Women today experience a double-edged sword when it comes to starting a family. We have access to more career opportunities than ever before, and we’re living much longer lives yet our biological clocks haven’t shifted to keep up with the changing times.
We’re encouraged to pursue higher education, lean in to our careers, travel, find the perfect partner, and fit in as many rich life experiences as we can before ‘settling down’.
Well, in theory, that’s how it’s supposed to go.
But one life plan isn’t going to fit all, and whatever your circumstances, with our partner Virtus Health, we want to give you the facts so that the family planning decisions you’re making are informed ones.
Understanding what affects your fertility ie age, medical conditions and the health of your partner is the start. There is a lot of talk today about elective fertility preservation and egg freezing. While freezing your eggs isn’t a silver bullet, it may provide the opportunity to preserve your potential of having a baby if you are not currently in the position to become pregnant or if your fertility may be at risk.
We spoke to three women who recently froze their eggs and asked them about why they decided it was right for them; sexologist and relationship expert, Dr Nikki Goldstein who froze her eggs at age 29, Van Sharma who froze her eggs in her early 30s, and successfully had a baby boy using donor sperm just over two years ago, and Hannah-May Linder who froze her eggs at 33, after attending a fertility seminar with her sister.
“I always thought that egg freezing was a foolproof plan,” says Dr Nikki. “You know, you pop your eggs in the freezer, and then if you want to have babies later, you just take them out.”
But while researching her newest book, #singlebutdating, Dr Nikki met a fertility specialist who shared some harsh realities about her future fertility.
“Taking my age and blood work into consideration, the fertility specialist said to me, ‘To take your eggs out now, and with the current technology, if we then were to insert them, you would have a 39 to 40 percent chance that this would actually follow through to a successful pregnancy.’”
“That was the aha moment for me to do it sooner rather than later,” says Dr Nikki of her decision to freeze her eggs. “That’s where I started to learn about the strength of the egg and your age.”
“I wanted to get to my 30th birthday and go, ‘eggs are in the freezer, I can just focus on being me, and working out what all that means going from my 20s to my 30s.’”
(Left to right: Van Sharma, Dr Nikki Goldstein, Hannah-May Lindner)
Van Sharma, now 39, has always been driven by her life goals and decisions. Through her 20’s she focused on study, travel and establishing her career. Having lived in three different countries, she moved back to Australia in her early 30s to put down her roots.
“Having a baby has always been part of my life plan, and I was keen to be prepared for when I was ready to be a mum – whenever that would be,” says Van. “So I educated myself early to understand the impacts that age has on fertility and put a plan in place to give myself some options.”
“At 33, I froze my first batch of [unfertilised] eggs and didn’t think much more about it – it was a pretty straightforward process.”
“Then at 37, I felt relatively secure with my job, home, finances as well as having a good support network around me, so I decided to a give donor cycle a go using a sperm donor. The clinic were fantastic and provided amazing support so that also helped,” says Van. “Luckily for me the planets aligned and I was very fortunate to have fallen pregnant in my first (FET) cycle – in fact, I surprised myself given the stats – and at 38 I gave birth to baby boy.”
Hannah-May Linder was 32 when an AMH test undertaken by her GP showed her egg reserve levels were lower than average for her age. She immediately consulted a specialist to explore her options, but a negative experience meant she put things on the back burner.
Six months later at 33, a visit to an educational fertility seminar supporting her sister in her own IVF journey, Hannah-May met a different fertility specialist and reconsidered the egg freezing process.
“I was taken back to the thought of ultimately missing out on becoming a mother,” says Hannah-May. “It’s been a lifelong goal of mine to have kids, so at this time I thought if there is a way I can intervene with my fertility, I will, regardless of the outcome further down the track.”
As Dr Nikki showed in her 25-minute documentary, egg freezing isn’t a simple one-day process. To obtain eggs for freezing, a woman will usually have hormonal stimulation for 10-12 days, which enables a number of eggs to mature. The eggs are then collected from the ovaries under a light general anaesthetic or sedation.
“Emotionally I found it very difficult,” says Dr Nikki. “I did feel – and this has even furthered my passion for talking about this publicly – that even in the waiting room there’s a stigma attached.”
“Women in the waiting room might be going through IVF, they might be going through egg freezing or some sort of fertility issues, but no one talks to each other. We’re all kind of there to ensure that we are mothers one day, or in the immediate future.”
“So that’s why I think it’s so important not only to have the information available but to be able to whip the shame and guilt away from it so that women do feel more comfortable being outspoken and supportive of each other.”
As for Van Sharma, informing herself and her positive outlook helped to prepare her throughout the process.
“The process of harvesting eggs can be strenuous on your body with the drugs and various tests,” says Van. “But if you are mentally prepared then you know what to expect.”
“Doing it as a solo also mum brings its own set of tolerance and testing circumstances too, but I’m a positive person and tend to see the fortune in most things.”
As for Hannah-May, she found the support from the fertility clinic team to be incredibly thorough and seamless.
