CLEVELAND — If you're a woman in your twenties or thirties, chances are, you've seen the ads in your social media feeds - tons of new companies are actively advertising their fertility testing services and trying to sell you the idea that they can predict how much time you have to start a family. Fertility is a hot topic on social media, but it's long been a stressor for women who may not be following a traditional timeline for starting a family.
Erin Sykes, a realtor based in New York and Florida, knows the pressures firsthand. She is 38 and single, and says the pandemic has put her priorities into sharp focus.
"We all have a lot more variables in our life and it makes it harder to find somebody not only that you're compatible with, but also that is geographically compatible," she said. "I have not found my partner yet, but I know a hundred percent that I want to have children."
For people like Erin who want to have a family one day in the future, the marvels of modern science have opened up a new world of possibilities. Egg freezing, which was first used to preserve fertility options for cancer patients, is now much more widely accessible to almost anyone.
It’s something I’ve experienced firsthand. I knew in my twenties that I wanted to freeze my eggs, but I didn’t actually go through with it until I was in my thirties - for a lot of reasons, including the expense. But I learned a lot when I finally decided to freeze my eggs, and I quickly discovered that before you can even begin the process, there’s a lot of testing involved, and it goes far beyond the kind you can buy on Instagram.
Egg freezing is a major commitment of time, your emotions and your money, and at the end of the day, there are no guarantees that freezing your eggs will ever result in successfully starting a family.
I documented the process on Instagram and YouTube when I went through it while living in New York, just before coming home to Cleveland two years ago. Over the next several weeks, I'll share more about what it was like for me, and give you an overview of what the process entails from start to finish.
For Erin, who has now gone through three rounds of egg freezing, she says she's grateful for the opportunity to turn to science to help her realize her dream of having children one day.
"It makes me even happier and, and feel more relieved that I have been able to kind of take the ball into my own hands and, and make sure that my personal desires are accommodated for," Erin says.
Dr. Marjan Attaran is the director of In Vitro Fertilization at the Cleveland Clinic. On a recent episode of my "3 Things to Know with Stephanie Haney" podcast, she said more and more women are taking the same approach.
"Generally speaking, [in the past,] people have been doing IVF for the purpose of infertility... [but] the egg freezing process now is applying mostly to women who are thinking about their fertility in the future," Dr. Attaran said.
With the pandemic putting so many of our personal lives on hold, Dr. Priya Maseelall with Reproductive Gynecology and Infertility says she’s seeing patients now who previously hadn’t thought much about their future families.
"I think [during] the pandemic, like all of us, we had a lot of time at home to sit on Google and search things that are important...and I think a lot of people just realized that egg freezing was a thing and they could do it. So they started looking into it," she said. "Also I think a lot of us, including myself, felt like, 'Oh my gosh, you know, life is about family and growing a family.'"
Erin did her first round of egg freezing at age 36 – and decided to do two more rounds during the pandemic.
"It did make it easier in some ways after the shut down...you know, you don't feel like going out, you need a little bit extra sleep," she said. "And I didn't feel any guilt about staying home and just taking care of myself."
Erin’s not alone, in the last six months of 2020, one fertility clinic reported a 50 percent increase in egg freezing cycles across its 40 US locations, up from the same time period in 2019, according to NBC's Today Show.
So why are so many women freezing their eggs to try to buy more time before starting a family? There are many factors, and while more women focus on their careers, finding the right partner and other priorities, the medical community has stressed that it does get harder to get pregnant naturally as we age.
"We are born with all of our eggs that we're ever going to have... so theoretically the younger you are when you decide to preserve your eggs the better off you are," Dr. Attaran said.
Plus, she explained that the technology used in egg freezing has improved greatly in recent years, which has also resulted in increased interest in the process.
"The technology that's being used in the laboratory is this process of vitrification that the embryologists have become amazing at, and really has been the the reason why there's been such good success with use of frozen eggs for establishing pregnancies," Dr. Attaran said.
While the science has vastly improved in recent years, this is still a relatively new area of science and one that hasn't always been accessible to everyone.
We'll be exploring more about the challenges surrounding egg freezing in the coming weeks, including the time commitment and financial investment, along with how culture has shifted surrounding insurance coverage and the new providers making it more available to more people.
We'll dive into the science behind how it all works, and with my legal background, we'll explore some of the legal issues to think about, as well.
Catch the series airin live on Tuesdays at 5 P.M. on What's New over the next several weeks.