Last year, a 38-year-old friend sent me a link to an article titled “My Secret Grief: Over 35, Single, and Childless” by Savvy Auntie author Melanie Notkin about her heartbreak over not having children with the email subject line “She nailed it!” I quickly replied with the answer I’d given many friends who were worried about finding a partner in time to have a baby: “Freeze your eggs!” I gushed about how taking charge of my fertility had made me feel more relaxed and helped my dating prospects. Then I preemptively knocked down my friend’s arguments: You can afford it. It’s not too late. I’ll help you with the hormone shots. Despite my best efforts at cheerleading, she remained tepid: “I’ll think about it.”
As the author of a new book profiling women who have frozen their eggs, I have to be somewhat delicate about evangelizing to my friends. These are very personal decisions, loaded with meaning for people. But months later, after another evening of watching her anxious pinched forehead as she relayed her latest dating disaster, I finally lost my patience: “I don’t understand why you won’t freeze!” To which she replied: “I don’t want to give up the dream that it could happen naturally. There’s just something so sad about it.”
Egg freezing is the latest frontier for women’s fertility. By allowing women to postpone motherhood, it gives women options to control the timing of career and family, take their time finding a mate, and reduces the chances of conceiving a baby with birth defects from using old eggs. Last fall, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine announced that egg freezing was no longer experimental. And celebrities, such as 40-year-old Sophia Vergara, 34-year-old Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Kim Kardashian (then 31 and not yet pregnant with Kanye West’s baby), have jumped on the bandwagon.
Yet there seems to be a cultural resistance to embracing egg freezing. Women like my friend think of it as a sign of failure, a capitulation to disappointment. And many people from the outside see it as a selfish choice of the pampered, entitled generation of have-it-all feminists, as I discovered from the nasty comments on a recent story I wrote for the Wall Street Journal titled “Why I Froze My Eggs (And You Should, Too) ” about freezing my own eggs between the ages of 36 and 38 after dating a man who didn’t want kids and finding love again at 42. I was called “self-absorbed and calculating,” an “over-educated idiot” and a “horrible narcissistic person” who has a “sad pathetic life.”
This kind of disapproval seems to tap into a disgust of some imagined women foolishly seeking salvation in science because she frittered away her fertility while climbing the corporate ladder or guzzling after-work mangotinis. Unlike other older mothers who were often rewarded with children after long battles with infertility, women who freeze their eggs for later use are by definition planning on becoming older mothers. (Exhausted mothers, no less, who forgot to think about the demands of parenthood, when they hatched this scheme in the first place!) Plus, they are the kinds of women who can find a way to pay for it.
Maybe it’s because of this lingering stereotype that even women who take the step to get information from a clinic may be slow to warm up to the concept. Only about 1 out of 15 women inquiring actually end up freezing eggs, says Christy Jones, founder of Extend Fertility, an egg freezing referral service that connects patients to 11 clinics across the country. “About half of those will end up talking to someone by phone about egg freezing. Half of those will move forward with lab work and a physician consult, and half of those move forward with freezing eggs.” Of the women who do freeze, Jones says that many patients inquire about egg freezing in their early to mid-30s but don’t go through with the procedure until several years later, when they’re facing the end of their baby-making days. “There’s little sense of urgency because your fertility doesn’t decline overnight,” she says. “It’s a slow fade.”
There are, of course, objective reasons for women to be wary. It’s not guaranteed to work, and at $9,000 to $13,000 per round, it’s dauntingly expensive. And you have figure out how late you could have a baby and still be fair to that child. But other reluctance is more psychological. Many women think there’s still something humiliating or unnatural about having to use science to have children. “There’s a resistance to the medicalization of fertility in general, especially accepting new treatments,” says Takefman, Ph.D., a psychologist at McGill Reproductive Centre in Montreal. They’re embarrassed to ask their parents for financial help. They dread getting their hormones tested and learning that their fertility is already in decline. Or they feel bad about where they are in their lives and think, “Oh God! I have to resort to this.”
There is some good news. Apparently, once women make the decision to freeze, they feel better about it. One study of 241 patients who froze their eggs found that the majority of women planned to share their intention to freeze with friends and family, “suggesting that the action of freezing one's eggs may feel empowering rather than shameful,” concluded the authors. And the stigma against egg freezing might be decreasing. Fertility doctors are reporting a surge of new patients, including more women under 35 who bring a different mentality. “The young women are doing it to proactively preserve their fertility, not salvage it. They see it as another option. They freeze because they want to travel the world or go back to school,” explains Takefman. For them, egg freezing isn’t a sad desperate act or punishment for not steering their love lives better. It’s a tool to plan their futures. It’s liberation from the constraints of biology.
These younger women, proud as they are, have a lot to teach their big sisters. Hopefully, their attitude will steer the national conversation to respecting women who take control of their fertility and try to give their children a better life rather than condemning them for following a different timeline. Perhaps this will help women who are on the fence move forward with the procedure and stash their eggs when they are their prime. Or at the very least, a more accepting attitude will help those women who decide not to freeze feel less grief.