Why I Froze My Eggs in Another Country, and What it was Like
I never thought I would be living this moment — age 37, living in another country, with no prospects of a partner in sight. I know this sounds bleak, ironically at a moment when I am very content, but when it comes to my intention of family-building, it is reality.
I started seriously thinking about freezing my eggs early 2014 (age 34). I knew I was about to embark on change-leaving Washington, D.C. to either move back to my other home in the Middle East to work with my community and live near family, or finally taking the leap to start anew in California-so I gave myself permission to wait until January 2015 to make the decision about when-and if-to freeze my eggs. That gave me the freedom to concentrate on the life move and provided calm, knowing I was not going to let this slide. By January 2015, I had indeed moved back to the Middle East, was living in my 3rd city within a year, and was still in the midst of a beautiful yet unsettled transition. So, I decided to hold off until the right moment-which came this summer.
Let’s back up. I am an attractive, friendly, intelligent, athletic, well-rounded American-Arab gal. I have been blessed with a solid work ethic, great education, and internal drive to make a positive difference in this world, which has led me to live a rich life and build a career centered on that principle. I have had some beautiful relationships along the way, just not the right one for a long-term partnership. I feel the need to express this, lest you think “something is wrong with me,” which is why I haven’t “succeeded” at family-building just yet. And it’s precisely this reason that I need to share my story with you-the fellow “Xennial” who has found herself in a similar position, perhaps struggling to admit to herself this is the moment she is living, likely wrestling with shame on a deeper level. This is also for the friends, family, and support network around this woman, who have limited insight into what freezing one’s eggs involves.
There are lots of articles and blogs out there sharing their version of statistical analyses on why and when a woman should consider freezing her eggs. As a former statistical analyst, I spent many months researching answers to my burning medical questions: If I freeze eggs at age 37, how many do I need to “guarantee” a future live birth, assuming implantation in either late 30s or early 40s? Should I consider freezing embryos with a sperm donor, to increase my chances of a successful birth, irrespective of a potential partnership? What does the process entail, and how long is the recovery process? Which doctor should I go with, and what are his or her success rates related to using frozen eggs to achieve live births down the line?
The short answer to these questions is, of course, there are no right answers. Every study has their outliers, and samples generally include a mash-up of both healthy women like me who are looking to ensure chances of a future pregnancy, as well as other women my age who are undergoing fertility treatment because they are otherwise unable to conceive. The one guarantee, though, is that the older you get, the less healthy your eggs may become, and eventually your chances to conceive naturally–while definitely possible–may be lower. Trying to figure out certainties beyond that can be crazy-making.
Between the remnants of a conservative childhood ensconced in the Southern Baptist Church, and my current yoga-teacher tendencies to embrace all things natural, the idea of relying on science to ensure a future pregnancy instead of relying on God or the universe’s timing to dictate what will or will not be for my life was a serious mental exercise. Once I decided to approach this as I do choosing to have health, car, and home insurance policies, I was in the clear to tackle the next mental challenge: shame. Through my scourge of online articles, which mostly did not resonate, I did find one that seemed to hit home. This article briefly indicated that, despite the media and society’s tendency to conflate a woman’s choice to freeze her eggs with the choice to pursue career at all costs, women choosing to undergo this procedure are doing so because they want a family, not because they just want the kid or want to strictly pursue a career. They just haven’t met the father, yet.
I have never “chosen career over family”, but I have, always, chosen to live a life where I can meaningfully contribute to making this world a better place. At times, that has meant living in other countries, or pursuing jobs in statistically less-friendly places for highly-educated, straight women to find partners, like Washington, D.C. I firmly believe that the right thing happens in the right moment, and that there is no prescribed path for life’s journey. I have also found myself in dark, lonely moments wrapped in tears as I tried to understand why this dream of mine-to have a family of my own-seemed so elusive. I share this so that you, the reader on this same journey, know that someone else gets it, and understands. For me, it was the mental aspect of this process that was the hardest to work through, but I guarantee you-choosing to go through this will force you to confront yourself on such a raw level that you will come out the other side a much more centered, grounded person because of it.
Since I was going through this process in another country and in my 4th (not fluent) language, I knew I needed a support system. I created an email group that I could write and send pictures to after each important juncture, be it a doctor’s appointment or a night of accidentally giving myself too many shots (air shot!). I asked my friends around the globe to simply read and send a one-liner back to let me know they were in my corner, and it meant the world. Physically, I was most concerned about self-administering shots and gaining weight, especially since I have always hated shots and have had to be very conscious about eating and exercise habits to maintain my preferred state of fitness. I learned along the way that this procedure is the exact same as going through the first phase of IVF, except you freeze the eggs after retrieval, as opposed to continuing with the fertilization and implantation process.
