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Last year I froze my eggs. It was strange, bruising and cost a lot, but I felt set free

For a few days afterwards, belly still swollen, I felt bereft. I had nothing to show for it. But as the synthetic hormones drained away, they took with them a suffocating pressure.

By Charlie NicholsonPublished 3 years ago 16 min read
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Photo by Lara Sanan

The first thing I felt as consciousness returned was someone patting my leg. It was my consultant surgeon, standing beside my trolley in the recovery room of one of central London’s leading fertility clinics, beaming down into my face, which I could sense was still a blank from the general anaesthetic, along with the rest of my body.

“We got 22 eggs!” she twinkled. “Well done, my darling, well done.”

I think I tried to smile, but I’m not sure if it worked.

Fifteen minutes or so later, I was back in my private room, staring at the phone beside the bed, which I hadn’t noticed until it suddenly started ringing. I picked it up.

“Miss Nicholson?” An excited Aussie accent darted down to my eardrum through the fog. “I’m from the lab. Nineteen of your 22 eggs were viable for freezing! Congratulations!”

By now, I was grasping that this was an unusually high number of eggs and that the consensus seemed to be that I should be feeling very pleased with myself. Certainly, I’d spoken to a friend who’d only gotten five or six eggs from a single round, and often clinics offer three-round packages at up to £10,000. They like to try and freeze at least 20 eggs to give the best chance of live birth. However, I was more pre-occupied with trying to sense down into my body to scope out what damage had been done and how much pain I might be in under the drugs' dregs. A nurse had come back to the room with me to help me change out of the flimsy paper cardigan-like thing that I’d had to put on for the surgery and back into my own clothes. As I stepped into my underwear, there was an unspecified stiffness around my pelvis and groin — inflammation, I guessed, in the tissues lining my vagina through which the hollow needle had been pressed into my ovaries to aspirate my eggs.

My door opened, and the consultant appeared again, doing her rounds to check on her patients. Satisfied that I had reconnected with reality, she asked:

“Do you think you’ll do another round, freeze more eggs?”

“Nineteen is a lot of eggs. Do I really need more?”

“No, I don’t think so. I’m just supposed to ask…” It’s a private hospital. Business is business. She came to my side, leaned on the bed. Perhaps in her late fifties or sixties, she was a mother, I imagined, possibly even a grandmother. Kind face. Kind lines. “If you were my daughter,” she continued, resting one hand on top of my own, “I’d say forget about this now. Just go out there and live your life.”

She left me drifting in and out of those words.

For a long time, I hadn’t been very interested at all in the idea of having children. I wanted a big, important career. I wanted a partner I was in love with. I wanted a nice place in which to live, which, ideally, I would own. I wanted to be able to travel a lot. I wanted to be able to afford to eat at London’s best restaurants and be able to take my parents to those restaurants and order my mother all the champagne she wanted. I wanted to construct a life that spelled out success, and that made them proud of me, and I felt that these were the yardsticks by which they would measure how well I’d used the opportunities they’d given me. A long line mainly of materialism, sprouting clear boxes to tick. Having kids was very far down that line, slightly smudged and indistinct perhaps because my mother had me when she was 37, which seemed so far away. Perhaps because her parting words to me when I went to university were:

“Whatever you do, don’t get pregnant. Because once you do, your life is not your own.”

I feel as though I’m still unraveling the layers of that second statement. But at the time, oh, I took that very much to heart. I was firmly on the pill, and on it, I stayed for 15 years.

By Thought Catalog on Unsplash

I spent my twenties ticking those boxes in one of the most driven cities in the world. I met the man I would marry whilst ticking the ‘big, important career’ box. He was also ambivalent about parenthood. He didn’t much enjoy the company of children. He liked his friends’ kids well enough but always shuddered at the thought of having to deal with them hungover. That was the key reference point. In the end, we settled — vaguely — on, well, it might be sad not to. And he then drew an arrow towards me with:

“If you want to, baby, we’ll do it.”

At the time, I didn’t think to question why the onus should be on me since it would be his child, too. And at any rate, my late-twenties self was not interested in clearing space in body, brain, or bank account for a baby. So, it remained smudgily at the bottom of my long ‘to be achieved’ list as I turned 30 and the party continued into married life.

What changed?

Falling in love — deeply in love — with someone else.

