The nurse was methodical and comforting as she explained the process. Next week, there would be an information session where we would learn how to inject the hormones at home. “There will probably be a lot of couples there,” she said. “They will be trying actively to have a child. So you should be prepared for that. Do you think that you'll be okay?”
That morning, I was single and 37 years old, almost precisely the average age at which women freeze their eggs, although I didn’t know that then. Of my close friends in New York, most did not have children, but a handful did. My friends’ babies sat on my lap while I fed them tiny bits of scalloped apples or read to them from my favorite children’s books. These things didn’t cause me pain. And so, while I steeled myself for the wave of uncontrollable anguish that might hit me in a conference room at the NYU Fertility Center, I was pretty certain that I would be fine.
It turns out I needn’t have worried at all. A week later, instead of walking into a room full of couples, I arrived at the information session and saw only myself. Myself, nine ways. There were no men. We all appeared to be in our 30s or early 40s. Most of us were white, but not all. I noticed that every woman in the room was attractive, dressed for work in the way that successful, self-possessed New York women dress for work: appropriately, but with some signal to the world about who we were — a worn leather jacket, an unusual ring. I caught myself wanting to be friends with all of them. But we barely spoke to each other, aware of the delicacy of our decision to be there, the probable reasons why, and the privacy we were entitled to. Quietly, we set our notebooks and pens in front of us, ready to begin.
Medicine is unavoidably intimate, despite our best attempts at distance and privacy. I have had the same gynecologist since just after college, and even though I see her for a very limited amount of time each year, she has always known my life by its most personal details: whom I was dating, how I was doing when I was alone. And because she has known me since I was practically an adolescent, her observations land heavily.
For eight years, our conversations covered familiar ground. I was in a stable relationship with a lovely person. Matt was kind, handsome, honest, loyal, and humble. He had an enormous family into which I, an only child with few living relatives, felt absorbed. But a year into our relationship, my mother fell ill; I became her primary caregiver for the next three years, and then she and my grandmother died within five months of each other. My immediate family was wiped out as winter turned to spring.
Matt asked me to marry him not long after my mother’s death. I had pressured him to propose while she was still alive, but with her gone, the ring stayed in my jewelry box. Everything I thought I knew about my life had changed. Sometimes I think about an alternate universe in which I marry the guy I met at 25 and have children in my early 30s. But what I realized in the wake of my mother’s death was that my sense of what the right relationship for me was — or wasn’t — lacked the normal range of experience. My sense of who I was lacked the normal range of experience. We broke up, when I was 32, because of what I didn’t know as much as what I did.
For a few years after the split, my doctor said little about my fertility. She would gauge my interest in having children someday (high) and how I felt about my current partner, if there was one. Cheerfully, she encouraged me: It had been a while since I had been single; I should just enjoy it. I had plenty of time.
I flirted heavily with someone I had dated in my early 20s, only to remember how futile that time had been. I went out with the guy I always had a crush on and had the assumptions of my fantasy scrubbed away. I did everything the hard way: moving in too soon, dating a co-worker, getting involved with a cheater. The mistakes I made were obvious and absurd. The bullshit that some of the guys pulled was ridiculous. But like a child who climbs recklessly in an attempt to understand risk, I couldn’t stop myself. And while it was true that with each new person and relationship, and with each new parting, I learned something, it felt a little like learning a dying language. Was there a point?
My longest relationship during this period was just shy of two years. A mutual friend set us up; on our first date, we met at a pub in the East Village and chatted for hours. Over time, we fell into a laid-back rhythm. We took my dog to the park and made travel plans. There was distance — we spent most nights apart and he kept little at my apartment. But I told myself that I understood; I liked a lot of alone time, too.
That December, we met in Paris. He loved Edmund White’s The Flaneur, and one morning, we bundled ourselves in winter coats and wandered to his favorite places in jet-lagged imitation. We walked to the Luxembourg Gardens and had afternoon tea at Ladurée. We walked to Notre Dame and the Pantheon and at twilight, stopped in the courtyard where my grandmother lived in 1951. By evening, we made our way to the Musée d'Orsay, a place he knew had significance to me. Inside, I took his hand and drew him to my favorite painting, The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet, three women at work in a grain field, their dresses illuminated by a hazy sky. We wandered through the maze of rooms and I began wondering, with a hope that now seems painfully naïve, what the denouement of this romantic tour would be. Near closing hour, we drifted apart and I sat in the sculpture room, staring up at the enormous clock, waiting for a conversation that, if I had been more honest with myself, I would have known was never going to happen.
We traveled home separately. Nine months later, he admitted that he'd given his phone number to a woman on the plane back to New York. She was still calling. She was just a friend, he said, it meant nothing. We didn't break up then, but we should have. A few months later, it was over.
