All Your Eggs in One Freezer

“You know, freezing your eggs is a really good option. Especially if you’re not sure about where you’ll be or who you’ll be with when you’re ready,” my cousin told me, leaning against my aunt’s marble counter early last summer. She had frozen her eggs a few years ago, when she was 30 and single. She was now about to undergo in vitro fertilization (IVF) with her new husband.

Coincidently, I had just read an article titled “Why I Froze My Eggs (And You Should, Too)” that argued a woman’s ability to freeze her eggs was one of the greatest gender equalizers in history. The author urges women to freeze their eggs to gain agency over their reproductive process, removing the burden of their ticking biological clock and the pressure to settle down with a partner while they’re still young enough to have a healthy pregnancy. I had never thought about egg freezing before, and my newfound curiosity led me down the wormhole of articles detailing the triumph of women taking control of their fertility.

I was unsure if I even wanted kids and had always assumed that was a problem for later. But after reading all those articles and hearing my cousin’s advice, it seemed that decisions concerning my fertility future were looming. Apparently a woman’s fertility peaks at 22, so I needed to start considering my options. Or, at least, I needed to gain a better understanding of what all these options were, to make an informed decision later.

Between people I know undergoing IVF, friends thinking about selling their eggs to pay for college, and celebrities more and more frequently having kids via surrogacy (Kim Kardashian just announced she and Kanye are having their fourth child via surrogacy, after the success of their third), there appears to be a surplus of childbearing options. It seems easier than ever to have kids, but what do these options entail and who are they really for?

Anyone with egg-producing ovaries can undergo this process, whether they identity as female or not. Since my examples from testimonials and studies are from cis-women, I will often use “she/her/hers” pronouns in this piece; however this process is not exclusive to femme-identifying people.

Egg freezing is the first procedure in the IVF process. According to The New York Times, more than 75,000 women plan on freezing their eggs this year, either with an IVF procedure in the immediate or undetermined future. The name gives away the process: eggs are taken from a woman’s ovaries (via a process disturbingly called “harvesting”) and frozen, unfertilized, in a clinic.

There’s a lot that goes into the process to prepare for egg freezing. First, you have to inject yourself with synthetic hormones to stimulate egg production multiple times a day for a couple of weeks. You also have to take additional trips to the doctor to monitor egg development and various medications that accelerate egg maturity. Then, there’s the actual surgery, where your eggs are literally vacuumed out with a needle in about 20 minutes. The number of eggs retrieved depends on your age: if you’re around 30, typically 15 or so eggs are retrieved, and that number decreases to less than 10 in the late 30s.

When Bloomberg published a popular (so-called “groundbreaking”) article titled “Freeze your eggs, Free your career” five years ago, the cover girl advocating for the liberating effects of egg freezing paid a whopping $19,000 for the whole procedure. Today, the whole process, including the procedure and medication, costs upwards of $10,000 with around $1,200 in annual fees to store frozen eggs (fees vary by number of eggs). That’s still an incredibly large sum and unaffordable for many, especially those in their 20s and early 30s who haven’t had the time to build income. However, more and more companies, like Facebook and Apple, are helping cover the cost for employees. Many insurance companies are also starting to include it in their plans. It’s still a significant investment, but it’s beginning to be more manageable.

Whereas males produce sperm at an approximate rate of 1,500 per second, women are born with a finite number of eggs that age and decrease as the woman releases them during menstruation, until the age of 40. At that point, there’s only around a 5 percent chance of becoming pregnant. This imbalance contributes to a history of biological essentialism, of gender discrimination rooted in biological difference, and is why so many women are turning to freezing their eggs if they can afford it. It’s an attempt to level the fertility field. Men have never had to worry about a biological time constraint to have children, giving them an advantage of being able to focus on their careers for a good chunk of their 20s and 30s, so many women find the opportunity of egg freezing to be potentially equalizing.  

Advancing their careers, however, is not the top reason women are freezing their eggs. Last summer, The New York Times reported a yet-to-be-published study that found that the primary reason women were freezing their eggs was that they hadn’t found a suitable partner with whom to build a family. Based on 150 interviews with American and Israeli women who had already or were currently freezing their eggs, the study found that most participants were single and either driven by the uncertainty they’d find the right partner or had recently broken up with their partner. For many, egg freezing has evolved from a passing fad to a conventional step many adult women take, independent from any partner.

