Power of the Parent 3: S5 Ep3: Jennifer Elworthy – Fertility and Career Coach
Jennifer is a career and fertility coach, after going through her own personal experiences of recurrent miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy and fertility treatment in the workplace, she knew there was more support that needed to be offered.
Her employed career saw Jennifer navigating the world of marketing, working with a few familiar brands including BBC, ITV and News UK. Jennifer consults for media, tech and fertility companies on brand and marketing strategy alongside her pioneering work to support women navigating how to blend fertility issues and treatment with their career.
In this episode I heard a phrase that will never leave me – ‘we coach from the scar, not the wound’. Oh I wish I’d have had a mic to pass to Jennifer so she could have dropped it! We also talked about how important language is (and Jennifer shared one of her personal pet hates), the impact on timing when it comes to coaching people going through fertility challenges and the boundaries she holds.
Jennifer also generously shared her tips for workplaces – policies get a mention, but so does the importance of generally being a good person and listener too. There’s a question all line managers can ask thrown in for good measure too.
What I loved about this chat (and hope you will too) was Jennifer’s own personal story alongside what it means to support people who want to become a parent whilst juggling the workplace.
You can find out more about Jennifer’s work by visiting her website or connecting on LinkedIn or instagram. She also shared with me after the conversation that the IVF network are launching a template policy for employers too – so here’s a link to their website.
Charlotte Speak 00:00
Hello and welcome to this next episode of Power of the Parent, the Podcast. Today I am joined by Jennifer Elworthy. Jennifer is a career and fertility coach and after going through her own personal experiences of recurrent miscarriage ectopic pregnancy and fertility treatment in the workplace, she has crafted a business that is all about supporting parents in those similar situations. Her employed career saw Jennifer navigating the world of marketing, working with a few brands I’m guessing you will probably have heard of – BBC, ITV and News UK to mention a few. Jennifer now consults for media, tech and fertility companies on brand and marketing strategy alongside her pioneering work to support women navigating how to blend fertility issues and treatment alongside their career. I am so grateful that Jennifer is going to talk to us today – a little bit about her story, but also about the work that she does, because as I was just sharing with her before we pressed record, this is a topic that is incredibly untouched in the workplace in so many ways. So the more we can talk about this, the better. So thank you so much for joining me today, Jennifer.
Jennifer Elworthy 01:09
Thank you so much for asking me to have a chat with you, Charlotte.
Charlotte Speak 01:13
Have I missed anything from… oh actually I have missed a really big one, you are also a parent.
Jennifer Elworthy 01:20
I am also a parent. Yeah, I’ve been very lucky that I had successful IVF and I now have a six year old son.
Charlotte Speak 01:26
Yes, that was a key part that I should have mentioned.
Charlotte Speak 01:30
So we’re going to talk today about a few different things, some of Jennifer’s story, some of the impacts that this can have on the workplace. And we’re going to also explore some of the practical things that line managers and employers more broadly can be considering to be able to support people who are going through fertility treatment, and other different aspects to this.
Charlotte Speak 01:55
So if it’s okay with you, Jennifer, I’d actually really like to start with talking about you. And I know you share very generously about the lead up to you becoming a coach, and specifically your focus. However, if I could like actually fast forward from that just for a second, and we probably we will switch back into your own experiences, but you’re coaching in an arena that is very close to your heart. You have been through a lot of these things that you are helping women go through now. It wouldn’t be a Power of the Parent conversation if I didn’t mention boundaries, because I think they’re incredibly important. And I don’t want to make any assumptions either, but how do you navigate those boundaries when you are working so closely in an incredibly emotive environment, with an angle that you are so passionate about and want to change the world really. I mean, not to put too much on your shoulders, you don’t need to change the world for women going through fertility treatment, but it feels like it would be a lot to navigate. Is that something that you’ve had to be particularly conscious of as a coach?