Soon after, I saw my gynecologist for my annual exam. “Same partner?” she asked. I shook my head. It was then that she took out a piece of paper and wrote down a name and phone number. A fertility specialist, Dr. Keefe. “He's really great, you'll like him,” she said. I noted that she had written his number from memory.
When David Keefe made egg freezing a part of his clinical practice a decade ago, he imagined that single women looking to delay childbearing would be a small percentage of his patients. Before then, few women froze their eggs, and those in his clinic who did so were usually about to undergo cancer treatment. But when I met him in 2012, the year the American Society of Reproductive Medicine declared the procedure no longer experimental, he told me that close to half of his freeze patients were single women like me. Today, 80 percent of his patients are women electing to delay childbearing.
Dr. Keefe’s number sat in my desk drawer for months. As I considered my options, I looked for stories about egg freezing in which I might recognize myself, but what I found was utterly alienating. I cringed every time I saw a reference to single women in their 30s and 40s “searching for Mr. Right,” which means that I cringed a lot. Dating was cast as “a desperate series of co-parent interviews.” Then there were the stories of women who were perhaps not desperate enough for a baby — not yet!— women who postponed pregnancy out of a desire for what was called “social freezing,” as if the reason to spend a week injecting thousands of dollars of hormones into your belly was so that you could have a few more Thursday night martinis. Less offensive on the surface were the professional freezers, personified by the “willowy 35-year-old media-company executive” who stood out because she had risen “so high professionally at her age.” While some women certainly encounter job discrimination when they get pregnant, none of my single friends were delaying childbearing because of work. My bosses were universally supportive of employees who became pregnant. I suspected that, for many, careers were a socially acceptable excuse; if you froze your eggs because you simply hadn’t found a partner to have kids with, well, that was embarrassing.
But that was the truth of the matter. I continued to date, sipping listlessly at glasses of wine in bars chosen because I didn’t frequent them. Many of my closest female friends were doing the same. That they were excellent company to be in — smart, compelling, beautiful — did not change the fact that our collective situation was a drag. The people and situations were different but the broad outlines were all too often the same: The dude was cagey. He acted erratically, pursuing and then retreating. He was evasive when confronted with our wants and needs, or agitated, or defensive. Sometimes he simply disappeared. Of course, not all of the men we met and dated were commitment-phobes. But the numbers were significant enough to present a serious problem for those of us who wanted a partnership and children.
I watched one beautiful friend in her late 30s fight off attention at every party we attended, only to have each man who sought her number intentionally and epically self-destruct weeks later. “I don’t date,” declared one man I was seeing, irritated at my failure to take this in despite the fact that he had asked me on several dates. It was tempting to accept the line of argument that put the blame on me — obviously, at some level, you are seeking these commitment-phobes out — for then, it would become a problem I could potentially solve. But when another friend, a gorgeous, sardonic wit, was dumped by her yearlong boyfriend, who employed a communication strategy just one shade away from a Post-It, it woke me up. It's not you. None of us were responsible for the fact that so many men see relationships as a giant albatross.
Even my single male friends, who I knew respected me and other women they were close to, seem to have absorbed cultural tropes about needy, pathetic women and the ever-alluring, ever-evasive single male. In conversations, they conflated masculinity with independence. A male friend of mine recently tilted his head proudly as he explained why he refused to call his longtime partner his girlfriend. “I know all she wants is a relationship; I don't even have to bring it up,” he declared. I urged him to be more direct with her; he couldn't know what she wanted unless they talked. “You don’t really mean that,” he replied, rolling his eyes.
Of course some people simply don’t want a relationship, or want one now, or with a particular person. And that's okay. Not everyone wants to be with everybody, or with anyone at all. (Men who communicated that kindly and honestly to me tended to become very good friends.) But the ambivalence — the unambiguous acts of devotion followed swiftly by hand-wringing and confusion, the breakups followed by tortured emails, the everlasting stringing-along — it got old. It even became the subject of a well-received novel.
My partnered male friends were frustrated on my behalf. But when I told them that I was thinking about freezing my eggs, it startled them. My friend Brian stood in his kitchen, wedged in between boxes of stuff that was going into storage to make room for the baby he and his wife were going to have. “And what are you going to do if you don’t meet someone?” he asked.
“I don’t know, do it on my own?” I replied.
“You can’t do that!” he said, but as the words came out, he caught himself.
“Of course I can!” I protested.
“Of course you can,” he said.
When I finally walked into Dr. Keefe’s office, he clasped my hand gently in both of his and gestured for me to sit down. I was skittish, still a little ashamed that I had been forced to consider the choices we were there to discuss: freezing my eggs, or waiting and possibly relying on a donor egg, or doing nothing. Dr. Keefe made it clear that there were many choices and no sure bets; I knew that egg freezing was imperfect, that pregnancy in any case was not a given. He drew a graph on a piece of scratch paper, with a line representing the median number of eggs, which dropped at age 38, hanging like a cat’s tail off a ledge.