Getting married had felt easy. We’d been together seven years. We had a house together. It was the next step. The next step. The one everyone expected. And we’d been together so long I couldn’t imagine a future without our togetherness as fact. It was as familiar as brushing my hair in the morning. But I soon realised — ring on the finger, vows exchanged, paperwork signed, dress a dry-cleaned, deflated symbol hanging in the attic — that I was not happy. I had bound myself to a dear friend, a housemate, essentially, and I wanted — needed — a lover. A realisation threw into sharper and sharper relief as I fell, over a period of months, for someone I’d started working with. And in the relationship that burst open, I found all the intimacy, the connection, the fierce understanding between a man and woman that had eluded me until then. It was a common enough scenario, the work love affair. A cliché, my husband called it angrily when I admitted to it a few months after it had begun. Perhaps it was. But at the time, it felt like the beginning and the end of everything I thought I knew about myself and how I wanted to be alive. The relationship lived on beyond my divorce, as I waited for him to leave his own marriage.

Around the same time, my niece arrived in the world. I had never been much interested in babies. I didn’t find them cute. They stirred nothing in me. And the paraphernalia that comes with them — buggies, Moses baskets, breast pumps, car seats, change bags, playmats — seemed designed to fill your world with heavy, angular, expensive obstacles. This baby re-wrote all the rules. I couldn’t wait to get up in the mornings to go and stare into her wide-open face, giving her new expressions to try on. Her tiny, vulnerable little back that couldn’t support itself, with its trim of wrinkly skin, broke my heart. Smelling the top of her head was a wholly new human-to-human experience for me. There’s an as-yet new word out there for what that scent does to your — what? Nervous system? Endocrine system? Both? I’m not really sure. And when she learned to smile, nothing else in the world mattered.

Photo by Charlie Nicholson

Two years later, her brother arrived. He was big and ugly and had scratch marks on his head from where he’d gotten stuck on the way out. As a toddler, he liked to bang cupboard doors for no reason. He recently went through a phase of wilfully refusing to poo for days on end, so his parents — juggling four jobs between them — had to scrape together hours out of someone’s day, somehow, to take him to the hospital to be unblocked. But he also climbs into bed with me far too early in the morning when I’m visiting to snuggle for a couple of hours. Small, naked and sucking his bunny’s ear; his sleepy brown eyes full of the unasked-questions of the day ahead, his heart built of trust and no agenda but unconditional love.

Admittedly, I get to give them back. I’ve seen my sister, as a first-time mum, wide-eyed with terror when her new baby vomited all over her own face and started to choke, her six-month tour in Afghanistan as nothing compared to this. I saw the corners of her reality curling with the slow, dark lick of incipient post-natal depression, any previous sense she might have had of a singular self — with needs, purpose, and direction — having evaporated overnight, leaving her alone in a cottage in the countryside with nerves like bone-dry tinder, her RAF pilot husband often having to be away on duty. I’ve seen her on her knees on the floor, sleepless and shattered, reasoning through tantrums that are tearing up everyone else’s day, calmly explaining what it means to be kind, straining against everything in her being not to shout and send someone to their room. Her patience deserves a Nobel prize more than any eureka moment.

But I love those children, and as these new loves in my life aligned, there it was. A void between my hip bones that suddenly echoed with a longing to be filled. The pain of an absence. A pain embodied enough to bring me to my knees once, gasping for breath as though winded. Things became visible to me that had not been before. The look that floated between the locked eyes of a mother and her baby as I passed them at a traffic crossing. The corners of a father’s eyes creasing with laughter at his toddler’s stunned reaction to a mouthful of ice cream. A chemical reaction would cascade through my cells, throwing a film across my eyes.

I waited for a long time to be with this man that my body wanted to have a baby with. My early thirties edged into my mid-thirties. With him in my life, I couldn’t take my blinkers off and see the possibility of loving someone else. In the end, I cut off contact and worked with an array of healing tools, from psychotherapy to EMDR, to pull out the pieces of him and open up to whoever else might be. Still, it took time, and all the while I was alerted to a tick, tick, ticking by every Tube advert for a fertility clinic, baby formula, or pregnancy vitamins I was pressed up against on my commute; every newspaper editorial about women leaving it too late because they’re trying to ‘have it all,’ various ‘social commentators’ tossing in their opinions about our bodies and what we should be doing with them when; by my mother — changing tack completely now that she found her daughter too driven a career woman — saying:

“You’ll regret it if you don’t.”