Aside from decisions like picking a doctor, clinic, and preparing yourself financially, there are the pre-procedure tests. About two months before the target date for the procedure, you need to go through a series of blood tests, a vaginal ultrasound (for some reason I thought the ultrasounds would be like the ones on TV with jelly on the belly but oh no, they were not. Prepare for the intrusions.), mammogram for when you are over 35 (Yay! Another reminder I’m getting old!), and meeting with your clinic to learn how to administer the hormones, take the tour, and learn more about the procedure. At each medical appointment, I was confronted with a barrage of questions that, after a certain point, were impossible to deflect: You’re not married? How come you haven’t met someone, you’re so beautiful/nice/fill-in-the-blank? Are you sure you only want to freeze eggs, not embryos? You really don’t have someone in your life to fertilize your eggs with? What about a gay friend?
Thankfully, my mother flew in for the process, which was also invaluable. Having someone there with me every night to pep-talk me into giving myself shots-and even to give me the shots herself the first few nights-was instrumental. It was so important for me to know I wasn’t going through this alone. On the third day of my menstrual cycle, I had to go in for the first of many combo blood work and (vaginal!) ultrasound visits. There was the additional stress of getting a flat tire on the way to the clinic, an hour away with a two-hour window for testing, but I made it. That night, I waited for the call from my doctor’s office to tell me exactly how much of which medicine to start taking. This process repeated itself, with changes in medicine and dosages according to the results of many other combo blood work-ups and ultrasounds. I ended up taking hormones for 13 days. By the end, I couldn’t walk without pain-extreme bloating and bladder pressure every time I took a step. One of the last drugs I took-the one that staves off ovulation-caused immediate cramping (typical reaction), so I started to get ready for bed and prepare a hot water bottle beforehand so I could immediately crawl into bed to sooth and distract myself with Netflix afterwards. I also learned which injection needles I liked better, so eventually only used those for all medicines.
The day of the medical procedure itself wasn’t so bad, thanks in large part to anesthesia, except for minor anxiety around how many mature eggs I was going to be able to freeze. I was able to get an average number for a healthy woman my age, and will be going through the process again this fall to get closer to the 20 that I am legally allowed to freeze here. I also want to increase chances for successful fertilization, implantation, and a live birth in a few years, should I need or choose to use my frozen eggs. It was the post-procedure pain, though, that I wasn’t quite ready for. One friend who had frozen her eggs said she had severe bloating for a month afterwards; two others seemed just fine. In my case, I had incredible cramping and bloating pain, unable to leave the house for a couple days, all of which subsided by the time my menstrual cycle came 9 days early (also normal). An active yogi and CrossFitter, I was eager to get back to my workouts. Thankfully, I had watched my diet during the process, so hadn’t gained much weight. What I wasn’t ready for, though, was that it would take a month before I was able to do abdominal exercises, or properly get through either a yoga session or a CrossFit WOD. One yoga teacher explained that I had basically imitated pregnancy, blowing up my uterus and then letting it drop down again, all in a very short time frame, so the ligaments around my uterus needed time to heal. All in all, the process required continued patience and the practice of listening to and following my body’s messages.
While I felt like a human science experiment at one point, and my belly really did look like a human pin-cushion, I am so glad I made this choice. First, I am amazed at what the body can do, and am so thankful for the miracles of nature and science. Second, despite my attempts to logically keep myself from viewing every date as a potential future partner and the mental gymnastics of convincing myself that it was “ok” I hadn’t met the right person yet and that everything would happen in its timing, it wasn’t until I underwent this procedure that I really did chill out, and I feel great. Perhaps most importantly, though, going through this process forced me to confront both my deepest fears and deepest desires. I had to be really honest with myself about what I want out of my life with respect to family-building, and where I can most likely make that happen.
As a result, aside from chopping my hair off (quite literally freeing myself from the Middle Eastern cultural norm that long hair is the epitome of feminine attraction and youth), I have decided to move back to the U.S. Both personally and professionally, I feel like my time here is wrapping up, and is not particularly “scalable”. I’ve chosen to move to the Bay Area, for its combination of being home to many close friends, providing professional opportunities that make sense for me, and embracing a lifestyle of wellness and outdoor living. One of my closest friends in the Bay, whose kids are my godchildren, recently gave me the most salient advice. She encouraged me to move somewhere I can finally root down, regardless of what happens in my personal life. That, while she believes I will meet the right partner and have kids of my own, I need to be somewhere I can live a grounded and happy life regardless of if that happens for me or not. Freezing my eggs has given me the permission to explore that next possibility without worrying about having children in the next 2–3 years, and just like in 2014, I’ve given myself another decision deadline. This time, I’m giving myself until I’m 40 to decide if I want to have children on my own or not. If, by then, I haven’t met the right partner to share my life with, I’ll decide whether or not to use my eggs with a sperm donor to have a child on my own. Knowing I do not have to make that decision right now is incredibly freeing, as is the decision to move back to my other home, ground-down for a while, and choose to live a good life in a good place with good people around me, regardless.
N.B.: Maia Barkley is a pseudonym. This story is for other women who have or are struggling through the same decisions. I hope you will be encouraged, and welcome your comments.