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Coping with infertility, miscarriage, and unsuccessful adoption

Institutions can’t take away the pain for individuals experiencing loss, but they can create policies to provide support

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
April 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 13


Illustration of a female scientist holding a flask containing an image of her holding a baby.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock
Plans to become a parent are often not crystal clear.

Many workplaces have leave policies for individuals who become parents. But what happens when you suddenly find out that you’re not going to be a parent? Infertility, miscarriage, and unsuccessful adoptions are shockingly common struggles, yet we rarely get the chance to talk about them. As a result, they can silently erode not only our emotional health but also our career progress.

My struggle started soon after I finished my PhD. I had met and married an amazing spouse during graduate school, and as the end of grad school came into sight, it seemed like a good time to think about having kids. I expected that getting pregnant and having a baby would be no problem. How wrong I was. After a year, I realized that having kids was not going to be easy for me. In what felt like a miracle, I finally became pregnant, only to have a miscarriage literally hours after we told our families that we were expecting. I was devastated. I wondered what was wrong with me. All of a sudden, this thing that people have been doing for millennia—getting pregnant and having a baby—felt absolutely impossible.

Fast-forward a few years: we eventually welcomed our first child during our postdoctoral studies. Then, a few years into my faculty career, we decided to try again. To my surprise, I quickly became pregnant. But at 3 months, we received dreaded news during a doctor’s visit: no heartbeat. Devastation hit me all over again. The only difference was that this time I was responsible for teaching classes and managing a lab. I took 1 day off to grieve and then was back at work. As we moved forward and started to think about whether we would try again, it struck me—I just spent 3 months being so sick that I could hardly function and then another 3 months grieving so deeply that every day was a struggle. I had just lost 10% of my tenure clock (a probationary period for early faculty that typically lasts 5 years), and I was never going to get that back. We did eventually have a second child, and I realize how fortunate I am for that, but I never forgot the pain and helplessness of what we had been through.

The more I talk with other people about my experience expanding a family, the more I realize that my story is not unique. According to the American Pregnancy Association, in the US, over 20% of pregnancies in people in their late 30s end in miscarriage, and about 10% of women experience infertility. This is amplified by the fact that women in academia often feel pressure to wait until they are more established in their careers to have children. Similarly, individuals seeking to grow their families through adoption frequently have to cope with a change of plans, and the feeling of loss can parallel that of experiencing a miscarriage.

How do we begin to address this silent struggle? Talking about it is an important first step. One of the greatest sources of pain is feeling as if you are all alone and that you are somehow broken or defective because everyone around you seems to have children with no trouble at all. If you are a partner to someone trying to become pregnant, you may also be struggling—even if you are not coping with the physical effects of infertility or miscarriage. Your feelings of loss and hopelessness are valid, and you may feel even more stigma about reaching out for support. But when we share our struggles, we start to realize just how common they are, and we can find a support network of people who can empathize.

We can also address this need for support from an institutional perspective. Nobody should have to decide whether they can risk trying to become pregnant or adopt a child based on what an unsuccessful attempt would cost them in their career. We have policies to grant leave and stop tenure clocks when someone has a baby. We can do the same for people who are dealing with infertility, miscarriage, or unsuccessful adoption. We can also create more flexibility in career paths so that the choice of when to try to have children is based more on personal wishes than on career trajectory. Nothing can take away the gut-wrenching pain of wanting to have children and feeling as if you can’t, but we can make this invisible struggle more visible and create a system that supports individuals as they cope.

Jen Heemstra is a professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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