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False Hope, Frozen Eggs and Lying to Women About 'Having It All'

Photograph by Getty Images

I will never forget my freshman year in high school as being the first time I realized I couldn’t have it all. I wanted to join everything. Student government, speech and debate, theater, the newspaper, film club, even cheerleading.

OK, so I never had a shot in hell at cheerleading, but the rest? It was all plausible. The problem was, elective class times conflicted and after school meetings overlapped. I had to choose. I couldn’t do everything my little heart desired. It was a lesson in accepting that life is about priorities.

Today, it seems, a lot of women are still having a difficult time learning that lesson. And society is bent on telling them they shouldn’t have to.

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The headlines have been impossible to miss the last few days. Facebook and Apple are both going to be offering employees a fairly controversial benefit: they will pay up to $20,000 to freeze the eggs of any female employee who decides she would rather focus on her career over child rearing for the time being.

Let that sink in for a minute. Companies are paying for women to place their career above family. At least during those prime child bearing years.

Of course, that’s not how this benefit is being presented. Instead, the party line is that it is about keeping women in the workforce — about valuing their contributions and searching for ways to bring women into these high power fields.

On the one hand, I am beyond happy to see companies talking about this. To see them saying, “Women are valuable and we want to keep them in the workforce, so how do we accomplish that?” But on the other hand, the message here is clear, “We recognize your value and we want to retain it, but only if you are willing to prioritize us above having a family.”

Which means we have to ask ourselves, who does this really benefit more: the employee or the employer? And is it a move that relies on a fair amount of false hope in terms of attempting to convince women they actually can have it all — just so long as they are willing to put work first for a decade or so?

The unfortunate truth is that women have a finite number of years during which they can successfully conceive. After 30, egg quality starts to diminish. After 35, you have just a 65 percent chance of getting pregnant over a year of trying naturally. And by age 40, your chances of getting pregnant during any given month are only 5 percent.

Choosing to instead delay could very well mean losing that opportunity entirely.

I was 27 years old when I was told I would likely never carry a child — theoretically in my prime fertility years. So even for young women, things can go wrong and opportunities can be lost, which may have a lot of people thinking that this kind of benefit is all the more perfect. Why not preserve your fertility while you still have it, particularly if you work for a company willing to absorb the costs?

Well, because the reality is there may not actually be a whole lot of preservation going on. To date, only about 2,000 live births have resulted from frozen eggs — even though egg freezing has been happening since the '80s. Most egg freezing cycles result in about 10 to 20 eggs being extracted, and each of those has only a 10 to 12 percent chance of being viable and developing into a fetus after the freezing process. A decent number may not make it out of the deep freeze at all, and IVF odds tend to offer around 50 percent success rates — these are not great odds when you really add it all up. Even the American Society of Reproductive Medicine acknowledges the lack of data on egg freezing success, and distances themselves from promoting egg freezing as a means of delaying motherhood.

For some women, this procedure can be a true miracle. For those facing cancer treatments and impending infertility, for instance, it can offer them hope where there otherwise may be none. But for women who do have other options, and who would otherwise be ready for motherhood — choosing to instead delay could very well mean losing that opportunity entirely.

What needs to happen is an honest conversation about how to make motherhood a plausible option to pursue even while climbing the corporate ladder.

In reality, it is such a false sense of hope. These procedures in no way guarantee a baby. So for any company to tell women, “It’s cool! Focus on your careers and hold off on having babies. We’ll freeze your eggs and they’ll be right here waiting for you!” really only perpetuates the myth that our ticking clock is something we can control. The truth is, most of the women working for these corporations where positions are highly sought after anyway are likely already over the age of 30, and therefore already experiencing the diminishing quality of eggs that comes with age. By waiting another 10 years (or more) they are only further decreasing their chances of success. And by that point, if those eggs they have had on the deep freeze all that time don’t work, they may have nothing left at all to fall back on — just the remnants of that false hope they were sold so long ago, when they were told child rearing was something they could delay.

If the goal really is to keep women in the workforce, then what needs to happen is an honest conversation about how to make motherhood a plausible option to pursue even while climbing the corporate ladder. That means on-site daycares, paid maternity leave and flexible work schedules being prioritized above selling the idea that motherhood can just be put off indefinitely and that the option will always be there.

In a Bloomberg BusinessWeek piece earlier this year, Emma Rosenblum wrote:

“Imagine a world in which life isn’t dictated by a biological clock. If a 25-year-old banks her eggs and, at 35, is up for a huge promotion, she can go for it wholeheartedly without worrying about missing out on having a baby. She can also hold out for the man or woman of her dreams. Doctors hope that within the next 30 years the procedure will become a routine part of women’s health, and generous would-be grandparents will cover it as they would a first-mortgage down payment.”

I can’t possibly be the only person who reads that and cringes, wondering why on earth we are so insistent upon attempting to control nature and bend the world to our whims, and questioning where it stops — how far do we push that line?

Why are we so afraid of accepting reality: Life is sometimes about making choices.

You don’t see companies trying to convince men that they can prove their worth and loyalty by putting off building a family.

I’m sorry, ladies, but you can’t have it all — no matter what you’ve been told. At some point, sacrifices have to be made, either for your high-powered career or your family. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep pursuing them both, but it does mean that you can’t pursue both at full force at the same time – it just isn’t possible. And so, if your career is your priority and you decide to put off motherhood as a result, that’s fine; but you have to know that you may wind up in a position where motherhood is no longer an option. For some women, that’s an acceptable risk. But if you are putting your eggs on ice under the false impression that somewhere between 40 and 45 you can revisit the idea of motherhood again, please know, it might be too late. No matter how many of those eggs you have in the deep freeze.

Conversely, if you choose to pursue motherhood now, it may set those of you with high-powered career aspirations behind. And it’s possible that you may never be able to recover the gain you otherwise could have had. Unfortunately, that’s life. We make choices. We set priorities. And then, even though we can fight like hell to accomplish as much of our original dreams as possible, we inevitably end up sacrificing as a result of the priorities we chose. As women, it’s time we start dealing with that and accepting it as part of the world we live in, rather than continuing to fight against it, thinking we can play God in our pursuit of “having it all.”

Even if you are able to make it work, pursuing your career at full speed and putting off motherhood until a later date, when you decide you are perfectly “ready,” there is a strong chance that once that baby is in your arms – you will no longer be the same woman who clawed her way to the top. And you will no longer be able (or willing) to provide the same level of work you did up to that point. Something will have to change. You will either sacrifice in your duties as a mother or have to find ways to achieve a flexibility you never before would have dared to ask for in your career.

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I know that’s frustrating to hear, but let’s be honest – men aren’t getting it all either. Men with high-powered careers are sacrificing for those careers at some level as well. They are either forgoing parenthood completely, delaying it until their later years (which, unfortunately, is easier for men to do than women) or having a family with a partner who is willing to take on the bulk of the parenting duties while they pursue those careers. No matter how you look at it, though, there is a sacrifice on the family level when such a massive priority is being placed upon career. We can’t stomp our feet and talk about how unfair it is, because … that’s life. We have to set priorities and make choices every single day. It isn’t about fair. We don’t get to have it all.

The only difference is, you don’t see companies trying to convince men that they can prove their worth and loyalty by putting off building a family.

You don’t see anyone lying to them about their ability to have it all.

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