The Big Chill
I first became aware of my biological clock back in junior high, when I saw the 1992 Joe Pesci vehicle My Cousin Vinny. “We agreed to get married,” yells Marisa Tomei, resplendent in a backless floral spandex body suit as she stomps around on a wooden porch. “My biological clock is ticking like this!”
I have yet to feel my clock ticking with Tomei’s manic urgency. But it ticks. Throughout my twenties, I flip-flopped between being certain I wanted children—and then being not so sure. Most of the time, the question seemed purely academic, since I didn’t want to have kids until I got married. I didn’t meet my husband until I was 28, and we waited six years to wed. Now, eight years into our relationship, the only living things we care for are an overwatered herb garden and two unremarkable cats, Astrud and Archie, whom we talk about every day in exhaustive detail.
The truth is, I’d certainly like to have a child, but I don’t think I’ll feel ready to start trying until I finish my first book and log some more stamps on my passport. By my current reckoning, our earliest attempts at conception will take place no sooner than September 2016. I will be 37 years old.
I am okay with all of this—or thought I was. Not long ago, I was texting a friend and mentioned my child-bearing timeline. She encouraged me to get cracking now—or at least freeze my eggs. This made me apoplectic. A decade ago, thanks to deeply flawed studies, 35 was considered the magic age when a childless woman’s reproductive organs gave up out of sheer hopelessness. More recent findings, however, suggest I’ve got plenty of time. So why should I undergo a procedure that hinges on outdated research backed by institutional sexism? Why should I put my financial well-being and professional momentum on the line to have a baby right this second? I deeply resented the idea that my best-laid plans might not be good enough, especially since any baby we have now would likely be clothed in a Crown Royal bag and contract toxoplasmosis from its proximity to Astrud and Archie’s litter box.
But does considering finances and logistics make me cavalier about my fertility? Since that text conversation, the idea of egg-freezing has been haunting me, provoking the same sort of anxiety I feel when I decline full insurance on a rental car. Still, I wanted to keep an open mind, so when my editor called and asked me to attend Boston’s first ever egg-freezing party, I couldn’t refuse.
On a frigid Tuesday evening in March, I found myself in the atrium of the Liberty Hotel surrounded by dozens of women, many of whom appeared to be in their thirties. Either by choice or by chance, all had decided to delay having children. Curious, nervous, and scared, we gathered here, at the site of a former prison, for the chance to sip champagne, mingle, and, of course, put our eggs on ice.
According to the invite, the party was being hosted by an outfit called EggBanxx. Founded by a parent website called FertilityAuthority, EggBanxx has emerged as one of the leading egg-freezing facilitators in the country, offering a network of fertility doctors and throwing “Let’s Chill” soirees in cities across America to pitch its services to women worried about withering reproductive organs. The company essentially functions as a reproductive brokerage firm and trade association, spreading the gospel of egg freezing through a savvy combination of targeted social-media marketing and free booze. Services include matching clients with fertility specialists, hosting a toll-free hotline to address insurance and medical concerns, and offering “low-interest” financing options. Aimed primarily at professional women, EggBanxx trumpets pithy if troubling slogans: “Lean in, but Freeze First!” and “Smart Women Freeze.”
I walked upstairs to a conference room with a small bar offering complimentary wine as well as EggBanxx’s signature cocktail, the Banxxtini (Prosecco and Chambord, basically a kir royale). In no time, I introduced myself to a pair of Boston Realtors, Margaret and Sarah, chatting at a table nearby. (Their names, along with the names of all the other women I spoke with at the event, have been changed for this story.) Both wore black, nursed glasses of wine, and shared their reasons for being here. Margaret, 25, had just broken up with her long-term boyfriend and was the one who wanted to attend the party. Sarah, 36, tagged along for moral support. “It’ll be at least a year before I meet someone and another year or two before we get married, and that’s if I’m lucky,” Margaret told me. “Who knows if I’ll be able to get pregnant?” Her friend, swept up in a wave of egg-freezing enthusiasm, said, “I never really wanted kids, but what if I change my mind someday?”
I was sympathetic to their predicament, but was still wary of the whole EggBanxx experience. The event had the air of a sorority mixer, an ambiance that belied the anxiety-inducing stakes at hand.
