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“It’s not shameful”: the fertility officer taking on work’s parent problem

Solicitor Natalie Sutherland is the world's first fertility officer, tasked with finding common ground between professional structures and real life.

By Emma Haslett

In 2018, Natalie Sutherland lost a pregnancy, and very nearly her life. It started out as what she called a “textbook miscarriage”: at her first scan in April of that year, at 12 weeks, she was told her baby had no heartbeat, and was sent away to wait for her body to expel it. A few weeks later, when nothing had happened, she had surgery, but by August, pregnancy tests were still positive. In September, she haemorrhaged twice. The second time she almost died: four pints of blood were transfused. When she came to, nurses said they had had a crash team ready.  

As she cradled a cup of tea at a trendy bar in the City more than three years later, the memory of the loss was still visibly raw. Sutherland’s eyes shone as she told me the story: of her daughter, then two, having to find her phone so she could call an ambulance as she lay bleeding on the bathroom floor; of the subsequent, painful, decision to stop trying for another baby. Putting herself through that again “is terrifying,” she said.

Sutherland, 43, was on a well-timed career break when it happened, meaning she avoided having to save face at work as she grieved her baby. But, now a partner at family law firm Burgess Mee, she wants to ensure her employees never have to face that anguish. Sutherland has been appointed as the world’s first “fertility officer”, a role in which she can “support and signpost” her employees.

Sutherland knows all about the emotional effects of infertility: her main role at the firm is as a surrogacy solicitor, helping the intended parents of babies carried by surrogates line up the paperwork apply for a parental order once they are born, or ensure they can bring them home if they have used a surrogate abroad. One of the UK’s most popular destinations for surrogacy is Ukraine: on the day we spoke, Russian forces were marching into the country.

She and her employers began discussing the role of fertility officer when two of her team members confided that they were experiencing fertility issues. (Originally it was going to be “women’s officer”, before they realised men might also need her guidance.) They needed support, she said, but also policies that made clear how much time they could take off after a pregnancy loss, for instance, or that allowed them to attend appointments for IVF.

“I wanted to get in front of it and basically say, if you have these issues, I will be there to help you through it with compassion,” she said. “Even just having the position means that the anxiety goes away.

“It was important to create that open culture, so that when you talk about time off or attending appointments, it’s not in the same breath as asking for time off or for holiday. You know that it’s not taboo, it’s not shameful.”

Originally her new role was an internal thing, until she mentioned it at a fertility event she was holding for City workers in January with the legal recruiter Somaya Ouazzani. Articles in the Daily Mail and the Times followed, as did an appearance on Woman’s Hour. The journalist James Kirkup said that Sutherland’s job title made it sound as if she was “urging a patriotic workforce to breed for the motherland”.

The people contacting her after the event made clear the scale of the problem the law sector has with women and childbearing. “Barristers have [told me], ‘I’ve lost my career because I had to have IVF and it’s not compatible’,” she said.

“It’s all about the client relationship for barristers – so if you’ve got a big case and you’ve got a barrister who is knee-deep in your case, you need them to be there for it. And if you’ve arranged to have a scan or an egg [embryo] transfer or whatever on the date of the hearing, you have to give back your case [and] you know you’re going to lose goodwill with that solicitor.”

It isn’t just barristers who suffer. As a solicitor, Sutherland herself faced the “career or kids” dilemma – although the decision was eventually made for her.

“I had put [having children] off because of my career,” she said. “I was like, I should probably make partner first. I was 36 and it wasn’t happening. And then we got pregnant.” At the time, she was the main breadwinner, so she returned to work 12 weeks after giving birth. “I’d spent six of them recovering from the C-section,” she said.

Commenters under articles about her have accused her of “wokeness”. Is she woke? “I don’t know. I’m old now. I think old people think woke is bad and young people think woke is good.” Is that a no? “There’s a level of leadership there.”

The problem, she said, is that “your fertile years correspond with your working years. So yeah, it’s going to have an impact.

“You can either put your head in the sand and pretend that your employees are robots and they should just be doing the nine to five and nothing bad is happening in their private life. Or, you can acknowledge that your staff are your best assets and they are going to be working better for you if they are happy and supported… I think that’s pretty reasonable.”

It is pretty reasonable, although the law, with its notoriously archaic approach to employment practices, is not likely to change any time soon. “I don’t know what the solution is,” Sutherland admitted. “I think the more we talk about it, the more… hopefully there’ll be a trickle effect and people will be demanding. Because… female lawyers feel like they need to not show any kind of vulnerability, and they need to be like their male counterparts. But I’m sorry, we are all different, and we have different requirements.”

Faced with the baby-career dilemma now, what would she advise her employees? Wait for partnership, or get on with the business of making babies? She chewed her lip. “I would say have babies now. Your career, hopefully, would still be there for you when you’re ready to come back. And that’s what we’re trying to do with this conversation – we’re trying to make it better for people to be able to have kids at the right time for them.”

[See also: “Flexible working has nothing to do with working from home”: Anna Whitehouse on how the workplace punishes women]

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