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Infertility, parenthood & fatherhood: One man’s story & call for support

Jeff Larison
Consumer Experience Lead

In this episode, Jeff Larison, Consumer Experience Lead for Alight, shared his family's struggles with infertility, journey to grow his family, and the role employers and HR leaders can play to better support new parents and those trying to grow their families. Tune in to hear his personal perspectives and why it's so important for organizations to support new parents and employees who are growing their families for retention as well as productivity. 

Snapshots of Jeff and his family

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Podcast_Ep4_Remy_yogurt mess (2)
Podcast_Ep4_Jeff_Viv and Remy

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Podcast Transcript:

Romy Wightman: Hello, and welcome to this week's episode of a via asks podcast I'm Romy Wightman director of partnerships and Ovia health, and today I am so pleased to be joined by Jeff Larison, who was a consumer experience lead with the light solutions hi Jeff Thank you so much for being with us today.

Jeff Larison: Hey Romy, great to be here.

Romy Wightman: We’re so glad to have you so in today's episode honor of father's Day, which is coming up. Today Jeff and I are going to be discussing fatherhood, infertility, and the ways employers can support growing families and dads with their benefit, strategies and lead with empathy and flexibility. 

So Jeff , so happy that you and I had an opportunity to meet a few months ago and when we spoke, you shared your story with me and I just really was so moved. Thank you for being here and being willing to share your story with others. So, can you tell us just a little bit about yourself and what your work is with a light and who you are, as a person, and a father and a husband and all of that kind of good stuff.

Jeff Larison: Yeah happy to, and thank you again for having me on, and you know, really, the reason I wanted to have this conversation is hopefully to talk a little bit about my experience. I’m hoping it will help folks that are listening, those struggling with infertility, hoping that they could be encouraged, or maybe feel like they have some support for their own journey. 

It’s certainly been a journey for me and my wife.  So again I'm Jeff Larison, I live in Kansas city Missouri with my wife of four years Jeanette. We have a nine year old step daughter named Vivian. We call her Viv for short, and spoiler alert, we have a five month old son named Remy and, as you mentioned, I worked for Alight.

I'm part of the consumer experience organization there, we focus on really personalized and engaging experiences for our clients' employees and do that through cloud based software and services solutions. So happy to be here and let's chat.

Romy Wightman: Yes, let's chat. Thank you so  I know that the road was not easy for you to get here and creating a family can have beautiful outcomes, but the journey is a little bit difficult getting there, so do you mind sharing your story and telling us a little bit about your personal experience when you and Jeanette decided to expand your family.

Jeff Larison: Sure, so my wife and I decided to try to start a family, about two and a half years ago, honestly didn't give much thought to any challenges that might be involved with that. All of our friends and family have a million kids running around so we just assumed that that would be our story as well.  And we got pregnant right away and we were really excited, told our family, I remember my parents being so excited too. 

We went in for our 10 week sonogram and I remember the technician sort of struggling to sort of fumbling with the machine and then she excused herself and came back with the doctor and we knew that something was wrong and, unfortunately they shared that our baby did not have a heartbeat and that their heart stopped probably around the six week time frame so.

You know, we were incredibly devastated and, like I said, didn't even have that on the radar as something that might happen for us because things that had been smooth and how quickly we got pregnant.  So ,in the process, we found out that my wife had a cyst on her ovary. She had to have surgery where one of her ovaries was removed. And you know, if you've been in a situation where your partner or spouse has had to go into major surgery and anesthesia and all that, it’s incredibly stressful.  Going from the joy of pregnancy and excitement to you know, being in a waiting room waiting to hear how the surgery went and it's just incredibly tough time for our family.

From there, we actually were pregnant two other times over the course of the next year and a half or so, and both of those pregnancies ended in miscarriage so, just not not what we drew up, and I think part of the challenge of it, and this is something I don't quite understand about our culture, but we don't tend to speak or be vulnerable about that sort of thing happening. We felt really alone and isolated. It just seemed like everyone else's able to have kids and here we are going through this terrible experience. It made me think like, “What's wrong with us?” and, to make matters worse, the doctor wasn't really able to give us any concrete answers why.