Jennifer Elworthy 03:11
Yeah, absolutely. And you’re right, I don’t have to change the world. But I do want to change the world for the clients that I do coach. And one of the most important things that we know, as a coach is that you have to have your boundaries and you have to look after yourself. And I always talk about coaching from the scar, not the wounds. My son’s six now so I’m feeling like I’m okay with it now. I can talk about these things. I’ve always been really, really open. I’ve never hidden the fact that I’ve had miscarriages, ectopic pregnancies, IVF, because I think it’s really important that everybody just knows that this happens. You know, one in six people will experience fertility challenges. Just as an aside, I hate the word infertile. I will not use it. I would never use that word because I just think it’s just horrible. It’s so finite and final. And yeah, it’s just not something I ever, ever want someone to think of themselves. But yeah, that’s just a little insight aside.
Jennifer Elworthy 04:18
So yeah, in terms of kind of boundaries, I do a variety of things. I pick my clients really carefully. I have to know that they’re in the coachable space, that it’s not too soon for them, that they actually maybe would benefit from therapy, or that it’s not too late and they’re kind of just in that process of having IVF and going through the motions. And by choosing my current clients really carefully, it means that I have maximum impact. And that I’m also looking after myself, because I know they’re in a space where they want to set a goal and achieve it. I also only coach once a day. And that’s important for me, because I’m listening to really traumatic stories sometimes. I really have to look after myself. And I’ve suffered with anxiety since I had my first ectopic pregnancy. So I had to look after myself in terms of exercise, diet, sleep, all of those kinds of things, but just make sure that I’m in the best possible space, but for myself and my family, but also for my clients, and just really make sure that I’m not absorbing too much of what’s going on for them, and I’m really separating myself.
Jennifer Elworthy 05:38
But actually, I find when I’m coaching clients, that that’s not hard, because you know, as you know, we’re trained to do that. We know not to hold on to any of our own thoughts and feelings, or, you know, if we’re asking a question, we’re not attached to the outcome. So within the session, it’s actually quite easy. But I do find myself thinking about my clients a lot, and staying in touch with them outside of the coaching sessions, because I want to. I’ve just had a client who’s just had her embryo transfer, so I really want to be there for her and support her, but also knowing that I am her coach, and I’m not her mate, and all of those kinds of things. So yeah, there’s lots of different ways in which I can kind of look after myself, and I’m maintaining my boundaries for the benefit of my client.
Charlotte Speak 06:22
Something that you said there, I have never heard that phrase, which is a travesty really, because I’ve been a coach for a really long time, I probably should have come across it. But when you said, coaching from the scar, not the wound, I was like, Oh, my goodness, that’s so powerful. I don’t know if that’s the right word. I don’t know if that’s the word that I mean, that’s the only one I can reach for right now. I think that’s an incredibly important thing that we like, we need that on T shirts, and probably a billboard somewhere as well, because there are a lot of coaches that have set up their businesses, coaches and consultants, who have set up their business from very personal places that I would class myself as that as well. And I could literally think of 10s, maybe not 100, but 10s of people doing the same things, for the same reasons, that they are, you know, incredibly personal to you. And that’s the difference, isn’t it? Like it going from from the scar feels very different than from going from the wound, I think. You’ve made me reflect a little bit about my probably first year in business, and I was definitely still coaching from the wound. And the scar was not there yet.
Jennifer Elworthy 07:39
A bit scabby.
Charlotte Speak 07:40
Yes. And I was probably picking at it a little too much. There’s an image for everybody!
Jennifer Elworthy 07:46
Yeah. I’ve got scars on my tummy from my ectopic surgery. And I kind of love them, because I was really sad at first, obviously, because they were such a reminder of what I had gone through. But now I kind of love them, because I’ve got one on each side. And they make me think of those babies. And sometimes I just sort of look at them and think, yeah, they’re fading, you know, they’re just sort of little silver lines now, and I think that’s what I’m getting to with coaching. Sometimes maybe they go a bit red when I do too much. But then they just silvery, and you know, I’m never gonna forget them. They’re always going to be there. But they’re not open, they’re not sore, they’re not red.
Charlotte Speak 08:30
Thank you for sharing that. A post that you put up recently on LinkedIn was, “This is what I am, and this is what I’m not.” And I think it hits on so many levels. I think, for a business owner like yourself, it’s something that’s incredibly important to put out there. And I also think it’s an important message for employers, because I think sometimes, certainly if I think about some of my clients, there is this pressure to need to fix everything for everyone. And we try and say the right things all the time. And we try and have, you know, the 15 million gold shiny policies, and there’s a huge amount of pressure to be all things to all people. And what I loved about the posts that you’d put up was a lot of myth busting. And a lot of just honesty from a place of, this is what I can help you with and this is what I will do my best to do, but I cannot serve everything for you. Is that something you could just talk a little bit more about and where that post came from? Because I know it came off the back of a call, didn’t it?
