My friend Leora, an oncology researcher with a PhD in biochemistry, was 34 when she decided to freeze her eggs last year. She wasn’t panicked that she wouldn’t find a man. Nor was she bothered about when she’d get round to starting a family.
“Whether or not I use the eggs, mentally it put me in a far better place to relax and get on with my life,” she told me after the procedure.
Her newly relaxed demeanour was rather sexy, and within about three months she met someone great and they moved in together. Babies will come, but only after she nails an important promotion at work.
Leora’s story is not unusual. To date, only six per cent of women have used the eggs they’ve frozen (only half of these have been able to get pregnant with them). Over a third have become pregnant naturally, according to the study of women aged between 27 and 42 published in Human Reproduction earlier this year. And the rest have clearly found other alternatives.
With so few women actually using their eggs, the hysterical reports last week about the popularity of the procedure among a ‘leftover generation’ of women who can’t find a man good enough to have a baby with appear slightly insane. Egg freezing is clearly a useful outlet for women – even if its comforts turn out to be psychological rather than practical. But are we really at a reproductive crisis point?
I suspect not. Alarm bells rang loud and clear when I read that women are taking ‘desperate steps’ because of a ‘missing generation’ of ‘eligible men’. Is this not simply version 2.0 of that old chestnut – aired so strenuously in the 70s, 80s and 90s – that women who choose careers over the joys of hearth and home will suffer?
‘Man shortages and barren wombs: the myths of the backlash’. So begins chapter two of Susan Faludi’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning Backlash. With female educational attainment and career achievements both rocketing, Faludi pinpointed a widespread ‘backlash’ against women that was designed to make them feel like crap: guilty, anxious and unattractive.
The main weapon in this assault was women’s fertility and, by association, their romantic status. With their high-falutin’ degrees and professional ambition, it was no wonder that men were declining to put a ring on it, in Beyonce’s hallowed words.
The crux of it was this. Based on a number of half-baked or misinterpreted studies, it became a truism that a ‘crisis’ was underway as more and more women were remaining single and/or delaying child-bearing either by choice or chance. Outrage and panic was peddled on TV and in print. Who would have the babies? And, so the subtext went, who would nurture the menfolk?
But the grimmest effect of all was to be seen in the unmarried women themselves. They were, so the theory went, becoming miserable wrecks, winding up depressed, unfulfilled, alone and brooding over expensive martinis in their posh flats while dreaming of a clutch of babies.
Admittedly, the terms of debate about the current female reproductive disaster story have improved. Previously, the barely-disguised moral of the story was that women should jolly well stop disrespecting their biology by having careers instead of children in their 20s and 30s.
Now at least the academic who produced the report admits that if the problem is a lack of eligible men, we should be trying to get men better educated, not only expecting women to lower their standards, though, she said, women may need to rethink their criteria. (The idea that women are too picky is another chestnut that’s had a good roll around over the past 35 years or so. One recent example is Lori Gottleib’s 2010 bestseller Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough).
After the generational massacre of World War One, there really was a man shortage – one million fewer men than women of marriageable age in Britain. Today, the argument is on far shakier ground. People like Leora are not freezing their eggs because of men. They’re doing it for themselves, because they can: they’ve got financial independence, a range of life options and best of all, control over their reproductive futures. That so many women are freezing their eggs isn’t a sign of crisis: it’s something that could be celebrated. Women are flexing their psychological and economic independence, not succumbing to a desolate wasteland of man shortages or barren wombs.