Boy or Girl? We put TEN baby gender predictions to the test.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be dying to know the gender of your baby almost as soon as you see a positive result on your pregnancy test. Mums-to-be have, for generations, turned to old wives tales to predict the gender of their baby, but how do these non-scientific approaches compare to modern technology? When Rob and I decided to find out the sex of our baby, we put ten well-known gender prediction methods to the test. From old folklore to state-of-the-art DNA analysis, which ones turned out to be correct?  

1. SneakPeek Test:

For someone born in the ’80s, whose own mother didn’t even have an ultrasound scan, this first one is almost unfathomably futuristic. The SneakPeek test is an at-home finger-prick blood test that you send off for DNA analysis. How on earth does it work? While every person has his or her own DNA in their bloodstream, a pregnant woman’s bloodstream also contains DNA from her unborn child. A non-pregnant woman will only have female chromosomes in her blood, so SneakPeek looks for male chromosomes in a small sample of your blood. If they find male chromosomes, that means baby is a boy. If no male chromosomes are found, the baby is a girl. SneakPeek’s website claims that their test is 99.9% accurate at 8 weeks into pregnancy, so if you simply can’t wait until the 20 week scan, this is a great choice.

How early can you use it? 

8 weeks.

What does it cost?

£79 (but you can get 10 USD off if you use The Amateur Parents special discount code SPIDEC12).

Was it easy to use?

As long as you don’t mind using a finger-prick device to extract your own blood, the SneakPeek test is relatively easy to do without leaving the house; it just takes a bit of preparation and careful reading of the instructions. I took mine when my (male) toddler and partner weren’t around, as contamination of the test with male DNA can give you a false ‘boy’ result. They provide everything you need in the kit, but be careful not to open the cellophane wrapper until you’re ready to take the test and have washed your hands and sanitised the surface you’re going to use thoroughly. It comes with a little nail brush, and the instructions are very specific about how long you should scrub your hands for, and about not touching anything else while you handle the test contents. As long as you’re happy to follow the instructions to the ’T”, it’s not hard to do. I particularly liked the fact that they provided a little stand for the vial, a rubber band to put round your wrist to increase blood flow, and several finger prickers in case you don’t get enough blood with the first one. 

How quick are the results?

I took the test on a Monday, posted it off the same day (the test recommends you take it to a post office for scanning, but I just popped it in the postbox nearest my house, and it was fine). I got the results by email on the Friday night. So in my case, 4 days, but I know some people who have got their results back even quicker. It’s worth mentioning that we were in Lockdown in the UK when I posted mine off, but my results still came back pretty fast.

What was their prediction?

GIRL (scroll to the bottom of the blog to find out if they were correct!)

GET 10 USD off the SneakPeek test HERE or use The Amateur Parents discount code SPIDEC12

2. Nub Theory:

Before about 15 weeks gestation, both boy and girl babies have ‘genital tubercles’, also known as a ‘nub’, between their legs. In early pregnancy this nub looks surprisingly similar on both males and females, but with time, this small part of your baby’s anatomy will eventually develop into their gender-specific genitals. For those in the know, determining gender is possible between 12-14 weeks gestation by looking at a scan picture and analysing the angle and shape of this nub, also referred to as the “angle of the dangle.” The ultrasound picture must be in profile view in order to allow both the spine, and the nub’s relationship to it, to be seen. The theory goes that if the nub is angled at greater than 30 degrees in relation to the spine, it is likely to be a male fetus. If it is pointing straight out, under 30 degrees, or down, it is likely a female fetus! You can try and work it out yourself by looking at your 12 week scan, or do what we did, and go to the Nubologists to get it done professionally!

How early can you use it? 

12 weeks.

What does it cost? 

£7.99

Was it easy to use?

Very. I emailed the Nubologists two scans from my 12 week ultrasound appointment and they emailed me back with a gender prediction, explanation and annotated scan picture. They also told me, as a percentage, the certainty with which they were making their prediction (this differs depending on the clarity of your scan, position of the baby and other factors to do with the scan beyond their control). 

