I spent my Sunday afternoon digging holes. In the unforgiving Virginia clay. There really wasn’t a good reason to do so. Sure, my wife wanted us to plant two cherry trees. But we didn’t have to. We could easily buy cherries from Whole Foods—and probably sooner too. The trees have a good three-to-five years worth of maturing before they produce fruit of any kind. And hopefully, black sour cherries. And my parents’ back yard still looks bare. Two scraggily twigs won’t even provide the squirrels shade.
Still, digging holes—that’s what I did. And somehow I found the activity—despite the gnats and rocks—wholly satisfying. Fulfilling. I needed to dig holes.
Over the weekend, Sarah Elizabeth Richards wrote about her decision to freeze her eggs during her late 30s in order to preserve the opportunity to have kids in her 40s. Admittedly, most of us probably wouldn’t give Sarah’s choice a second thought. Generally, we as a society are accepting of assisted fertility treatments. And those of us who are not—because such procedures turn a child from a gift to a product—are in the minority. Thus, Sarah’s choice should be largely unremarkable. Yet, it isn’t.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal in advance of her new book, Sarah presents her decision as not merely logical and acceptable, but indeed, necessary to her very person:
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.
Sarah’s choice for advanced artificial reproduction is not a question of right or even of ethics. Sarah’s need runs much deeper. She isn’t just the career woman who “has it all.” Clearly, she doesn’t. She knows that. Sarah has lived her life dreaming of having children. Our dreams are the sum of our hopes and desires and they are the things that give purpose and meaning to our life. When we say we “dream” of doing something we almost tinge that dream with a sense of calling and destiny—knowing we will be complete if we fulfill it.
Sarah needs to have a child. Yet, it is no secret that society asks men and women to orient their adult life first to have a career and then second to find fulfillment through personal relationship. Sarah like many of her peers has pursued the first with passion, and has found that the second has become quite elusive. We could go into many details why these days it seems so hard for the average man and woman to find a mate. Perhaps indeed, we are too busy; our priorities are not correct; we demand too much of others. For whatever the reason, it isn’t easy.
And, of course, this “problem” is harder—more pressing and less forgiving—for women than it is for men. Nature abhors a vacuum. And in a woman’s case, her fertility unnaturally wanes starting in her mid-to-late 30s. It would be insensitive to consider that this is something that “just happens” or even to say, “Well you know it is going to happen: don’t choose career over motherhood.” Sarah saw this decline as something to embrace:
When a woman freezes her eggs, two things happen: She comes to terms with the fact that her fertility is fading, and she invests significant time, energy and money in protecting that asset by seeking medical help. The combination puts the issue front and center and makes you commit to your goals. Although I have always known I wanted to be a mother, I will admit that I indulged my ambivalent side at age 34 by falling in love with a man who wasn’t sure he wanted kids. After months of couples therapy and weekly summits in which we made flow charts of the pros and cons of having children, my “maybe” man became a “no” man. With little time to find another partner before my fertility plummeted, I jumped at the opportunity to freeze my eggs. But after writing a check for $13,000 and enduring countless doctor’s visits, blood draws and hormone shots, I could not bear to return to the “no” guy and the sleepy stupor of hoping it would all work out.
The ability to freeze your eggs and seize the remaining years of potential fertility is empowering: it provides both a “safety net” against not finding the right man and it allows a woman to “own” her deepest desires of being a mom. Every risk in society now has a hedge—Sarah has been able to buy insurance to guarantee that no matter what men life brings her, she can still be a mom:
I forced myself to break up with a man I loved. Then I became so focused on securing a real safety net that I researched ways to save money by freezing several batches in Montreal to take advantage of lower Canadian health costs, and I bought cheaper Spanish fertility drugs through an online British pharmacy. When you are lying naked on a cold operating table in a foreign country while a stranger tries to harvest—egg by precious egg—the last of your fertility, you truly own your desire to be a mom.
I spent the majority of my 30s alternately panicked about my love life or feeling kicked in the gut every time I saw an adorable child. Fertility anxiety isn’t exactly helpful when you’re trying to snag the locker next to Sheryl Sandberg in the executive gym. And it’s a buzz kill on dates when you feel compelled to ask the guy sitting across from you, clutching his craft beer, “So do you think you might want kids someday?”
Men probably can’t understand what this waning of fertility means to a woman. That is very natural. Nature helps a woman along her way to become a mother: beginning in the teenage years right through pregnancy a woman finds herself transformed and conformed into motherhood. Nature leads her along that path. For men, it is different. We don’t have monthly reminders about our fertility and certainly, when the mid-life crisis hits, the last thing a man thinks about is “can I have any more kids after 40.” Men simply aren’t wired or built this way. And because of that, Sarah’s experience is potentially a game-changer.
Look, it isn’t just that men aren’t necessary any more for pro-creation. We aren’t even necessary any more for a woman’s dreams and fulfillment. Sarah doesn’t think that “motherhood” equals any type of relation with a man. I’m starting to feel like one of the “lucky few” of men of my generation that found a woman who wanted to spend the rest of my life with me. Because if women now think they don’t need men, what incentive do men have to grow up from being boys? Can we even dream anymore of being fathers?
It is another fruit in the garden of our post-brave new world that women really don’t need men. That, of course, is a sad thing for men. Without women, without the responsibilities foisted upon us by fatherhood, we have no reason to grow up. Nevertheless, Sarah finds happiness in this newfound female liberty:
One surprising effect of egg freezing is that it makes women more open to using science to explore alternate routes to creating their families. One woman decided to stop waiting for the right man at the right moment and explored using donor sperm to have a baby on her own, using her frozen eggs. And several other women who began the egg-freezing process firmly opposed to using donor eggs turned to those when their own failed.
Over the course of my research, I was surprised to discover how much more common it was for younger women to think about freezing their eggs. Last year, I 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.
The importance of Sarah’s story is to listen to Sarah herself. Sarah isn’t someone just “using” frozen eggs because it is the only way for her to have a baby. She is using it to fulfill her calling as a woman, to be a mother and to have children. These are the ideals that society and nature have always held up for women; it is very normative and correct. Yet, she seems to embrace this reproductive technology as a means to detach herself further from obligations to men (and to society) and to anything beyond her career. I suspect she, like many others, probably finds this approach as completely correct and ultimately, normative:
In the future, a woman who registers for law or medical school—and knows ahead of time that she will spend her prime baby-making years in the trenches—would ask for loans for tuition and egg freezing at the same time. Or she might ask a boyfriend who wants to wait a few years to start a family to pony up for the procedure. In either scenario, she would assume control of her fertility from the outset, rather than freeze her eggs as a frenzied reaction to her life’s not having unfolded the way she imagined.
I’m not sure I really want to see how that life means to unfold. A few years back, we had about a foot and a half of snow fall late one night in Virginia. The next day my wife (then new girlfriend) needed to get to the airport. I woke up at 6am and shoveled and shoveled and shoveled snow until I could finally back out the car and drive to pick her up for the airport. I knew then I was crazy: there was no way the planes were going to take off. I literally shoveled myself into exhaustion. But I did it. Why? I don’t know. It would have been easier to have just rescheduled her flight.
And in Sarah’s world, that’s just what might happen. Do we really want to live in that world?