Colleen Brierley and Jen Conley both had their own journeys to parenthood, which involved various and numerous approaches to bringing children into their lives. This meant that there were many struggles along the way, and the lessons learned were ones that they wanted to share with others. Each woman had successful careers within their own fields of interest, but they came together to create a non-profit, Journey to Parenthood, that would “help couples and individuals dealing with infertility achieve their dreams of becoming parents by providing financial and emotional support along their journey, as well as to provide education and resources.”
In an effort to raise money to provide financial grants for those seeking fertility treatments, surrogacy or adoption and in hopes of lessening the financial burden that is too often associated with infertility, they are holding their First Annual “Don’t Stop Believing” Gala on Saturday, November 1, 2014. The keynote speaker is Rachelle Friedman, and Nancy Chen, the news anchor from NBC, WHDH, will be the emcee. The women hope that it will be an evening of being together, talking about infertility and being in a room with people who understand what you have gone through or are going through and raising money to help somebody else in the same situation.
Read on to hear their story to creating Journey to Parenthood and how they made the decision to turn a personal passion into a business…
Can you tell me a bit about your professional life before you started Journey to Parenthood?
Colleen Brierley: I am an attorney, and I still have my own law practice. I work in Massachusetts, and I do children and family law. I represent people in probate court, in juvenile court, child custody, child abuse cases, and court investigations. I am also a guardian ad litem. Before practicing law, I had a career as a social worker, so I always worked with children at risk.
Jen Conley: For most of my career I was an Executive Director of nursing homes. I was licensed as a Nursing Home Administrator and then did that for many years up until my children were born. I stopped working after they were born and as of last year I started selling real estate. It gives me a little bit more flexibility than health care.
Journey to Parenthood has been a very personal endeavor for both of you based on your own personal stories with infertility. Can you share your story of how you became passionate about the idea of helping others with their infertility struggles and journey to becoming parents?
Colleen: I am 52 years old right now, and I met my husband in high school. I’ve always worked with kids and knew I wanted a lot of children of my own. I became pregnant at 22, right out of college, and then I had my son, Michael, at 25. At that point I wanted to go back to school to be an attorney so I opened a daycare in the house. I had a house full of kids like I always wanted but only two of them were mine. I did that for four years, and went to law school at night. Coming out of law school I still wanted to have more children.
A couple of years later I started having miscarriages. I was getting pregnant but then losing the baby. I went to the doctor and started infertility treatments, and it was really kind of a shock. You see celebrities and people having babies in their late 30s, and I just figured I had already had two children so easily and quickly that it would not be a problem. But at 37 it just wasn’t happening, and my biological clock was very real. I think that people need to talk about that because I was one of those people who didn’t believe it. You see it with celebrities, but nobody talks about how they achieved that pregnancy at 42.
I became pregnant with twins that I carried for almost 20 weeks and my babies lived for almost a half an hour. After that my husband and I were at a standstill and devastated. At that point, I don’t know if it was this inner voice or what, but it was just right here in front of me to adopt. I work with children at risk so that just seemed like a light went on. Now I have three six-year olds that we adopted through the Department of Children and Families (DCF), and they are awesome and amazing. Yeah, I have a house full of kids now!
Jen: After my husband and I got married, like most couples who want to start a family, we waited about a year until we decided to try to start a family. About six months later I got pregnant and that ended in a miscarriage at about 16 weeks, which was unusual because it was in the second trimester. The doctor told me it was like getting struck by lightning, but my amniotic fluid was low and we decided to just keep on trying.
We went through that and then maybe six months later got pregnant again. That ended in miscarriage, which then prompted my doctor to start looking into further testing to try and find out what was wrong. That never amounted to anything. I went through all sorts of tests and kept on trying. We started doing some minor fertility stuff and had another miscarriage after that. As time went on we started getting more into complicated procedures – in vitro fertilization verses intrauterine insemination (IUI). I didn’t really have any successful in vitro fertilization pregnancy during that time. After the course of a year where nothing had worked then we stopped and took a break and got pregnant on our own. That resulted in another miscarriage where they couldn’t find anything wrong.
