Dr Evelyn Kwame’s career kicked off with long, arduous, and intense commitments of medical school, residency, and fellowship. Kwame planned her life logically and enacted her plans rationally. She now boasts of a long-desired and fulfilling career.
However, like many women in cut-throat industries, where the culture presents women with strictly two alternatives: Giving up one thing, so they can be perfect in the other, she failed to factor in time for the unexpected.
For Kwame, the unexpected came in the form of consequences from delayed childbearing. She had felt immune to failure at childbearing as if the possibilities of infertility and loss did not apply to her.
“There was barely a mention I may never have it all; that, as I toiled, I was choosing to gamble my fertility and the ability to deliver a healthy child,” she said.
She shared her story to raise issues within her profession. Her hard-won understanding holds critical lessons, and she hopes that by sharing her story, women in medicine – and highly competitive – careers will begin to carefully consider how the culture can infringe on family life.
Kwame hopes that policymakers can provide women with better options to work within time frames compatible with their biological clocks without negatively impacting their careers.
“Employers and training programmes should start providing more information, support, and implement policies that align with the complex lives of the current world. With more women joining industries that were initially male-dominated, these issues will become more pronounced,” she says.
As many women pursuing medical careers often do, Kwame put the dream of motherhood on indefinite hold. “I waited for the perfect moment. With training complete, career set in motion, financial stability attained, I could finally allow myself to start a family.”
But she soon, along with many of her female peers, discovered that neither the biological clock nor pregnancy complications waited for career success.
“Many of my colleagues and I arrived at the distressing realisation that motherhood might prove elusive. In hindsight, I am impressed with my naivete, its effects on my decisions, and the powerful lessons that affect women in similar careers today.”
“The years had passed by quicker than I realised. At 38, my specialist’s pitiful scribblings of “infertility due to advanced maternal age” left me in utter disbelief. He showed me a graph illustrating the steep decline in fertility every year after 35. Although I feel like I knew this in the back of my mind, I always underestimated my risk.
“I intentionally purposed to maintain optimal health, keep off unhealthy substances, and remain positive. How could this happen to me? I remember wondering why celebrities like Janet Jackson and Beyoncé managed to bear children well in their late 50s and late 30s. I thought I could beat the biological clock. Why did I think, as a medic, I was immune to infertility?” poses Kwame.
At 37, CM (name initialised to protect her privacy) had enjoyed immense success as a TV host.
It was finally time to consider settling down and getting one or two children. CM soon discovered that due to the demands of the newsroom and long hours at work, the chance to land a pool of eligible bachelors where she could choose the ideal partner was too narrow.
She says; “I went on numerous dates, but most men within my desirable age gap were either married, weirdos, or non-committal.” Luckily, after several attempts, I met a divorcee looking to settle down and decided to add one more child to his three from the previous relationship.
Two years went by, but she was unable to conceive.
“I had little information about fertility or lack of it. As I sat in the clinic’s waiting bay, a bit anxious in the new surroundings, I spotted a few familiar faces. I later learned that numerous female professionals go through a similar ordeal — delaying motherhood for far too long and later requiring painful and costly procedures to conceive. The fertility process was like a never-ending bumpy ride. It was a tumultuous three years of disappointment and heartache.
I felt my dream slipping away with each new birthday. And despite being fairly well-off, the price of the in vitro fertilisation process (IVF) was milking our pockets dry. After two failed IVF cycles, we were eventually gifted with a bouncing baby boy. I realise how lucky I was to have a healthy child. I have colleagues who never had any, some by choice, but many by circumstance.”
Some careers are not only time and labour demanding, but also force female employees to sign contracts that bar them from giving birth and even dating. The military (in some countries) and major airlines are examples of such.
Janet joined a major airline as a flight attendant at 25 and had to sign a contract stating she would not get pregnant within the first three years.
“I was always ‘on-call’ whenever a crew member called in sick, or some other inconvenience happened. I am used to it now, and currently, our hotel rooms are monitored with CCTV to ensure we get sufficient rest in between trips, so I cannot have a partner over,” she said.
Even though she is clocking 30, Janet has long shelved her dreams to further her studies or start a family in the immediate future because extended leaves are not compensated.
“I now take things a day at a time, hoping to save some good amount that would allow me to quit comfortably, start a business and revive my dream to start a family.”
What Janet does not know is, according to experts, postponing motherhood can lead to unintended childlessness, an increased need for assisted reproductive processes, or complicated births.
Esther Mwangi, HR Specialist at Executive Edge Consulting, says various sectors should develop tailor-made policies to discuss what works for the employer while allowing women to lead wholesome lives.
“The government set a mandatory three-month maternity leave across industries, which is a good start. More change needs to be implemented from sector to sector, depending on what works best.
“Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise because it became apparent people could still work from home and deliver results. Hence, women can take care of their households while working and earn without compromising too much,” said Mwangi.
“Industries that require workers to be present, like the hotel industry, can introduce hourly rates with a minimum wage regulated by the government. This would afford women the flexibility to work for select hours, earn and go take care of their household, as needed.”
Helen Awino, a career coach, says the mindset that the world is black and white and that women have to overly compromise or sacrifice their careers for motherhood and vice versa should cease.
“Women check out or step back because most industries are unfriendly and because they can fall back to the role of motherhood. However, this need not be the case,” said Awino.
“My advice for women in the vulnerable years of their careers is that the worst bosses often depart, the seemingly endless runny noses will dry up, and you will be glad you did not check out during the years of your early mothering because you will be in a much better position to be who you want to be as you age.”