Egg freezing: Not the solution to the work/life “dilemma”

7271305936_095e8d5dc3_mThe facts seem stark: the best time for building your career — for paying in and climbing the ladder — is between the ages of 25-35. The best years for having a baby? For women, it also turns out to be 25-35, before we allegedly tumble off the ovarian cliff. Men don’t face quite the same ticking clock (though it turns out the chances of birth defects do rise with paternal age) and so many a pundit has lamented this: If only there was a way to extend women’s fertility, too!

Enter egg freezing. This past weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt from a new book on egg freezing by Sarah Elizabeth Richards, and it’s safe to say the concept has hit the mainstream. Flash freeze your eggs when you’re young(ish) and fertile, then implant them later in life. Suddenly, you’ve removed all time pressure. Or as Richards writes, “Egg freezing stopped the sadness that I was feeling at losing my chance to have the child I had dreamed about my entire life. It soothed my pangs of regret for frittering away my 20s with a man I didn’t want to have children with, and for wasting more years in my 30s with a man who wasn’t sure he even wanted children. It took away the punishing pressure to seek a new mate and helped me find love again at age 42.”

I’m very glad this worked out for Richards, and I hope she succeeds in her quest to have a baby — either the normal way with this new love, or by thawing her eggs from the freezer. But I’m not sold on the thesis of the story, namely that egg freezing is a solution to larger questions of combining work and life. Richards writes that “Amid all the talk about women ‘leaning in’ and ‘having it all,’ the conversation has left out perhaps the most powerful gender equalizer of all—the ability to control when we have children. The idea is tantalizing: Once you land the job and man you want, you can have your frozen eggs shipped to your fertility clinic, hand him a semen collection cup and be on your way to parenthood.”

Here’s the problem. First, it is entirely possible to find a mate and have a family while building a career. Egg freezing sounds vaguely feminist, but it plays into the anti-feminist line that work and family are incompatible. I cringed to read that Richards “met two women who were wrestling with turning 30 and worked at the prestigious management-consulting firm McKinsey. One was single and the other had a long-term boyfriend. But they had the same point of view: Egg freezing gave them options for fitting a family into their work lives and time to meet a future partner.” OK, that’s one option. But another option might be to talk to the female partners at McKinsey who got married and had children in their 20s and 30s and didn’t find this incompatible with building their careers. And as a corollary, if a company is truly sexist, your path isn’t going to be easy, even if you put off the dating and baby thing until age 40-plus.

But even if you don’t buy my line that there is no work/life dilemma, egg freezing is expensive, medically unpleasant (if the reports from my friends who’ve done IVF can be counted as evidence), and still pretty risky. One particular problem is that people tend to think about egg freezing between the ages of 36 and 39, but the ideal age to harvest your eggs is roughly 27. That’s when your eggs are at their best, but, of course, few 27-year-olds are contemplating egg-freezing. Few are thinking of their long-term life plans that way. Few have the resources. If you do, and if you are that far forward thinking as a 27-year-old? You’re probably better off just going ahead and having a baby. For starters, you’ll be a great mom. And second, the $50,000 Richards put into freezing her eggs can pay for a kid’s care and upkeep for quite a while.

What do you think of Richards’ piece, and egg freezing in general?

In other news: I enjoyed Anya Kamenetz’s interview with Bill Gates in Fast Company on education. 

A new study takes another look at the question of whether money can buy happiness.

Yahoo/CNBC posts the “Off the Cuff” episode I recorded on 168 Hours.

ThinReads — a new website devoted to short ebooks — runs an interview with me (and calls me “the success whisperer” — I love it).

Here’s a podcast of American Weekend, from an interview I did this weekend. business list iTUnes

And the audio versions of the ebooks are climbing up the business bestseller list! See the screenshot here (#1 and #6!). You can buy the latest ebook on iTunes here.

(photo of eggs courtesy flickr user telepathicparanoia)

18 thoughts on “Egg freezing: Not the solution to the work/life “dilemma”

  1. I’m glad egg freezing is an option. My friend who is doing it (MIT PhD) was married and her husband had a longterm affair he refused to end so they divorced. Her new relationship (with another MIT PhD who asked me out in college) hopefully will end better- he’s a nice guy, but so academically inclined that he’s only getting around to his (final?) graduation at age 40.

    There are lots of professional men who would rather marry a younger, supportive wife or go “in vitro” rather than “in vivo.” The previous guy is an example. I wasn’t interested in him in part because he and I had very different life clocks.