Basically, at that time, we used up whatever our insurance would pay for us to continue our fertility treatments, so we started talking about adoption. We really wanted a family and how could we make that happen? We started the adoption process and knew we wanted a newborn so we knew that domestic adoption was the way to go versus international. After about a year and a half into that process we got matched with a birth mother from out of state. We made a connection and met with the family. We were really excited and then after she had gone into labor we went down to where they were from and that was when the whole process started spiraling out of control. We were told that the birth father was not in the picture and didn’t want anything to do with it. We came to find out that he did not want the adoption to happen. It left us helpless with no legal right to do anything. So, we spent a few days down there hiring another attorney and realizing this probably wasn’t going to happen and we should turn around and go home. It was agonizing and the worst pain of our lives. My husband and I drove home alone.
My sister in-law was there when we got home and said, “We arere going to make this happen!” She offered to be our gestational carrier. It was still a hard process to go there, because it still costs a lot of money. We still had to think about legal fees and how much money it would cost even though family was doing it for us. My mom said not to worry about it that they would help us out and make it happen. I guess the other part is that it’s still not a sure thing. You can go for the next thing and you are still not sure it is going to happen. So, we said, “What do we have to lose at this point?” So, we went through with the process and we were lucky the first time and she got pregnant with our biological twins. After eight long years of battling fertility and loss we were blessed with a boy and a girl!
For both of you, it was years of trying and that takes an emotional toll on you, your body, as well your marriage. To you find that there are honest conversations happening about what all of this does to you besides just the physical part? How is Journey to Parenthood creating support around that as well?
Colleen: The pain and the roller coaster, unless you have gone through it, you don’t know it. It can be very isolating. The biggest healing is talking, sharing and being with somebody who shares your experience or one that is similar. We have found already that even just having Journey to Parenthood that women (mostly women), are writing on the Facebook page or sending comments, emails and responses. We had an article in our local Norwood magazine and many emails turned out from that.
After I lost my twins I shut down. I didn’t reach out to other people, and it took me a while to come to grips with everything that happened. Looking back, I wish I had. I was just grieving tremendously. That’s okay, that was my journey, but it’s much better to be around other people who have gone through it. I think that other people, too, can make it tough. When you talk about it with people who don’t understand it or haven’t gone through it, they can be sympathetic but there are a lot of things people say like, “Oh, just adopt!” or “That happened to so and so. They tried for years and then got pregnant!” So, there are a lot of things that you don’t want to hear from somebody who has not been through it. Although they are trying to be sincere and supportive, it sometimes makes it more difficult. I think that is sometimes why people don’t talk about it.
Jen: Like Colleen said, it’s a matter of what gets you through and that is connecting with other people. I think that is what I found during my journey that was most helpful. You are right in that it can take a toll on someone’s marriage, and I have seen marriages break up from people who just couldn’t make it during their fertility battle. There are good days and bad days – like any marriage. I think that when one is having a bad day the other can kind of pull them through and vice versa. In mine, I’m fortunate in that I think it actually made ours stronger. You do need that support from one another to get through it. I think that combined with family support, friends, and other people who are going through it. Whether it’s one person or joining a group or something, you feel like you are not so alone. It seems simple but it is so powerful to have that network.
Our stories are so powerful. The more we share them, the more we feel that we are not alone and can understand each other a little better. Also, to your point, Jen, everybody is so different in this situation. What works for one person does not mean it’s going to work for another person. I think that can be kind of challenging because it can add to isolation a little bit in that every situation is so unique. Can you talk a little bit about how the two of you met and how you came to the decision to start Journey to Parenthood?
Jen: I actually grew up with Colleens’ younger sister so I have known Colleen for 25 years or maybe a little longer. Colleen knew what I was going through, and I knew what she was going through when her journey started. We were actually at a Jimmy Buffett concert, and we started talking about how I had this idea and wanted to do something. I had done a little bit of research and wanted to get her opinion on it. I wondered if she would be interested in embarking on this endeavor, and she was all for it.
Colleen: We started meeting at our local coffee shop, Perks, on Tuesday mornings and started developing our business plan. We got law books on how to start our own business and how to start applying for non-profit status with the IRS. We just kept plugging away. Before we had our own IRS status we started forming our Board of Directors. We have great people now, and formulated that Board of Directors with a lot of thought to have people in all areas – business, IT, the medical field, a CEO, a social worker. We’ve spent a lot of time since we started this all in 2011, but it seems like it was yesterday that we had that conversation at Jimmy Buffett! It really is just a passion that Jen and I had, so it’s not like work at all. It’s really a great feeling to be involved in this organization.
