“Aren’t you too young for that??” I squawked at my friend Claudia. We were eating pizza poolside in the middle of summer and she had just told me that she was planning to freeze her eggs. I was projecting, hard — we were both 33 and I had been debating the same thing but wanted to put it off.
Claudia didn’t think she was too young, plus the timing was good for her. She was debating a move abroad and wanted to take care of it before things grew more uncertain for her.
A few months later, Claudia did freeze her eggs. She found the process to be only a minor nuisance and the whole thing was over in a few short weeks. Witnessing the relative ease of her experience reset my idea of what I thought all fertility treatments were like — emotional juggernauts that wrecked your body — and shortly after she finished her procedure, I started mine.
Waiting for Mr. Right and fighting a toxic headspace
Much of the narrative around egg freezing in the United States centers on women prioritizing their careers. We’re supposed to picture a woman in a business suit at the head of a large meeting table thinking, “I couldn’t possibly give this up to have a baby right now.” But surveys show the truth to be different — most women freeze their eggs because they haven’t found the right partner yet.
This is the boat I found myself in at 33. I had always wanted to be a mom but had yet to meet someone with whom co-parenting seemed plausible. When I was younger, I wasn’t concerned about when I would have kids — I just assumed I would be able to whenever I was ready. Then, at 31, it was like a switch went off. I found myself single and in an absolute panic about never finding a partner or having kids.
During this time, it wasn’t uncommon for the very first thought I had in the morning to be a fucked up vision of a biological clock countdown. I would quickly do the math about when I would need to meet the future father of my children and how long we could date before procreating in order to have a child by a certain age. Waking up to an immediate mental beatdown of yourself for having the audacity to age is incredibly unpleasant. It started to take a toll.
As this toxic headspace became harder to navigate, I began to consider freezing my eggs. But, though I’m not proud to admit this, it felt like giving up. Like I was throwing in the towel on the possibility of meeting someone and doing things the old-fashioned way. Egg freezing is also REALLY expensive (to the tune of $10,000) and I dreaded what felt like a potentially unnecessary cost. (Note: It’s rare for companies to cover egg-freezing and my employer at the time did not.)
The faulty data on female fertility
For many women in the U.S., the age of 35 has a mystical, horrible weight to it. Much of what is written about fertility would have us think our reproductive systems basically implode at this age. We’re left thinking that if we don’t have kids by 35, we might as well give up on the idea.
But if you dig into the research on the subject, the data is murky, and a hopeful story for those wanting children later in life emerges. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to run true scientific trials on conception — people don’t exactly invite researchers into their bedrooms. So we are often left with imperfect data that relies on human self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable (do you even remember what you had for lunch two days ago?), or data that compares two groups of people who are inherently different.
One glaring example is an oft-cited study published in Human Reproduction in 2004 stating that one in three women ages 35-39 will not get pregnant after a year of trying. The data used to support this claim? French birth records from 1670-1830. You read that correctly. I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping that ALL of my health outcomes are better than those of women who lived without electricity and penicillin. And it’s impossible to know whether older couples, who likely already had children and didn’t want more, were having sex as often as younger ones.
Next, there is the fact that we may be overestimating the importance of biological age in getting pregnant. I’ll explain. Super fertile women are more likely to have an accidental pregnancy when they are younger or to have their kids very soon after trying to get pregnant. After 35, they may still be quite fertile but because they aren’t trying to get pregnant, we have no data on their fertility.
In short, many fertile women have self-selected themselves out of the data on pregnancy in women over 35 by not wanting more children. Not to mention women who decide they don’t want children — they could be fertile but use birth control, and again, we have no data on their fertility whatsoever. In fact, for women who have already had children, fertility rates at 40 are similar to those at 20. If you’re someone who has been super diligent with birth control, this could be good news for your future prospects of getting pregnant (if that’s something you want).
Overall, especially considering most women hit menopause in their 50s, fertility does decline with age. And the risk of chromosomal abnormalities on a fetus increases slightly as well. (Note: we’re still talking about a very small risk — for 40-year-old pregnant women, 97% of fetuses tested are still chromosomally normal.) Faulty data and the fact that about half of fertility issues are related to men aside, younger eggs tend to be an advantage toward having a healthy pregnancy.
Put ’em on ice
When I decided to pursue freezing my eggs, I scheduled a consultation with Claudia’s doctor. He quickly won my trust by spending an hour and a half giving me what amounted to an extensive biology lesson on the female reproductive system and pregnancy. He was patient and treated me like a smart person. And it didn’t hurt that he commended me for considering this option “so young.” I left wondering what I had ever learned in high school health class.
After a hormone level test, I was considered a good candidate, so I started the two-week-long process. Typically, a woman produces one egg per month, but I began tricking my body into producing more by giving myself two to three hormone shots a day for 10 days. I also got blood tests and ultrasounds every few days to check that things were working as they should.
Soon, my ovaries were growing a tiny farm of eggs. Less than two weeks after my first hormone shot, I went in for a 15-minute procedure to have the eggs removed, which involved general anesthesia (aka I was out like a light) but no stitches because it’s done with a needle through the vaginal wall. My worst symptom throughout the whole process was feeling bloated for the last three to four days prior to my egg retrieval. Other than that, I felt pretty normal during and after the process.
I paid $5,000 I had saved up in cash and put the rest (another $5,000) on a new 0% APR credit card I took out to pay off the rest over the course of a year.
The best $10,000 I ever spent
Even with all that I know now about how questionable the research and prevailing ideologies around childbearing age are, I have no regrets. The emotional relief I felt when the process was over was intense and immediate. I haven’t woken up in a panic about my biological clock since. In fact, I almost never think about it. Instead of worrying when I’ll meet the right person to co-parent with or putting undue pressure on romantic relationships, I now ponder whether I want children at all.
The fact that I only realized I was unsure about having children AFTER I froze my eggs fascinates me. It makes me wonder how much wanting kids was based on an actual desire to be a parent versus feeling the need to beat my biological clock and live up to societal pressures of womanhood.
Though there’s no way to know how easy it will be for me to get pregnant until I try (if I try), knowing I have relatively young eggs waiting on ice for me makes me feel like I bought myself at least a decade of peace. Heck, Cameron Diaz just had her first child at 47 (congrats!). Even if I never touch those eggs, I often joke (but not really joke) it was the best $10,000 I’ve ever spent for the mental health benefits alone. Though it’s certainly due to a number of factors, I can’t overemphasize how much better I feel overall and how much more relaxed I am in my approach to dating now.
Fertility is a sensitive subject for so many people. I don’t share my story to brag about how easy freezing my eggs was for me. But so many of the existing narratives about fertility are about pain and struggle, and egg freezing, at least, doesn’t have to be a last resort utilized only when you’ve reached a point of despair.
For me, the process wasn’t emotional at all. I was single, so there wasn’t another person invested in how it went or hoping for a certain outcome. And I wasn’t ready to have kids, so it didn’t involve the painful binary of getting pregnant or not that so many people undergoing things like IVF face.
If you can afford to freeze your eggs and want to have children later in life, you’re in good company. The only age group in the U.S. with increasing birth rates is women over 35, and when you look only at women over 40, their birth rates are growing even faster. The other great news is that more companies are offering egg freezing as a benefit to employees. I hope this option becomes easier to access for more women — for me, it was one of the best choices I’ve ever made.