industry term? Whatever it was, it was a gem, its potency to be respected. Given we were heading for an extremely late one with the need for everyone to stay on point until the finish line, it was promptly decided to launch this on the team at large – because nothing engenders team motivation quite like a slice of lukewarm pizza, a director quoting Roman war generals and copulating arachnids.

I sat at my hot desk, head buried in several thousand words to rewrite and edit. To add to the hell going on around me, I had slipped out for an hour earlier to visit our consultant at the fertility clinic. The conversation we had, down in the theatres where she kindly saw me free of charge, had left me reeling. One of my best friends had died a few weeks previously.  No words could have done justice to the sort of alternative emotional universe my head and heart were now occupying. I had briefed my husband outside of work before steeling myself to go back into what was shaping up to be the graveyard shift. Despite copious practice over the last few years, I still could not get over the hand life was dealing and working late was turning out to be some sort of ironic respite; let’s face it, having to work most of the night was marginally less shit than grieving over motherhood, so I took it. My hand was in and out of the cake and cookie selection (pre Covid people, keep calm!) one of our rugby loving colleagues had brought in to keep morale afloat: (“they’re from my new girlfriend actually. We’ve only been going out for a month and she’s sending me cake….bit weird.”) while inside I languished in mind churning fertility shock. It’s like bloody Jumanji: each time the game moves on a level, you’re in a whole heap of pain trying to keep up.

Josh and Max knew I had had an appointment. They knew where I had gone. We had all worked closely for months now, and tonight they gave me the greatest gift they could have done: they looked at me, a nervy b a matter of seconds away, and just didn’t ask. Max provided updates on how Operation Pet Cat was going at home (we all knew a pet was coming and he was on the losing end of it); Josh kept his commentary on the emerging work crisis dry and understated, instead quite rightly focusing on his basement flat being drowned in raw sewage and his upcoming wedding down under. We had taken the opportunity to launch an illegal 6pm coffee raid on our favourite kiwi run coffee spot – as Josho always says, the time is never to have a decaf – and the lie of the emotional land had been taken. Going down the stairs to the ground floor, the two of them taking the usual piss that I wouldn’t use the glass lift even with them to block the view, they read me and the subtext perfectly. Tonight, for many reasons, was not the night.

Weeks earlier, they had watched me go through our final attempt at fertility treatment. We had talked through office politics and work strategy including what I was doing to myself and why, how progesterone was likely to send me thick as shit, how I was feeling on a regular basis, who was best placed to cover who if I couldn’t cope. Max had not let up over recent months in making me go for a walk at lunch time in the park despite my finest carping, and I had at that point probably even tested Josh’s infinite patience with my inability to IT and format. I was 39. Josh was 29 and about to become a husband. Max was 28 and about to, Josh and I reckoned, pop the question. They were at a time in their lives where infertility and miscarriage should not even have (hopefully) registered and yet here they were, asking the difficult questions, checking in with me, their concern rolled up in boy friendly packaging of office banter and caffeine. (On my first day back at work after my sabbatical, Max had invited me to lunch and asked what I’d been doing with my year and a half off. Had we been travelling?  Had I been on maternity leave? It’s not every day that a new colleague adds miscarriage to the lunch time agenda and Max took it impressively in his stride, including showing genuine horror when I told him that on my first morning back I’d been sent a company email congratulating me on becoming a parent and explaining where the breast feeding facilities were, WHAT THE FUCK emoticon).

Our friendship grew to the point where on two or three occasions, when grief didn’t pick the best time and place, I wept all over them.  Having that sort of emotional outburst at work was less than ideal and yet here they – and others – were, able to sit with me, give me a hug, no embarrassment, no trying to brush over it; a willingness to acknowledge my pain, find something to make me laugh and bring me back gently to the workplace.