“My gynaecologist and his team were very supportive, informative and tactful throughout the entire process.”
For anyone thinking about freezing their eggs, Hannah-May urges, “Do not wait!”
“Do not keep putting it off. Make that appointment. Ask your GP to test your AMH levels. Ask the questions. Ask what your options are.”
“I would advise women to dig deeper into the process,” says Hannah-May. “Educate yourself and seek further information on all of the possible outcomes.”
A year on from her egg retrieval, Hannah-May has decided to make 2019 the year she starts her family using donor sperm. “The amount of time it would take me to be wholehearted in a relationship with someone, and know they are completely desirable and worthy of fathering my children, is far greater than the time I have fertility-wise, says Hannah-May.
“I am electing to be a single mum by choice, and I feel empowered to be able to make that decision. I am so excited for what is to come!”
“Research and become aware of your body and your fertility. I have learned so much over the past few years. They don’t say your biological clock is ticking for nothing.”
Van Sharma also has similar advice, ”educate yourself early, so you know what your options are and what the stats say.”
“But don’t let that be deterrent to what you want to do with your life and the choices you make for yourself. Back yourself.”
Dr Nikki also advocates for doing your research and not putting it off thinking, ‘I’ll leave it for two years and then if I don’t meet a nice guy, then I’ll do it,’ because of the impacts that can have to your chances of later falling pregnant.
“I would say if you’re thinking about it, make sure you have a strong support network around you, and start having the conversations with them as well,” says Dr Nikki. “It might be your friends; it might be your family. It might even be your partner because this is something that’s always been directed towards single women, but what happens if you’re in a relationship? And both of you are not wanting to have children anytime soon.”
As a single parent of an almost two-year-old, Van Sharma has already had to navigate many tough but well-meaning conversations from friends and family.
“Of course I have had some tough questions along the way by people who don’t understand egg freezing or IVF or perhaps have different values to me. You know, questions like, ‘what about the unused eggs’ …’how will you do this on your own’…’isn’t IVF it risky to your health’…’how did you choose a donor and how will you explain it to your son’ but I truly relish in these questions as I see them as a fantastic opportunity to share experiences and educate others to be more accepting of the world we live in today.” says Van.
“I also see it as an opportunity to pioneer the way for other women and families who are considering such options but aren’t sure,” says Van. “In my mind, life isn’t a dress rehearsal. This is it – your one chance. Do you want to do, and back yourself.”
If we are to make the best decisions for our future selves, our health, our fertility, then really we need to be given all the correct information so that we then can work out what’s best going to fit our lives says Dr Nikki.
“We are often judged according to our fertility, as women,” says Dr Nikki.
“We are judged if we decide not to have children, it’s like “what’s wrong with you?” We’re judged when we decide to delay children for whatever reason. There’s a lot of shame around not being able to find the right guy or in putting your career before motherhood.”
“There is so much shame that’s placed on a woman for utilising technology to either prolong motherhood or assist with the process. And that’s just so wrong, and it’s a societal issue that we need to get our head around.”
“I think this is probably the most interesting era for women,” says Dr Nikki. “We’ve got this empowerment that’s going on, but women still want to be mothers.”
“People should be talking about different ways to be mothers. Why are we so stuck to this idea that you go to uni, or you get a job, you do some travelling, and then you have babies? This mould that’s set in front of us, it’s not working for 50 percent of us.”
EGG FREEZING – THE FACTS
Egg freezing for non-medical reasons is most effective in women under 35 because fertility begins to deteriorate after this age.
The expected success of the procedure can be ascertained from an initial assessment of the ovarian reserve, via a blood test Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) and an ultrasound to count the number of antral follicles.
Success rates for egg freezing
Success rates vary for different women so it’s not possible to give precise figures for the chance of pregnancy after freezing. In general, live birth rates using frozen eggs depend heavily on the age of the woman when the eggs were collected and frozen, irrespective of the age at attempted pregnancy.
On average a woman under the age of 35 will have 10 mature eggs collected in a single procedure, but this number reduces by approximately 1 egg per year above 35.
The age at egg collection also influences the chance that a mature egg will successfully thaw, fertilise, develop to blastocyst and become a live birth.
15-20 eggs gives a 50% chance of at least one pregnancy in women under 38. On average, to achieve a 50% chance of having at least one live birth at a later age, a woman would need to have frozen 7 mature eggs at or before 35 years of age (from approximately 1 egg collection), 15 eggs at 38 years of age (from approximately 2 egg collections) or 25 eggs at 40 years of age (from approximately 4 egg collections)
To find out more about egg freezing and your fertility choices, it’s worth booking a consultation with a fertility specialist. As members of Virtus Health, IVFAustralia, Melbourne IVF, Queensland Fertility Group and TasIVF are responsible for helping more than 5,000 couples and single women achieve their dreams of a family each year, with specialists located across New South Wales, ACT, Victoria, Queensland & Tasmania.