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For years our society has been telling young girls they can have it all when they grow up:
That it's possible to manage a career and still find time to raise a family. “No problem,” they'll tell you in the media. “It's all about time management.”
Except once these girls are women and of an age where they're actually in a position to have careers and families, we leave them on their own to figure it out for themselves.
Enter: egg freezing (or oocyte cryopreservation, if you enjoy long words).
On the face of it, it might seem like a perfect way to delay childbearing while focusing on climbing the corporate ladder.
Latest research shows that, for the majority of women, the decision to freeze their eggs has almost nothing to do with career advancement.
In 2014, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a cover story offering a unique perspective on pregnancy and parenting. The claim: mothers-to-be across America would be freezing their eggs in droves to focus on their jobs while they're young.
Raising children? Something to be done once you’ve conquered the world.
The article went so far as to suggest that freezing eggs would become “a routine part of women's health”. What’s more, future grandparents would happily pay for the procedure to give their daughters a leg-up. (Much the same way they might cover tuition fees or chip in on their first home.)
Many people bought into the hype, with companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google offering egg freezing to their employees as part of their health benefits. Some companies contributed as much $20,000 for egg freezing, expecting their benevolence would be met with much praise.
The popular response, though, was anything but favorable.
Most people were outraged, viewing the offer as a way to discourage female employees from starting families so they could devote themselves entirely to the corporate hive.
While the offers themselves were generally met with disdain, the theory behind them remained widely embraced—although it failed to hold up under closer scrutiny.
The Financials of Freezing
At first glance, it makes sense for a woman to freeze her eggs and delay having children until later in life when she's in a better position financially. Raising children is an expensive ordeal and achieving financial security is challenging when you're first starting out in the workforce. However, freezing eggs is its own costly endeavor.
Most young women just starting their careers simply aren't in a financial position to freeze their eggs. While the logic behind egg freezing as an employment strategy is sound, the math doesn't work.
Time in a Bottle?
As many who’ve frozen their eggs have learned, the freezing process can't stop time. If a woman freezes 10 eggs at age 36, her odds of achieving pregnancy with them is only between 30 and 60 percent. The odds decrease as both the woman and her eggs age. Some eggs don't survive the thawing process while others may live to see fertilization but simply aren't viable. Still, others fail after implantation.
Although there's a degree of risk involved, there are countless compelling reasons driving would-be mothers to freeze their eggs. Except given there are no guarantees that a frozen egg will produce a baby, most women aren't likely to risk losing their chance at fertility just for a job.
Another issue is that while the eggs are frozen in a type of suspended animation, their owners aren't.
People still age after having their eggs frozen, after all, and at any time, an illness or medical condition could arise that makes a future pregnancy difficult or even dangerous.
The Current Trend
Casting the 2014 Bloomberg article aside, researchers at several clinics in Israel and the United States went directly to the source. In 2018, they asked their clients why they were choosing to freeze their eggs.
One hundred and fifty women were surveyed. Only two cited a desire to focus on professional advancement as their reason for freezing their eggs.
The results showed that 85 percent of those freezing their eggs were single women who simply hadn't found a suitable partner yet. Afraid they might meet the right man at the wrong time, many participants said they were simply planning ahead so having a baby with the right person could still be possible, even if Mr. Right only showed up later in life.
While 85 percent of the survey participants were single, 15 percent were not. These ladies had partners, and apparently, their men were the driving force behind their decisions to freeze their eggs: they either weren't ready for children or simply didn't want any.
Others women stated they weren't ready to commit to becoming a mother just yet or were in relationships too new to seriously evaluate their partners as potential fathers.
A Real-Life Insight
Julie Bernard, an IT specialist currently based in Portland, Oregon, says that while she adores children and knew from a very young age that she someday wanted to start a family, egg freezing made perfect sense to her “because there was no way I was going to put my career on hold at 23 so I could become a full-time breeder.”
While Bernard was in a healthy long-term relationship when she first heard about egg-freezing, she remained concerned the day could come when she'd suddenly find herself childless, single, in her late thirties, and overwhelmed with regret for not having children when she'd had the chance.
So she went for a consultation at an egg-freezing facility where she was told that, given she was only 23 years old, it might be wise to wait a few more years before having her eggs frozen.
But did Julie ever actually need those eggs?
“Hardly. I broke up with my boyfriend a year after undergoing the procedure and met my future husband, Gary, one year after that. Gary was really keen to start a family, and once I was 27 or 28 my career was already well underway, and oddly enough, I'd become less enamored with work life at the same time.”
The couple stopped using contraception and less than two years later Julie gave birth to her first child, Ari.
“Even after giving birth to Ari I chose to keep my eggs frozen for another few years—just in case. I only stopped preserving them once I became pregnant with my second child, Charney, the following year” says Bernard.
“So yes, I guess you could infer that by freezing my eggs when I did that I spent a lot of money on absolutely nothing, but that's only partially true. Because just as important, I bought myself peace of mind knowing I'd be able to have children in the future if I wanted them. You really can't underestimate the value of this – to me, at least.”
Freezing as Societal Reflection
One recent study made it clear that the main reason mothers are freezing their eggs is because they're staying single longer, fearing the door will close on their reproductive options before they find the right man. The study didn't, however, shed any light on why would-be mothers are finding suitable mates harder to find.
One potential explanation is their education level. In many developed countries, including the United States, females are more educated than their male counterparts. Those looking for a partner with a similar educational background may find him hard to come by in certain parts of the country. Well-educated females are also much more capable of finding good jobs and supporting themselves financially without the help of a male partner.
When viewed in this context, the freezing of a woman's eggs serves as a way for her to claim her independence and tell society that she refuses to settle for an inferior mate. Research has repeatedly shown that single women are happier than single men and less likely to grasp at dating straws.
The Future Of Freezing
Although they may not be doing it to further a career, hopeful future mothers are still freezing their eggs in large numbers, roughly 76,000 in the United States alone last year.
As more women opt to freeze their eggs, the social stigma surrounding the procedure is decreasing. While some of the first women to do it reported feeling somewhat ostracized, many now report feeling empowered by having one more reproductive choice.
As freezing becomes more common and the technology advances, the costs are also coming down. Plus, an increasing number of clinics are offering financing plans to make the procedure more accessible to more people.
Although we currently have the ability to freeze eggs and use them in the future, technology is always evolving. It's reasonable to assume that as the technology progresses, so will the odds of successfully freezing, thawing, fertilizing and implanting eggs and embryos. More people will be prepared to undergo the procedure and consider freezing their eggs if the success rate of these procedures increases.
Although we remain a long way off from the day when freezing eggs will be as common as Bloomberg Businessweek predicts, we are slowly moving closer to this reality.
On the other hand, medical advances in fertility could make it possible to bypass the freezing process altogether in lieu of something even better. Only time will tell.
So, what do you think?
What is the perfect timing to raise children? How did your plans turn out? Have you considered freezing your eggs just in case? We’d love to hear your thoughts on these important and difficult questions!