Options on Ice
Right about this time last year, when a relationship with the person I thought was my Other Half had just come to an end, I decided to fight the sadness by plunging myself into a series of goals. In January I signed up for a triathlon. In March I landed a book deal. Staying busy was the best medicine.
But there was another goal looming in the distance that was more important than the others. I knew I wanted to have children, and somewhere between the breakup and the book deal I had turned 38. So a few months later, I decided to start another project: I would undergo treatments to freeze my eggs. I felt like a walking cliché — the whole I-never-thought-I’d-be-single-at-this-age thing — but I had accepted that part. What I was unprepared for was that of all the goals I’d thrown myself into, this one would be the easiest and the most rewarding (note to publisher: only because the book isn’t done yet).
Thanks to new technologies, freezing eggs all by themselves is now a viable option to preserve fertility; previously, the best-available method for someone like me was to choose a male donor to lock things up with. But I still held out hope that I’d find The One. If I could somehow slow my biological clock without bringing a stranger’s DNA into the mix, I would pay almost anything to do so.
And pay I would: the whole process would cost me around $8,500 before medication. But the peace of mind and the ability to keep the hope of having biological children alive was, to paraphrase MasterCard, priceless. Plus, as a friend pointed out, it was better than rushing into a doomed relationship just because of a ticking clock. (“It’s cheaper than a divorce,” she said.)
Truth be told, I didn’t see the process as such a big deal. As long as I could afford it, and as long as I would pass the blood and hormone tests that made me a contender for it — many women my age do not — I saw it as a no-brainer. When I got the green light from my doctor, I was thrilled.
I soon learned not everyone shared my hopeful, happy vibes. In the waiting room at the NYU Fertility Center for the mandatory orientation class, I sat among patients of all stripes: couples in their 30s and 40s attempting in-vitro fertilization, single women trying the same on their own, young fertile women in their 20s who were donating their eggs, husbands anxiously waiting for blood tests to make sure they weren’t the cause of the problem. It’s a stressful place for anyone to be, but the women in my category — for the most part, single, in their late 30s, and trying to buy themselves more time — seemed especially dejected. When our names were called, I watched them get up and gather their things with heavy sighs.
Once we assembled ourselves in the classroom, I wanted to give them a shake: smile, I wanted to say. This is a good thing! You’re taking action for your future! I get it, I wanted to tell them. None of us ever thought we’d be here. But being here was better than not.
(Also, it turned out, everyone was here: over the course of my treatment I ran into three different friends, and on one of my final trips to the clinic, the taxi driver turned around and asked me just what exactly was happening at this obscure place on 38th and First Avenue where so many young women were asking him to take them. Single men looking for ladies, take note: yoga class has nothing on your neighborhood fertility clinic.)
I don’t mean to be cavalier about what can be a very serious situation: part of the reason egg freezing might have felt so uplifting for me, my doctor pointed out, was it doesn’t involve trying to get pregnant; there was no “finish line” for now. Indeed, no one who has struggled with traditional IVF needs to be told how stressful and upsetting the process can be.
Even so, I was surprised when my close friends took on a mournful, Very Serious Tone about my efforts. When I told them what I was doing, one after the other would furrow her brow, reach for my forearm and give it a supportive squeeze. “We are so proud of you,” they would say. “It is so strong of you to do this.”
To be sure, it was an ordeal. I would be going through all the rigors of IVF: injections once or twice a day, possible side effects from the hormones, and I would need to get myself to the clinic every other morning for blood tests and scans. At the end of the cycle I would go under anaesthesia for the “retrieval.”
But to me it was hardly something to be somber about. And I soon learned that it would fit very easily into my hectic lifestyle. The morning visits were inconvenient, but they were so early that I wouldn’t have to miss work. We weren’t supposed to do any hard-impact exercise, so that meant no running for a few weeks. But we could keep our social lives as active as we wanted. We could still drink alcohol, the nurse assured us; she just advised us to give ourselves the injections before we go out instead of when we come home so we didn’t drink too much and forget (apparently that had surfaced as a problem).
The injections were nervous-making at the beginning, but after the first few, I realized they didn’t hurt, and were much easier than I’d thought. The injection “pen” had an ergonomic, user-friendly design to it; if Steve Jobs were to have designed a fertility accessory, the Follistim injection pen would be it. The needles came in thimble-sized plastic pods that I stored in a decorative bowl on top of my fridge like so many Nespresso cartridges. Soon I came to look forward to the injections; they were my own little private, proactive date with myself. As I became more confident, I started doing them on the go, throwing an ice pack and the drugs in a soft-sided cooler and slinging it around my shoulder so I could shoot up wherever I happened to be: in the bathroom of restaurants; at friends’ apartments; even in my office, where I would store the cooler in the communal fridge next to my colleagues’ Israeli couscous, then close my office door at the end of the day and do the injections, bringing the used needles home with me so as not to leave a trace. I felt like a closet fertility junkie.
Along the way I had started dating again, and I found myself newly emboldened by my secret side project. Even though the goal was to be able to buy myself more time to find someone, the day-in, day-out focus on my fertility made me hyper-vigilant about weeding out anyone who wasn’t interested in settling down immediately.
When I felt comfortable enough with a new suitor, I would drop references to my treatments to see how he would react. The cute writer who lived in Brooklyn said he thought it was great and told me he’d even written a story about the subject; no big deal. I gestured toward my fridge and said it was stocked to the gills with boxes of medication; he was unfazed. Out to dinner, I excused myself to go to the restroom for an injection; still no reaction. I brought him with me to the drugstore one night to pick up extra needles. He hung on; he even sent me a text message reminder the night I was scheduled to take my “trigger shot” at 1:30 a.m. But while he wasn’t scared off, it became clear he didn’t exactly see a role for himself in the process either; we soon decided to end things amicably.
In non-dating situations, too, I found myself telling anyone who would listen what I was doing. When friends I hadn’t seen for months would ask me what’s new, I would tell them. If they didn’t ask, I would find a way to bring it up. One day, I ran into The Ex on my way home from work. Funny timing, I casually mentioned; we’d only crossed paths because I’d stayed at my office a few extra minutes to give myself a fertility injection. He took it in stride. (What I didn’t say was that I also wanted to send him the bill.)
The rest of the process went smoothly. The doctors retrieved a number of eggs that wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, so I decided to go through the process a second time: another month of needle-stashing, of cooler-slinging, of taxi rides and clinic visits. I am now the proud owner of a healthy stash of eggs sitting in a liquid nitrogen tank somewhere on First Avenue, hopefully clearly labeled (storage fee: $1,000 per year).
It’s possible I’ll meet someone, and things will happen naturally, and I’ll never need to go back to use them. As I write this a few months later, I’ve even just finished a third go-round; I decided to make a hat trick out of the process because, well, why not. I’m dating, still, and while Mr. Right hasn’t appeared just yet, I’m enjoying the process — and heeding the advice of a close friend who said I should stop advertising my recent efforts (“don’t give everyone the egg test,” she pleaded. “The right guy won’t need it”). She’s probably right. But however long it takes from here, I now feel like I can take the time needed to find out. And that’s about as priceless as it can get.
Leigh Gallagher is an assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine and the author of an upcoming book about the future of suburbia.