There are times in all of our lives when we come to a fork in the road and we have to choose which path to take. Maybe the choice is between staying in a relationship and leaving, or between continuing in a job and jumping ship. Some of these choices have life-changing consequences.
When I was 42, I was faced with a future-defining choice – to put my eggs on ice or not.
At first glance, it seemed the decision to freeze my eggs would give me a safety net – the chance to have a biological child using my own eggs, either with the partner I was yet to meet or with donor sperm if a man didn’t show up.
On the other hand, choosing not to freeze would mean I’d have to trust that my 40-something eggs would be healthy enough to produce a child naturally further down the line or to survive IVF, or that I’d be OK with not having kids.
But as with many big decisions, the reality was more complex.
Would banking my eggs actually be an insurance policy or would I be spending four or five thousand pounds I didn’t have on a false promise? Would the emotional and physical upheaval of an IVF cycle – or two or three – and the potential disappointment of a low egg harvest be worth it? Would the time and energy I’d invest in egg freezing remove me from dating for so long that I’d miss out on meeting a partner in time to have a child naturally? And was I absolutely certain I wanted babies?
Then there were the potential upsides: having my eggs on ice might reduce my anxiety about missing out on motherhood, meaning I’d be in a better place to meet the right partner rather than scare men off with my ticking clock or panic and choose an unsuitable mate. Surely I’d be taking control of my future like any smart woman would and spending my money on something worthwhile?
For an indecisive perfectionist like me, it was an agonising decision so I put my journalist hat on and gathered the facts. My research was both personal and professional. I was writing a book aimed at women who think they might want children but are running out of time.
I pored through statistics, interviewed fertility experts and spoke to women who’d frozen their eggs, most of whom were glad they’d taken steps to preserve their fertility, even if some were sceptical that their banked eggs would ever produce a baby.
As for the experts, the consensus was that I was asking the question too late. Dr Gillian Lockwood of Midland Fertility Services told me egg freezing would be a “very, very long shot” at 42 and others suggested I’d be better using donor eggs from a younger woman further down the line if I wanted to get pregnant.
The statistics weren’t encouraging either. Fewer than 60 babies have been born to patients who’ve frozen and thawed their own eggs since 2001, according to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, while the overall live birth rate per thawed cycle begun in 2013 was 14 percent. But egg freezing is relatively new and it will take a few years before we know whether the women who banked their eggs went back for them and had a baby.
And as with natural pregnancy, how old we are has a big impact.
“The success rate is affected by the age of the woman at the time her eggs are frozen,” the authority said, “and was considerably lower for women in the older age group” of 38 and above.
The unfortunate truth is that our eggs age along with us and the cell quality declines, so older eggs are less likely to survive the freeze-thaw process. We’d be better banking our eggs in our twenties, but I was busy travelling the world and building my career back then.
Despite the low success rates, however, the most common age to freeze is 37-39 and egg freezing is growing in popularity, rising by up to 30 percent year-on-year as more women opt for a back-up plan, more clinics advertise the procedure to female commuters on buses and trains and more celebrities like Kim Kardashian tell the media they are taking control of their futures by freezing their eggs.
If you know you want kids, surely freezing is worth a shot even if the odds are stacked against you?
I eventually found my answer, not in the statistics, the interviews or in my head, but in my heart. I couldn’t imagine pricking myself with needles, having my eggs harvested and storing them in a deep freeze on the off chance they would thaw successfully and produce a baby. I could have found the money and the time, but my heart wasn’t in it.
Did I take the right fork? I took the right path for me. I’m 46 now and I don’t have children but I’ve realised I was always ambivalent about motherhood. I’ve also realised that what I wanted most was to be in love and that was a much bigger challenge for me. I had to offload lots of emotional baggage in order to fall in love but I got there and I’m now engaged (to a man who has never wanted children).
Yes, sometimes I feel a pang of envy when I see women with their babies but most of the time, I’m happy with my life and that shows in my writing too. The book about not being a mum has yet to be finished, but I wrote a book about falling in love.
That said we are all unique. Another woman could be writing this piece, delighted that she has her eggs on ice. Or another writer could be typing this while her baby, created from a frozen egg, sleeps in the next room. Whatever she went through to create her child, I imagine she’ll say it was worth it.
Egg freezing, like any other path to motherhood, has to be a personal choice. I did my research and then asked my heart to show me the way. I encourage you to do the same.
Katherine Baldwin is a writer, coach and author of How to Fall in Love – A 10-Step Journey to the Heart