Anyway, that's sort of my long winded background on our story.  But now, fast forward to today, as I mentioned we've got a five month old. So, we were able to conceive our son Remy and, yeah I think because of what we went through the joy of having him it's just been so great, I can't really put it into words.  To your point, Romy, we were lucky, I know that's unfortunately not everyone's experience.

There are a lot of folks that aren't able to conceive at all or go through a lot of different procedures like IVF and others, and, unfortunately, part of the parenting journey is loss. And that’s hard.  And just maybe hope not even realized, and that happening so that is sort of my background story.

Romy Wightman: And then you explain that so eloquently, where somebody that may not have had a similar experience to you could still understand the emotions and the empathy for what you went through. But it was really striking when you said, “nobody talks about this,” so when it's happening to you, you must have felt like you were the only people that this had happened to.  You must have been saying, why did this happen to just us but then, to go on to find out that it is much more common than we think. I’m surprised with your physician as well. If the doctor had explained it in a different way or not looked so sullen when they came in to tell you that something was wrong, you may have looked at it a little bit differently.

I'm assuming based on the way that you explained it, from an emotional standpoint, do you remember that feeling of how long do you think it took to kind of feel like,  “Okay I'm ready to try this again.”  Because, I'm sure it was really scary.

Jeff Larison: Yeah so yeah certainly a lot of anxiety about the second time around, and I remember just  sort of monitoring my wife's every move and thinking, “Is she having any pain? Is she having stomach cramps from dinner, or is something worse wrong?” And, it was just sort of pins and needles all the time. And, to your earlier point,  certainly we were carrying a lot of shame and confusion. Thinking, “What's wrong with us that everyone else seems to be able to do this so easily?” And we aren't. But, once we started to confide in our community and talk to our friends, it was amazing how many people came forward and said, “You know what, you know we've got two kids but we had several miscarriages,” or “You know, we had to go through IVF for that.” And you realize, there's all kinds of variables there. 

I don't understand why as a culture we aren't more forthright with that, and obviously it's a painful and private experience, but we were encouraged to hear that others were having a similar experience. So again, that's part of why I wanted to to tell our story. Hopefully folks listening that might be going through this can glean a little bit of encouragement.

And, one thing that was really surprising and meeting with our doctors, they said, “hey, even though you've had multiple miscarriages you still have a 50% or higher chance of having a healthy baby,” So, there was still some hope there. So, I want others out there to hear that as well.

Romy Wightman: And that that is such a positive statement to share, because when you're in the thick of it it's hard to see your way through the forest.  I know you and I talked to that I also had a miscarriage in my first pregnancy and it does set the tone going forward.

When you first get that positive pregnancy test and you're so excited and you go for the initial doctor's appointment, would it help, if right from the gates the doctor said, “I just want to share, you know, one in four pregnancies don't materialize and it's very common. And I don't want you to panic should that happen. We have no reason to think that it would happen, but…” Do you think that that would have been helpful if we as a society had an open dialogue with our medical community as to what some of the more common outcomes can be so that you're not so shocked?

Jeff Larison: For sure, and I think that that sort of transparency, both from medical professionals and the community would have been helpful or even for us to be able to get connected with folks that are having similar experiences.

I remember spending a lot of time at my desk googling about miscarriage and why it happens and how to give yourself the best chance to have a healthy natural childbirth. And, like I said, the doctor that we worked with didn’t have much to say, so we got a second opinion. Even after that, it didn't seem like anyone could really draw a definitive conclusion on why it was happening. I guess it is sort of a mystery that happens to tons of people, and that would have been nice to know earlier on, so we didn't feel at fault here in the process.

Romy Wightman: Exactly, and from my experience, I remember a lot of friends and family trying to console me and it just made matters worse. For you, was there was there any particular situation where somebody did something, or said something, and you were just like, “Whoa, that's exactly what I wish everybody would say.”