How quick are the results?

Nubologists do a 24 hours service, or even quicker for a higher fee.

What was their prediction?

GIRL, which they predicted with 85% confidence (scroll to the bottom of the blog to find out if they were correct!).

3. Skull Theory:

Skull gender theory works by identifying the shape, size, and other related factors of your baby’s skull while they’re in the womb. According to skull gender theory, the sex of your baby can be identified by how blocky, round, large or small your baby’s skull is. Boys are said to generally have larger, blockier skull shapes than girls. Girls are said to have more rounded skulls that are also smaller in overall size. If you’ve got your 12 week scan pictures, you can try and work it out yourself, or do what we did, and go to The Gender Experts to get it done professionally!

How early can you use it?

12 weeks.

What does it cost? 

We got the Skull Theory and the Ramzi Theory as a package and the price for that is £14.39 (USD to GPB conversion accurate as of 15th Nov 2020.). Skull theory on its own costs £9.

Was it easy to use?

Yes, I emailed The Gender Experts two scans from my 12 week ultrasound appointment and they emailed me back with a gender prediction, explanation and annotated scan pictures.

How quick are the results?

They emailed me the results within 24 hours.

What was their prediction?

GIRL (scroll to the bottom of the blog to find out if they were correct!).

4. Ramzi Theory:

The placenta is a vital organ connecting the mother’s uterus with the foetus, supporting the developing baby by supplying nutrients, eliminating waste products and enabling gas exchange via the mother’s blood supply. But how does the placenta develop? Around 9 days after implantation, finger-like projections known as ‘chorionic villi’ start to connect the early embryo with the mother’s uterine wall, and these projections are often referred to as the ‘future placenta’. Dr. Saam Ramzi Ismail discovered that the direction or orientation of the chorionic villi is an accurate marker in determining the sex of a baby. He believed that a natural polarization occurs in the womb in which male embryos are magnetized toward the right side of the uterus, and females are drawn toward the left side. It’s best to use a scan picture taken at around 6-9 weeks gestation for the Ramzi theory. You can ask your sonographer which side your placenta is on at your early scan, or if this isn’t possible, do what we did and send your scan picture to The Gender Experts.

How early can you use it?

6 weeks.

What does it cost? 

We got the Skull Theory and the Ramzi Theory as a package from The Gender Experts and the price for that is £14.39 (USD to GPB conversion accurate as of 15th Nov 2020.). The Ramzi theory on its own costs £9.

Was it easy to use?

Yes, I emailed The Gender Experts two scans from my 9 week ultrasound appointment and they emailed me back with a gender prediction, explanation and annotated scan picture.

How quick are the results?

They emailed me the results within 24 hours.

What was their prediction?

GIRL (scroll to the bottom of the blog to find out if they were correct!).

5. Psychic Gender Prediction:

If you’re open-minded and fancy a more spiritual take on baby gender prediction, there are psychics who, as well as giving readings on love life, career, health and money, can predict if and when you’ll have a baby, and if you’re pregnant; what gender you’re carrying. After googling ‘baby gender psychic prediction’ we chose Enchanted Destiny, who from the age of 12, has been doing tarot card and psychic readings, ever since she bought an astrology book in a supermarket while on holiday with her mum. Since then she says she has developed even stronger powers, and can make predictions using tarot cards, oracle or angel cards, or by receiving messages from ‘spirit’. 

How early can you use it?

As soon as you know you’re pregnant (or even before!).

What does it cost? 

We bought Australian reader Enchanted Destiny’s ‘Psychic Baby Gender Same Day Reading‘, costing £4.72 on Etsy.

Was it easy to use?

Yes, I found Enchanted Destiny on Google when her shop on Etsy popped up. I hit ‘buy now’ and dropped her a message with my name, and she replied with a short message containing her prediction.

How quick are the results?

I received my results the same day.

