There was one time in my life when I was grateful for the biological clock. I was thirty-two years old and summoning the courage to leave a relationship. After nearly eight years of living with a man I deeply loved, I wasn’t miserable. I just wasn’t happy.
We had been doing the stuff the advice books say you’re never supposed to do. We punished each other with silence, criticized each other’s driving, made separate holiday plans, argued in public, and butted heads so fiercely about meals, budgets, sex, housework, exercise schedules, movie choices, and vacation destinations that it became easier to spend most of our free time apart.
We tried the standard fixes: we went to couples counseling, swapped lists of behaviors we were willing to change, and spoke in “I feel” statements. There were brief improvements, but the tension always returned, and I became increasingly certain that I did not want children with him. How could we agree on how to take care of another human being if we couldn’t decide when to do laundry? I made sure never to miss my birth control pills.
I knew we had no future, but I also felt no urgency to overturn my life with a crushing, consuming breakup. There never seemed to be a good time, either. Who wanted to be alone during the holidays, the Fourth of July, the first day of fall? I would give it six more months, I told myself. Maybe we could read more books. Maybe we could try a new therapist. Maybe we could go on a long vacation. It wasn’t all bad, I reminded myself.
Then that terrifying book came out. In the spring of 2002, Sylvia Ann Hewlett was detonating bombshells on nearly every talk show with Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. The message was clear: your fertility fades much sooner than you think; your eggs deteriorate dramatically after thirty-five and are pretty much fossils by your early forties. So listen up, all you clueless careerists! You’ve got to make having a family a priority. You’d better think twice about all your indulgent plans for advanced degrees, foreign postings, and after-work cocktails. Otherwise you’re going to break your heart and the bank pursuing futile in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments in an attempt to “snatch a child from the jaws of menopause.” That’s not to mention the increased risk of having a baby with Down syndrome if you manage to get pregnant.
I joined my generation in a collective gasp. “Now?” I whined to myself. I had just finished graduate school and was trying to launch my career as a freelance journalist. Plus, I still had to break up, grieve, find a new apartment, move out, lose ten pounds, acquire new relationship skills, and try to meet someone else. Then I had to get engaged, marry, and make a baby. That left very little contingency for rebounds, bad judgment, and trouble becoming pregnant.
If everything went as planned, I could have my first baby at thirty-seven and maybe fit in a second by thirty-nine. “My God!” I exclaimed to my girlfriend over the phone. “I’ve already lost my third child!”
Before Hewlett’s book, I had assumed that I would be a mother, just as I knew I would marry, buy a home, and at some point fit into those Oshkosh B’Gosh short overalls I bought two sizes too small in college. I sleepily went about my life and took comfort in the pleasant stupor that was someday. I had little sense there was an actual deadline and that it was looming. Life was challenging enough without God suddenly setting a timer.
Without knowing it, I had become a Clock Ticker, and my pleasant stupor was replaced by the loud hum of the clichéd biological clock, which began to torment me like a clunky old air conditioner. My friends started having babies, and I was suddenly behind. I overheard my parents
making excuses for me to their friends: She’s busy with her job. She’s a late bloomer. She’s picky. In the most discouraging sign, relatives stopped asking when I planned to get married and start a family, as if I had been relegated to being the Crazy Aunt at family gatherings.
There were statistics to prove you were not alone, and that you were a member of a swelling demographic of women who had delayed marriage and motherhood. Supposedly one in five women was waiting to start her family until after age thirty-five, a percentage that had increased nearly eight-fold since 1970. And for the first time in history, more children were born to women over thirty-five than to teenagers.
You saw enough older new mothers in your neighborhood to know the statistic was true, but secretly you still wondered if there was something wrong with you because life hadn’t worked out for you the way it had for Everyone Else. You told yourself that there was nothing wrong with being the Last One Left. You were simply on a different path and would make good decisions for your future. But you still felt a little twinge of sadness every time you saw your single-line listing on a family reunion attendance list. Or shopped for boxed Christmas cards of New York City snow scenes because it seemed ridiculous to write a holiday letter about yourself. Or realized that you were one of a few friends from high school holiday get-togethers available to go out after 8 p.m.