So, you are both are still doing other jobs on top of starting a non-profit, which is a considerable amount of work. Can talk about how you balance that?
Colleen: We are lucky because I have my own law practice. I’m a litigator and do a lot of child work. I contract with the state for the primary bulk of my job, but I’m responsible to my clients and my office is in my house so I have a lot of flexibility. When you are passionate about two careers in your life, it doesn’t feel like work. That’s how I make it work. I have a great partner in life, too. My husband is amazing. I met him when I was 16 and never looked back. He is my better half!
Jen: After my children were born I was lucky enough to be able to stay home with them. When they were about three, I started thinking about what I wanted to do when I got back into the workforce. I knew I wanted to do something I was passionate about, and everything that I had been through in my story it became what I was passionate about. So, I thought about how I could turn this into something good. I started thinking about it, researching it, and thought about giving back to others who are going through similar situations. I had that time. Now I am doing real estate and that does give me the flexibility. Plus, I have a supportive husband. Like Colleen said, when you love what you do, it is not work. You don’t mind staying up to midnight to get it all done. At this point Colleen and I can support our board and committee members who are helping out as volunteers but at this point it is just volunteer for all of us.
Starting a non-profit is obviously different then setting up a for profit business. You did a substantial amount of research to form Journey to Parenthood. If someone were in the position right now where they are thinking of starting up a non-profit, what piece of advice would you have for them or what do you wish you would have known then that you know now?
Colleen: Do your homework. Read before you file anything. Make sure you have all of those meetings with your partner. Research. Make sure you fill out the paperwork they are looking for. Make sure you check it twice, three times before you submit because you are dealing with the government. Expect to wait. It took us a year to get our 501c3 status, which was quicker than what I’ve heard from a lot of people.
While you are filling out the government paperwork, we took that opportunity to go out and set up meetings with all of these professionals that we wanted on our Board of Directors. That takes time because you are dealing with their professional schedule. We just made sure that we were always doing something while we were waiting for the non-profit status. When you go to meet with these people make sure you are prepared about who they are and what their job is. You don’t want to waste peoples’ time so when you go into the meeting be prepared and know exactly what you are asking of them.
Jen: Like anything, you can’t jump into something too quickly. As much as you want to see things progress faster than they do, you have to kind of take it slow and steady and make sure you are taking all of the right steps to make it happen and build upon your experience. It’s a matter of doing your research, doing your homework, and starting out slow.
Can you talk about your ultimate dream, hope or goal for Journey to Parenthood? I know part of it is to provide support for people who are going through this process. In your ideal world, where would you like to see Journey to Parenthood grow?
Jen: In an ideal world we would like to see a number of grants given out per year for people who are struggling. To put a number on it…thousands of grants a year would be fantastic, as that would be millions of dollars. It’s a matter of being able to support the applications that do come into us and in an ideal world not have to turn anybody down – although that is probably unrealistic. We do have an application window that is open for people for anyone who is struggling and needs financial support. Hopefully by the end of this year or early 2015 we will give out our first grant. I think that combined with just trying to get people to talk about it, get rid of that stigma that surrounds fertility and get people to be supportive of and talking about it.
Colleen: I want Journey to Parenthood to be that resource where a woman who receives a diagnosis of infertility and she doesn’t have a lot of money or has limited (or no) insurance coverage and her doctor can just say, “Listen, Journey to Parenthood, here is their website, go see them.” I want to be that resource that is so strong and will be there for somebody at that level. I want to be that well known and that strong that we can help somebody from jump.
I listened to the interview that the two of you did for your local news. One of the things you talked about, and please correct me if I am wrong, was that in Massachusetts part of the treatments are covered by insurance, is that true?
Jen: Sometimes. Massachusetts is one of the states that is mandated for that coverage. However, there are loopholes like there isn’t anything else and if somebody works for a company that is based outside of Massachusetts then they may not have any coverage at all. If their company is involved in a self-insured plan then they may not have any coverage also. There are definitely different ways that not everybody is covered. Then obviously, adoption and surrogate costs are never covered.
Most states don’t cover any of it though. I know because I have had friends go through the process. Do you envision a national organization or are you going to focus primarily on the Boston area?