What was their prediction?

GIRL (scroll to the bottom of the blog to find out if they were correct!).

6. Old Wives Tale 1: Bump shape and position:

If you’re a traditionalist, there’s a plethora of old wives tales which claim to predict the gender of your baby without any invasive tests, ultrasounds or spirit guides to help! We chose three of them to predict our baby’s gender, the first one being ‘bump size and position’. Generations of women (and men!) swear that you can tell the baby’s gender just by looking at the mother-to-be’s bump. Carrying ‘high’ means you are having a girl, while carrying ‘low’ traditionally means boy. Additionally, a round, ball-like baby bump means you’re pregnant with a baby boy, while a wider bump with weight distributed width-ways across your midriff is a sign you’re carrying a girl. It’s kind of impossible to be objective about your own bump, so I asked my Instagram followers to look at it and decide whether it looked more like a boy baby bump or a girl! 55 people commented with their guesses on my Instagram page @the_amateur_mama. 

How early can you use it?

As soon as you have a visible bump, so ideally from about 18 weeks, depending on your body shape. We did it at just over 19 weeks.

What does it cost? 

Nothing!

Was it easy to use?

Yes, it’s as simple as asking people to look at your bump and tell you what they think based on whether you’re ‘all bump’ (indicating a boy) or more spread out (girl), and whether your bump is high up on your body (girl) or lower down (boy). 

How quick are the results?

Pretty instantaneous!

What was their prediction?

BOY. 36 people said boy, and 19 said girl, so boy won. (Scroll to the bottom of the blog to find out if they were correct!).

7. Old Wives Tale 2: Ring on a string:

For this test you need a ring attached to a piece of thread. Lie on your back and have your partner or a friend dangle the ring over your baby bump, and wait for it to start moving on its own. The theory goes that if the ring moves back and forth like a pendulum, the baby is a boy. If it moves in a circle, you’re having a girl. 

How early can you use it?

As soon as you know you’re pregnant, or wait until you have  bump if you prefer.

What does it cost? 

Nothing!

Was it easy to use?

Yes; you literally tie a piece of string to a ring and get someone to hang it above your tummy.

How quick are the results?

It took less than a minute for the ring to start moving.

What was their prediction?

GIRL (Scroll to the bottom of the blog to find out if they were correct!).

8. Old Wives Tale 3: Baby’s heartbeat:

The heartbeat test involves finding out the rate of your baby’s heart rate in beats per minute, or BPM. This is a figure that you can find out from your doctor or midwife as early as six weeks into your pregnancy, when a baby’s heart can first be detected. According to the heart rate theory, the fetal heart rate of girls is faster than that of boys.  A heart rate above 140bpm means the baby is a girl while under 140 suggests the baby is male.

Odhrán was fascinated with with the midwife’s doppler when she listened to my baby’s heartbeat.

How early can you use it?

It’s possible that you could ask your sonographer to tell you your baby’s BPM as early as 6 weeks if you’re going for an early reassurance scan. Otherwise, your midwife may well listen to your baby’s heartbeat with a doppler from 16 weeks, as mine did.

What does it cost? 

With your NHS midwife and a doppler, it is free. As part of an early reassurance scan, costs vary depending on which clinic you go to. 

Was it easy to use?

Yes, the midwife places a doppler on your bump and detects the heartbeat within a few seconds, which can then be heard on the loudspeaker. She will use a watch to count how many beats there are and work out the BPM. 

How quick are the results?

It takes a few minutes for them to find and measure the heartbeat.

What was their prediction?

BOY. My baby’s BPM at 16 weeks was 130bpm, which, according to the theory, suggests that the baby is a boy. (Scroll to the bottom of the blog to find out if they were correct!).

9. Chinese Gender Predictor chart:

The Chinese Gender chart is said to go back some 700 years when, according to legend, a gender prediction calendar was discovered in a royal Chinese tomb. It essentially involves tapping your age when you conceived your baby, and the month of conception into the Chinese Gender Prediction calculator, which converts the numbers into a prediction of whether the baby will be a boy or a girl.