I wish I could say that I trusted everything would work out and that I carried myself with a Secret-like confidence that made me wildly attractive. I didn’t. I spent the majority of my thirties alternately freaking out and talking myself down. I paid thousands of dollars for therapy, drank too much wine, and harassed my busy friends and family with distraught phone calls. I often repeated their encouraging words in my head before I went to sleep: I still have time. There are lots of good guys out there. I am in a better place now to choose a mate than I was in my twenties. I have learned a lot of relationship lessons. I still have time. But only one thing gave me real comfort. If I actually did run out of time, I had a list of motherhood options taped to my desk lamp: donor eggs, foreign and domestic adoption, other couples’ leftover IVF embryos, stepchildren. I knew the alternatives came with their own complications, but I thought
they were ones I could live with. And if I had to live with them in the same house as my fabulous new husband, all the better.
So why did I still feel so awful? When the panic subsided, I was gripped with sorrow that I was losing my chance to have a biological child. Not an abstract baby but the baby I had dreamed about my entire life. Her name had changed over the years from Ashley to Chloe to Claire, and she wore various outfits and hairstyles. But in my imagination, she was always three years old, clomping around in my high heels, freezing apple juice in ice cube trays, and saying things that made me go gooey inside, such as “This is the best day ever, Mommy.”
I wondered why it was so important that she shared my DNA. Was I curious to see if she had my high forehead or loved mustard and rainy mornings like I did? Was I intrigued by the idea of creating an extension of myself and the man I loved? Or did I crave seeing several generations of my family in one photo? All I knew was that the idea of never meeting Claire (or her younger brother, Henry) seemed utterly tragic.
I can’t remember when I first heard about egg freezing, a procedure that promised to make the biological clock obsolete. The concept was extraordinary. Hormone shots made your body pump out eggs, which were surgically extracted and frozen. When you were ready to become a mother, the eggs could be thawed and fertilized in a lab with your future partner’s sperm to make embryos. Just as in standard IVF, those embryos would be placed inside your uterus to grow into babies. The only difference is that you would be using your younger, hardier eggs in case your current eggs were no longer viable. And since it’s possible for women to carry a baby well into middle age, you technically could become a mother whenever you wanted. Not that you would necessarily want to have a baby at, say, fifty or sixty, but the point was that you could.
When egg freezing first appeared in the cultural cosmos early in the past decade, my friends and I talked about it in a hyperbolic way, as when a seventh-grader frustrated with boys shouts, “Fine! I’ll just become a nun!” We loved this handy metaphor to communicate our fears about becoming lonely spinsters. “Well, at this rate, I’ll have to freeze my eggs,” we might say in the same tone as “move to Alaska” (a state with a heavily
skewed male-female ratio). We threw it around as cheap drama intended to be oddly reassuring because, after all, who would really have to resort to something so expensive and extreme?
It was only after I turned thirty-five—the point of no return—that I began to seriously consider what egg freezing could do for me. I fantasized about what it would be like to be free from the suffocating press of time that constantly reminded me that my entire future happiness depended on the decisions I made over the next few years. It meant I could escape the penalties for lacking the spine to leave a relationship I knew was not working. It meant redemption.
Egg freezing seemed too good to be true, in the same baffling way a diet pill promises to magically wipe out the caloric damage of waffle fries or Botox can make you look forever twenty-five. It felt unnatural and sort of unfair, as if I could buy the privilege to take the final exam later than the rest of the class or skip filing taxes. I wondered if I would approach dating differently if I was no longer in such a rush. Maybe I’d treasure these next few “free” years unencumbered by baby anxiety and write a bunch of books, train for a marathon, and solidify a marriage. That way, I’d be in an even better position to be a mom.
Would egg freezing clarify my life? Complicate it? Or leave me right where I started?
My girlfriends and I loved to linger over dinner and imagine what life would be like off the clock. We speculated that some of our married friends may have been more selective and would now enjoy better marriages if they hadn’t feared being “put out to pasture.” We lamented peers who had panicked prematurely and gotten stuck with reluctant fathers or left home alone as single moms. We wondered whether gun-shy friends would make more of an effort to date if they thought their ovarian age no longer mattered. We mused about what it would be like to have the same reproductive freedom as men, even to date and think like men. Or (gasp!) actually date younger men—a biologically attractive pairing, considering women live on average six years longer than men. Men would also have more choice of partners, since those who wanted children wouldn’t have to seek out for their egg quality women who would never understand why
they spent nights and weekends playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school.
In any case, surely men would appreciate a little less pressure from us. They also might be more willing to give relationships a serious try if they didn’t fear they were wasting our last chance at motherhood.
