It’s probably best that you weren’t spending a lot of time at my apartment in late 2009. Though certainly we would have watched The Bachelor and feasted on my primary food groups — omelets, mixed nuts and hot chocolate — you would have also witnessed an alarming number of predawn panic attacks.
Again and again I’d wake at 3 a.m. with a racing heart and clenched stomach, worrying: What if it never happens? What if I don’t find the right guy? What if it happens too late?
I was 30, single and working as the wedding reporter for The Washington Post. A few months earlier I’d gone through a breakup on the same day I was hired for this most amorous of newspaper beats. It was a perfect cliche-and-Chardonnay-filled storm.
I spent my days immersed in the glories of other people’s wedded bliss — and my nights staring out at my fire escape, distraught that I might never experience lasting love.
If you’d been around, you probably would’ve offered me a Xanax, patted my head and told me to go back to sleep. But you weren’t, and the night terrors only increased. So that’s how, one year later, I came to be in a hospital gown in a nondescript Rockville, Maryland, office building, waiting for some people I’d never met to reach into my ovaries and suction out the choicest of my hormone-ripened eggs. All for the low, low price of $10,000.
Apple’s and Facebook’s announcements that they will pay for employees to freeze their eggs have provoked a lot of hand-wringing about women and careers and having/not-having it all. But for me, the decision to put my fertility on ice had nothing to do with professional ambition or putting off motherhood. It was a quest to preserve my sanity.
An expensive and odd quest, but one that seemed like the best option to stamp out the gnawing anxiety that was driving me nuts: impeding my sleep, impairing my focus. And God knows it wasn’t helping my cause. Among aphrodisiacs, desperation ranks pretty low.
The problem wasn’t just that I wanted to find a life partner — something I’d always envisioned — it was that I felt I needed to find him immediately. Because, of course, the clock was ticking! Thirty was far from old, but I was forever doing the mental math: Even if I meet the right guy today, a couple of years of dating, plus an engagement period and a little time being married means I'll be in my mid-30s by the time I even start trying to conceive.
I chafed at feeling like such a cliche. And I hated that this was something my guy friends just didn’t have to worry about — except when they talked about the downside of dating women their own age. But I also knew I wanted kids. And I’d seen how crushingly painful infertility struggles had been for several friends.
Most of all, I worried that all this incessant worrying would cloud my judgment. I didn’t want to marry someone I wasn’t in love with just because my eggs were creeping toward their “past due” date. I’d read all about the case for “settling,” and I was not convinced. A lukewarm lifelong relationship didn’t seem fair to anyone — me, him or whatever beautiful offspring such a tepid romance might produce.
Evolution and modern science have allowed us to live longer, healthier, more-productive lives. With proper nutrition and medical care, we can expect to work into our 70s, and live well into our 80s and beyond. But our reproductive systems haven’t caught up. As the lady magazines so often remind their readers, a woman’s fertility peaks in her early 20s and is in rapid decline by her mid-30s.
And there is almost nothing we can do about it — almost. We have in-vitro fertilization and other fertility treatments, costly and not available to most, but a godsend for the families who’ve borne children as a result. And there is egg-freezing: highly imperfect, relatively new and wildly expensive. But it’s what we’ve got.
So I researched fertility clinics and signed up for a health-savings account. I knew it was far from a guarantee. There’s no telling how many eggs will be retrieved during the procedure: Most women can expect to retrieve 10 to 20 eggs for each cycle, but some yield far fewer. Not every egg survives being frozen and then thawed. And only a fraction of those that do survive can be expected to result in a viable pregnancy.
Still, for me the procedure worked even before I had it done. Once I committed to the process, I felt a new calm knowing that freezing my eggs, along with my openness to adoption, would allow me the possibility of creating a family even if I didn’t meet the right guy for 10 more years, or ever. I began to relax. The night terrors eased. Dating became (kind of) fun.
During the more than four years I spent covering weddings — an endeavor that was edifying and inspiring — I heard versions of this same story again and again. People who were so anxious to find “the one” until they couldn’t take it anymore and finally did whatever it was they’d been putting off as they awaited the arrival of that elusive perfect person: buy a house, take a dream vacation, move to a new town, go back to grad school. Once they took the leap, of course, they met their match.
My new book, The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life From a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook, is filled with the wisdom of the couples and relationship experts I met on the beat. In it, I urge single readers to do whatever they can to quell the panic — or at least beat it back. Maybe that means talk therapy, or Transcendental Meditation, or some new creative passion. Whatever allows you to live life with more ease in this moment, without worrying so much about what might happen in the future.
For me it was two weeks of hormone injections and an outpatient procedure. It took me nearly a year to save up for the process, and even then I had to call my parents and sister for help when I’d underestimated the cost of the medications.
Luckily, my grandchild-loving family was very supportive. My friends – especially my single friends – were more conflicted. This was five years ago, and egg-freezing was less common and more controversial. Even talking about it prompted hushed tones and flushed faces. I think to some friends, it seemed drastic. And perhaps it made a statement about all of our lives, not just my own. Though when it came down to it, one pal accompanied me to the retrieval, and another grimaced as she administered an intramuscular shot in my butt. Because that’s what friends are for.
Naturally, I met the man who would become my husband while I was saving up to freeze my eggs. It’s not that easy to tell a guy you’ve been dating for only a few months that you’re planning to put your future children on ice. Especially a younger guy who, at 28, wasn’t spending a lot of time thinking about the female reproductive system. But Aaron was deeply supportive — and, frankly, relieved. This gave us some leeway to let the relationship develop on its own timetable, without the perpetual nagging of my biological clock.
And of course, the outcomes you fear most usually don’t come to pass. In June, I am due to give birth to our second child within two years. This one was a total, delightful surprise. Infertility, it turns out, is not my problem. (Don’t worry, there are plenty of other issues to keep my neuroses humming.)
I don’t know if we will ever inseminate any of the 13 egg pops sitting in a freezer in Rockville. (My mom has named one of them Gigi.) But I wave to them whenever I drive by on I-270. I like to think they will be of use somehow in this world, and I’m already grateful for what they’ve done for me. For more than four years, they’ve given me some crucial peace of mind.
Yes, I think it would be nice if more workplaces and insurance providers — or a consortium of prospective fathers and grandparents — would help women pay for egg preservation. But mostly I just hope we can stop talking about it with whispers and heated headlines. It’s not witchcraft, and it’s not a reflection of society’s ills. It’s not even considered experimental anymore. It’s a limited and costly means by which women can extend the life of their dreams. And for some of us, that’s enough.
Ellen McCarthy, a reporter for The Washington Post’s Style section, is the author of “The Real Thing: Lessons on Love and Life From a Wedding Reporter’s Notebook.”
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