“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right”: How intensive mothering ideologies motivate women to freeze their eggs

By Kit Myers

Elective egg freezing first caught the public eye in 2002 when a fertility center in Los Angeles began offering “commercial” egg freezing to healthy women who were delaying motherhood into their 30s. Predictions of gender-liberated utopias and eugenicist dystopias abounded in the following years and interest in elective egg freezing hit a fevered pitch in the fall of 2014 when Silicone Valley giants Facebook and Apple announced the addition of egg freezing to their benefits packages in an attempt to attract more women. Hailed by some as a move to give women in tech more control over their fertility, many commentators worried that egg freezing was, at best, a stopgap solution that failed to address systemic issues of work-family conflict in the tech industry and beyond. In lifestyle pieces and opinion columns, women who froze their eggs were alternately depicted as hard charging career women putting motherhood on the back burner or as baby-starved women desperate for a shot at motherhood.

When I began interviewing women who had chosen to freeze their eggs in the summer of 2014, I found neither of these stock characters. Instead I found a cohort of women in their mid-30s to 40s who were deeply ambivalent about motherhood. They were high achieving in education and work, but none of them felt they had made a conscious choice to prioritize their careers over motherhood. Most had expected to pursue the standard script of love, marriage, and baby carriage by their early 30s, but setbacks in their love lives —including broken engagements and divorce—had knocked them off track. They generally felt that these romantic challenges were the primary reason why they froze their eggs, but as I spoke to more and more of these women it became clear that their beliefs about the best way to raise children was a major factor as well.

In my Gender & Society article, I explore the life histories of these women in order to understand the role parenting ideologies play in choices that childless women make about their fertility. Women with electively frozen eggs provide a particularly interesting perspective on fertility decision-making because the technology of egg freezing allows women to prolong indecision. Many of these women explain that—before they froze their eggs—the ticking of the biological clock made them feel as though they had to rush to make up their minds about motherhood. Should they:

A) Settle for the next half-way decent guy to come along?

B) Give up on love and pursue single-motherhood-by-choice?

C) Give up on having kids altogether and cultivate a childfree lifestyle?

For women with frozen eggs the answer was: D) None of the above. They weren’t ready to give up on motherhood but they also weren’t ready to settle or go it alone. What they really wanted was a way to keep their options open until marriage, financial security, and career advancement allowed them to pursue motherhood on their own terms. For the women in this study, egg freezing enabled that option. But how did these women arrive at the point of needing to freeze their eggs in the first place? Demanding careers and complicated love lives played a role, but beliefs about appropriate parenting styles also contributed to their ambivalence.

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Although parenting styles abound—attachment parenting, child-centered parenting, positive parenting, slow parenting, etc.—most current mainstream parenting styles fall under the rubric of intensive motherhood, which is child-centered, labor-intensive, and financially expensive. While we often presume that new mothers get drawn into particular parenting camps during pregnancy or early motherhood, messages about appropriate middle-class parenting are so deeply embedded in mainstream culture that most women already have a sense of how they should parent, long before they ever have children.

As the name implies, intensive motherhood is intense. It demands a lot of mothers and all of the women in my study were aware of those demands. Despite being fully committed to intensive mothering, Angela worried about the toll it would take on her, explaining, “You have to sacrifice your needs for [your kids’] needs. I think if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to put their needs in front of mine … You have to hand your life over to them. It’s hard… It’s emotionally draining. It’s financially draining.” Most of the women I interviewed didn’t feel that they were up to meeting those challenges without first finding supportive partners and workplaces. Yet most of the women had already encountered inflexible workplaces and unsupportive partners and worried that they might never achieve their ideal scenario for raising children. Freezing their eggs gave these women some peace of mind that motherhood would still be an option for them when (and if) they felt ready to pursue it.

My work suggests that growth of elective egg freezing among professional-class women exposes the gaps between these women’s hopes and aspirations and the realities they encounter in their workplaces and love lives. Insecurity at home and at work leaves these women worried that they won’t be able to live up to their own expectations of good motherhood. Faced with the overwhelming demands of intensive motherhood, these women freeze their eggs in the hope of buying themselves time to find the perfect combination of factors that will allow them to be the mothers they want to be. Yet egg freezing is an imperfect fix that places the burden of resolving work-family conflict on individual women, rather than addressing the cultural and structural factors that make motherhood so difficult for these women to accomplish in the first place.

Kit Myers is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. Their research focuses on the intersection of gender, sexualities, and families with science, medicine, and technology. They are currently working on their dissertation on professional class women’s fertility decision making.

 

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