    At the top levels of business- consulting and startups- few people without the sorts of connections that Sheryl Sandberg has successfully merge a significant family life with a successful career. Philip Greenspun, a blogger who retired young, has taught at MIT, and who has been successful in startups, has a great response to Sandberg.

  2. I don’t know the stats, but is egg freezing/in vitro really that “easy” and “successful” as it seems that book is making it out to be? I thought most IVF rounds were only 25 -50% successful? And each round is pretty pricy, not to mention the cost of retrieving/storing the eggs, which I assume most health insurance doesn’t cover since it’s completely elective?

    I think it’s great that we have the technology, but I think it would really suck to assume that it was all going to work out just because you froze eggs in your early 30s…

    1. @ARC – I think it’s still experimental, but less so than it was 10 years ago when people first started talking about it. And yes, health insurance doesn’t cover it. The author writes about spending $50k for it — with her parents kicking in money they’d figured they’d use for her wedding.

      1. No, some health insurance plans (including my own) do cover infertility treatments, including IVF — up to 3 rounds of IVF in the case of my own insurance plan, and up to 2 rounds of IVF in the case of my friend in Chicago’s plan who actually used up all of those benefits, so they switched over to his wife’s plan which covered up to 3 rounds – all of which were unsuccessful, sad to report – but they eventually adopted.

  3. I’m just past 27. As I wrote in a recent post, when the topic of egg-freezing came up among my fellow MBA ladies friends, the idea seems to be greeted with a lot of enthusiasm or at least relief: egg-freezing to delay kids?My own former boss suggested egg-freezing to me. I think you raise some excellent points, especially about the feasibility and financial commitment of egg-freezing – seriously, that $50K could go to a house down payment!! On the other hand, even though a late-20something might be *financially* ready to have kids, that doesn’t mean she is emotionally (or any-other-ly) ready to have kids. What do you do then?

    1. @Well Heeled Blog – I’m not sure there is ever a moment when one is ready. It’s kind of like starting a business. There’s no perfect point. You do it and learn as you go. While age 17 might not be ready for many reasons, beyond that, people figure it out at 24, 27, 34, 37, 44… There are lots of trade offs. You might have more money at 37, but more energy and an easier pregnancy at 25.

      1. No one is ready. If anyone really realized what it was no one would do it. That is the beauty of the life lived wide… right? I agree with the metaphor of starting the business… it is not impossible… there is a reason when a woman is pregnant with her first you see her as like a virgin — I think of how my friends with kids must have looked at me and how supportive many of them were, especially my neighbors… a great joy, a great risk … seems like you can’t just plan or freeze away life’s complexities and why would anyone want to ?

  4. I found the article incredibly frustrating. Extracting eggs is the easy part of a very difficult emotional and physical journal. The author knows nothing about the quality of the eggs frozen. The rubber doesn’t hit the road until they are fertilized (not all eggs fertilize), try to grow into an embryo (not all cells keep dividing), and try to develop past the first trimester (not all embryos lead to live births). The article glosses over the reality of IVF success rates. I would know. I went through 6 rounds between the ages of 30-32 and finally conceived twins on my last round. I was married at 26 and started trying to conceive at age 29, at which point I learned, much to my surprise because there are no outward indications of most infertility problems, that my egg reserve was frighteningly low for someone my age, that of someone in her late 30s. I think the technology to freeze eggs should exist and should continue to be refined, but I agree with Laura that it is not the best answer. We need to address the cultural view that waiting to wed and have children is better and provides more flexibility. Imagine waiting to wed until say, 39, assuming you can quickly conceive and putting the stress of infertility treatment on a young marriage. The reality is that a couple controls much less than they realize about their ability to start a biological family.

    The ethical rebuttal in the WSJ just below the main article in the print version is also frustrating. When you are broken by infertility and desperately want a child, all you want is a genetically viable embryo. Most people who seek infertility treatments do so as a last result because there is a medical problem with one spouse or both. They are not in a position to engineer the perfect child. Six rounds of IVF, loss and many health complications are more than enough to humble the average would-be parent into wanting nothing more than a child to love and raise.

    Laura–Great blog. Frequent reader but first comment.

    1. @Griffin – thanks so much for reading. And thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, we control a lot less than we think we do. It’s great that egg freezing technology exists (think of the hope it provides women going through cancer treatment at, say, age 30). But it isn’t a particularly viable solution for most people.