However, the idea of stopping the clock also made us a little uneasy. You could never actually count on egg freezing, and any relief was overshadowed by the awareness that your remaining fertile years were still ticking away. So far, the success rates of egg freezing ranged wildly and were always accompanied by asterisks explaining that the technology was rapidly improving and that you could game the odds by freezing several rounds of eggs. Still, it was a bewildering equation. How were you supposed to be cautious and hopeful at the same time?
Even if egg freezing did work, the question remained: Would tinkering with such a finely tuned reproducing machine lead to harmful social and personal consequences? You would be an older mother and might endure a more difficult pregnancy. You might not see your children marry or know your grandchildren. Your own parents might not even meet their grandchildren. As my wise friend Janelle said, “Maybe you’d just drag out the whole thing. At forty-five, you’d still worry if you were ready to be a mom. Without the clock, there’s no trigger to force you into action.” She had a point. Deadlines serve a purpose in life.
But my friends and I could only speculate because, like most people who talked about egg freezing in 2005, we had not frozen our eggs or met anyone who had. As I considered the procedure, I wanted to meet other women who could tell me how egg freezing had affected their lives. Did it take off the pressure and help them relax more? Did they date differently? Marry later? Most important, did their frozen eggs help them have babies years later, when their natural fertility was gone? The journalist in me wanted to explore this medical breakthrough and changing social ideas about coupling, mating, and parenting. The Clock Ticker in me wanted to find a group of big sisters who could share how they navigated this difficult and confusing time.
However, in 2005 only a couple dozen women had frozen their eggs,
let alone tried to thaw them. So I approached the handful of doctors who were offering the procedure at that time and asked to be put in touch with their earliest patients. Kevin Winslow, a fertility doctor in Jacksonville, Florida, and Megan Aitken, a patient educator at the national egg-freezing network Extend Fertility, introduced me to women who were willing to include their stories in a book. They are uncommonly generous women who spent countless hours with me sharing their innermost fears, anguish, and joys. I wanted them to feel comfortable speaking openly about their lives and past relationships, so I have changed their names and disguised their identities, as well as those of their acquaintances and loved ones.
I weave in the history of the science and controversy about whether egg freezing should be offered to healthy women by including two important figures on opposite ends of the debate: Dr. Michael Tucker, an embryologist who pioneered the procedure in the mid-1990s, and Christy Jones, an entrepreneur who promoted it to the masses. I also tell my own story.
And in the end, I attempt to answer the looming questions: What happens to women after they freeze? Did the act of freezing put them on a different life path? If so, was it a better one? Was egg freezing the reprieve we imagined?
I also hope to challenge the cultural stereotype of how Clock Tickers are viewed. There are many reasons why a woman might freeze her eggs. A 2010 meta-analysis of twelve studies identified the following ones: divorce, family history of premature menopause, career or educational opportunity, lack of supportive partner, or just not feeling financially secure or emotionally stable enough to bring children into their lives.
But the media clings to two caricatures: the materialistic career girl who is too ambitious to pay attention to her own biology (translation: she’s too selfish and independent to be married) and the plucky single gal “still looking for Mr. Right” (translation: she’s undatable or too picky).
Older women are often described as becoming mothers after battles with infertility. Stories frequently report the number of miscarriages they have suffered and that their “miracle” baby is a “long-awaited” reward
for faith and persistence. But egg freezers are a different lot. They weren’t caught off-guard by infertility; in many cases, they’re planning on becoming older moms. They’re even seen as delusional for putting their faith in such young and unproven technology. Or they are called entitled and immature (just like the woman in the “Oops! I forgot to have a baby” postcard). They frittered away their fertility drinking mango-tinis and climbing the corporate ladder while the rest of the world hunkered down and raised children, whether or not they were ready.
Even as society grows more comfortable with the new reproductive power of forever fertile fortysomethings, we’re still not completely comfortable with the concept of egg freezing—or sympathetic to the women who freeze. If their half-baked baby plans don’t work out, we quietly think they deserve their fate. Or if they do work out, we wonder if their kids will pay the ultimate price because their mothers messed with nature.
Why doesn’t a woman who freezes her eggs ever get credit for proactively seeking a solution to her so-called problem of waiting to have a baby? Why isn’t she celebrated for enduring hormone shots and emptying her bank account in order to have a better chance of finding a partner and father for her children, avoiding birth defects, and becoming financially secure so she can hold up her end of a marriage or support a family?
This “take charge” attitude is one of our most fundamental American values. Seen this way, egg freezing isn’t an act of desperation or indulgence. Rather, it’s an act of love for her future family.