PHOTOGRAPH: JENNY LEWIS
Last year, I asked my GP if she thought egg freezing was worth the hair-raising cost. She said, ‘You’re 34, you’ve got time, maybe give online dating a go?’ I laughed – honestly, did she think I hadn’t tried the app merry-go-round?
I may not have a burning desire for a child right now, but I didn’t want to bury my head in the sand until my body took the option off the table. Egg freezing seemed like a sensible solution.
We’re the first generation of women able to press pause on the biological clock, and I’m grateful for that. But unfortunately that freedom doesn’t come cheap. In the UK, it costs up to £8,000 per round of egg collection, and since doctors recommend banking at least 15 eggs, you could easily need two or even three rounds to get there. £24,000? I’m a journalist!
But when it comes to the egg-freezing dilemma, I’m by no means alone. Thanks to Covid-19’s multifarious restrictions, the dating scene has become even more of a minefield, meaning fertility clinics have seen a surge in interest from women wanting to freeze their eggs. Some are reporting a 50% year-on-year increase. The actor and writer Michaela Coel, 32, is just one of them – she recently revealed that she has decided to freeze her eggs ‘just in case’ she wants to start a family in the future.
Luckily, I decided to take the leap before lockdown happened. I also chose to do it in Cape Town, partly because I have family in the city, and partly because February is the southern hemisphere’s midsummer, and I liked the idea of soothing hormonal rages with sunbathing.
Also key in this decision was Catherine Hendy, who, along with Brittany Hawkins, founded Elanza Wellness, a company that helps women prepare for fertility treatments. Interestingly, Catherine lives in London and Brittany in California, but both froze their eggs in Cape Town.
‘There are some real advantages that make freezing overseas in a country like South Africa worth it,’ says Catherine. ‘Mostly, the savings. These aren’t just a nice bonus; they’re significant enough that they can open up egg freezing as an option to women for whom it might otherwise be prohibitively expensive, even once flights and accommodation are factored in. Getting away from day-to-day stressors and setting aside some time to relax is also really alluring.’
I opted for the Aevetis Clinic – where Catherine and Brittany both went – which charged me £1,200 per cycle, including five years’ egg storage. My mother came along for the ride and took me to my appointments in the airy rooms just outside the centre of town. I certainly needed her support on that first day when I stared at the row of injections on the table, and mustered up the courage to plunge one of them into my stomach. The first time you stab yourself with a giant needle is terrifying, the second is mildly anxiety- inducing. By day 12, you barely notice it.
I injected myself at 9am each morning and, other than three scans, I was free to do whatever I wanted – mostly swim in the city’s tidal pools and watch my mother sip the wine I’d been banned from drinking. Beforehand, I had visions of Michelin-man bloating and a face full of acne, but other than jet-lag-like exhaustion and a few bouts of weeping, I found it easier physically than I was expecting.
Easier physically, but harder emotionally. The process brings a lot of feelings to the surface, and as well as getting my head around the fact I was having to freeze my eggs (and therefore deal with some latent shame about not having met someone at the right time), I found the results-based element more difficult than I expected.
A few close friends in London had been doing IVF at the same time, and had banked between 17 and 23 eggs, so those were the numbers I had in my head.
At the first scan, the doctor told me I was unlikely to get more than seven and I was surprised by how devastated I felt.
I had failed to get all the eggs I needed in one round, and my hormone-addled brain started worrying that this was indicative of my overall fertility. I later discovered it was a pretty normal amount and that it changes month to month anyway, but I still had to confront the fact that – no matter how young I felt – my ovaries were slowing down.
Because I’m freelance, I decided to stay in Cape Town for longer and do a second round: I’d rented out my flat back home and was living for free, so it was financially doable. I was in a similar situation to two other British women I met out there, in fact, who had done a house swap with a couple from Cape Town and had bought themselves a round of egg freezing for their 30th birthdays.
Their reason was a legal one: in the UK, frozen eggs have to be destroyed after 10 years, which means there is little point in doing it in your twenties. But these women were the exact age doctors recommend you whip out your eggs and didn’t want to wait. In South Africa, there’s no limit on egg storage, which meant that at the end of their three-week trip, they had collected enough eggs to extend their fertility into their forties. As, hopefully, did I. In my second round, I got 13 eggs, taking the total up to a far jazzier 21.
Not that the medical marathon that is 2020 was anywhere near over... My second extraction was in late March, making it impossible for me to leave the country when coronavirus hit. I missed the last commercial flight home before South Africa closed its borders, and only got on a UK Government repatriation plane in May.
Reading those words, it sounds horribly stressful, but I loved my four months in Cape Town, and spent my days sitting on a wrought-iron table under a fig tree, writing. If I had to use one word to describe the way I felt, it would be content.
My chilled-out mood made the fact that I met someone quite soon after I got back to London even more surprising – and in the middle of a pandemic. What started as a socially-distanced drink outside turned into evening wanders around London and eventually the rather thrilling formation of a bubble. It’s still early days, but I like him and feel lucky to have someone at a time like this. I suppose the best-case scenario is that I don’t have to use the eggs and just have a child naturally, so in that case I would destroy them. Tempting as it is to preserve your fertility indefinitely, I’m not sure it’s a good idea.
Frozen eggs or not, 35 is a complicated age to be a woman if you want to have children. But freezing my eggs has given me some peace of mind. The process made me confront sticky, suffocating emotions – ones like shame and panic – that single women are taught to feel. It turns out that, for me, injecting myself with a cocktail of hormones made those emotions slowly wither away.
How Egg Freezing Works
Studies show that each egg you freeze at the age of 35 gives you a 6% chance of having a child. Vitrification, a newish freezing technique, has made the process far less risky than it was before, with 90-95% of eggs surviving the thawing process. Unfrozen, they’re as good as fresh ones
However, the likelihood of these eggs then leading to a baby is entirely dependent on the quality of them. In other words, there is no way of telling how viable they are until they are fertilised.