Chinese Gender Prediction. Credit: motherandbaby.co.uk

How early can you use it?

As soon as you find out you’re pregnant.

What does it cost? 

Free.

Was it easy to use?

Yes, either use the chart above from Mother & Baby to work it out yourself, or use a free online calculator like this one

How quick are the results?

Instant!

What was their prediction?

BOY. I was 40 when I conceived, and the conception happened in the month of July, so according to the chart I am carrying a boy. (Scroll to the bottom of the blog to find out if they were correct!).

10. Parental and Family intuition:

Last but not least, there’s a lot to be said for good old fashioned intuition, or ‘having a hunch’, and often the mother-to-be, father-to-be and close family will have a ‘gut feeling’ about whether the baby will be male or female. But are they right? As there’s no scientific basis to this, the answers are little more than guesses, but we thought it would be interesting to see whether in our case any of the hunches came out as correct.

Rob’s sister Kate wasn’t backwards in coming forward with her gender prediction!

How early can you use it?

As soon as you find out you’re pregnant.

What does it cost? 

Free.

Was it easy to use?

Yes! If you’re trying to work our what your own hunch is, useful questions to ask yourself are: What’s your gut feeling saying about the baby you’re carrying? How are you feeling, physically and emotionally? When you visualise your baby, are they male or female? What name do you imagine they have? And if this is not your first pregnancy, how does this one compare to your previous pregnancies? Then ask your family what they think (often they’ll offer their unsolicited opinion without you having to ask anyway!). 

How quick are the results?

In most cases you’ll get an immediate answer, but sometimes people like to sleep on it!

What was their prediction?

GIRL. Rob was convinced it was a boy; while my dad, Rob’s mum and dad, and his sister all agreed with me: GIRL. I had a hunch I was carrying a girl because of how different I felt to when I was pregnant with Odhrán. My morning sickness was worse, and I felt different hormonally; less irritable, scrappy or snappy than the first pregnancy, and with a reduced (non existent) sex drive. My tummy also felt bigger and less ‘compact’ earlier on than with Odhrán. Overall, Rob: you were outvoted!

The reveal: WHO was right???

So there you have it: ten baby gender methods and their predictions. But which were correct? Well, our 20 week ultrasound scan did in fact show that we are expecting:

Our 20 week scan showed that we are expecting a: GIRL

A BABY GIRL!

Here’s how the predictions measured up:

SneakPeek: GIRL. Unsurprisingly, this scientific DNA test by SneakPeek was CORRECT.

Nub Theory: GIRL. Also unsurprisingly, given its scientific background and high success rate, the Nub theory by Nubologists was CORRECT.

Skull Theory: GIRL. Not usually regarded quite as scientific as the Nub theory, the Skull theory, provided by The Gender Experts, was nevertheless CORRECT.

Ramzi Theory: GIRL Again, not as widely relied upon as the Nub theory, the Ramzi theory by The Gender Experts was CORRECT.

Psychic Prediction: GIRL. Completely unexplainable, but you’ve got to give it to her, EnchantedPsychic was CORRECT.

And the Old Wives Tales?

Bump shape and position: BOY. The minority who guessed ‘girl’ were correct, but the vast majority of answers which said ‘boy’ were INCORRECT.

Ring on a string: GIRL. Rob held the ring on a string without knowing which direction meant what, and inexplicably, its circular motion (meaning girl) turned out to be CORRECT.

Baby’s heartbeat: BOY. I’d have loved this one to be correct, but unfortunately, the 130bpm recorded at 16 weeks meant that this theory was INCORRECT. Interestingly I had the heartbeat measured again (by the same midwife) as 20 weeks and it was around 145bpm the second time, showing that it doesn’t necessarily stay the same throughout pregnancy anyway, which kind of debunks this Old Wives Tale..