A number of testimonials on Eggsperience, a popular blog Valerie Landis created three years ago to chronicle her own egg freezing experience, explores the egg freezing phenomenon among millennials. Women in various stages of the fertility process from around the world relate their triumphs of egg freezing and personal benefits of the process. Barbara, a 39-year-old from Long Island, froze her eggs after she broke off her engagement. She writes, “Egg freezing helped me feel empowered about my life again.” Ase, from Singapore, went through two cycles of egg freezing last summer and is now “working to help other women in Asia to have the same opportunity and change the conversation.” Molly, a 37-year-old from Los Angeles, even talks about creating a podcast called “Spermcast” after she froze her eggs, “to explore options and find some sperm.” Apparently freezing one’s eggs helps in the dating world? Only two women said that, the jury’s still out on that one.  

The openness about fertility options among women appears generational; a few weeks after my cousin discussed her situation with me, my mom called me and asked, “What’s this whole IMF thing?” She said that she felt weird asking my aunt more about it, that it would have been invading my cousin’s privacy. It’s still a taboo subject for many people who didn’t grow up with the prevalence and growth of fertility options; however, their hesitation around discussing women’s fertility (or lack thereof) only increases women’s feelings of failure or of not fulfilling their expected role; either because they couldn’t conceive “naturally” or when egg freezing or IVF fails.

The woman on the cover of the aforementioned Bloomberg article tried to have a child last year at 45 and all 11 of her frozen eggs failed to fertilize. In an interview with The Washington Post, she said, “I was sad. I was angry. I was ashamed. I questioned, ‘Why me? What did I do wrong?’” She did nothing wrong: although freezing eggs does increase a woman’s chances of conceiving later in life than if she did nothing, the chance of success still varies wildly. Basically, the younger you freeze your eggs, the better your chances are—but even those odds still range. The emotional toll is as varied as the success rate; many women put in a lot of money and energy into the process to still be childless after years of trying.

In an interview with The Guardian, one woman reports the feelings of empowerment from freezing her eggs diminishing when the thawing killed most of her eggs and then she miscarried the last one: “It had never occurred to me that it wouldn’t work. That was it: my last possibility of having a biological child.”

In addition to Eggsperience, there are many other blogs where women find solidarity through sharing their stories of frustration and failure. A lot of women write about the importance of staying positive, while others share the bleakness of losing hope. One woman writes, “With every subsequent failure, you come to expect it more. It gets harder to hope. You get more numb. For the first few IVF cycles, I put on a positive front for my support crew and my husband; no doubt he did the same for me. But now, we’re more honest with each other.”

Egg freezing and subsequent IVF treatments can have a significant impact on women’s mental health, and with no counseling sessions or therapeutic attention included in the price of treatment, it often is up to the patients to learn how to cope. The most significant thing women who undergo failed treatments say they experience is feelings of defeat: failure to perform, historically, the “most fundamental” aspect of being a woman. It is the fault of a society that emphasizes childbearing as a woman’s greatest quality for creating this internalized expectation. Yet, even if I recognize it’s a construct, and even if I’m not sure I want kids, I still feel a sense of entitlement that I should be able to have kids if I want to, when I want to, and that it would be unfair if I can’t.

“A Private Life,” a Netflix original movie released last year, tracks an artsy, witty couple in New York City as they journey through rounds of failed egg freezes, IVF, and eventually, surrogacy. Although the film is fiction, it is based off of the director’s real-life experience. The film focuses on the pain of the process and the stress it puts on the couple’s relationship—one argument on the streets is particularly memorable, with the woman screaming “Do you blame me?” at her husband while punching him, then dissolving into tears as they hug and cry together. In an interview with Bustle, the director Tamara Jenkins said that she wanted to illustrate the emotional pain women experience during the process and explore “the biological tyranny of being a woman.”

It may seem bleak, but the truth is that despite the vast achievements and growing opportunities for women’s fertility that open up careers and agency, it’s not always successful and definitely not without sacrifice. Biologically, it’s easiest for me to get pregnant right now. Will I do that? Fuck no. So will I freeze my eggs—if an employer helps cover the fee—in a few years to give me more time? Even if it still leaves uncertainty, it will probably still be the best option.

 Blue Issue | February 2019