Maybe I’m nostalgic, but it seems like just yesterday that parents were instructing their teenagers to “use protection” in order to delay parenting for when you had the means and maturity (presumably adulthood) to raise a child. Now, evidently, parents are buying their law school grad daughters gift cards to have their eggs harvested and frozen for future use. The future being sometime after you’ve achieved all the important professional milestones and your body no longer wants to make a baby so you need to fall back on those younger eggs.
Sarah Elizabeth Richards has done exactly this and written a book about it: Motherhood Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her article on the same topic appeared in the Wall Street Journal this month. She froze her eggs between age 36 and 38. She describes her decision as “the best investment I ever made” because it “stopped the sadness that I was feeling at losing the chance to have the child I dreamed about my entire life.” One of her main reasons for delaying childbearing was that she had not spent her 20s and 30s earnestly seeking the right man with whom to make and raise children.
I sympathize with Ms. Richard’s desire to have a baby and pressure to keep time with her biological clock. I entered law school without any marriage prospects and wondered whether I would ever be a mother. Once I met “the one,” we promptly married. Three months later, I finished law school, got pregnant, and sat for the bar exam.
I also turned down my offer to work for a big law firm and make six figures. It was a surprisingly agonizing decision. But I knew even at that point that a successful big firm practice is incompatible with motherhood. Indeed, it’s interesting that moms with MBAs from prestigious schools are choosing to stay home with their children at higher numbers than female attorneys.
Several friends who went on to firms have told me that they do not know how they will solve the puzzle of motherhood and law firm success. The female partners they have observed either have not had children, or have produced children that are raised by other people. One female partner, for example, had a “daytime” nanny and a “night time” nanny in order to sustain her work needs.
This tension perplexes liberal women just as it does conservative ones. Susan Estrich, a noted feminist and highly credentialed attorney wrote a special aside to women in her book, How to Get Into Law School:
Where to begin? I wasn’t supposed to be writing this in 2003. Things were supposed to be equal now. It should be possible for women as well as men to work in firms, be good parents, and good lawyers, without feeling like they are constantly forced to choose, up against the wall, lying to everybody, competing for the chairmanship of the Negligent Mothers’ Club (a job I have held for years).
There are exceptions. Perhaps there will be more by the time you read this. But most large law firms have not done nearly enough to accommodate the realities of the lives of most women who are mothers—and the result is that most of those women don’t become partners, or don’t stay; they become “of counsel,” contract attorneys, or quit altogether; the ones who make partner don’t have children, or never see them.
So what is the solution? Well, the answer deserves its own post. For the time being, I would say that freezing your eggs is not the solution.
First, freezing eggs for later use obscures a major biological problem. Even if your frozen eggs are young when you get around to squeezing motherhood into your schedule, you are not. You are forty. And a forty year old woman simply does not have the energy, nutrition, or vigor of a thirty-year-old much less a twenty-five year old women. Our bodies are not meant to start child-bearing at forty. If you have a problem with that, take it up with God, or Mother Nature if you don’t believe in the Big Guy.
Second, forty is not a better time career-wise to have a baby than thirty. Take lawyers for example. Lawyers often make partner in their late thirties. Making partner does not mean you cut your hours and start living off the fat of the land. Rather, your work shifts. You get a bigger office and, perhaps, spend less time grinding out first drafts of legal documents. But whatever time you gained is lost to client meetings and management, and editing documents. In fact, partners often work more than associates and carry more stress of the business.
Finally, egg harvesting is a very new technology that has not been proven safe. Women who go through the extraction process are injected with powerful hormones, sometimes even administering the hormones to themselves at home. Risks associated with the procedure include ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, ovarian cancer, bleeding, infection, or damage to the bowel, bladder or a blood vessel, premature delivery and low birth weight, first trimester bleeding, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, and birth defects.
So freezing eggs is not the panacea promised. And I haven’t even touched the ethical issue of what to do with unused eggs. Nor have I addressed the important fact that a child requires a mother to hold her, read to her, train her, and encourage her in order to properly develop, not a corporate climber with a robust 401k.
Technology will not solve our problems, nor magically realize all our wishes. We cannot have it all. $50,000 worth of hormone shots and a bag of frozen eggs will not get you what a twenty-three year old women has when she marries a good man, quits her job, and cuddles her baby. You cannot trick Time.