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Working Women Are Planning More, Which is Why Some Are Freezing Their Eggs

4 minute read

Women seem to have gotten the message that if we want to have both professional success and a family, we better plan it out. That’s the point of a New York Times piece this week that concluded that millennial women are leaning away from “leaning in” and instead scheduling family phases into their career plans.

MORE: The Truth About Freezing Your Eggs

Here’s how the Times’s Claire Cain Miller puts it:

You might call them the planning generation: Their approach is less all or nothing — climb the career ladder or stay home with children — and more give and take …“They’re anticipating that in some way they’re going to have to dial down or integrate their career and their life,” said Caroline Ghosn, chief executive of Levo, an online professional network focused on millennial women. “This reality is something that people are a lot more transparent and open about.”

When you’ve grown up with as many conflicting messages about work and family as millennials have, that kind of attitude makes sense. We’ve been thoroughly disabused of the notion that having both a thriving career and a family at the same time is easy–or even possible– and so the natural reaction is to stagger them; first one, then the other. In most cases, women choose to focus on their career first and family later. But that’s a tricky gamble, because fertility declines with age.

That’s where egg-freezing comes in. For a generation of women who tend to be more practical about plotting their career and family trajectories, egg-freezing is marketed as the best way to do just that. With a frozen egg, they’re told, they could easily start a family throughout their 40’s. Fertility marketers call it an “insurance policy” that can help women smash the biological clock.

That’s an idea with obvious appeal to young women. “It gets into all the mixed messages that women are constantly told. Like “you can have it all, you can’t have it all.” With dating: first it’s like ‘don’t settle,’ then it’s like ‘marry him already,’” says Eileen, a 28-year old who works in education, is considering freezing her eggs when she can afford it. “Everyone’s like ‘do this, do that’ and it feels like you’re never getting the truth about what you can do and what you can have.” (Eileen asked that her full name not be used, because of the personal nature of this fertility decision.)

Jen Statsky, a 29-year old TV writer, says she’d consider egg-freezing just to give herself more flexibility. “I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky with my career and I’m happy with where I am at 29, but there’s so much I want to do. I enjoy my life the way it is right now,” she says. “And theoretically I can’t see being ready for a child before the age of 35 or 36. I would push it to 50 if I could.”

Eileen feels like anticipating a family could keep her from making a radical career switch at this stage of her life. “If I were to start a new career in this point in my life, of course as a female you’re always thinking: how would that work out, how would I get years under my belt without leaving the workforce?’”

Dilemmas like these, combined with recent technological advances, have led to a surge in procedures. Since 2009, egg freezing’s popularity has increased more than tenfold, and fertility marketers are predicting that by 2018, more than 70,000 women will be freezing their eggs. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine lifted the “experimental” label from the procedure in 2012, after the quick-freeze vitrification method was developed (scientists discovered that quick-freezing eggs worked much better than slow-freezing them.)

If you want to know more about egg-freezing, check out our recent magazine feature on the topic here.

There’s just one problem with using egg-freezing to help plan the perfect career trajectory: it doesn’t necessarily work that well. Although egg-freezing is marketed to anxious women as an “insurance policy,” there are not yet any major studies about success rates. And initial numbers obtained exclusively by TIME suggest that in 2012 and 2013, only 24% of egg thaws resulted in a live birth.

So if women are using egg-freezing to plan their perfect careers, they need a plan B.



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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com