I was beginning to realize I wanted to have a baby. My husband, I knew, never would.
From the time we met, four years earlier, I had tried everything to rid myself of my desire. First, I went to a geneticist, hoping to learn that I shouldn’t have a baby, that there was something wrong with my genes. But one week later, the geneticist said, “All of your tests came back normal,” clearly believing this was what I wanted to hear.
It wasn’t. By my desperate, twisted logic, if my genes were messed up so badly that I couldn’t have children, then my relationship wouldn’t be doomed.
Next, I went to a fertility doctor, hoping he would tell me that my insides were nothing but a mess of muck and darkness where nothing would grow. But after giving my blood, I heard that word again: “Normal.”
My body wasn’t going to save my relationship. My boyfriend and I would have to do that ourselves.
I asked him about adoption after seeing an Ebola orphan on the cover of the weekend paper, but he was unmoved by my growing desire for a family. So I offered another solution: What if we lived apart and I had a baby on my own, but we stayed together? There was even a name for this — Living Apart Together — and an article about it in a glossy women’s magazine.
“No,” he said. He had always imagined a life without children. Hadn’t I known that when we met?
Years passed. Not just any years, but the last of my most fertile years, my early 30s. My friends were having children, or at least aligning the puzzle pieces of their lives so they would have the option when the time came, which for most of them was about 35.
By the time I turned 35, my boyfriend and I had gone to couples counseling and had countless conversations about babies that never went anywhere, so we pushed the topic into a dusty corner and just got married.
I told myself I loved this man more than the idea of having a child, but a part of me hoped he would change his mind. As we walked down the aisle, I didn’t believe that binding our lives together meant closing the door on children. If I couldn’t live without offspring, I figured we would find a way to work it out.
Yet the longer we were together, the more overpowered I felt by the dynamic we had established: me hoping he would come around and him hoping I would drop the idea. So I began looking toward a future without him.
Nine months after we tied the knot, I froze my eggs, and in my haste, I neglected to read the fine print. It was 2013, and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine had announced just the year before that the procedure was no longer experimental.
I hadn’t known that their ethics committee had issued an opinion warning that egg freezing “may give women and couples false security about their ability to have children in the future.”
My doctor didn’t tell me this, nor did I ask. I had faith that he would inform me of anything I needed to know. I had faith that I could have a baby when the time came.
Every article I read mentioned egg freezing as an insurance policy, a backup plan. It felt like a guarantee. In 2014, Facebook and Apple made headlines when they announced they would offer egg freezing as a workplace benefit.
The thinking seemed to go like this: If women were spending their fertile years chained to their desks, the least employers could do was offer a chance at motherhood once their careers had taken off. But hardly anyone seemed to be asking the critical question: Does egg freezing actually work?
When I froze my eggs, I didn’t understand that “fertility preservation” (as many doctors laughably call it) has only a 2 to 4 percent success rate per thawed egg, according to my clinic, meaning more likely than not, my eggs would fail me.
Almost 7,300 women froze their eggs in 2016 and the market continues to soar. In 2019, that number has jumped to more than 10,000 women in the United States alone, according to FertilityIQ, a Yelp-like website for fertility clinics. As demand skyrockets, egg freezing companies such as Kindbody, Extend Fertility and Future Family are popping up, backed by millions in capital, creating an endless feedback loop. The more money is invested, the more marketing dollars are thrown at selling women on the procedure.
Yet so few women have tried to use their frozen eggs that success rates are unclear. What will happen when they try to do so, only to realize that the promise of fertility on their own timeline was always too good to be true?
When I was deciding whether to stay with my husband, I would close my eyes and try to imagine my future children. I couldn’t conjure any images. My future with my husband always had a color to it — an orange glow, warm and safe. But suddenly that was dimming too, replaced by a sense that I had been contorting myself to fit into a marriage that hadn’t been right all along. What I thought I needed was more time. Egg freezing offered the illusion that more time was possible.
By the time I gave myself my first shot in the stomach, our living room resembled a science lab, with glass bottles of hormones and a red tub for discarded syringes. Three weeks later, the doctor woke me from surgery to say I had 14 eggs frozen in Manhattan somewhere — 14 chances at a phantom baby I would have to leave my marriage for.
It would be two more years before my husband finally made the decision I couldn’t, and he divorced me. Over time, I pieced myself back together, the collage of my heart like a Picasso painting, splintered and asymmetrical. Eventually I met Rob. He wasn’t scared of my jagged edges. His heart had recently been broken too. What I once thought of as wounds, I now saw as openings — for vulnerability, for connection.
Month after month as we sat on my Brooklyn rooftop, looking toward Manhattan, I thought about my eggs hidden in one of those buildings and wondered about the day we would be ready to use them. After two years together (and six years after I had frozen my eggs), that day came.
When the doctor called, she told me only eight of my 14 eggs had survived the thaw. We fertilized all of them with Rob’s sperm, but just three had become embryos. “Frozen eggs are always unpredictable,” she said. I would have to wait another week to learn whether the final three would continue to divide and multiply.
The day after Christmas, the doctor called again. All three had stopped growing.
I could barely speak. I felt less that my eggs had failed me than I had failed them. By then I was 41, my chances of bringing home a biological baby slipping through my fingers.
My doctor estimated I had a 15 percent chance of conceiving if we forked over close to $20,000 for IVF, a procedure my insurance didn’t cover. We tried it anyway — twice — because we had come this far and weren’t going to turn back now.
Still, no baby.
I spent months curled up on the couch, cursing myself, my marriage and the failings of fertility science for taking away my one chance to have a biological child.
Here’s the truth: Assisted reproductive technology gives women hope, but it’s no magic wand. I have learned this the hard way, both from my own experience and from the hundreds of hours I have spent in chat rooms and Facebook groups listening to women share their stories with each other, strangers in silence and shame.
We internalize our anger, blaming ourselves for not being strategic enough or smart enough to avoid ending up in this position, while being all too aware, of course, of how privileged we are to be able to afford these procedures in the first place. We were wronged not by our careers, or the promises of feminism, or the partners who loved or didn’t love us, but by a medical establishment that sold us the fantasy that we could have it all, on our own schedule.
As for me, I have allowed myself to start dreaming again. Instead of picturing my frozen eggs in some building across the river in Manhattan, I sit on my roof and think about the other ways Rob and I could still create a family. Donor eggs are an option. Adoption too.
Now, when I close my eyes, I can conjure images of our future child, running on a beach with her pail and shovel, or wearing her cranberry-colored dress and navy tights on the first day of kindergarten. She’s as real as the skyline stretched out in front of us.
Ruthie Ackerman lives in Brooklyn, where she teaches writing workshops and is working on her first book.
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