Jennifer Elworthy 09:39
Yeah, I had a discovery call with a potential client, but it was a bit of a disaster really. As a marketeer that really made me reflect that, oh, I’m not being very clear in how I communicate what I offer. And she sort of said halfway through I just don’t understand why anyone would pay you because you’re not giving them any advice or telling them what to do. Which, I mean, she said it in a very lovely way. But yeah, it just made me think, yeah I get what you’re saying. And I do need to be really upfront about this.
Jennifer Elworthy 10:16
And also, you know, we think about managers and, you know, a sort of gripe on this is that suddenly, you get promoted up the ranks, and you have no training of how to be a manager and look after people in your team. I mean, I know I didn’t, I had several disasterous experiences with my first direct reports, mostly my fault. But you suddenly feel really responsible, and that you have to be able to look after them and help them and know all the answers. And actually, one of the things I find really reassuring about being a coach is being very comfortable with the fact that I don’t know the answers. And I must not even think I know the answers. That’s all, again, part of our coach training. And there’s a safety in that, and I think managers can feel okay about that as well. But as long as they’re being kind, listening, they don’t have to know the ins and the outs of everything.
Charlotte Speak 11:14
I totally agree with you. And I think there’s a line between, you don’t need to know everything, you don’t need all the answers. And actually, sometimes people aren’t even looking for answers from you. You know, there’s power in being able to ask that question to say to people of, what do you need from me? Like, because sometimes we are looking for an answer. And there can be a very clear cut, yes, no, maybe situation. Sometimes we do just need somebody to listen and know what we’re going through. And you don’t always know how to articulate your own questions, do you? So I think that’s one side of the line.
Charlotte Speak 11:54
The other side is, we shouldn’t use it to diminish responsibility. And be like well, you know, I just didn’t know. There’s, there’s a line between accommodating people, and then just being ignorant. Maybe I’m naive, I have been called it before, I try to hold on to a perspective that nobody gets up to do a bad job. And nobody wants to go in and think, I’m going to be a really shitty line manager today. And I think your point there about being promoted up ranks, and the kind of training and things that we’re exposed to, don’t necessarily go hand in hand. And I think actually, one thing here is that it’s about bringing in that fresh thinking. So there is a benefit to bringing in Coaches and Consultants because we have to stay abreast of the freshest thinking that’s out there. Like that’s why we’re there to partner with employers, isn’t it. And what we were teaching line managers 10 years ago, or even probably 5 years ago, has drastically shifted. Not just because of COVID, sorry to mention the C word. But because things like fertility treatment in the workplace is beginning to be talked about a lot more. Not suggesting that there’s loads of answers out there. But it’s a topic that, you know, let’s use that taboo word, it has been something that people haven’t wanted to disclose, for example. Whereas things are changing. People do want to share, not their whole lives, but they want to share a little bit more of what they’re going through. And there’s a gap there isn’t there in lots of instances, that a line manager perhaps has got and, you know, it feels uncomfortable to say.
Jennifer Elworthy 13:41
Yeah, and you’re right, they do have to sort of know the law, know the facts of what the company offer. But as long as you’re a good person, and you want to look after people and you want to do a good job, then I think it’s okay. You know, I don’t know, whatever the situation might be, you don’t have to know the answers. You can just have a conversation and say, What do you need from me? What can I do to help you do the best job you can do and look after yourself outside of work?
Charlotte Speak 14:11
That is, it’s a question all online managers could ask. I do put a lot of pressure on line managers and I talk about them quite a lot. But I think, you know, for good reason. And then it isn’t the be all and end all. There’s lots of people that are need to be involved in supporting each other in the workplace. But a lot of this stuff does come from a place of leadership, I think.