I watched female friends in their late thirties or older who hadn’t already become parents wrestle with the same question thrust upon them in the same way: what should I do about my declining fertility? Some hit the dating apps because, certainly in London, it seems, locked in the tramlines of our individualistic lives, passing each other like ghosts in the street, meeting people has become strangely difficult. Some did meet partners this way and very quickly got busy getting pregnant. Some went on to lose the baby and, soon afterward, the partner. Some held on in relationships they knew, in their quietest moments, weren’t making them happy because ending it and finding someone else in the time they assumed they had left felt like an impossible task. One had entered a relationship aged 39, stating clearly that she wanted children. Three years later, still not pregnant, she made an appointment with a doctor to get their fertility checked, and her partner didn’t show up.

“It’s not my fault you’re 42,” he’d said when she eventually found him.

A couple of friends asked me to go with them to free open evenings at London fertility clinics. So I got intimately acquainted with the steps and costs involved in egg freezing and becoming a single parent via a sperm donor. I decided to get my fertility tested at one of them. After checking in at reception in a one-period building near London’s Harley Street, I was dispatched to the basement of another down the road to get my blood taken to test my AMH levels (Anti-Müllerian hormone, used to assess a woman’s ovarian reserve or egg count). A row of curtained cubicles confronted me, a woman in each, arm outstretched. I had the jarring sense of it all as a production line — in fact, pulling outwards, an industry fuelled by fear. Of…what?

Missing out on some vital jigsaw piece of ‘ideal’ womanhood?

Never experiencing the unconditional love of a child?

Not leaving any genetic legacy, just a dead end on your family tree?

Your parents not meeting their grandchild?

Your friends thinking you’ve somehow failed?

Is having a baby because you have a primal urge to put your love into a baby the right reason to have a baby? Are any of these reasons to bring a new life into this world? Questions, all these questions, crowding up against the glass case I found myself within. Exhibit A: Woman In Late Thirties Not Yet A Mother. Everyone discuss.

When the results came in, a male doctor at the first building pointed at graphs and tables of numbers describing the geopolitics at play within my pelvis. In fact, my fertility looked very good, from what I understood of it all.

“Well, yes,” he said, then. To my surprise, he frowned. “But a woman’s fertility declines sharply in her late thirties, so you shouldn’t leave it long to do something about it.”

Ah yes. We women. We’re homogenous.

Since my body is unique, and since I was a fit and healthy 37-year-old and the tests were bearing me out, I decided to wait a little longer, give myself time to sit with the various decisions I could make, and see how life might unfold in the meantime.

We’re headed in the direction of 100-year life spans as the norm. Yet women’s bodies are still yoked to the sex hormones of hunter-gatherers who would have been lucky to live past forty. We override and override and override because we also have ambitions and missions and passions outside of procreating. And because in large sections of the West, we know that until we have workplaces and laws that respect and protect pregnant or miscarrying women, as well as parenting generally, with equally shared parental leave normalized in our social codes and affordable childcare accessible to all, stopping to have a baby is highly likely to set us back in our careers and our finances especially if we do it alone.

And so, a year later, when a potential relationship I had been excited about faded to nothing, I knew I still wasn’t willing to go down the sperm donor route. But I was also tired of the pressure cracking open every thought I might have about the future and filling it with leaden ‘what ifs’. I wanted to be free to be. To live my life and do what I felt called to do, where I wanted to do it, at my own pace rather than society’s, or my ovaries’, meeting whoever I might meet on the way — and falling in love because of falling in love, not as a means to an end. In the spring of 2019, I decided to take advantage of nature's human workaround and freeze my eggs.

A friend a few years older than me asked:

Have you considered all the potential lives those frozen eggs represent and whether it’s right to play God over whether they live or die?

If you donated any of your eggs to other people, having not used them, have you considered how you’d feel about children that are genetically half yours being alive and not in your life?

Should you one day decide to go down the sperm donor route, do you think it’s right that a child should grow up not knowing its father? And have you thought about what you’d say to your child when he or she started asking questions?

More questions. One of the most thoughtful and moral people I know, she had wrestled with these herself and had elected not to proceed with IVF via sperm donor based on the answers she found in her heart. I found I didn’t have the will to think myself into my own shoes years down the line, or those of a child born of a frozen egg that may yet never exist. Rightly or wrongly, I was only prepared to deal with what was in front of me, and what I wanted right then was time.

