Few things have caused as much grief for women as the alleged disparity between the male and female biological clock. Women have been lectured on all the reasons we should stop worrying about our careers and have babies in our 20s; we’ve been told to get to work already, so we can go ahead and have babies in our 30s; and, once we make it to our 30s, we’re caricatured as hysterical husband hunters, just waiting to bag a baby daddy. In this week’s Newsweek, writer Rachel Lehmann-Haupt proposes a solution: Why not just use technology to stop the infernal tick-tick-ticking? “Egg freezing,” she writes, “could be as revolutionary as the birth control pill.”
It’s a tidy analogy: Just as the pill allowed women to have sex without having children, freezing one’s eggs could allow women who want biological children to free themselves from the tyranny of their ovaries. And from a gender parity perspective, it could at least level the playing field between women, who start getting dire warnings that their sell-by date has arrived around age 35, and men, who are encouraged to think they’ve got quite a bit longer to suss things out. “As education, advanced degrees and higher salaries become priorities, we are trading in our years of procreative power to gain economic power,” writes Lehmann-Haupt. “Technology and feminism are leading us to make choices that we couldn’t a generation ago.”
Well, the women who can afford it anyway. “Feminism and capitalism form an uneasy alliance,” she admits. At age 35, Lehmann-Haupt attended her first free seminar run by a company called Extend Fertility. But she was bothered by the way the company seemed to be making a profit by marketing “empowerment” to women in the form of a technology that costs upward of $15,000 a pop. “I wondered if this new company was too aggressively trying to cash in on well-heeled women’s anxiety by turning them into guinea pigs and, more broadly, whether women should rely on technology to postpone motherhood.” What’s more, she points out, the company could offer no guarantees that the technology would work, leaving the possibility that one could be out of a child and one’s savings.
But how feminist is a technology that, at least for now, is only available to wealthier women? And some women even feel that encouraging healthy, fertile females to put their eggs on ice is a cop-out that fails to address the reasons why women who know they want biological children find it so difficult to do in the first place. In fact, one of the Italian women who pioneered the technology, mostly as a way to get around the Vatican’s ban on freezing embryos, went so far as to tell Lehmann-Haupt that she felt freezing eggs would hurt feminism. “It means we are accepting a mentality of efficiency in which pregnancy and motherhood are marginalized,” said Dr. Eleanora Porcu. “We’ve demonstrated that we are able to do everything like men. Now we have to do the second revolution, which is not to become dependent on a technology that involves surgical intervention. We have to be free to be pregnant when we are fertile and young.”
Lehmann-Haupt is put off by her moralizing, and quite rightly defends egg freezing as a reproductive choice in the strongest possible terms: “I think that like birth control or abortion, egg freezing could also change society. It is a choice, another tool by which women are able to assert control over their bodies. The decision to freeze eggs should be a matter of personal choice rather than a political statement.” It’s a choice that Lehmann-Haupt, at age 37, aided with a little cash inherited from her grandmother, goes ahead and makes. “I do feel at peace knowing my younger eggs are preserved in a little test tube in a big metal tank. It feels surreal, but I also feel like I’ve done everything within my control. I won’t stop thinking about my fertility, but I think I’ll feel a bit calmer the next time love comes my way.”
There’s something undeniably appealing about reading about a woman in her late 30s who feels she can go into a relationship with a man without feeling that she’s got to get knocked up within six months or else. And not yet finding the man she calls “Mr. Right” is the biggest reason Lehmann-Haupt gives (in this article anyway) for not yet having a child. But I have to admit that while I was reading the part when she describes shooting herself up with daily hormone injections, the little voice in my head that shamefully second-guesses other women’s choices piped up and wondered: Well, hey. If she can afford an expensive, invasive treatment, why not just go ahead and consider having the kid already? Sure, it’s a hell of a lot easier to go into parenting with a partner, but if you didn’t find the right guy at 31 or 37, what makes you think another five years or so will help? When is it time to decide that if you want a child, it’s time to go ahead and have one yourself? (Yes, I shut that shrewish little voice up, too, but bear with me for a moment.)
The downside of having too many choices, it seems to me, is that it can make it hard to know when the time has come to choose just one. There are days, in fact, when I think of the biological clock as a kind of asset: a cursed reminder — like this little thing called mortality — that life is unfair and sometimes you just have to add up your wins and losses and make a damn decision. And while I am a 35-year-old woman who would dearly love to wave a wand and give me and every one of my friends who wants it at least another good 10 years of guaranteed fertility, most of the time I think it’s probably much more useful to get men who want biological families someday to think a little harder about how they can make sure the women they would like to have them with aren’t paying too high a price to do so.
But none of my pious moralizing, or random speculations, changes the fact that giving women another reproductive choice — especially if it becomes safer, more effective and more available to all women — is, on the whole, a pretty marvelous thing. And while Lehmann-Haupt’s article in Newsweek, for the sake of simplicity, stuck to exploring the single option of egg freezing, her new book, “In Her Own Sweet Time,” seems to take on many more ways that women can choose the life they want, without being hamstrung by traditional notions of career and family. In this recent interview she even discusses most of the issues I raised, including the option of single parenthood (“So if you really want a baby, just have a baby! And maybe that will free you up to have real love”), the need for men to take equal responsibility in fertility (“They need to be considerate about their girlfriend or fiancee or wife’s fertility, and they should known that their fertility declines with age, too, albeit not as drastically as women’s”), and the phenomenon of “instant families” (typically formed when a couple in their waning years of fertility “meet, marry and have a kid within two years,” sometimes leading to “instant divorces”). It sounds like the rare book that portrays family life as a sequence of choices, rather than prescriptions. Amen for that.