    2. Griffin you said exactly what I was going to jump in with. I am incredibly fortunate that my infertility was much more easily resolved, but spend an hour perusing infertility blogs and you will learn that IVF is NOT the magic bullet the media or general public seem to believe it is. And those success rates are for immediate retrieval and transfer—eggs frozen for 5-10 years I assume fare much worse. I think this is an option to give at least a ray of hope to certain women (women about to undergo chemotherapy or other medical treatment come to mind, maybe women in certain difficult life situations) but I wouldn’t advocate it is a career enhancing move. No matter the career you may build up in your 30s by putting off child bearing, it could all come crashing down with the added stress of infertility treatments (IVF cycles are no joke, physically or emotionally), a later-in-life (and thus more likely to be complicated) pregnancy, and trying to survive parenting when you are older & less energetic. Stuff like this really enrages me, half-truths and misinformation.

  5. The first thing that comes to mind with egg freezing – what it means for women who are going through chemotherapy or some other medical treatment that has a high chance of making them sterile. The chance they would get at carrying and giving birh to their child – it is beyond words

    As far as freezing eggs to delay having children… There are a few things I would worry about: pregnancies in older moms carry more risks and complications. Also, as we age – lets face it – we don’t get any healthier. High blood pressure, varicose veins, heart problems, Alzheimer’s – the list of problems that tend to get worse with age can go on and on. The worst part is – we are all mortal. Will we be around when for our kids highschool graduation? College graduation? Will we be able to dance at their wedding? I know – there are no guarantees in life. But the overall trend will be – the older you are when you give birth, the shorter time you will be around for your kid… So… delaying kids may be easier for the career…. but lets not wait until 50.

    1. @Natasha – Yeah, we’ve done this calculation sometimes with my husband (who’s a bit older than me) – if our children have children at the age he had kids (as opposed to the age I had kids), he’s going to be north of 80 when the grandkids show up. Hopefully he’ll be a sprightly 80-year-old!

  6. I’m too tired to be eloquent so I’ll try to come back.

    All I can say is that the assumptions here are disturbing to me on multiple levels.

    To start: Egg freezing is not a magic bullet (frozen eggs are not live births), women do not need to be married to have children, infertility is not just for women over 40.

    I say this as a woman who started the process of having children as a single mother by choice in my 20s, had multiple miscarriages and multiple fertility issues, and ended up conceiving my second with an egg donor.

    1. @gwinne- there is much that comes to mind about the illusion of control. I hope it all works out for the author of the article — maybe we’ll get an update in a year or two…

  7. “Egg freezing is expensive, medically unpleasant …, and still pretty risky.”

    But then again, can’t all the same can be said of American pregnancy and childbirth generally? Medically, any pregnant woman over 35 is automatically put in the high risk category (which is why I’m grateful I got extremely lucky in my early 30s). A pregnant woman still faces a slight risk of death (albeit a minuscule one if she has consistent access to medical care) but it is still far more of a threat to her life than egg-harvesting. With egg-harvesting the only real “risk” seems to be the risk of it turning out to be a bad investment if it does not result in a viable pregnancy. The “risk” of giving women false hope ought to be overcome by patient counseling as to the statistical odds.

    I happen to think egg-freezing is a miracle, and I see it as an ingenious way to help minimize the various risks involved. This really is fantastic news for womankind – something that, if it works, might let a woman begin to take charge of her own fertility and destiny.

    It also opens up the possibility of using a surrogate mother to give birth to a woman’s own biological child – an arrangement I can see as a potential win-win if the compensation and care arrangements are equitable.

    I don’t situate this reproductive technology within the framework of “work/life” rhetoric at all – I suppose for me it belongs in the category of health and concerns around aging. Relatedly, we as a society would do well, I think, to engage in a better critique the whole “Find A Man First” then get pregnant line of thinking.

  8. I feel like there are two issues tangled up at once with this, and I feel differently about both of them. One is the issue of finding a suitable partner to have children with, and the other is having a family and a career. I completely agree that a family and a career should not be mutually exclusive, and personally I don’t feel that egg freezing helps any workplace issues.

    On the other hand, there is a limited time in which to find a suitable partner and have children. I can see how egg freezing might make women feel better because there isn’t as much pressure. I am recently divorced because my ex-husband decided he didn’t want children (before getting married he said he would be fine with having kids). I’ll be 28 in August, so I have some time, but it’s still scary and frustrating on a few levels. I think the hard part is that women have to decide to either have kids on their own before a certain age or decide not to have kids if they don’t find a suitable partner. It’s not an easy decision by any means, and one I’m struggling with personally.

    The money issue is also a bit ridiculous–for that much money you could adopt a child (if you’re a couple) or finance daycare/a nanny for a child that you have by yourself.

    I don’t think egg freezing is for me. The cost and chance of failure/risks don’t seem worth it to me.

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