I rang one of the fertility clinics I had visited. Not the one that had previously tested my fertility, but another where the introductory talk had been delivered by a doctor who had seemed open and empathetic, his shirtsleeves rolled up, a dad himself at the end of a long day at work, his manner warm and his emphasis always on the uniqueness of his clients, despite having to walk us through the general statistics. Within days I had an initial consultation with a female doctor on his staff. I suspected about five years older than me, a mother of two. Tell me about you, she had said. What do you do? What has brought you here? As I loosely sketched an impression of my life and why I found myself sitting in front of her, I felt ‘seen’ as an individual with my own story, not a societal phenomenon.

Image credit: Shutterstock

The next step was a check-in appointment with one of the clinic’s nurses and a small battery of blood and other tests — cytomegalovirus (CMV), common in adults and harmless but potentially dangerous to pre-term babies; a smear test; a full blood count; thyroid function; chlamydia screen; hepatitis C; and HIV. Most of these I could have had done for free at my GP, but I was in the building, decision made, and I craved momentum. My samples were dispatched to the lab, another nurse sat with me going through paperwork to sign, namely consent for treatment, consent for egg collection, and consent to freeze and store these little pieces of me for a maximum of 10 years. After that time, there is uncertainty around the continued viability of the eggs. (No such time limit exists in the US). The first year’s storage would be free, but I would be billed £350 each following year. I nodded and signed, nodded, and signed, nodded, and signed.

The moment arrived to be taught how to inject myself with hormones that would hyper-stimulate my ovaries to produce multiple follicles, each follicle potentially containing an egg, over a period of about two weeks. It wasn’t about the needles. They were tiny, barely registering as more than a pinprick in a pinch of my belly fat, and I’m not phobic. It was the self-inflicted invasion of powerful, body-hijacking chemicals that were not my own that bathed me in the sense of guilt. I had finally come off the pill about ten years earlier, wanting to feel into and live by my own cyclical rhythm, not one induced for me, so this felt like a betrayal of nature. But it was precisely nature — among other things — that I felt was backing me into a corner, and I wanted to wriggle free.

It began on day one of my next periods. I called the nurses and booked in for a first transvaginal ultrasound scan the next day, which they used to count the number and measure the follicles' size in my ovaries. I began daily injections. I returned every two-three days for another scan and blood test to monitor how everything was developing and correctly when the eggs should be collected.

I had been warned that there would likely be side effects caused by the drugs. For the first few days, I experienced searing headaches, and I felt exhausted, every spare resource I had been pumped into intensive farming — so it felt — of these eggs. My belly began to swell as they grew in size, rubbing uncomfortably against my jeans, which I unbuttoned beneath my desk at work. My boss took me aside one day and asked if everything was alright, noting that I seemed…. out of sorts. Fortunately, I worked for a female-led company, and in media, so she shrugged almost with relief when I explained — nothing more serious, then — and told me to take time off if I needed to. Not everyone would encounter such understanding.

Perhaps, fortunately, I was very responsive to the hormones, and it all happened quickly. Within 10 days, I was back at the hospital for a final ‘trigger’ injection. This is administered when the leading follicle reaches 17–22mm to switch off the system that would normally release the single most mature egg for fertilisation so that as many of the others as possible would have the chance to fully mature, too, in preparation for collection, instead of withering away as usually happens.

Then I was waking up in that recovery room, 22 eggs, and about £5,000 lighter, feeling grateful that I had a well-paid job and could afford it. Plenty of women can’t.

For a few days afterwards, belly still swollen, I felt bereft. All of that, and I had nothing to show for it. But I sensed this was the synthetic hormones still swilling around my system, and as they drained away, they took with them both that sense of loss and the suffocating pressure.

And so, a year-and-a-half later, time bought, if I ask:

Do I want a baby first and foremost, at all costs? Or is it partnership on this journey that comes first, for me, which may bring with it motherhood?

The answer tapped from my core, unclouded by the chemicals in my body; by the desires of emotionally invested relatives tapping wristwatches; by awareness of what everyone else my age is doing; by advertising, TV and movie imagery depicting how successful lives should look; is -

Partnership.

Short answer. But worth the long journey to get to it.

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About the Creator

Charlie Nicholson

Yoga teacher. Trauma sensitive yoga teacher. Freelance writer & copywriter. Freelance documentary development executive. Passenger of plant medicines. Follow me on IG: @charlienicyoga & find out more at charlienicholsonyoga.com

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