Chinese Gender Prediction Chart: BOY. Unsurprisingly, this ‘ancient and legendary’ predication method was INCORRECT.

And how about our own ‘hunch’?

Parental and Family Intuition: GIRL. Despite having no scientific basis whatsoever, our good old-fashioned ‘gut feeling’ was CORRECT.

My verdict?

I was pleasantly surprised that so many of the predictions were correct, and in particular that the SneakPeek, Nub, Skull and Ramzi predictions all concurred with the 20 week scan. In my opinion, the Nub, Skull and Ramzi theories are a great, affordable way to get an idea of what gender you might be carrying, as they don’t break the bank, seem to have a pretty high success rate and involve nothing more than emailing your 6 or 12 week scan to them to get a result.

To get the most definitive answer, I would recommend getting your DNA analysed with SneakPeek, as it’s pretty fail-safe. A friend of mine did all four methods as we did, just to be sure that she was really carrying a girl.

The psychic prediction was a fun addition, and although there’s no scientific explanation for it, I do think some people just have a gift for picking up on things that the wider population believe are impossible to see. If you’re open-minded or see it as a bit of fun, why not! As for the Old Wives Tales, well, unsurprisingly, three out of the four we tried were proved wrong. My bump shape is more to do with my body type and metabolism than anything else, and what my panel of followers on Instagram giving their predictions didn’t know, was that despite looking quite ‘compact’ and ‘all bump’ compared to the average, my current bump actually looks quite different to when I was pregnant with my first baby, Odhrán, a boy.

As for intuition, well again, that turned out to be correct! Sometimes you just have ‘a feeling’. Saying that though, it’s not statistically proven at all, and many parents-to-be are convinced they’ve got a boy, which turns out to be a girl, and vice versa! When my mum was pregnant with my brother, in 1981, she was convinced for the whole 9 months that he was a girl (they didn’t have ultrasounds then, much less DNA tests!) and was shocked that her ‘gut feeling’ turned out to be wrong, and apparently that happens a lot.

To conclude: Whether boy or girl, the most important thing is that your baby is happy and healthy! But of course it’s nice —and fun— to find out. It’s amazing these days that we have the technology to find out so early, which can definitely help with bonding and preparing. I hope you found our little ‘experiment’ entertaining at the very least, and interesting and helpful at best! Leave a comment to tell me which methods you’ve tried and whether they turned out to be correct!

Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents, along with partner Rob. They are parents to 18 month old Odhrán and a baby GIRL!, due in 2021.


The First Trimester: Why the big secret?

Some believe it’s bad luck, some say it’s simply tradition, but whatever the reasoning, until a woman passes the twelve week milestone of her pregnancy, convention dictates that she is not to reveal it to anyone but her doctor, and her partner. The superstitious amongst us believe that until twelve weeks, it is tempting fate to mention your pregnancy, because so much can go wrong and your pregnant status is somewhat ‘insecure’ until you’ve passed that all-important turning-point. Granted, the first trimester is when the risk of miscarriage is at its highest, but as someone who has experienced an early miscarriage myself, I would say that having people around you who know what has happened and can support you in your hour of need is exactly what you need at such a devastating time. In my case, most of my friends and family had no idea that I was pregnant, but when I started to bleed at six weeks, I just knew that it had come to an end. Even though we hadn’t told anyone that I was pregnant, once I knew I was miscarrying, I felt the desperate need to reach out and let people know, partly for support, but mostly because I felt an unbearable weight of sadness for this little life that had existed for six weeks and was now going to leave the world without anyone knowing that it had been there at all. It felt like I was doing that little soul a disservice to let it vanish without trace, so I ended up telling everyone I knew that it had been there, but that now it was gone, and it was the only thing I could do to honour the importance of the little life that had been with us for such a short time.

