When news broke that Facebook and Apple will now cover the costs of freezing female employees’ eggs, a procedure that can run to $10,000 on top of another $500 a year for storage, the debate over whether this was good or bad for women erupted immediately. Certainly having one more reproductive choice available without incurring such a steep cost is good for women. Men, who are generally fertile until much later in life (even if their sperm quality decreases), get to delay parenthood for free. And women may choose to freeze their eggs for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they don’t yet have a partner with whom they want to have a child. Maybe they don’t feel ready to be a parent. Maybe they don’t know if they’ll ever be ready, but want to have the possibility open later in life. And, of course, they may feel that they can’t have a child at a given point in their careers and want to delay childbirth until they’re further along the career track.
On a societal level, however, the increasing prevalence of putting eggs on ice should raise red flags. The procedure is becoming a booming trend: the number of women seeking to freeze their eggs has risen fourfold in the last four years. Doctors in New York and San Francisco say cases have nearly doubled over the last year. While most women say they freeze their eggs because they don’t have a partner yet, a quarter does it for professional reasons. It’s a hyper-individualized answer to a collective problem: the fact that both men and women work, but our workplaces don’t allow for a family life.
The choices working mothers face are stark. More than 40 percent of women with children say they have at some point had to cut back on their hours to care for children or other family members, but just 28 percent of men have had to do the same. More than a quarter of mothers quit their jobs at some point for this reason, while just 10 percent of fathers have. Today’s mothers don’t just do more housework than men, they do more childcare than mothers of past generations. Plus, women take a compensation hit when they have children.
For a woman in the early stages of her career, this tug of war could yank her off her intended professional track. So some women turn to egg freezing as a way of putting off parenthood, at least until they are more established, have gotten the position they’re after, or just have more bargaining power at work. It’s not an unreasonable choice, given the way mothers are viewed in the workplace.
But the increasing adoption of egg freezing suggests that women are undergoing risky, expensive medical procedures with a low success rate to circumvent a societal failing to enable them to stay at work while parenting. How successful is the practice? Studies that have found successful pregnancies from frozen eggs have looked at women who did the freezing in their 20s or early 30s. Even for women 38 and under, the chance that a frozen egg will later become a baby is just 2 to 12 percent. And even if an egg is successfully unfrozen and fertilized with sperm, there’s just a 50 percent “take-home baby rate.” It’s also an invasive procedure that will take about thirty days, including self-administered daily shots, ultrasounds and blood work for two weeks.
That’s a lot of money to shell out for pretty low baby rates. And if women literally put all their eggs in this basket, they could end up sorely disappointed. All this because our country still hasn’t come to grips with the fact that women make up about half the workforce, including more than 70 percent of women with young children.
Egg freezing is just the most recent example of how we’ve made this collective problem an individual one. The individualistic American ethos has relegated the struggle to balance kids and careers to a private matter. That’s why President Obama’s statement at the Working Families Summit in June—“Part of the point of this summit is to make clear you’re not alone”—was so radical. For decades, parents have been told that they are on their own.
Parents are expected to figure out their own child care arrangements until their children are school-aged; we have a patchwork of poorly regulated, highly expensive private daycare centers, nannies and a few government-subsidized preschool programs. The tax credits we give parents for going to the trouble of raising children are pitiful. We don’t guarantee anyone paid leave when a new child arrives and just 12 percent of employers provide it. The supposed forty-hour workweek is now much longer than that and no one is guaranteed paid sick or vacation time. Even when children are ready for school, a school schedule looks nothing like the typical working person’s schedule. No wonder many moms end up pushed out of the workforce.
Policy changes are a more comprehensive solution to the challenges of working and parenting than egg freezing. They would ease the pressure on working women to mess with biology among those who can and can’t afford to freeze eggs alike. Child care and paid family leave both have been found to help keep mothers at work. Not to mention that the challenges don’t end once the baby arrives, whether delayed or not.
Egg freezing would probably still be an important choice for some women even if we had all of these policies in place. But the practice alone can’t remedy our failure to weave parenthood and careers together. We have to take the question of work/family balance out of women’s heads and put it into the national dialogue.
And one more thing: companies can take these steps too. If Facebook and Apple want to offer benefits that will woo women workers, why not take a page from Google or Cisco and offer on-site daycare?