Jeff Larison: No, that's a good question.

Romy Wightman: And I don't mean to put you on the spot, but I remember a lot of people, they want to make you feel better, and they want to be in your corner and it just doesn't seem like anything really sticks or helps make it feel any better.

Jeff Larison: Yeah, no, I think that that is true, you know I think generally, our friends are well intentioned and wanted to be supportive, but what do you say? I mean it's such a painful experience, and I think for us to hear from folks that did go through it, and then went on to have a family, or were able to heal from it and move on, that helped. I think that was an encouraging example.

Romy Wightman: Right! But, the hope and the optimism you heard, that wasn't the end of the road, and you still had a success story forthcoming.

Jeff Larison: Right, and and like you said there's a lot of grief associated with it, so you know, having a Community of support to that was really, really meaningful and you know in we've actually been able to sort of turn our story into encouragement for for other friends that are going through similar things and my wife is really great about sharing her experience with others and encouraging them people have reached out to her for advice and comfort and it's funny how that works when when we're open about our experiences and and helping each other.

Romy Wightman: Well, and that's great. I applaud both of you for being able to openly talk about it and help others that are going through the same thing that you did.

And at the time when you were experiencing this, you had a young daughter in the house, and a marriage that still had to continue on, and regular parenting duties still had to continue on. You have to continue to go to work, and pay your bills, and all of those things that you probably didn't feel like doing every day. So how did that work in your house?

Jeff Larison: yeah it certainly made everything else, not seem quite as pressing or important, and it was really distracting. Obviously we're grieving. My wife is having you know physical issues so caring for her and I, you know, I don't know how many times that she at the doctor's office had to be picked and be prodded and have blood drawn and tests done. And you know she just was really worn out over multiple years of that, and you know that takes a toll, we were married for a year or two and then this this was you know kind of the headline of our marriage for a couple years and that's a lot of lot of stress and strain and distraction for sure.

Romy Wightman: And if we talk about just your work life during that time period, did you feel like you were less productive? You talk about distraction, that’s a big one. Did you feel like there were any resources through work through your employee benefits that you could turn to?

Jeff Larison: So it's tricky you know, without speaking negatively about my previous employer that that wasn't an option for us at least that I was aware of. To have that sort of support and especially as a father, I think there's even less support, even though.

Now, like I said I was, I was supporting my wife, making sure she was getting to her doctor's appointments doing research trying to get appointments with some alternative medicine options and having my own grief process play out and so know at the time that there wasn't resources, it was just sort of you know grind through it.

Now that I'm at Alight, we have a lot more generous support for parents. There are father-focused benefits and support, and that's a huge deal and I think that the empathy piece is missing for a lot of the employers. 

Certainly you know when it comes to how Alight cares for our employees and they really understand the connection between home life and work life. They’re giving us all the resources we need to make sure that our home life is an order so that we can bring our best to work. And listen, you know things happen. When they do, you're distracted from work.  

Having the flexibility to deal with those issues, and resources to deal with those issues, so that you can bring your best to your job. It’s everything. Like, returning when you are ready, I think, is a big deal and certainly a benefit I don't take for granted. That’s what I went through elsewhere,  now I couldn’t imagine being without it.

Romy Wightman: You're right. It is a huge deal, and I am really encouraged that so many employers today are much more focused on a better work life balance and understanding that your personal life intertwines with your work life, and vice versa, and those two need to go hand in hand, so that you can be successful at both.

So many parents have a ton of pressure and the added pressure at work that support groups or just an understanding employer hey i'm really going through a tough time right now i'm probably not 100% at work so i'm going to take two days off just to mentally get myself back on track goes such a long way.

And you had just mentioned how important those support groups are and one of the things at Ovia that I think we do a wonderful job, is building that community. Because we have such a large community that we have that built into our platform,  you can always find somebody that is going through what you're going through.

And sometimes, just knowing somebody else has forged this path, before me, knowing we can compare and share stories, is just such a sense of relief.