With my second pregnancy, which thankfully gave us our healthy son Odhrán (now eighteen months old), we didn’t tell anyone until after our twelve week scan. I don’t know why we felt the need to wait to tell people, particularly seeing as I would probably have told them anyway if it hadn’t gone our way and we’d ended up losing that baby too. I suspect it was superstition that prevented us telling too many people; the fear of tempting fate or getting too excited, too soon. It’s almost as if you’re supposed to reserve your happiness until the world deems your pregnancy to be ‘real’, even though to you, with all the changes that are assaulting your body so dramatically and with the sense of protection and love that you feel for your tiny mini-me from the word go, it is more than real already. There were benefits to keeping it a secret I suppose, namely the surprise that our family got when we sent them our first scan pictures, as they’d had no idea that we had conceived again so quickly after our miscarriage, and were delighted to see such a clear ultrasound scan of an already well-developed baby. I called my dad on FaceTime to show him in person, and admittedly, it was a special moment, made all the more precious because we’d waited to tell him. It’s also kind of fun keeping a secret and figuring out ways to throw people off the scent, and finding out, when you do tell them, whether or not they had suspected something all along. However, the downside of waiting is having to plough through three months of morning sickness and covering it up to all and sundry with a web of elaborate —and increasingly ridiculous— white lies.

With my second pregnancy, we decided to wait until the 12 week scan before telling people.

The first trimester, although largely ‘invisible’ insofar as any external physical signs are concerned, is actually, for many women, the most difficult part of the whole pregnancy. Those two little lines on the pregnancy test can mean that you’re about to spend the next twelve to sixteen weeks feeling increasingly tired and ill, while not being able to tell anyone why. If you’re lucky enough never to have experienced the dreaded morning sickness then I’ll happily enlighten you as to how it feels. Remember the worst hangover you ever had? Take that feeling and think back to the last time you were bed-bound with a really nasty bout of flu and add that to it, then chuck in a good measure of sea-sickness, some food poisoning, and a dash of vertigo. Make things a little bit harder for yourself with some insomnia, regular nightmares and frequent nighttime urination, plus the head-rush-inducing, stomach-knowing, desperate need for a midnight meal —every night. Maintain all of this for twenty four hours a day and then try and keep the whole thing to yourself, pretending everything is absolutely, gloriously, fine. And that’s not even the worst version; some women find themselves vomitting up to ten or twenty times a day and even end up being hospitalised due to dehydration and exhaustion. The clandestine world of the first trimester means feeling like absolute cr*p but having to put on a brave face and show up to the world; the smiling life and soul or the consummate professional, feigning normality, only to return home at the end of it all and collapse in an exhausted, tearful heap.

Those two pink lines are the start of three months of morning sickness for many women.

With my current pregnancy, which we found out about at the end of July, I didn’t necessarily want to wait until the official twelve week scan, but I had at least wanted to see a heartbeat on an early private scan before making an announcement. However, useless with secrets, my partner Rob told his sister at the first opportunity he had, when I was still only about five weeks pregnant. That led to his parents and other siblings being told, and before long I had also caved, telling my brother and sister-in-law about a week later. I hadn’t planned to say anything, but they had come over to visit at a time when I was already starting to feel nauseous and tired, I wanted them to know why I was sitting down every five minutes and leaving Rob to run around after our toddler instead of helping. As a wave of nausea washed over me, I announced that we had ‘news’ and then explained that I just wanted to get it out there: I felt like sh*t! Had they not been visiting precisely when the morning sickness was kicking in, I may well have put off telling them until we had subsequently had our first scan at just over nine weeks, which is when we did in fact tell the rest of our friends and family.

The first trimester of my pregnancy with Odhrán was by far the most difficult part of the whole pregnancy. The nausea was one thing, but the debilitating exhaustion that accompanied it was something I found very hard to hide. I was working in an office at the time, and the tiredness would get so bad that I’d have to book meeting rooms in secret and slink off when my colleagues weren’t looking, in order to go and lie down when it all got too much. I worked in a shared office space where all the meeting rooms had glass walls, making it pretty hard to carry out my covert activity with stealth, so I would use the ‘prayer room’ instead, as it had a proper door and no windows, allowing me to curl up on the kneeling cushion they provided for the floor and die in peace for half an hour. There was no way round telling the girl at reception why I wanted to book that room, and even though it was ‘breaking the twelve week rule’ to tell anyone at all, it felt like a huge relief to share my secret even with a stranger, and I basked in the sympathy of her knowing smile as she handed me the key, revelling in the rebellious pact I had created with my new-found confidante.