Jennifer Elworthy 14:33
Yeah, I was really lucky because I was promoted to be a line manager with no training. But then I won a scholarship to the Marketing Academy, where I went through a year of leadership training, which was just brilliant. You know, I would say to any company, put your teams forward for it because it is amazing. The access and the skills and the contacts that you make are just fantastic. Really, really supportive and lovely environment to kind of grow into a leadership role. And I love the emphasis on leadership rather than management. It’s such a different thing. And I think if you can be a good leader, you’ll naturally bring all of your strengths into that. And hopefully one of your strengths is listening and being kind and wanting to help.
Charlotte Speak 15:20
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So talking about, you know, careers. I’ve seen you talk before about a feeling of your life being on hold in previous years. Can we dive into that a little bit? Because that’s something that I have heard friends and family members, and some clients to an extent, but mainly friends and family members describe that feeling. And alongside it be fearful of describing that feeling for a number of reasons. How did that kind of show up for you? And is that something that you can, well, you can you can hear it, in your words, when you describe that, that it was something you were very aware of in the moment. But how do you navigate a feeling like that? Do you navigate it?
Jennifer Elworthy 16:16
I think you’ve got to be aware that you’re feeling it, and make the right choices for yourself. So I was really nervous to travel. And I love going on holiday, I love travel, you know, all of those kinds of things. And I just stopped because I was scared that I would be pregnant and feel unwell. Or that I would have an ectopic pregnancy and need to go to hospital, or that I’d have a miscarriage. And also I was really anxious and nervous generally. And so putting myself in those kinds of situations was just really, really uncomfortable on so many levels. I did it but I chose the right holidays, very gentle kind of beach holidays, not in big resorts, you know, those kinds of things. But that’s just an example of how life was put on hold. You know, I had all these places I wanted to go to and I just didn’t feel it was the right time for me. So that was a sort of easier one to balance that, you know, choose the right holiday at the right time. But holidays did get cancelled as well.
Jennifer Elworthy 16:23
And I also was and still am hugely ambitious and I really, really want to do well in any job that I’m working on or any situation I’m working in. And I was Head of Marketing at Freesat at the time, which is the company in which I had the miscarriages, and then went on to have IVF treatments. They ended up promoting me to Marketing Director while I was having my IVF treatment, which was just incredible. They were amazing. I’m always so grateful to the leaders there.
Jennifer Elworthy 18:07
But before I knew that, that was a possibility. I’d seen this job, a Head of Marketing job at another TV company and I was so desperate to go for it. I thought I’d have got an interview anyway. And I felt like I’d have been really good for the job. I had all the skills, so excited about it. And I just felt like I couldn’t do it. Because, you know, what if I had a miscarriage and they weren’t supportive of me, or what if I just didn’t do a very good job because I was quite sad or stressed, all of those kinds of things.
Jennifer Elworthy 18:37
So, you know, there’s this sort of personal life of like, not really going on holiday, not seeing people and then there was this work side of like, Oh, I just kind of get stuck and stagnant. And I lost myself. I lost that sense of like, control and agency over my life. So I decided not to go for that job. And that that was definitely the right decision. I discussed it with my husband and we agreed that wasn’t right. But then sticking at Freesat was an amazing decision and kind of throwing myself into that work in a really healthy way. Like I properly decided to throw myself into work and use it as a distraction. And then went on to be promoted and worked in incredibly supportive environment.
Charlotte Speak 19:21
Something that you said that I think is important for us to flag that you use work as a distraction. And this is a topic that I have had a fair amount of discussion with some line managers actually, quite recently, in the context of miscarriage. So that is something that comes up quite a bit with line managers that I work with because it’s something that they are very unsure on how to navigate. And some of them… It’s like, we want to reduce it to a very, it’s this or that. So, you know, making sure that, we’ve got to tell people that they need to come back to work because they’re going to want to use work as a distraction. Or on the other end of the scale, we’re absolutely not talking to them about them coming back, because why on earth would they want to. They want to focus on themselves not coming back to work. And at no point in any of those conversations have actually, the individuals needs, been thought about. Now, their intention, you can kind of see where they were coming from, but, you know, the phrase of the road to hell being laid with good intentions, is very real. That, again, it’s about asking people what they need. Because for some people, that is what they need, they need a distraction, or they want something else that’s going to give them some focus, some energy, something to, you know, bring something else to talk about.