Jeff Larison: Yeah and I'm sure folks listening can relate to this, but you could pretty much find whatever answer you want to find on the Internet to reinforce your own bias. So I think all the hours that I spent online trying to read and understand, they were wasted. If I were to have had resources supported by medical research that I could turn to, or a community of like minded folks that would certainly have been a really powerful tool. Much better option than Dr. Google.

Romy Wightman: Right, it’s so nice to have that as an option, where somebody has actually traveled the path and has some real life advice to give you. So, it’s nice to hear that this is something Alight does, and I hope more employers are doing. Do you think it feels like that’s today’s trajectory for benefits? Having resources like this?

Jeff Larison: It certainly does feel like this is the trajectory of employers that want to be competitive. For me, and my experience with Alight, it endears me to the organization, knowing that they have my family's best interest in mind and mine and are willing to make the investment in the resources that I need so I can be a productive engaged employee.  Given how competitive things are in the job market right now,  I know if I ever changed roles down the road, I want to make sure that I had those resources available to me.

Employees want to know that they're valued and there is that sort of empathy element of, “life happens.” As an employer, if you want to keep your talent engaged and retained, I think that those sorts of tools really sort of set  employers apart.

Romy Wightman: agreed and it speaks volumes.  As to how Alight values their own colleagues and the value that they provide to your clients they you know they tend to go hand in hand right so that's really encouraging to hear. One of the things that I don't hear many people talking about ,but i'd be curious as to how you feel, is, as a dad, whether it was with your prior employer, the employer before that or currently, with Alight, do you feel that things are changing today where there's more emphasis on dads and dad’s role in the family?

I know today most of the focus is on moms and moms being the primary caregiver. Do you feel like the dads are starting to reap some of the benefits that moms typically receive?

Jeff Larison: Yes, so I certainly hope that that is the case, and Alight definitely set themselves apart from other organizations that I was looking at when I changed jobs, in terms of the generosity around benefits. I think it's something like 10 weeks of paternity leave we get, and some other resources. In contrast, at my last employer, I think I got one or two weeks of paternity leave and luckily, you know the only bright spot of having a baby during the pandemic was being able to work from home and be around the support my wife in an emergency diaper situation or or bath time or or something like that, but yeah.

I know that I'm not the sole caregiver of our child, and our son needs his mom and she takes care of his most important needs, but I’m certainly in the mix and emotionally tied into how my wife is doing in pregnancy and through the birth process. 

So, to be forced to go back to work, a week or two after just seems like that is going to be left in the past, and you know, the other side of history will be us being more generous with new parents, I hope. Give them the time and the space to really make that bond and enjoy this just mind blowing amazing experience, without the distraction of stress or feeling like I have to get back to work.

Romy Wightman: So it definitely sounds like you feel like companies that have parental leave policies and are generous with dads as well as moms really adds to the retention and satisfaction, and even productivity of those employees.

Jeff Larison: Yeah, I think so. If that's offered in another employer and not at my current employer, I'm certainly going to take a hard look at that other employer as an alternative, because it seems like they have their employees' well-being in mind. If that’s important and more of a focus for their organization, then, at least for me personally, that is a big differentiator.

Romy Wightman: And that is so encouraging. My oldest child is now 23 but I was younger, I was a return to work statistic.  I was called into the corner office when I was pregnant with my second child and they said, “Do you really think that you're going to be able to do your job, at the same level that you are doing it today because you're going to have two babies ?” and I thought absolutely, I'm going to be able to do the same job.  

But, it was really clear that they  weren't very family friendly, and you know that was  23 years ago. Where we are today is light years ahead of where we were then. That being said, I would still love to see more progress being made. But I am so happy that you're having a positive experience as you start out this parenting journey because it's not always easy.

Jeff Larison: Yeah and it's great to know that this is sort of the movement of the job market.  Progressive employers are making those investments, and I think it's really important.

