More young, single Kiwi women are wanting to have children on their own, with fertility experts saying Covid-19 has forced people to take stock of their lives.
The average age of women freezing their eggs, seeking sperm donors and other fertility treatments has dropped at New Zealand's largest clinic, Fertility Associates.
Prior to the pandemic, the largest group of women the clinic saw for their first visit to discuss options were aged between 35 and 39 (about 40 per cent).
That has dropped to 35 per cent and women aged between 30 and 34 have caught up to become the fastest-growing group seeking treatment (also at 35 per cent, compared with 25 per cent about 18 months ago). Many of those were single women.
"I suspect it could be due to Covid with people in that age group travelling less and perhaps some returning back to New Zealand and looking at what their options are," says group medical director Andrew Murray.
"Perhaps they are reflecting on their life choices and what's important for them. Many are coming to see us because they have put motherhood higher up on the priority list."
When it came to freezing eggs specifically, in 2018, less than 100 women carried out the procedure with the company, compared with 400 in 2021.
"For many years we have been pushing, 'Don't leave it too late to start your family,'" said Murray.
"I think that message is getting out there.
"In parallel to that, there is increased awareness of technologies like egg freezing and confidence in egg freezing. We are now getting to the point women are coming back to have babies with the eggs they have frozen."
The age group with the highest number of women freezing their eggs was 40-44 (57 per cent) in 2018 but that dropped to 25 per cent in 2021 as the 35-39 group shot up (from 30 per cent to 55 per cent). The 30-34 group also increased from 7 per cent in 2018 to 20 per cent.
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Murray said that over the past two-and-a-half years, single women have become the fastest-growing group of people seeking fertility treatment at about 20 per cent, compared with heterosexual couples (75 per cent) and same-sex female couples (5 per cent).
But increasing waiting lists for donor sperm - now at three years compared with two 12 months ago - has seen women turn to Facebook groups in search of a donor. Murray strongly warns against the practice saying there is no screening for STDs and genetic diseases or psychological screening.
There is also no way of knowing how many other women the men have donated to, and therefore how many half-siblings potential offspring will have, Murray says. Fertility Associates caps the number of families its donors can donate to at seven.
Its current wait list has 1200 women in limbo.
"It's not great," Murray says.
"Because New Zealand is a small population and we can only recruit so many donors, women going on our waitlist are being told it may take up to three years to allocate them a clinic donor.
"I can totally understand how distressing that can be because these are women who already have concerns about their fertility, they're often in their 30s already and the biological clock is clicking hard and fast."
The clinic is desperate to recruit more donors. A barrier could be that New Zealand donors cannot be anonymous. In 2004, under the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act, it became a legal right for donor-conceived people to receive details on the donor's identity once they turn 18 - or 16 if the Family Court allows it.
It is also illegal to pay sperm donors in New Zealand. But the Law Commission had recently made a recommendation to legalise offering compensation to surrogates to cover expenses, which Murray said was promising.
"People who are trying to help others out shouldn't be out of pocket. It would be great if any reform of the laws around the practice of fertility medicine, the HART Act, could be reviewed to make it easier for donors."
He encourages women to recruit personal donors to speed up the process.
"That means considering your own personal contacts. Facebook is certainly not the answer.
"If any men out there are considering being a donor to help women out, we would absolutely meet with them and make the whole process as seamless as possible. Men who choose to donate sperm are doing an amazing thing."
Covid made me have a baby
If she hadn't frozen her eggs at 38, Jo Mackie thinks she probably wouldn't be staring into her son's baby blues every day.
"I was very much at the junction of giving up my dream to become a mum.
"In the quiet moments with him in his first weeks of life, and still now, I feel overwhelmed with joy and look at my boy and cry."
The communications and marketing manager always wanted to be a mother but as she approached her mid-30s she wasn't in the "right relationship". Her friends and mother suggested she freeze her eggs and after years of procrastinating, she did so.
"It felt like taking out an insurance policy. My doctor shared a graph with me and my fertility level was in the red zone, at the bottom of the graph. This was a real shock to me and quite disheartening."
Mackie, who lives on Auckland's Northcote Point, did two rounds of IVF to produce seven eggs and went on the waiting list for a donor as a "just in case".
"I didn't plan to have a baby as a single woman. I was hoping I'd be in a relationship and use my eggs with a partner."
But she has Covid to thank for starting the process of having a baby at 44 on her own.
"After the first Covid lockdown I started reconsidering my future and pondering the idea of having a baby as a single woman. Something just shifted in me and I realised I couldn't go through life without giving it a go."
She chose her donor from about eight men whose profiles had information about their physical characteristics, health background and a bit about them as a person.
Her odds of getting pregnant based on the number of eggs she had was only about 23 per cent. Only four eggs survived the thawing process and two went on to form embryos.
"And the first embryo became my baby boy. I'm sure that had I not frozen my eggs my chance of having a baby would've been negligible."
Mackie is in regular contact with her donor, who lives in England but plans to visit New Zealand later in the year when she will meet him in person.
"I hit the jackpot with my donor. He is an absolute blessing.
"It's all on my terms – he is happy to hear from us but totally respects that this is my journey with Ashton."
She plans on being open with her son about how he was conceived.
"I use his name and refer to him often. I'll let him know that Mummy needed help to have a baby and that he was very loved and wanted. As he grows older I'll share details that are suited to his age."
She encourages women who are not yet ready to have children to consider freezing their eggs.
"Even if it's just an idea, look into it. I waited until I was 38 and my fertility rate was very low which made things a lot more challenging. I wish I'd done it a lot sooner."