First published by The Pool on 15 October 2016
As a woman in my thirties, let me say something for the record: women of my age and older are fully aware that our fertility is on the decline. How could we not be? It’s never out of the news.
If you read some of the articles and opinion pieces on the matter, you might assume that the life of a childless thirtysomething is a 24/7 funfair of casual sex and career striving – that we “delay motherhood” with a shrug, certain that we can try it in our forties, like taking a ceramics class or training for a marathon. But the women I know who tried to become mothers in their late thirties or forties have largely waited not because they wanted to go travelling first (although, personally, I think that’s a perfectly fine reason) – but because the opportunity wasn’t there to have a child earlier. Some commentators may be surprised to learn that women can’t spontaneously produce babies on their own; it’s a process that requires a man’s involvement, though this isn’t mentioned much in the press coverage.
Yes, I’m tired of the implication that women play fast and loose with their fertility and I know I’m not alone in that. So, it was refreshing when Dr Kylie Baldwin, senior lecturer in sociology at De Montfort University, went some way to debunking the myth last month, when she presented her doctoral research into social egg freezing.
Before we go any further, note the word “social”: it makes undergoing the procedure – which involves medical tests, hormone injections, pain, time off work, and enormous expense – sound like a leisure activity. It’s meant to describe egg freezing undertaken for non-medical reasons to improve your chances of conceiving later in life, but the distinction is nebulous – if you freeze your eggs because you’re about to undergo chemotherapy, that’s a medical reason; If you do it because you’ve discovered that your ovarian reserve is low, or because you have a family history of premature menopause, that’s a social reason.
Over the course of five years, Baldwin spoke to 31 heterosexual women who had frozen their eggs. The long-accepted wisdom, she says – that the women who do it want to delay motherhood – was not reflected in her interviews at all. None of the contributors cited career reasons and, in fact, most of them were ready to have children when they froze their eggs; the problem was usually that they hadn’t found a willing male partner who they thought would make a good dad.
“Many of them had been in relationships for a long time, prior to freezing their eggs, only for the relationships to break down – in some cases, when they started talking about motherhood,” says Baldwin. Others had only recently met their partners and weren’t at a stage where it felt appropriate to have a child together; a couple of the participants “were in relationships with men who did not want to become parents at all. They were freezing their eggs hoping that their partner may change his mind, or because it gave them the option of pursuing parenthood in another relationship in the future.”
According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, in 2014 816 women in the UK started the process of freezing their eggs (there is no data on social egg freezing specifically, so this includes those who did it for medical reasons). This is a very small number, but it’s an increase of 25 per cent compared with the previous year. Egg freezing is on the rise and that’s largely due to the introduction, around 2010, of a new, more effective method: "vitrification" allows the eggs to be frozen very rapidly, giving them a higher chance of surviving the freeze. The technique is too new and the numbers still far too fuzzy to report, but it’s expected that this method will significantly improve the success rate.
Jess, 38, had her eggs frozen in April. “I’d not yet met the right person and I would like children,” she explains simply. She’d had good relationships, but so far nothing serious. “I wanted to have the option of maybe going it alone, if it never happens with a partner.”
The procedure cost her £5,000 and, for up to 10 years, she will now pay an annual fee of around £300 for the clinic to store the eggs. Her experience was positive and she has recommended it to several friends. “It’s nice that you can do something yourself to take control of the situation,” she says. “You do the injections yourself and that process is weird, but it’s quite empowering. The appointments with the doctor were fine and then, just before the eggs were extracted, I became very bloated, which was uncomfortable, but nothing worse than a bad pre-period bloating. After the procedure, I went home feeling very triumphant – I bled for a bit afterwards, and my periods took a few months to get back into their normal cycle, but there was nothing worrying. It’s made me feel a lot calmer and I can just get on with enjoying life and dating.”
Egg freezing can alleviate the stress around declining fertility and might even make it easier to wait for a good relationship, rather than settling in a bad one. Nevertheless, it’s expensive, invasive and offers no guarantees. Sapana Agrawal is the founder of Smart Egg – an organisation that aims to provide women with information and the support to help them decide what’s best for them. She was pleased to hear about Baldwin’s research. “In my experience, the number-one reason why women consider egg freezing is exactly what that data has shown – it’s either that they haven’t found a partner yet, or their relationship isn’t in the right stage for them to have a child,” she says. “I go to a lot of medical events on egg freezing and I hear doctors say again and again that women should just get on with having kids. I always put up my hand and say the same thing – that it’s not about trying to manipulate your life and career. The women I’ve spoken to are having their eggs frozen because they want to know that they did their bit, not because they’re trying to puppeteer the rest of their lives.”
This is echoed by Baldwin’s research; many of her interviewees said that, once they learnt about the procedure, they found it difficult to resist. “They felt really compelled to engage with it, so that they could hold their hands up and say, ‘Look, I’ve done everything I possibly could to achieve this ideal of motherhood',” she says. In a situation where many women feel that they have little control over how things turn out, this procedure provides a sense of doing something constructive.
Essentially, though, it treats the symptom, rather than the complex problem behind it – that the culture we live in now works against our fertility. “Men are almost completely absent from discussions around the timing of parenthood,” says Baldwin. “It’s still women who are often berated about becoming mothers at the wrong time – these irresponsible teenage mothers, or these selfish older mothers. In actual fact, men are central to social egg freezing.”
It’s not that modern men don’t want children, but their fertility doesn’t provide the same time pressure and they’re not necessarily in a hurry. Among earlier generations, it was typical to get married and have children in your twenties; the idea of exploring independence as a single adult was more or less unheard of. Now, it’s the norm to leave a commitment for later, which, in many ways, is a huge advantage to us all – it allows us to broaden our experience and be sure of what we really want before making promises to other people. But the side effect of this is that more women are now single during our most fertile years and, when we’re ready to contemplate parenthood, sometimes the men our age are not.
When Baldwin delivered her research at the British Science Festival in September, she said, “Countless women told me about how their relationships had broken down because their partner, fiancé or husband would not commit to having children.” This is not every man’s attitude, of course, but it happens often enough to be problematic. Women can face an impossible dilemma: waiting so long for a good partner that you risk losing your fertility, or having a baby with a man about whom you have serious doubts.
Beyond all of this, even among couples where both parties are ready for kids, there are other hurdles that feel particularly relevant to today’s generation of young-ish adults. “We can advise women to have their children at an earlier date, but if we’re not going to do anything to address the soaring cost of living, house prices and maternity discrimination, then why is there any incentive for them to take that advice?” says Baldwin. “They’re not going to be economically and structurally supported to do so.”
Against this backdrop, a procedure that might give you a bit more time is difficult to ignore. It’s not that egg freezing is a perfect solution; it’s that there isn’t a perfect solution at all.