Romy Wightman: Right! Now, with your five month old, you probably didn’t have much change or activity since we were all in a pandemic, but it certainly did change your day to day with your nine year old.  With parents working remotely and everybody sharing the same space and meeting flexibility. How has all of that impacted your first year as a parent?

Jeff Larison: Yeah what's funny is, as we are even recording this episode, we had to pause because I had a nine year old break into the room here. That's just sort of par for the course these days and I think, just like everyone else, we're managing it the best we can. It’s sort of a survival mode.  We were glad to have our nine year old back in school full time, but summer is coming up and she'll be home and then we’re back where we started in terms of noise and activity, so we do our best to wear noise cancelling headphones when we need to and carve out space within the house to have our meetings and conversations. And of course we put up nasty post-it notes saying “do not enter”

But, overall it's actually been really special to bond with our family. I think about if I had my son Remy outside of the pandemic and what life would have looked like when my paternity leave was up. I can picture it,  going back in the office and I don't get to see him, or just to hold him for two or three minutes here and there throughout the day. Doing that is so great, and you know, I couldn’t imagine what my life would have been if I didn’t have that. 

Speaking of the movement of the job market, I think the employers that are providing that sort of flexibility for folks to have those experiences are going to end up on top.

It endears me to my employer, it certainly doesn't take away from my productivity. It's just carving out a minute for something that I enjoyed. I'm still able to get my job done, and maybe even do a better job because I'm not speeding out of the office to get home.

So we're making the best of it as most people are. I think it's going to forever change how we think about work and flexibility for sure.

Romy Wightman: That's so wonderful. To sprinkle in the positivity in a year that's been really difficult. But, there have been a lot of positive changes, you know really bonding and spending time with family so I’m glad you have that experience as well. So, I know Father's Day is coming up in a couple of weeks, what does Remy have planned for you?

Jeff Larison: (Laughs) I think he's probably bought me a really nice pair of socks.

Yeah, so I don't know, but it's pretty special. I had a birthday recently, and you know to see his name on my birthday card was so great. I know iIt will be an extra special Father’s Day. And you know, I'd take a bullet for my step daughter. She's like my own too, so it doesn't feel that different, or like this is my first Father’s day. But, given what we went through it's extra special that he's here and he's healthy and so it'll be a sweet time to celebrate hopefully.

Romy Wightman: I'm sure it will be! Before we go, is there any advice that you would give to new dads that you wish that somebody had given to you?

Jeff Larison: Oh man I don't feel qualified to be giving any advice. But that said, you know things that I used to care a lot about just don't seem to matter as much. I would just say, make time for just being with your family. Really enjoy the stages. It's amazing how quickly he's growing. Now he's eating yogurt from a spoon and it's totally disgusting but it's so cute. 

I know that soon he'll be walking around, and so, just trying to be present all the little things that he's doing now. There's a lot of distractions out there and  I guess my advice would be just to try to slow down and really enjoy it.

Romy Wightman: I love just being in the present and enjoying what is and what's in front of you, because none of us knows what's to come.

Thank you so much, you inspire me, I am so happy that you have agreed to share your story with me and with other new parents, I think it is just such a huge, important topic to normalize and continue to normalize and talk about our challenges and our struggles and you know infertility is becoming more common and more people experience it today then you know I think 50 years ago. 

So if we can all find some way to support each other, you know what a great legacy and benefit to leave to others, is there anything else you'd like to add?

Jeff Larison: You know I don't think so I I really appreciate you having me on and like I said I hope that our story in a small way can encourage someone out there that’s maybe feeling a little discouraged or going through this. 

It’s our hope (me and my wife). We’ve talked about trying to find a way to turn this into good, or turn this into encouragement for other people that are going through it.  I know we could have used more of it along the way. So, if you're listening out there you're not alone, and there is still hope out there. There are others that have walked down that hard road too. Thank you for having me on, and I really enjoyed the conversation and was flattered that you were interested in hearing more.

Romy Wightman: Well, thank you Jeff That was a beautiful way to end the segment and I really appreciate you and happy father's day and send pictures!

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