Ironically, many millennials spend the entirety of their 20s trying not to get pregnant and the better part of their 30s desperately doing everything they can to conceive.
I spent a large chunk of my childhood nurturing my maternal instincts by caring for my Cabbage Patch dolls; I never thought egg freezing would form part of my Google search history. But, as it turned out, after foolishly thinking I’d have it all by the age of 25 — a thriving career, husband, white picket fence and two children — a few things had to give.
In her provocative book of the same name, Nell Frizzel describes this phase as The Panic Years, when the life choices of women from their mid-20s to early-40s are impacted by the urgency of deciding whether to have a child.
Panic I did in 2021, aged 30, anxiously finding myself (and my supportive but somewhat unfazed boyfriend) sitting in a doctor’s office discussing my declining fertility. It was a sobering wake-up call. Although we’d been together for nine years, we still didn’t feel ready to settle down and have children. Instead, we were preoccupied with career aspirations, early-morning gym sessions, and which bar we’d go to on the weekend with the flatmates.
Fertility in decline
Still, I was well aware if we wanted kids there would come a time when it was simply too late. Medical science tells us that by the early-30s, women’s fertility levels begin to decline at a significant rate.
The chat with the fertility doctor about whether to freeze my eggs felt like more of a sales pitch for an expensive insurance policy I wasn’t sure I could use. Days before, test results for my anti-müllerian hormone (AMH) levels had come back, indicating a “reduced ovarian reserve”.
These results as to my egg count were not definitive, but as the doctor plotted my results on a traffic-light-coloured graph, comparing them with other women of a similar age, I felt vulnerable, almost preyed upon.
According to the doctor, my results had me sitting within the 10th to 25th centile — the orange “danger” zone. It felt like I was idling at a stop sign, unsure if I could pass go. As the doctor indicated, the next step would be to freeze my eggs in case, later down the line, I was unable to naturally conceive and required in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
However, there was no way to guarantee the quality of these eggs, nor an indication of how many could be retrieved and how many would be viable for freezing. At the end of it all, the number of successfully frozen eggs could only indicate the chance of successful IVF. Crucially, it wouldn’t guarantee the desired outcome: a baby.
And if that wasn’t the vaguest unsatisfying assurance I could have received — because I was not actively trying for a baby — I still had no way of knowing whether I would have issues trying to conceive naturally.
The sales pitch continued. The doctor explained that if I could conceive my first child naturally, but I wanted a second further down the line, freezing my eggs now might still be a nice idea in case I struggled to conceive the second time around.
Head spinning, I tried to think of it as a privilege to even be in the doctor’s office to have a proactive discussion, to have armed myself with the knowledge to get my AMH levels tested and make an appointment. I was also privileged to be there in the knowledge that I had a supportive partner, so together, we’d be able to freeze embryos (eggs fertilised with sperm) over eggs alone, as thawed embryos have a higher chance of survival.
This means that if you are single and without a willing sperm donor at the time you freeze your eggs, the odds of a successful IVF pregnancy are even less favourable. Another thing some women may have to “panic” about.
Cost a major barrier
Coupled up or not, there was still to consider perhaps the most significant barrier to egg freezing: Cost. One fertility treatment provider charges $11,315 for just one egg-retrieval cycle (not counting the storage fees after six months). Although you receive an 18% discount for a second retrieval cycle, this only applies if you opt to do so within three months of the first.
If you want to qualify for government-funded IVF (of which egg retrieval is the first step), among other criteria, you need to prove you haven’t been able to conceive within 12 months — even if, by then, it’s too late. Again, this is also where single women are penalised because, in the eyes of the law, their fertility issues simply don’t exist.
It was ultimately the cost, coupled with a dose of healthy scepticism and the feeling we had just walked out of a sales seminar, which made me decide to wait it out for a year or so. Sure, if money was no object, I’d have frozen my eggs in a heartbeat, but my panic wasn’t so imminent as to sacrifice other short-term goals like travel and saving towards a house deposit.
The whole experience was far from empowering and as I contemplated the “what ifs”, I felt that regardless of the route I’d take, the odds were stacked against me. Soon after, I became preoccupied with life — starting a new job and riding the unpredictable wave of the Covid-19 lockdowns — so it was another couple of years until I started to think again about conceiving, finally feeling the imminent pull that my biological clock was chiming ever louder.
A lot has changed since that trip to the fertility doctor. As I type these words, my now husband and I are around five months away from meeting our first child.
The road to conception hasn’t been an easy one. I’ve experienced a miscarriage, feelings of sheer desperation and tearful ruminations about whether I should have put my eggs on ice when I had the chance in 2021. I’ve even wondered if being unable to conceive could be the best thing ever as one-half of a DINK (double income no kids) accustomed to living in the moment.
If you’re contemplating freezing your eggs, I can’t tell you what to do, but I have learned that it requires a balance of acknowledging your desires and confronting your fear of the unknown. I feel like one of the lucky ones; I’m sharing my experience in the hope that discussions about female fertility will become more commonplace.
But until advancements in fertility testing and treatments become more predictable and accessible for all, it seems like the panic years are here to stay. I wish I could go back in time and tell the little girl I was, Cabbage Patch doll in hand, that, like most things in life, the road to motherhood is not smooth but whatever the outcome, you can’t turn back time. No matter the trajectory you find yourself on, the future is full of possibilities — with or without children — even if it doesn’t always feel like it.