I am clear that what helped me get back to work and a sense of normality after repeated grief and trauma (with the positive side effect of being able to perform and actually keep my job) was being open with my colleagues, many of whom have become good friends. Valli was always on hand to discuss the joys and traumas of “Mrs JuJu” and “Mrs Mufti” (the consummate womb professionals!), suggesting we go and be “Bond villains” (pep talks on a sofa at the far end of our break out area) backed up by gin and tonic, eye bag expertise and her rapid ability to point out when someone needed to “go suck a bag of dicks”. Her whole essence, her ability to roll with life’s shit and still be as positive, dynamic and hilarious as she is leaves me in awe. In a twist of industry, she has also worked with my husband and was able to read between the lines on numerous occasions with a deftness that belied our mutual high brow, HR alarm bell banter. Josh became one of my all time favourite people to work with. Dry as a bone, apparently an introvert (he pointed this out to me some time into our friendship, I hadn’t noticed), his self-possession and ability to be great at his job and one of the team, we hit it off over banter, our love of coffee and no doubt some very poor Bondi Rescue chat from me. Liam took his resemblance to Peaky Blinders’ Tommy Shelby aka Cillian Murphy, and our resultant teasing, very well indeed. Despite being extremely quiet, “K, thanks, bye” we bonded over our love of chocolate and, I’m sure, my insistence months ahead of time that in honour of our birthdays being so close together, we would cut the difference (32 and 40) and get a 30th Konditor and Cook birthday cake – another senseless victim of the global pandemic. Underneath our mutual chatting shit, Liam revealed a surprising sensitivity and understanding about infertility, particularly when he had to mop up the pieces after a colleague – who knew my back story – brought his baby son into the workplace and without warning literally put him in my face. All credit to Liam for assessing that, and other unfolding without sensitivity situations and taking me aside to a bitching booth, listening to me gulp. Max guided my first few pieces of work, understanding but also probably not quite understanding how I could be so useless after a year and a half off: “Max where do I save things? How do I write again?” He introduced me to the concept of a word salad, kept his cool when I was at peak basic and knew when to remove me for a peppermint tea. I joked that as a Scorpio Max wasn’t afraid to bite back, and true to form after I’d got on his tits about a piece of work, he told me to “do whatever you want babe” much to our hilarity; it had been years since I’d scored that sort of compliment. Puja joined the crew on a major project and brought her calmness, clarity and humour to weeks of early morning, late night and weekend working. At a time when I felt rather raw and we were seeing work family more than our actual, hearing Puja’s measured, clear take on everything from work to trying was and still is a tonic. And Katie; well Katie is another lady for another blog, but without whom I could not have navigated any of this.

Lots of ladies I have spoken with who have undergone IVF and / or experienced baby loss say they have not been sure how much to tell work and indeed, whether to say anything at all. A good friend chose to say absolutely nothing at work while going through round after round of (eventually successful) IVF. A colleague and lovely lady surprised me on our women’s only Empower course by admitting she too had lost her first baby at 12 weeks and was in an identically shitty boat: “I just want to say I think you’re so brave for talking about all of this.” I thought she was the brave one, performing at work and not crying like I did on several semi public occasions. Like undertaking repeated fertility treatment and good old fashioned adulting, I had royally underestimated going back to work. My mind was simply not in the game. Our staff canteen was where Katie and I had munched for Britain in our early pregnancies. It was bittersweet to be back in an environment in which I had last been pregnant three years ago before being seconded to my client. It was like I had had the most perverse sort of non-maternity leave. God knows I felt similarly exhausted: I couldn’t remember how to do my job and how to talk to people with my previous humour. Colleagues who didn’t know asked me how many children I had before awkwardly apologising for bringing up something that up to that minute they had no idea ‘that’ could be the answer. In the first few months there was no option to go all Sheryl Sandberg: leaning in for me would have been tantamount to toppling over.

They say you bring your whole self to work. I don’t think in the first six months I even brought that. It took time, friendship and encouragement from some extraordinary individuals, not all of whom mentioned here, that helped me regain my confidence. The blunt boss who sat me down and said, in an unexpected departure from his work persona, “Whichever way this turns out, baby or no baby, it will be alright.” My new (male) boss and (male) line manager stepping up to the plate; backing me at work, supporting our final round, whether that was sitting down face to face or responding to womb TMI on a specially created (their idea) Whatsapp group. I was fortunate. I had colleagues who could see the impact that infertility and miscarriage had and who cared. Sometimes the very act of going into work, seeing people, the banter, the coffee, the shared objectives, was enough to keep me going. I think it’s called life goes on and for those in Maybehood, some days it can feel like it’s all we’ve got.

A week after we agreed we weren’t here to fuck spiders, an email came out from the MD requesting that colleagues in the office make an effort to engage in “respectful conversations”.  It appeared this slightly bizarre directive was not referring to the organisation’s recent installation of Microsoft Teams and the necessity to hit mute before one started a NSFW rant; it was, Valli confirmed, indirectly directly referring to us.  The spiders had pressed the alarm.  Little did they realise that our team’s personal willingness to break the silence, organically tackling the taboo that still surrounds infertility and miscarriage; their very acknowledgement of babyloss and all its wider ramifications was about the most respectful conversation you could possibly have.

For the Dream Team. You know who you are! x

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