Colleen: Jen and I already think we are a national organization! We accept applications from any part of the country. We have received a donation from Ohio and also one from Australia. We are going to focus in the United States, obviously, not Australia. We are small and our focus is to get the word out locally because that is what we can do right now, but as much as we can get the word out nationally, that’s our goal.
A keynote speaker at our gala is from North Carolina, Rachelle Friedman. She is an amazing 28 year-old young woman who was paralyzed at her Bachelorette party. You may have seen her on the Today show or on Katie Couric’s show. She wrote a book, The Promise. She was at her Bachelorette party and one of her friends playfully pushed her into the shallow end of the pool and she is now a quadriplegic. I saw her on the Today show and she was talking about having a baby since this all happened, so Jen and I reached out to her. She has agreed to be the keynote speaker at our gala on November 1st in Boston. She is from North Carolina and she worked with a surrogacy agency in California because she had a special circumstance.
Putting on an event to the scale of your gala is no small task. It seems like you have done a really wonderful job of tapping into your community to make it all happen. It also sounds like a lot of your mission with Journey to Parenthood is to create a community around infertility and talk about how someone can bring in their community they live in to make sure they are engaged and educated. I know you have lived in Norwood for most of your lives so I think that community is probably infused in your daily life, but can you talk about how you have used that community to start Journey to Parenthood?
Jen: That is exactly what is happening. I think it is just started to build on family and friends who are around and who have jumped on board whether they have gone for fertility treatment or not. They think this is a great organization and want to support it and want to support us. When people hear about it then they want to help out.
Colleen: The core group is friends of mine from high school, Jen’s sister-in-law who carried her babies and people who love us and have lived our losses with us. When we start to talk about infertility, the statistic is that 1 in 8 couples will go through this. So, when you start talking about it, somebody has a cousin, a co-worker that they love or a sister, and it really does draw near and dear to your heart. Infertility is sad, it’s devastating, it’s painful, it’s isolating. When you come through it, and if you come through it with a baby or the adoption of a child it is the biggest joy in your life. So it is a roller coaster ride that touches a lot of people. Through our foundation it gives people that forum to start talking about it and offers that lifeline.
It becomes a journey that is not just yours. I mean, you are living it but so many other people are on that journey with you. So what about the person who is in their late 30s, still single, but knows that they want to have children some day – which is a growing number of women. There is definitely a level of fear involved in what their options might be. Can you offer any advice to people who maybe know they want to have children, but are not in a position to do it right away? What should they be thinking about or keeping in mind?
Jen: There are many people in that situation, especially women today who want to have their careers and put off getting married and having children a little bit later. It does happen and people do think about that. There are processes, which again may come down to money, like with people who may want to freeze their eggs or maybe get donor sperm and have a baby on their own. People do that, and you don’t need to have a partner to do that today. I know people who have done that. There are plenty of options for people. With our organization we don’t discriminate. It can be an individual person, it can be a couple, it can be a same sex couple. There are certainly different stories of how people create their families and everybody is different. It may not be that you can’t get pregnant. It may be that you don’t have the right partner to get pregnant and now it’s going to cost you money to have a baby. Why should that stop you? How can we help somebody in that situation, too?
Colleen: You just have to be smart about it and talk to your doctor. That is what women need to do. I was the person who just assumed into my late 30’s that I would be able to get pregnant, and so you just have to be aware and educate yourself. There are a lot of options that women have. There are egg donors and there is new technology about freezing eggs, although I don’t know if that always works. So, that is the kind of medical questions that you have to address. Just like anything, knowledge is power. You have to be proactive and talk to your doctor about that sort of thing.
One of the great things that Journey to Parenthood is doing is creating a space where that conversation can happen. I do think sometimes people just don’t talk about it or are afraid to talk about it. How can people just start openly having that discussion and not worry about it on their own until the time comes when it is too late. Along those lines, Chapter Be is about creating a life that just allows us to be our essence and be accepting of ourselves. Can you speak to what you did during your process of trying to become pregnant or have a family to just kind of be and not allow it to become all-consuming, as I’m sure it was a difficult journey.
