We are all familiar with women’s declining fertility as they age, but when women in their late 30s and early 40s take action to become mothers, I notice. Because I was an older mother when I had my child, I am fascinated with new technologies that may allow women to postpone pregnancy.
According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, economist and director of the Gender and Policy Program at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, high-achieving career women in their mid- to late 30s are woefully ignorant about the end of their own fertility. When reality sets in, some take what is still considered extreme, even drastic measures: harvesting and freezing their viable eggs.
Egg freezing is relatively new on the reproductive landscape and much controversy and pushback prevails as Sarah Elizabeth Richards recounts in her fascinating book, Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. She tells the very personal stories of women, like herself, who froze their eggs.
By 1997 only a handful of babies had been born by thawing and fertilizing stored eggs; the number has climbed to a couple thousand worldwide. The methods to thaw and fertilize eggs have improved, but concerns about chromosomal or long term issues for babies that result from frozen eggs remain. However, there many more clinics in the United States willing to use a process once reserved only for women with medical reasons such as undergoing cancer treatment that would likely destroy their eggs.
Sarah Richards tells her own story, who like the other women in the book, was “aging out” in terms of how long her eggs would be viable. We read about older celebrities who have babies, but the fine print ignores the fact that they probably became pregnant with donor eggs. Richards and her subjects wanted to use their own eggs, ideally with the love of their life that they hoped to meet: Some men were not ready to have children quite yet; some had children from a previous marriage and weren’t sure they wanted any more; and others didn’t want children at all. For any female who has been in the dating world and dreamed of becoming a mother, the stories will seem familiar, their hopes and struggles, strikingly so.
The decision to freeze eggs is difficult, but those who do, feel in charge. As Richard notes, “Egg freezing doesn’t silence the biological clock. Rather, it temporarily dulls the ticking so you can catch your breath and make good life choices…but instead of feeling like a victim paralyzed by anxiety, you feel more in command of your own destiny.”
Were the results 100 percent among the women Richards talked to? No. Every woman’s story is unique, making her decision to freeze her eggs an individual choice or as Sarah Richards points out, “there is no typical Egg Freezer.” When Kim Kardashian discussed the possibility of freezing her eggs on her television show, if nothing else, she made millions of women in the their 30s and 40s aware of the option.
Egg freezing is expensive and the hormone treatments prior to the actual retrieval can be uncomfortable. For all the difficulties and risks, the desire to be a mother may outweigh the struggles for more and more women. With fertility science improving at a steady clip, no one knows what other choices will be available in the near future for “older” women who so want to be called “Mom” with a loving partner who will be called “Dad.”
For now, as Sarah Richards explained to me, “"In addition to getting more time to find a mate and reduce the chances of birth defects, I'm always surprised about the psychological benefits of egg freezing that women say they receive. Not only do they enjoy years with less anxiety and less pressure, they really feel better about themselves. They feel they've taken charge of their futures and given themselves a second chance at motherhood. They've changed the narrative of their lives from 'if' they'll have a baby to 'when.' I can't tell you how powerful that shift is."
Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman