It’s a fertility clinic, but I’m not here to be fertilized. I’m here because I’ll be 35 in 42 days, a real adult by any normal person’s standards. Though I couldn’t feel farther from it because, in my mind, real adulthood has always been defined by the transition from child to parent, and that’s certainly not happening to me any time soon.
I’m here to freeze my eggs.
A matching man and woman in navy blue peacoats sit across from me. Their spines are pulled straight, like a string is holding them upright. The two peacoats smile at me and I feel naked, suddenly spotted, foolish and alone, lacking in the simple elements of life that everyone else in the world has easily and neatly made regular. Yet I don’t hate being alone. I kind of love it, and I’m convinced this is the biggest factor keeping me single. Being alone is the only time I ever really feel like myself, free from other people’s expectations. I don’t fear solitude. Sometimes I fear what I’ll become without it.
I flash back to my walk over, stomping down 23rd Street, when I felt like a woman in charge. A woman who had made up her mind to take her fertility into her own hands. A woman with a good enough job to have that option. A woman who doesn’t want to be bothered with other people’s needs right now because she’s finally learning to listen to her own, yet deep down she knows that if anyone tries to get in her way, she’ll let them, like she’s done so many times before. She’ll slide into their world and forget what it was she wanted — because their needs and dreams will be clear in that way that men’s needs so often are — and she’ll make them happy, because what makes other people happy is often so much easier to understand.
The manicured woman behind the desk, with the thick, penny-colored hair and glossy plum lipstick, makes me feel like the opposite of a woman in charge. Her clothes look brand new, perfectly matched like what you’d see on a magazine cutout of a woman with a shiny diamond on her left hand. As if a light has been switched on, I notice the frizz of my hair, everywhere now; the sloppiness of my pilling, stained sweatshirt; my big, dirty sneakers, unfit for a 4-year-old, let alone a 34-year-old.
Surely this magazine woman won’t have to freeze her eggs, I think.
The act of giving her my last, then first name, then birthday — mumbling the year so the other patients don’t hear — feels like my declaration of failure as a woman. The irony punches the pit of my stomach as I realize my fancy job and good friends and fierce independence, things I spent decades fighting for, are rendered useless in this space. The one job my body was “made” for, the simple act of finding a partner and bearing a child, has slipped through the cracks. I think about this from the dark, honest corners of my mind, and then hate myself for thinking it and then hate myself for hating myself. I close my eyes for a few seconds to make it all stop.
The purple-lipped woman writes my name, and I wonder, like I always do, what it’s like to live in another person’s body; to inhabit their mind while retaining some level of your own consciousness to understand how it compares. Do other people, the ones who laugh easily and talk like they're scripted, feel like failures some of the time? Of course they do, my mom would tell me, curled up in her bathrobe at the foot of my bed. Everyone does.
I visit my mom often between the hustle of our working days. We don’t do much of anything but seep in each other’s company to remind one another that it’s possible to be with another person and still feel like ourselves.
Life is a performance for a certain kind of woman. For the kind, hardworking woman who thinks the best version of herself is making other people happy. We slip into other people’s reflections like ghosts, millions of times in a single day, inhabiting their fears and dreams, bouncing around in their jokes, cringing at their horror, making them feel seen and heard. Until finally we’re left alone at the end of the day to sit in the fragments of our own reflection, and all we can do is hope that in the short hours before the next morning we can remember who we are.
"I never set out to have kids," my mom says, holding her steaming mug of tea with both hands against her cheek. "I never knew if I wanted them. It just kind of happened." She’s trying to reassure me that no one really knows what they’re doing, but I can’t help but wonder why it never just kind of happened to me.
My mom teaches kindergarten in Queens. I visit her class to help with the boxes and papers and books, and she’s surprised at how much I smile around kids because, by all accounts, I am not a kid person: I don’t fawn over photos of cute children; I hate holding babies; caretaking is not my thing.