Regina and Justine were hanging out near the bar. They had rushed over to the Liberty right after work—Regina from her job at a tech firm, and Justine from hers at a lab. Both were dressed in business casual. Regina noticed the ad for the egg-freezing party and knew Justine would be up for it, because Justine had been talking about the procedure for a while. “I feel like there’s not a lot of publicity for women who are going through the difficult decision of whether or not we want to have children,” she said. “Do they want to settle with the current man that they happen to be with or find someone who might really love and cherish them? We feel such tremendous pressure to settle.”
Hearing her disappointment made me feel foolish. After all, I found someone who I love, and I hadn’t settled. Still, here I was, dithering over when to have a child without having even bothered to assess the state of my ovaries. “I felt like I had all the time in the world,” Regina said, frowning. “[But] I had to figure out where I was going with my job, make sure I’m comfortable—those are my priorities. I feel like the time to get pregnant slipped away.”
Pregnancy is loaded with sanctimony and contradictions. Biology demands women be young enough to have a child, but society pressures you to wait or risk forsaking your professional life. Egg-freezing technology, however, has the potential to transform the perception of a pregnant 45-year-old from lucky outlier to modern pragmatist, and vault women another step closer to fulfilling the second-wave feminist promise of having it all. Now it’s possible, even relatively simple, to put Mother Nature on ice and thaw her out when she’s good and ready.
Egg freezing has been around since the 1980s, initially as a way for cancer patients to save their eggs from being destroyed by chemotherapy. In 2012, however, a newly approved process akin to flash-freezing took it mainstream, though the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still discourages the procedure for non-medical reasons because of the low chance of success. The average age of women who freeze their eggs is around 37, and according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the chance that a frozen egg will develop into a waking, screaming baby is somewhere between 2 and 12 percent.
Not only do the odds suck, but the outpatient procedure doesn’t come cheap: The procedure itself costs around $7,500, drugs cost at least $2,000, and egg storage is around $500 a year. But that’s still far cheaper than traditional IVF, which costs about $15,000 each time. It struck me that egg freezing benefits only the small percentage of women able to afford it. For every scientist drinking Prosecco in a hotel atrium, there are thousands more for whom a $10,000 price tag makes the option of freezing her eggs all but meaningless.
For the willing and able, however, there is EggBanxx. To promote its message and explain the procedure that day at the Liberty Hotel, the company enlisted the help of three female fertility doctors who had shed their stethoscopes and scrubs for cocktail attire befitting a New Year’s Eve ball.
The Q & A portion of the egg party seemed like The Dating Game, but a bit more technical. I noticed that the experts emphasized the relative unobtrusiveness of the procedure as well as their audience’s ever-dwindling chances at natural conception. We were reminded over and over that women have the most eggs at birth, that our chances at conception decrease every year, and that those chances plummet like a meteor in our late thirties. Egg freezing, they said more than once, is like putting your biological clock “on pause.” The impression I got was that if my childless comrades and I didn’t rush to sign up, we might as well be giving in. Then a thought dawned on me: Was I scoffing at my last chance to have a child?
There are plenty of fears when it comes to pregnancy and getting older, and companies such as EggBanxx have no problem using them to their advantage.
During its sales pitch, I heard the line about “putting your biological clock on pause” more times than I can remember. It worked: It gave me pause each time someone said it, and I started to get scared. Was I one of those selfish, feckless women who doesn’t realize her egg supply has been dwindling steadily into oblivion? Does the fact that my husband and I now prioritize travel over some distant college fund mean we don’t deserve to get pregnant when we finally deign to start trying? Will I stare at the wall hanging we bought from a Bosnian artisan while rending my garments in barren self-reproach? This seemed like a horrifying possibility.
Then I returned to reality: Even if I could be frightened into freezing my eggs, I simply cannot afford to do so unless I start dressing in sackcloth. I have nothing but admiration for the Justines of the world, with the inclination and the means to take their fertility into their own hands, but I am not among them. Still, the urgency EggBanxx tried to impart wasn’t lost on me completely. Rationally, I knew that the egg-freezing party hadn’t changed a thing. After all, I am still 35, still unprepared to get pregnant, and still unwilling to sell my possessions to afford the latest in freezing technology. Since that night, however, I must admit: The sound of my biological clock has grown louder—like Marisa Tomei stomping on a wooden porch.