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McArdle: The problem with new egg freezing 'incentive'

A pregnant woman at a computer.

A pregnant woman at a computer. Photo Credit: iStock

Tech companies are apparently offering egg freezing as a benefit to their employees. There's some suspicion among women I know that this is supposed to help/force women in technology balance family and career by delaying childbirth - it's not a good time in your late 20s and early 30s, so freeze those eggs and have kids when you're ready.

What I haven't seen anyone explain is when, exactly, you'll be ready. For most people, your 40s and early 50s are your peak earning years - is that really going to be a good time to meet that special someone, or finally step back to invest some time in having kids? I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm already noticing that I have a lot less energy than I used to. It's not that I can't get my work done or anything like that.

But it used to be that if I had to travel for six days straight and then deliver a 2,500-word essay on the 7th, I could dial up my reserves and power through it - miserable and cranky, to be sure, but functioning. Then one day, around the time I turned 40, I dialed down for more power and there just ... wasn't any. My body informed me that it was tired, and my brain would not be doing any more work today, and we were going to sleep whether I liked it or not.

This is - as friends who have done it freely remark - a difficult age to be taking on your first newborn. I can't even imagine trying the same feat 10 years from now, when my joints will be even creakier and my reserves even more depleted. So I'm skeptical that women who are having trouble combining work and career now will really find it much easier to do within any reasonable time frame.

Is all this egg freezing actually going to expand the choices of most of the women who use it, or will it just be an expensive way to choose career over family without realizing that you're making that choice? I'm not arguing against egg freezing; it's obviously a godsend for women with cancer or other conditions that are likely to impair their fertility, and I'm sure that it will help some women to put off having a healthy baby until they can meet the right person.

I'm just questioning the idea of egg freezing as career saver. There are a few professions, such as academia or some areas of medicine, where there's a hard, bright finish line you need to cross before most women want to think about having kids, and in those professions, this obviously makes sense. But for most ambitious professionals, career building is not a sprint; it's a marathon that only ends when you get passed over for promotions or retire. And those things tend to happen long after the age when most people want to be chasing toddlers around the living room.

Solutions that help woman expand their fertility choices are a great advance. But I worry that in this case, companies may end up encouraging women to make a very different choice from the one they think they're making.

McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.

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