Jen: I think that is an extremely difficult question for this type of thing. I think it’s a day-to-day process more than anything. You get through it, move forward, and you just have to think positively. If you want something bad enough, it can happen, it just may not be the way you thought originally. You just have to keep fighting and moving forward. I think it was just trying to stay positive. You certainly have bad days, and plenty of them, but it’s just thinking about things will be different and let’s try again. You still live your life. You still get up and have a job and still interact with people.
When you go in for a fertility treatment, you have to make sure of what surrounds you. Your job has to be somewhat flexible, you have to be able to get in to a doctor every day for a week straight to get test results and get your levels drawn. You want to plan a vacation for six months and then you think, I don’t know, will I be pregnant? What will happen? Will I be in the middle of a cycle then? It’s a matter of taking a deep breath and continuing to just live your life as best you can. Do the things that you would ordinarily do and then also take time out for yourself. Don’t feel bad when you are having a bad day or when you see a woman walking by who is pregnant. Just take a deep breath and if you want to go cry about it then go cry about it. It’s okay to feel that selfishness of not going to a baby shower because you just don’t want to go. It’s okay to just go, “You know what? I have to think about me.” I have friends who are pregnant, and I love them but I just can’t be there for them every 1st birthday because it’s tough.
Colleen: A woman who is going through this right now told me that people have said the cruelest things to her on Facebook. She is running road races and living her life and this friend says, “How would you even have a baby. You would have to change your life so much. I’m so jealous of you. You get to go on all of these trips!” This person has had discussions with Jen and me about this during a MeetUp that we do. She can’t even believe that this other person said this to her because she wants a child so much. She said that now she feels like when she puts things on Facebook that people are judging her. She was able to vocalize this to Jen and I and we were able to tell her not to even listen to that person and ignore it. Like Jen said, it is okay to allow yourself to hurt and allow yourself to just be you. Allow yourself to have time and take care of yourself. It’s okay as a woman to put yourself first, and your feelings first, because if you are not okay then you can’t take care of everybody else, right?
People don’t always realize how what they are saying could be taken a different way and could be hurtful. Journey to Parenthood is creating this platform for discussion, and maybe with that people will think a little bit more about the things that come out of their mouth and how what they are saying could be hurtful! Just hearing both of you talk all of this and the emotion that you feel, it’s very clear how passionate you both feel about the subject matter and the organization. You have mentioned that it is all volunteer at this point. Do you envision that eventually Journey to Parenthood will be your full-time job or do you think it will always be something that is a passion-project and not necessarily your full-time job?
Colleen: I would like this to be my full-time job. I would just love to work 100% on Journey to Parenthood.
Jen: I think I feel the same way. When we talk about getting back to the workforce, I would love to do something I am passionate about and that I love to do. To me, this is not work. Eventually, to build a team and a staff and really get the word out there and get the exposure to Journey to Parenthood would be great. That would be our goal.
Notes of Reflection:
- Colleen and Jen and their process of creating Journey to Parenthood are a great example of how you go about starting your passion-project. You start small while continuing to work other jobs, you involve community and you just take it day-by-day and step-by-step in order to really build it. At this point in time both women are working other jobs and raising families while the work to build their dream organization. They started by creating a structure of meeting once a week and held each other accountable for moving forward.
- More than once both women stated that the creation of Journey to Parenthood did not feel like work. That they did not mind putting in the extra hours and not being paid because they loved it so much and were so passionate about the mission and making it happen. They found something that gives them energy even when they are tired after a long day of working or taking care of their children. That is the sort of “work” that rejuvenates instead of drains you.
- Community! Both of these women spoke about the fact that it was community that helped get them through their own personal journey to parenthood and it is community that is helping Journey to Parenthood become a reality. How can you call on those around you to help make your dream a reality? We don’t have to walk and pave our paths alone – it is worth reaching out and creating a community of people around you that support you and your idea.
- Journey to Parenthood is an astounding example that all of our stories are valid. Jen and Colleen are clear that they want to create an organization that supports all people and that there isn’t one correct path to creating a family – in the same way that there is not one correct path to being in this world. We need to allow each individual to live the life that makes sense for him or her.
- Negotiating Rationally by Max H. Bazerman and Margaret A Neale
- The Power of Positive Thinking by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
- The Promise by Rachelle Friedman
- The Secret by Rhonda Byrne
- The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life by Deepak Chopra
- Nolo Series – Starting & Building a Nonprofit and Effective Fundraising
*Images via Journey to Parenthood