When the media reported earlier this month that Apple and Facebook are covering egg freezing as a benefit for female employees, I couldn't help but feel a sense of vicarious relief. Though some questioned whether such a benefit might make career women feel as though they must postpone childbearing, and others pointed out that the procedure is not the remedy some think it is, I chose a different outlook. This simply would give women options we never had in the past, an option I would have wanted. But more important to me on a personal level, if we are now talking openly about freezing eggs at the prime of fertility for future use, then maybe it's a good time for me to share what it feels like at the other end of a successful egg retrieval.
Every fall, I get a bill for $1,200 for freezer storage -- not for frozen eggs, but embryos. They are a reminder of what I have and the responsibility that goes with it. For me, the road from recurrent miscarriage to two healthy children was a six-year journey through the heartbreaking labyrinth of IVF that ended with these embryos in a freezer.
These are not hypothetical children. They are waiting to be born into my family or someone else's, should I have the courage to give them up. They also embody all the reluctance I have about opening up about my journey. I hate that people think of women like me as career-hungry, selfish, medically ignorant women who decided too late to start and family and then simply wrote a check. I started at 36, yet it took so long that here I am at 43 with a toddler and 9-month-old baby. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to "use" the other embryos I worked so hard for. If I don't, will people who don't understand think I am selfish, or worse, discarding life?
If, like me, you are lucky enough to be a mother of two, and one child is a boy and the other a girl, I bet you wish you had a nickel for every time someone said, "One of each. Great. Now you are done." Personally, those nickels would pay for my freezer bill. Why we, as a society, feel like two kids, one of each sex, is the ideal requires a lot more examination. But when most people see that family equation, they say, "So, you are done now, right?"
Such a loaded question. Here is what I have learned about loaded questions. In this situation, the answer they are looking for is, "Oh, definitely." Because they are done, and they want others to relate. It's human nature to want to relate. So, when people ask, "Are you hungry?" they are hungry. Unless it's an Italian grandmother, she wants to stuff your face either way.
So, am I done? Well... yes and no.
"Yes," because I am overwhelmed with peace and joy. With two healthy, happy and adorable kids that I almost never had. I am filled with gratitude. I look them in the eyes every day and tell them how much they made my dreams come true. How much I love them. When I have just put my head on the pillow, only to hear one of them cry out, I always remind myself that I begged to be a mom, that I actually insisted on it.
"No," because there is still potential life to be considered -- embryos in the freezer. I don't take that decision lightly. It is not based on how tired I am of diapers, how many bedrooms we have in the house, not wanting a minivan or not wanting to be "outnumbered," as others advise.
It is absurd to me that I am even in this position, because I was not supposed to ever go this route. At my bachelorette party, at age 35, I can hear myself saying, "I'll never make a test tube baby." All my friends had one, two or more kids. To my knowledge, no one had any fertility treatments or miscarriages.
But I proudly proclaimed that should anything go wrong with having a baby naturally, I would accept it, adopt (as my parents did for me) and not go crazy raiding my ovaries for eggs and mixing up a baby in a petri dish. Guess what? Both my babies are IVF kids. I actually did get pregnant easily, but something always went wrong. And in the end, I just could not help longing for a successful pregnancy. I was also woefully naïve and uninformed about adoption. Though I am adopted myself, that did not make me an expert in the topic, nor did it give me an E-ZPass through a mountain of red tape. It was faster, easier and cheaper to do IVF than to go through most adoption processes.
Make no mistake, however; doing IVF three times absolutely turned us inside out and left us emotionally and financially spent. For starters, I resorted to IVF after three years of a combination of natural pregnancies, pregnancies with the help of less invasive fertility treatments and even unexpected pregnancies in the middle of planning for IVF, all ending in miscarriage (doctors attributed most of it to declining egg quality due to maternal age). For me, it was not merely trying for a few months and then graduating to IVF. It was a grueling three years of the most invasive tests imaginable, early morning doctor visits before work, canceling vacations and missing important family functions based on my cycle.
The only time I was not in treatment from 2008 until 2011 was when I was pregnant or recovering from a loss. And with all these appointments came countless disappointments. One night after work, we were planning on having an embryo implanted the next day. It was a summer night and we waited anxiously by the phone for instructions. The call we got was that in a 12-hour period, all the embryos had arrested (died). As I hung up the phone in sheer shock, we heard a gunshot outside our window. Both of our hearts stopped in panic. A police officer was standing over a dead deer about 15 feet from our front door. The deer had been hit by a car and he was putting it out of its misery. I will never forget looking at my husband and asking "What the hell was life doing to us?" I could not even sit in that room for weeks. Everything became about missing out on life or worse -- losing life -- while in pursuit of life.
Harder still, unless you want everyone to know your business and give you unsolicited advice, then you suffer in silence. I have been the host -- not just the guest -- of many baby showers only days after a miscarriage or negative pregnancy test. I used to curl up on the floor and cry so hard that I would stop breathing and drool would come out of my mouth. The kind of cry that toddlers do that crushes your heart. It was such a bad time for me that I did not even want to recall it for this article. Thank God -- and I mean THANK GOD -- that is behind me now.
So, I think it is fair for me to assume that it would have been easier to freeze my eggs at 30 when I had not yet met my future husband. It could have meant that Mother Nature and her ticking clock did not fast-forward our relationship towards marriage. And it could have meant that once our family was complete, only eggs would be left unused, not actual embryos. Which is what I face now.
I hope that anyone who sees how lucky this once very unlucky girl was never assumes it was effortless. People who don't know my saga meet me and say things like, "Oh my friend is trying to get pregnant at 39 and not having luck. I'm going to tell her that you did it at 42." I immediately tell them that I am no example of luck. I am just an example of never giving up, though I did have to give in. After thinking that if I got pregnant on my own I did not need IVF, I eventually gave in.
I guess that's why I feel a tremendous responsibility to tell other women about my story. We are blowing the lid off of photo retouching, and we should do the same on fertility retouching. At the very least, we need to be able to talk about it openly. If you have ever sat in a waiting room at a reproductive endocrinologist's office, you know that this is sort of an epidemic. Hundreds of women every day are sneaking in for blood tests and ultrasounds at 6:30 a.m. so their work is not affected and they can keep it a secret.
While I do not think that we need to rewrite the fairytale as girl meets boy, boy commits to girl, girl needs IVF, I do think that only half of our expectations have changed. I believe that Apple and Facebook have tuned into the dilemma that career women face -- of having a family when your eggs are most ready versus having a baby when your life is ready. We have started to teach our young girls that they can be anything, do anything. But there is still a limit for us that men don't have. Until then, we must not only be open to starting a family in nontraditional ways, we must provide the emotional and financial support for families of all types to do so. That is why I think that companies who cover egg freezing are taking a huge step in the right direction.
It took me so long to write this, with a 2-year-old and the baby, who wakes up every hour and 45 minutes each night. So I already know how unrealistic it would be to add a third child right now. But I dare not make that decision cavalierly. I also know that should another baby be something my husband and I are open to, I would prefer all my kids to be out of diapers before I am in them. The clock ticks.