Increasingly over the past year, my father asks the dreaded question at some point during our phone calls: “When are you going to have kids?” I cringe every time he asks this, because it’s the last thing that I want to talk about. At 30 years old, I’m more acutely concerned with paying rent in an expensive city, saving up enough money to extract my wisdom teeth, and chipping away at my exorbitant student debt. And, frankly, I’m still learning how to be a responsible adult on most days. Should I eat popcorn for dinner and go to bed without brushing my teeth? Why not!
I would like to have one baby someday—just not anytime soon.
“You’ll change your mind one day,” he always responds when I say that having children isn’t on my radar. I try not to take my father’s questions too personally. But I realize that the reality of my short fertility timeline undergirds his concerns: While men continue producing sperm throughout their lives—although research suggests that paternal age can impact the risk of genetic abnormalities—the quantity and quality of women’s eggs decline over time.
Maybe it’s the blossoming spring flowers or all the baby photos on my Facebook wall, but lately my father’s prediction has come true. Over the past six months I’ve thought that I would like to have one baby someday—just not anytime soon.
So what are my options if I want to postpone pregnancy? Should I forget about extracting my wisdom teeth and start a savings account for freezing my eggs right now?
Knowing little about my reproductive choices, I set out to learn more about egg freezing, an option that allows women capable of conceiving to delay parenthood.
Right now, I’m focused on advancing my career, traveling, and enjoying my social life. And to date, my love life has mostly consisted of short-term relationships with men I’ve met through online dating sites.
Even if I do find someone who I want to raise a kid with, trading my autonomy for car seats and baby monitors is not in my five-year plan.
Knowing little about my reproductive choices, I set out to learn more about egg freezing.
I’m not the only one thinking about having a child later in life. More and more women, and men for that matter, are choosing to postpone having children because they’re focused on their education, careers, and finding the right partners. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on 2015 data, the birth rates for women in their early 20s reached an all-time low, while the birth rate of mothers in their 30s and early 40s increased.
Postponing motherhood makes sense for those who are building their careers, especially because re-entering the workforce after childbirth is sometimes challenging. A 2009 report by Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes women’s progress in the workplace, showed that many women were reluctant to leave their jobs, and when they did, it was because employers didn’t make easily available “a way to conceivably combine work with the rest of their lives.”
But with delaying childbirth comes the likelihood of miscarriage or genetic disorders, which increases with age. Thus, the process of egg freezing, or oocyte cryopreservation, an increasingly sought-after option for single reproductive women wanting to preserve their fertility. From 2009 to 2013, the number of women freezing their eggs increased tenfold to nearly 5,000, according to Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology data obtained by TIME.
The process involves a woman taking daily hormone injections for about two weeks to mature a group of her eggs. Her matured eggs are collected from the ovaries during a 15-minute procedure while she is under light anesthesia. Those eggs can then be frozen in perpetuity.
This procedure has captured the zeitgeist in recent years. In 2012, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, an organization that promotes the advancement of reproductive medicine, removed the “experimental” designation from egg freezing—but it also warned that there wasn’t enough data to prove that the procedure should be considered a remedy to declining fertility. Two years later, Apple and Facebook announced they would offer egg freezing in their employee health benefits.
Postponing motherhood makes sense for those who are building their careers.
But the price doesn’t make it accessible to all. “Egg freezing is really something that is still a luxury product, and that’s unfortunate because it is something that should be available to every woman,” author Rachel Lehmann-Haupt told me during a recent interview. I wanted to talk to her since she was also a writer who postponed motherhood to focus on her career, traveling, and finding the right partner. In her memoir, In Her Own Sweet Time: Egg Freezing and the New Frontiers of Family, Lehmann-Haupt weaves her personal journey of balancing a career and family together with an account of the advancements in reproductive science. She ultimately decided to freeze her eggs, and became pregnant with a donor’s sperm as a single mother by choice at 40 years old.
Most insurance companies don’t cover elective egg freezing, so it can come at a hefty price. According to the fertility company EggBanxx, egg freezing can cost up to $18,000, and storing the eggs can amount to an additional $1,000 per year. However, some fertility companies offer financing packages with low monthly payments. Lehmann-Haupt recommended putting aside $50 or more a month in preparation for the procedure.
“Egg freezing is really something that is still a luxury product.”
Even so, there’s not a guarantee that egg freezing will result in a baby. According to ASRM, there’s only a 2 to 12 percent chance that one frozen egg will result in a live birth. It’s best to freeze eggs before 38 years old, because the longer a woman waits to freeze her eggs, the lower the chances of it resulting in a live birth. Lehmann-Haupt went through the procedure at 37 years old and said she wished she had done it earlier.
Still, she cautions against worrying too much about the biological clock. “I spent too many years being anxious about all of this stuff,” she told me. “It doesn’t do you service. It doesn’t do the guys you’re dating any service. Definitely chill out, but I do think that having a Plan B is a really good idea.”
If I never find someone I want to procreate with, my backup plan could include becoming a single mom by choice, too. And I wouldn’t be alone. U.S. Census data from 2016 shows that single mothers living with school-age children increased by more than 2 million in about 30 years. Organizations like Choice Moms and Single Mothers By Choice have online forums and communities in various cities that offer support and education to women who choose to raise children without partners.
I’m still unsure whether freezing my eggs is the right option for me, but it’s relieving to know that postponing motherhood isn’t implausible.
For now, I’ll keep Lehmann-Haupt’s words in mind as a retort the next time my father probes into my reproductive plans: “I take what you say seriously, and I understand that I do have a biological clock,” I’ll say. “But please respect my timeline.”
This article was funded in part by the Surdna Foundation.
Melissa Hellmann reports on artificial intelligence at The Seattle Times and is a former Surdna reporting fellow for YES!.