Before he was a fertility specialist, Dr. Keefe was a psychiatrist. He speaks in scientific details but also in parables. He told me the story of a woman who did one freeze cycle and later had a child, and another who did multiple cycles but was unable to conceive. He told me the story of a woman who broke up with a man who had strung her along for years, only to learn that she had almost no eggs left. She eventually got pregnant with a donor egg, asking a friend to be the sperm donor, and the friend later became her husband.
“There are a lot of options,” he said, “and people have to choose the one that’s right for them. But in order to know what’s right, you have to ask yourself, why are you here?”
“I wasted a lot of time in my last relationship,” I admitted. “I want to make sure that I take care of myself.”
He leaned forward and paused. “There’s something wrong with the men in your generation,” he said. I was stunned. Here was a doctor who had just been talking about the importance of considering statistical significance, and now he was chalking my dating problems up to the broadest of generalizations. But he was articulating two forms of truth: the mathematical and the personal.
“It isn’t you,” he said. “All day long, I see patients like you. You’re smart, beautiful, accomplished, nice. It makes no sense. I go home to my wife and I say, ‘There’s something wrong with the men in this generation. They won’t grow up.’”
About a year after my initial conversation with Dr. Keefe, I went uptown on my lunch hour and bought $4,000 worth of fertility drugs, which I would inject over the following two weeks. Although media reports scare-mongered about bloating, weight gain, and ovulation hyperstimulation syndrome, I felt no side effects other than tiredness and bruising around my belly button where I self-administered the shots. At the clinic, I handed over my credit card and looked away when the charges were made: $9,000. My credit-card bill reflected a sickening total that made me both sad and grateful that I could afford the choice. Every morning or every other morning, I came in for blood tests and ultrasounds to see what my ovaries were up to; after about a week, they could see a handful of ready follicles.
The night before the extraction, my friend Caroline stayed over in my apartment. We went to dinner at Frankies and reviewed the next day’s procedure in hushed tones. The following morning I counted back from ten in a steely surgical room and woke in the recovery room buzzed, feeling little more than a vague case of cramps. After an hour, Caroline maneuvered us to a taxi, got me a panini, and put me to bed. I had fewer than the 15 to 20 eggs I had hoped for, and more than the zero or 1 or 2 I had feared. I had done what I could.
In the months to come, I waited for some kind of powerful shift. The essays I found so loathsome had suggested that freezing my eggs would make me feel more confident in dating. I would “relax,” they said, and this newfound ease would help me “find the one.” I knew better, but some part of me still wanted to find some way to fix the problem, to control the outcome.
A close friend from college had frozen her eggs around the same time. We sent each other long-distance texts, checking in on life post-freeze. Nothing changed, really. We went on dates. We weighed our options. The dudes were still, so often, cagey. The fact that I had frozen my eggs came up in one relationship. To him, it was unsurprising and un-scandalous, just another fact to consider in our prospects for the future. It played no role in our getting together, and no role in our separation.
Freezing my eggs did not change my dating life. What it did do was expose me, again and directly, to the ways we treat women when there is a decision to be made about their bodies: We judge, pressure, and publicly debate a woman’s ability to direct her own life. We fret about women’s susceptibility to “false hope,” about their being manipulated by the egg-freezing industrial complex, rather than believing women to be capable of assessing information and understanding risk. We judge women who pay thousands of dollars to freeze their eggs, rather than spending that energy advocating for those who can’t. We criticize women for not being able to control variables that are necessarily out of their control, something that is insulting to everyone involved.
By freezing my eggs, I did not become any more or less likely to have things work out the way I hope they will. What has changed is my relationship to that fact. Now I enjoy the late, lingering dinner with the guy whom I have great chemistry with, even if there is no future with him. Now I end a relationship at the first whiff of ambivalence, without giving a thought to whether I could contort myself in such a way that could make it work. I blame myself a little less often for the workings of a chaotic and imperfect reality. It is a more advanced version of the decision I made at 32 — to take a risk, to know that I was okay, to believe in my right to desire more for myself, to desire anything at all.
The other day, Brian and I were talking in my kitchen. His little girl, not yet a year old, lay across his arms. “I think you should just do it,” he said. “Have a kid.”
“You do?” I asked. I wasn’t that resolute, and assumed he had his doubts, too.
“You can do it. You want to do it, and you can't rely on men,” he said. He was smiling mischievously, liberated too, at the prospect of a desire at least partially met. “Forget them,” he said. “You should wait for no one.”