When I called my girlfriend Jenny (not her real name) early last year to wish her a happy birthday, she explained my timing was comically inappropriate. “I’m just about to get in the stirrups – giddy-up!” she said. Aware she was hardly the equestrian type, I knew she had finally decided to have her eggs frozen. “Good on you!” I replied, before asking what her partner of five years, Mark (also not his real name) thought. “He thinks I should wait but honestly, I am over this being about when he’s ready. I’m 34 today and from next year, I know my eggs start to cook. So, speculum, here I come.”
My conversation with Jenny reminded me of a woman, whom I'll call Mary, I interviewed for a story I wrote decades ago which caused quite a stir when I worked on a popular glossy magazine. The gist was I called out men who refused to commit to kids with their partners, dangling carrots of “one day”, “when we can afford it” or “we have plenty of time” during a woman’s most fertile years.
Problem was, their partners were most aware there actually wasn’t that much time. You see, even 20-odd years ago, I found most women were aware that their fertility wanes as the years progress – acutely so – despite female celebrities having “miracle” babies in their 40s (often not admitting to using donated eggs). And so, as they entered their mid-30s, these women turned the pressure up on their partners, and men who couldn’t stand the heat would likely leave the kitchen. Suddenly, these women would find themselves looking for a man who would commit – and quick – but they were not easy to find. Still aren’t.
What made matters worse was many of those men who were baulking at babies with them would go on to become fathers with their new, often younger, girlfriends, leaving their exes feeling cheated and bitter. As Mary said so many years ago, “I wasted my fertile years in a relationship with a man full of false promises and I’m f---ing furious!”
This week I contacted Mary again and sadly discovered she never did have children. And it was obvious talking to her that it is a sore point still. “You know what really pisses me off now? The fact I missed out on freezing my eggs,” she explained. “The technology wasn’t around when I was fertile. I took a risk of hoping to find a relationship with a man who did want kids, and when I finally found him, I was in my 40s and even with numerous IVF attempts, couldn’t make it happen. Now, I feel like I let my partner down, that if he was with a different woman, he could be a dad. And that hurts.”
It is always surprising to me that, as a woman who hasn’t had kids, the perception I traded a career for motherhood or I “put it off for too long” still exists. In fact, it is no one’s bloody business as to why but I can attest I was well aware my fertility had a use-by date, as do most females these days. Had a willing baby daddy appeared, my destiny may have been different. And, as recent research shows, it is this lack of a committed male that is the reason more and more women are taking control of their own fertility, freezing their eggs in the hope of having a chance to conceive later in life.
A survey of women seeking egg-freezing services at clinics in the United States and Israel found the overwhelming majority – 85 per cent – of women who were unpartnered said they could not find men willing or ready to procreate. The six main reasons they cited were: being single, divorced or divorcing; broken up from a relationship; working overseas; single mother by choice or circumstance, and the very last, career planning (in more than 150 interviews only two women said career planning was their motivation).
The 15 per cent of women seeking egg freezing who had partners cited their reasons as: with a man not ready to have children; in a relationship too new or uncertain; or with a partner who refuses to have children.
While egg freezing is giving women hope, it is not a panacea for pregnancy – far from it. And yet again, a woman’s age is the culprit. IVF Australia concedes the procedure is still too new for precise success-rate figures but outlines the following to evaluate individual chances: For a woman under 35, one stimulated cycle would likely result in 7-9 eggs suitable for freezing. Approximately 80-90 per cent will survive thawing and warming and of those, 50-80 per cent will fertilise. Between 80-90 per cent of fertilised eggs will develop in to embryos, however – and here is the sad fact – only 20-35 per cent of embryos will develop to a pregnancy. Should you be 38 or over, it is “unlikely” the procedure will lead to a live birth. So, once again the message is that no technology can change the aging process’s impact on female fertility. But at least it offers a fighting chance.
It delights me to inform you my dear friend Jenny is now pregnant and deliriously happy. I didn’t want to pry when she first told me but did anyway, discovering she did not use her frozen eggs. “We did it the old-fashioned way,” she admitted. “I told him I was having a baby with or without him. I had a sperm donor in the wings, as every modern girl today should. Bugger leaving it up to men to decide whether or not we become mothers. We now have options, so look out!”
Wendy Squires is a Fairfax columnist