But it’s always little girls, fierce and spunky little girls, who do this to me; who make me smile uncontrollably. It’s not because I want them as my own — the thought of catering to a tiny creature’s needs when I’m just starting to understand my own still makes my stomach twist. I envy them: the girl with the wild hair and dirty knees; the one who tells the boy sitting too close to get away so she has room to draw her purple monkey; and the one who tells me, without hesitation, that when she grows up she wants to be president. I envy them, and I’m grateful that energy like theirs exists.
The woman takes my papers, hands me my insurance card with her diamond hand. I take a seat in the empty room, grabbing a Time magazine to signify, if nothing else, that at least I am a person interested in the news. “Billing” is a small man who talks for what feels like an hour, but by the end I know nothing at all. When I ask how much I’ll have to pay for this initial consultation, he sighs audibly and tells me it will be a few hundred dollars. When my jaw drops, he mentions the process would be cheaper if my eggs were fertilized (i.e., if a man were doing this with me).
The taxes of being single, I think. It starts with the rent. Twice as much as our coupled-up counterparts without a person anticipating, caring, even knowing whether or not we’ll come home. This is fine: We learn to be our own support. We know there’s a difference between loneliness and being alone. But then there’s leaving the house, which singles have to do far more often to fend off the nagging pressure to be what society deems “complete.” We endure the cold to buy beers we strain to finish, as strangers tell their stories and we listen, desperate for a thread of intimacy to make the ride over worth it.
I’m brought into the doctor’s office, which is far bigger than my entire studio apartment and has almost nothing of medical relevance in it. Mostly, it’s a place to display photos of the doctor’s perfect-looking wife and even more perfect-looking kids. I do notice a poster of the female reproductive system in the corner, with a glossy, white male doctor explaining it.
Growing up, the posters on my walls were always men. The women in the spotlight at the time were the agreeable Rachel-esque sidekicks, goofy Cameron Diaz-types, sexy Britney Spears. Those women didn’t interest me, so I lined my walls with athletes: Mark Grace and Ryne Sandberg, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Characters from action movies, like Harrison Ford and Keanu Reeves, heroes and problem-solvers. The role models I knew.
When puberty came, I learned in the chatty hallways of my small suburban middle school that if something wasn’t sexual, it wasn’t acceptable. I didn’t want to sleep with the men on my walls, I just wanted to be them. So I replaced my piles of baseball cards with stacks of Teen Magazine and YM, covers telling me the ten million ways to get a man. How to look and laugh and dress and smile. If I couldn’t be the men on my walls, I would at least please them.
I imagine I can see judgments about my hair and my backpack and my dirty old shoes scroll behind his white toothy smile like a scene from The Matrix. I imagine him thinking, No wonder she has to pay me for more time.
“Being a woman is hard,” he begins, once he’s settled into his leather chair. “You have to make decisions quickly, and that will make you feel like you don’t have control.”
I nod and laugh a little but not too much, because while it’s ridiculous that he feels the need to tell me, I also agree. He has PowerPoint slides to back himself up. He continues like this, and I nod, excessively. I don’t understand why he’s doing this, why he’s telling me how hard it is for women like me when I’m the one paying hundreds of dollars to sit in this miserable wooden chair and listen to him. I’m embarrassed for him, so I try to look extra eager and interested: I lean forward, make direct eye contact, make sure he feels heard as he explains my needs to me, because making men comfortable is annoyingly reflexive. I forget what I want to say or ask because I’m distracted by the challenge of responding to his pushy presentation in a way that makes our situation feel more normal.
Every time I do have a question, I feel like I’m interrupting his speech, and I apologize before I ask it. I’m old and aware enough to hate that I do it, but it’s instinctual. He offers me countless reasons why women should freeze their eggs, and they all make sense.
Some people hate the childless. They think we’re selfish, that we lack concern for other people; that our lives are big empty holes with no real purpose or meaning. Personally, I find children to be a kind of lazy path to purpose. It’s so paved. The others — art, justice, impact at scale — seem way more exciting to me; terrifying, in their unreliability, but exciting nonetheless. They require you, yourself, to actually figure out how to matter.
