As a new report reveals that a fifth of UK women in their forties are childless, GP and This Morning presenter Dr Zoe Williams explains why she made the decision to freeze her eggs aged 38.
Words by Dr Zoe Williams Infertility is slowly becoming a more discussed topic. Last month during National Fertility Awareness Month, thousands shared their stories online about struggling to fall pregnant. With 1 in 6 couples affected, I applaud the work done in lifting the stigma around infertility. But there is one conversation that never made it onto the agenda - Social Infertility.
'Social Infertility' refers to women (and men) who are childless, not because they have a medical problem conceiving but because they are single and unable to find a partner to have children with. And it’s arguably the fastest growing fertility epidemic in the UK.
Women in Britain are more likely to end up without children than almost anywhere else in the West. An international league table found that a fifth of British women are childless in their early 40s – a figure exceeded only by Spain and Austria. And the rate of childlessness among UK women is increasing sharply; up by almost 50 per cent since the mid-1990s.
You may be wondering what this has to do with me, and why as a GP I'm so passionate about this topic? The answer is because it’s personal. I’M 39, SINGLE (ISH) AND CHILDLESS! And unless I do something about this pretty sharpish, I will become one of the women who make up that statistic.
Many women do not want children, in fact one of my closest friends has always known that being a mother is not for her. Her partner had ‘the snip’ when she was still in her 20’s. I fully respect that being a mum isn’t for everyone, and that some women who don’t want babies feel judged for making this choice and pressured to change.
But I am absolutely not one of them. At the age of three, I declared to my Jamaican grandmother (who was a midwife) that I wanted to be a doctor, but it was even earlier, aged two, that I knew I wanted to be a mother, a desire that has not wavered for a second for the 40 years that I’ve been alive.
So what did I do? Towards the end of last year, aged 38, I paid thousands of pounds to freeze my eggs, storing seven in total, which was deemed to be “not bad, for my age”. How do I feel about my decision? I just wish I’d done it sooner; the difference in both the number and the quality of your eggs aged 30 compared to eight years later is hugely significant.
It was my late mother who had suggested I do it when I was 34. At the time though, I thought I was well informed (I wasn’t) and that I still had time (I didn't), so used my savings for a deposit on my first flat instead. Hindsight is obviously a wonderful thing, but given the chance to go back in time, I know for sure, I would have done things differently.
Even though I’ve always been career-focused, qualifying as a GP in 2013 and achieving a wide-ranging portfolio (ranging from advising government to regularly appearing on ITV This Morning) I’ve never prioritised work over becoming a mother. In fact, being able to provide for and nurture my future family has always been the biggest motivator to work towards success. This idea that women give precedence to education and career is a common misconception in society, which then tacitly blames them when they are unable to conceive later down the line.
I know I'm not alone. Research reveals consistently that when it comes to egg freezing, for the majority of women the reason is lack of a partner. In one study of 183 women 88% said they hadn't met the right person.
I was recently asked, 'Do you think you are desperate when it comes to having a baby?' My response was, 'How do you define desperate?'
The truth is that the thought of living another 40-50 years, not being a mother, makes me feel anxious and empty. I’ve practically done everything that I want to do and have already achieved more success than I had ever thought possible. The fact that my ovaries are likely to pack in anytime only adds an additional layer of urgency so yes, ‘desperate’ is not inaccurate.
I love spending time with my nephew and my godchildren, and of course adoption is an adoption and something that I’ve always thought I’d like to do in the future, but as a maternal, caring person, who loves to give, the innate desire to have my own biological child is immense.
Egg freezing rates have more than tripled in the last 5 years. Yet many women are still unaware or ill-informed of what it is, what it entails and what likelihood there is of success, which is why I'm keen to talk about it.
But for anyone considering egg freezing, I feel compelled to issue a warning: it is not the panacea to social infertility. It’s expensive at the outset and also incurs ongoing costs -I just paid my £300 annual storage fee for this year -and more importantly comes with absolutely no guarantee.
In fact, when it comes to success rates is fairly bleak. If I use my own case as an example, statistics tell me that using my ‘not bad, for my age’ stash of frozen eggs translate to just a 30% chance of a live birth. But its a decision I've taken with my eyes open given my circumstances.
I have absolutely no regrets about freezing my eggs, as they are a 30% chance that I wouldn’t have otherwise for the future. But I am now on the cusp of deciding what that future looks like. From what I can see just three options remain: going it alone with a sperm donor, platonic co-parenting or finally hanging in there for Mr Right and accepting that adoption may be my route to motherhood.
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