It’s the ultimate New York careerist dream: Work (and play) now, conceive later. Has science finally made it possible? The promises and pitfalls of putting your eggs on ice.
Nette remembers when the baby anxiety began. “Three years ago, I started—I don’t know how else to put it—I started feeling on edge,” she says. “I had planned to be married and have a family by now.”
Nette is 37 years old, a petite black woman with large golden eyes and pin-straight long brown hair. As we sit down for a late lunch at the French Roast Cafe on West 11th Street, it strikes me that she looks like she could still be in her twenties. Those days are long over, she tells me. Nette, who asked to be referred to by her childhood nickname, spent most of that decade working in one of the most coveted jobs in the music industry: artists and repertoire. “It was completely sexy,” she says. “The sexiest job I’ll probably ever have.” She worked with Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight; she gave Lil’ Kim a gig before she was a star. “I did a lot of wining and dining, negotiating and schmoozing,” she says. She traveled constantly—South Africa, Bali, Beijing, Jamaica—not to mention “every hood in every major city, looking for a band.” There were expense accounts and lavish parties and plenty of men—she tried to stay away from the musicians and dated mostly producer types. “It was a blast,” she says, eyeing the nuzzling young couple at the next table, “but not very serious.”
In her thirties, Nette started thinking about settling down. She took a less glamorous, and less demanding, marketing job with another music company, bought a two-bedroom apartment in Park Slope, and started looking for “Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, whoever was out there.” But dating began to feel anything but romantic. Instead, it seemed like a desperate series of co-parent interviews. The men could feel it, too; when guys sense a thirty-plus woman who wants to have children, “they start to twitch,” she says. “Finding someone who is ready for a commitment when you’re ready is very tough.”
Even if Nette did miraculously fall in love tomorrow, she wouldn’t be able to have a baby right away. Last year, she decided that she wanted to be general counsel for a record label, and for that she had to go to law school at night, pushing off motherhood for at least another three years.
Nette realized that her fertility was waning—she had married friends in their mid-thirties who were struggling to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization, and single ones who were as panicked as she was—but there was nothing she could do about it. She began to think that if she had chosen to live somewhere besides New York, her life might have been different—more like her cousin, who got married right after college and had two kids by the time she was 30. Even her neighborhood seemed to taunt her: “In the Slope in the last few years, you are literally dodging baby carriages,” she says with a hollow laugh. “I mean, all those families?”
Then one day last spring, she was complaining to an older friend about her situation when the friend mentioned a new technology she had just read about that allows a woman to freeze her eggs while they are fertile and then thaw them out when she is ready. Nette got excited. Could this be real? She could get her law degree at 40, meet the man she wanted to marry, and conceive a child—her own biological child—sometime, anytime, after that. Egg freezing would be like putting her body on hold until her life could catch up. Nette thought about it for a couple days, then called New York University’s fertility clinic and made an appointment.
Despite all the choices that have opened up to women in the last few decades, there remains one immutable fact: The biological clock waits for no one. The difficult truth is that a woman in her forties who aspires to have her own biological child will most likely be disappointed.
In vitro fertilization has given older women some hope, but even IVF runs up against a physiological limitation: aging eggs. No one understands exactly what happens to eggs after several decades of wear and tear in the body, but doctors are convinced that old eggs are the key to age-related infertility. “When you are 21, 90 percent of your eggs are normal,” says Dr. Alan Copperman, the director of the division of reproductive endocrinology at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “When you are 41, 90 percent of your eggs are abnormal.”
In recent years, another alternative has presented itself: egg donation—when a younger woman’s eggs are implanted in an older woman’s body. But this frustrates many who yearn to share DNA with their child. Often, older women who get pregnant this way keep secret the fact that their child was conceived with someone else’s egg.