Charlotte Speak 21:00
After I’d had a miscarriage, I didn’t want to talk about it at all, certainly not in the workplace. And I barely told any friends or family. Now that’s changed massively over the years. And I talk about it very openly. I will talk about it to anybody, because I don’t want somebody to go through what I went through, which was a lot of feelings of shame, and not wanting to be able to, like, you can’t possibly share it, because now somebody knows that you want to have another baby (because it was in between having my girls) that everybody’s on high alert. And I completely, that sense of who I was, and what was important to me, went out the window, because it was just something that I had no idea how to navigate. But again, you know, I think where I was going with that was when you’d said about using work as a distraction, that that is the case of some people, it isn’t going to be for everybody. But the importance of asking, Okay, I feel like a little bit of a broken record, but that’s the reality. If you’re navigating this with somebody in the workplace, whatever it is, fertility treatment, is our main focus to talk about today, this is where we’ve got to honour boundaries, but talk to people about, you know, what is it that you need?
Jennifer Elworthy 22:12
Absolutely. And keep asking. So don’t just ask at the beginning, because it could change. It might be one thing at the beginning and then switch to something else. So just keep that dialogue open. Just keep having that conversation and checking in. But also get permission to check it and I think is really key as well. So say, you know, should we have a catch up about this every week or two weeks? And if you want to cancel it, you can but know that I’m here and I can help you with that. Yeah, for me, it was absolutely I wanted to throw myself into work, I wanted to rebuild my confidence, which was almost non existent to the point where you know, going to the supermarket or going for dinner with friends was really, really hard for me. So the thoughts of kind of pitching to the board or briefing an agency was just kind of horrifying. But I knew that that was who I was, I could do those things. So I really wanted to rebuild that.
Jennifer Elworthy 23:05
But I also knew I had the support of my employer, that if I messed up, that a ball dropped, where I just needed some time out, that was okay, and I could ask for it. I think the other thing to remember is that if somebody is off work, signed off sick, because they’ve had a miscarriage or whatever, tell them they don’t need to worry about work and that their work will be taken care of. And that when they come back,whenever that is, we’ll start again, because you need to know that you’re not going to go back to this mountain of work that’s just been left, because you weren’t there to do it. It needs to just be done by someone else, you can come back in and just start work again and be brought back into the project at the right time. Because if you’ve had two weeks, two weeks off doesn’t fix you for having a miscarriage. You know, you might feel physically healthy again, but you’re certainly, well, I wasn’t emotionally better. But knowing that I could come back in and projects have continued was just hugely reassuring and it really helped me take that time to rest.
Charlotte Speak 24:10
Yeah. Carrying on with this in the same vein, really, I think it’d be brilliant if you… Are there any kind of practical things for workplaces (and we’ve already given them quite a few there!), but is there anything that’s kind of like a standout or a foundation that you would love to see in all employers?
Jennifer Elworthy 24:30
Yeah, a fertility policy.
Charlotte Speak 24:32
Jennifer Elworthy 24:34
Yeah, you’ve just got to have one. Whatever it says… habits… don’t (I feel very passionate about this)… don’t let it just get lost in a wellness folder in the kitchen or something. You know, it’s got to live and breathe your brand’s (the marketeer is coming out now)… live and breathe your brand, say who you are and everybody needs to know it whatever that policy is, you know whether it’s fertility or anything else. But it needs to be really visible and it needs to be true. It needs to actually happen. So that if somebody is going through this experience, they can say, Oh, I know actually that I can have X number of days off while I have IVF treatment. Okay, great.
Jennifer Elworthy 25:15
You know, when I was going through it, nobody had fertility policies. I had a conversation with my boss. He was wonderful. But I said to him, I’m gonna look at the wall and not at you, because I’m gonna cry if I look at you. So I just need you to not interrupt me and just let me tell you what I’m going to tell you. He knew about the miscarriages anyway. But I reminded him of those and I said, I’m having IVF, what I need is flexibility. I need to come into the office on my own terms. I need you to trust me to do my job. And I need you to catch me if I fall. And he said, Yep, okay, we can do that. Leave it with me. I don’t know where we stand but I’ll speak to HR. But don’t worry, we’ll be okay. We support you with this. And you know, what great a thing I think I then could look him in the eye without crying! You know that sense of relief was like you’ve got me here. You know, I’ve been here long enough and done a good enough job that you can trust me to go through this period of time, still wanting to work. But if I’m not up to my usual standard, then bear with me.
