In the fall of 2004, I was 29 years old, and my life was progressing exactly as I had planned. Six months later I was divorced and staring down 30; major portions of my master plan having crumbled down around me. I could have curled up into a ball in mourning over the loss of the life I had envisioned, but that just isn’t me. Ever resilient and optimistic, I refocused all of my energy on my legal career by taking a new job in state government.
Four years after my divorce, my sister invited me – her single, career-driven, older sister – to witness the miracle of childbirth. As I stood in that delivery room watching my sister giving birth to my niece, it never occurred to me that I might not be there myself one day giving birth to my own healthy baby. Sure, I was still single at 34, but I had plenty of time. I mean, when had I not been able to accomplish something I set my mind to achieving?
Fast-forward three years to 2012. I am still single and still focused on my legal career. Because the master plan for my life had always included being a mom, I started to consider my options. I had never considered the possibility of being a single mom, though, and after seven years on my own, I wondered whether my independent, “come and go as I please” lifestyle could be adapted to accommodate a child.
Since I wasn’t sure I was ready to go it alone, I decided to preserve my options by freezing my eggs. In 2012 I made an appointment with a fertility specialist and began the expensive process leading up to the harvesting procedure. However, when I went in to see if the hormones were working, the doctor discovered that I did not have enough eggs to harvest. Because I had been stressed and dealing with some health issues, we decided to wait a few months and try again. When I returned in the spring following a second round of hormones, the result was the same.
I was diagnosed with “premature ovarian aging,” also known as premature ovarian failure – a term used to refer to the loss of ovarian function before age 40. I was 37. To the best of my knowledge, I had not had any signs of premature ovarian failure. My monthly cycle had been regular, and I had not had any menopause-like symptoms, such as hot flashes or night sweats, which often accompany the onset of premature ovarian failure. Yet, I was facing a diagnosis that would forever alter my future. Had my single-minded focus on my career following my divorce drowned out the ticking of my biological clock for so long that now it was too late? I could not help but wonder if there was anything I could have done differently.
I consulted a friend of mine, Dr. Shannon Clark, founder of Babies After 35. When I told her I had not had any other symptoms of premature ovarian failure, she encouraged me to get a second opinion. Most importantly, however, she told me not to beat myself up over not having attempted to freeze my eggs sooner. It turns out that significant breakthroughs in the egg freezing and thawing process occurred in 2012, the same year I first attempted to freeze my eggs, making the process a much more viable fertility preservation option than it had been previously. This knowledge allowed me to come to terms with my diagnosis and move on with my life.
I chose not to follow Dr. Clark’s advice to seek a second opinion. Having been on the fence about whether I still wanted children and feeling very uncertain about single motherhood, I chose to view the diagnosis as a sign that giving birth was not in the cards for me. My sister, who is four and ½ years younger than me, graciously offered to donate her eggs. Again, because I was not ready to take the leap into motherhood and because of the significant cost of the egg freezing process, I declined her offer. Freezing my sister’s eggs that I might not end up using just didn’t feel like the right path for me.
I recently celebrated my 40th birthday. I would be lying if I said that there were not days when I wondered if I made the right decision not getting a second opinion, taking my sister up on her offer or considering an unrelated egg donor. I would be lying if I told you I did not get weepy over certain sappy commercials or the episode of Friends where Monica decides not to have a child on her own after Joey tells her how he’d always envisioned her and her husband “Hoyt” playing with their kids poolside. And, most of all, I would be lying if I said that there was not a part of me that will always wonder whether my daughter would have had my eyes or whether my son would have inherited my biting sense of humor.
In 2014 I chose to take a break from the full-time practice of law and explore a career in the nonprofit sector. Though it has not been without challenges of its own, my career change has brought me a great deal of joy, fulfillment and a renewed sense of purpose. My family members often tell me that it is good to see me more relaxed/less stressed, and my overall health has improved. So maybe things have worked out for me exactly as they should have.
My purpose in sharing my story is to encourage all career-focused women in their 30s not to place limits on themselves and to explore egg freezing as a means of fertility preservation. Egg freezing does not pose the same moral or ethical dilemmas with which many women struggle in dealing with excess fertilized embryos resulting from in vitro fertilization. While the costs associated with freezing and banking your eggs can be significant, try to view them as an investment in your future – one that allows you, not your aging body, to decide whether and when to have children.
If I had it to do over again and had the medical technology been available to me in 2005, I would have harvested and frozen my eggs when I was in my early 30s, shortly after my divorce. Doing so might have allowed me to continue on the same career path that I ultimately followed without forgoing the option of having children of my own along the way. Even if I had been able to freeze my eggs, I might have decided not to have children, but at least the choice would have been mine to make. By taking control of your fertility options, you can be prepared in a way that I was not when those “best laid plans” for your life go awry.