I still have no idea how to matter, or what I want from life. Maybe it’s kids, but I’m not ready to assume that. I’m afraid if I do, I’ll never really know. But every year I get closer, sand down another layer of expectation, dig toward a real self. I know she’s in there. I just need more time.
After the 20th slide or so, I’m caught off-guard when, finally, he asks me a question. “Do you want kids?”
I laugh again. I have no idea what he’s asking. When all you’ve ever wanted is what other people want for you, it’s a tricky thing to figure out. When you spend your entire life assuming you’ll grow up to have kids, complete the grand finale of your gender, and then find yourself unable to perform, it’s easy to feel like a failure. I’d love to not feel that way. But that’s not what he asked me.
I should do what I want, not what people expect, he tells me. I try and imagine what it’s like to inhabit the mind and body of someone who knows the difference between the two.
He leaves for a moment and I wait for him, naked under a robe on the exam room chair. I have never had a male gynecologist, and the force of his hands as he shoves his equipment in my vagina makes me feel like a giant lump of flesh. A sonogram appears on a screen, and I tilt my head 90 degrees to see it: It’s a shaky, black-and-white image, like the kind I’ve seen a million couples smile at on TV as they hold each other’s hands and watch a heartbeat together. Today, though, it’s just my ovaries, my follicles, no life other than my own.
Later, the room is ice as I step into my underwear, put on my clothes, and head back out to the waiting room. I don’t realize the full extent of my loneliness until I find myself swiping Tinder. I hate Tinder, the gamification of human insecurity, but I’ve been on it for years. I swipe every now and then when I’m particularly craving human contact, like before bed. Never during the day. Swiping during the day feels like drinking in the morning; it’s a bad sign. Swiping in the middle of an empty midtown egg-freezing clinic feels even worse, like modern independent womanhood has been playing a practical joke on me my entire life and, now, I’m living in its punchline.
“Emily?” A woman in a suit hands me her card. “Call me to talk about your next steps.”
“Can we talk about them now?” I ask. I took the day off for this appointment, and still I don’t fully understand how it’s supposed to work.
“No,” she says. “I’m busy now.”
Four hours from the time I left, I’m back home in my apartment. I feel like the grossest version of myself — all wrong because right has been abstracted to the point of obscurity, an invisible target. I order greasy Chinese takeout that could feed a family because I know that trying to do anything remotely healthy or productive will only make my grossness that much more acute, so I submit, crawl in bed with a carton of fried rice, and sink deeper.
I don’t yet know that in two months I will go through the whole consultation again, with a new doctor because when I think of calling the woman about my Next Steps, I’ll freeze. I won’t want to imagine that beautiful pushy man in control of my life and my ability to create more of it — a power I didn’t ask for and still don’t know that I want, though I am pretty sure I don’t want it taken away.
I’ll go to another doctor, a man, still, because the choices are slim, but a kinder and more thoughtful man. He’ll explain that the dosage the first doctor would have prescribed would have put me at severe risk because I have something called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which will explain so much about my body and my mind — why I never get my period; why I’m always slightly depressed; why my hair is so painfully thin. I’ll learn this 10 days after my 35th birthday, and he’ll know because he’ll have taken the first 20 minutes of our time together to ask me questions.
I’ll go through the egg-freezing treatment, pumped with hormones each day, and feel like a living balloon, completely empty inside and so bloated I can barely move, but the procedure will give me the chance of maybe, one day, having a child, the act that gives so many people a sense of true purpose and meaning. Yet through the growing of eggs in my body and the sacrifices I’ll make just in those short 10 days — unable to work or write, run or travel, all the things that I’m learning bring me real joy — I will realize, when I’m completely alone, staring back at my own reflection, that I’m just not sure that’s the purpose I want.
I need more time.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about kids right now or not, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.
A version of this essay originally appeared on Catapult.