Charlotte Speak 26:19
Is there anything that you would recommend, I suppose I’m talking a little bit more to the parent side of things. If you’re not in a position where you feel like you are trusted, or that you have a fear about disclosing that you are going to go through fertility treatment. Is there anything that you would recommend that somebody considers there?
Jennifer Elworthy 26:46
I mean, that’s where my coaching often comes in. The clients will say to me, how can I make work work, while going through fertility treatment, because it’s really hard. You’ll probably feel a bit unwell, you’re having to inject in the work loos, you’re missing loads of time in the office, because appointments that go on for much longer than you expected, or you get called in all of a sudden. So I think working with a coach is a really valuable thing to do and kind of figuring out your own plan here. And back to that post that you mentioned earlier about, you know, what I do and what I don’t do, I’m very clear now that the things that I did are not necessarily right for other people. And sometimes with permission, I might share those with my clients. But it’s their own journey, and with all the different nuances of the companies that they work in that they have to come up with a plan of how to make that work.
Charlotte Speak 27:47
Yeah, I think that’s really important is it that we know that there’s options because there are going to be people listening to this that are not blessed with a workplace that is particularly open to some of those conversations. But that doesn’t mean that you are any less deserving of support. And if you can’t find it within your workplace, then there are other routes, and it could be coaching, and if that’s something that isn’t accessible, then, like online communities can be really helpful. Is it one in six people?
Jennifer Elworthy 28:24
Yeah, one in six people will experience fertility challenges.
Charlotte Speak 28:28
Yeah. So if you think about, you know, if you look around the people that you’re working with, it may not be, therefore, that people are converting that into going through fertility treatment, I guess. But there’s a lot of people out there. And sometimes that importance of finding people that you can talk to is going to be really important, isn’t it? And yeah, there will be somebody out there that’s had a rotten employer, or a line manager that could just put their arm around you a little bit and be like, actually, here’s a couple of ideas of how you could do it. Or if it really is rubbish, then it’s gonna come back to things like boundaries, and how do you make sure that you are getting that top up of your well being and making sure you’re protecting yourself, if your workplace isn’t delivering for you, then it isn’t the be all and end all.
Jennifer Elworthy 29:19
Yeah, one of the topics that we often talk about within my coaching as well is creating this sort of support network of people. So one of them might be your line manager or MD of the company or whoever HR, but support comes in really unusual, unexpected places. You know, one of my very best friends in the world, I met in hospital when she’d had a miscarriage surgery that had gone a bit wrong and I had to have an ectopic surgery and you know, we sort of kept each other company through the sort of morphine fuelled pain overnight. So you know, having someone like her to be able to talk to was just incredible because she is also incredibly ambitious and wanted to do a good job but was struggling, you know, but also, I had a mentor who was amazing. And she hadn’t been through the same experiences as me. But she helped me figure out what I wanted work to be while I was doing this. Or it could just be, you know, one of your neighbours that kind of sees you cry and ask the question, you just never know who has been… There’s two of us on this call. And we’ve both had a miscarriage. So that just shows how prevalent it is. And, and also that, yeah, support is out there, being a little bit open and trying to find it in the right places, particularly if your employer is not supportive. I think it is possible.
Charlotte Speak 30:39
That’s brilliant. Thank you so much. And I think that’s probably a great place for us to end on with the questions today. Thank you for sharing your own personal experiences, and also those really practical insights for employers. If people want to come and find out more about what you do, or how to work with you, where is the best place for them to come and find you?
Jennifer Elworthy 31:02
Yeah, they can find me on LinkedIn. That’s probably the easiest way it’s Jennifer Elworthy. I’m just in the process of relaunching my website so that’s not live at the moment.
Charlotte Speak 31:11
Well, I will put Jennifer’s LinkedIn details in the show notes. So if you’re listening to this while you’re driving or walking and you’ve not got something to hand, then all you need to do is scroll down and you will be able to go and find Jennifer there. Thank you so much, again, for sharing your experiences and your wisdom. It’s been absolutely brilliant to chat with you.
Jennifer Elworthy 31:32
Thank you so much, Charlotte.
Charlotte Speak 31:33
Thank you. Take care.