Now, with my current pregnancy, I am at home full-time with an eighteen month old toddler, which although taxing in its own way, at least means that I am not having to commute to work or put on a brave face in front of other adults for most of the day. Usually a very active person (I can normally run 10k without batting an eyelid, and would ordinarily do an intensive gym class at least four times a week), I have spent the last sixteen weeks almost permanently horizontal. It’s only because I have a toddler to entertain that I have even been making it out at all; just about managing the half mile walk to the park and back before resuming my position on the couch. The first trimester of this pregnancy has been every bit as bad, if not worse, than the last one. So exhausted by eleven in the morning, I would have to make joining my son for his two hour naps a daily routine, and my life has consisted of moving from bed to couch to floor and back again. It’s only in the last couple of weeks that the regular dizzy spells, low-blood-pressure-induced black-outs and debilitating tiredness has eased off a bit, but I’m still enjoying the last bit of nausea that doesn’t yet want to budge and which, unlike the term ‘morning sickness’ suggests, does in fact last all day…and night. 

Daytime naps with my toddler became a daily occurrence throughout the first trimester of my current pregnancy.

Because of the pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot less socialising than normal, which in many ways has been a blessing in disguise, not least because I haven’t had to make constant excuses for why I’m acting with less enthusiasm than a mushroom that’s been left to wilt at the bottom of the fridge, or why I can’t manage sitting upright for more than an hour without my face turning a thunderous grey. During the first trimester of my pregnancy with Odhrán, I’d have to regularly turn down invitations, and because we were keeping it a secret, my useless reasons only served to baffle and confuse their recipients. One that sticks in my memory was having to explain that I was too tired to meet a friend to visit a church because I’d been to a 70th birthday party the day before. I mean a church and a 70th birthday party. Yeah, I mean, don’t burn the candle at both ends, Freya. To this day that particular friend likes to remind me how so bizarrely out of character my excuse was, given that I would normally have the energy to go mountain biking, go-karting and kayaking with her, and a church visit wasn’t going to be anywhere near as exhausting as any of the high octane pastimes we would normally enjoy. 

Despite the social restrictions we’ve had this year, there have been some opportunities to meet with friends, and depending on how severe your pregnancy symptoms are, even a picnic in the park can seem like a mammoth task when you feel like death warmed up. It was for this reason, not having to make pathetic excuses to my friends as to why I couldn’t join them or why, if I did, I’d be lying down on a cushion for most of the duration, that I decided that in this pregnancy, I would give the twelve week rule its marching orders once and for all. Before Rob had even opened his gob and let the cat out of the bag by telling his sister, I had in fact told one member of a group of friends of mine, with whom I’d planned to meet up on Hampstead Heath a week or so earlier. We had been discussing the logistics of how I’d get there and whether or not I would stay over at hers, me being a south Londoner and she living in Kentish Town. Because I was already starting to feel queasy and weak, the thought of travelling across London on public transport with a toddler in tow was starting to give me the heeby-jeebies. I was dithering about with the plans as I was holding out for a lift from another friend who would be driving up from south of the river, but given that only a few weeks earlier, a non-pregnant me had walked the entire eight miles from Deptford to Primrose Hill in thirty-five degree heat to meet the same group of friends, with my son, the picnic stuff and both our overnight stuff piled high on his buggy, I could sense that my new apparent aversion to any form of physical exertion was drawing a bit of baffled attention. I decided to text my friend to tell her the reason why I was acting so flaky; I was four weeks pregnant! It was such a relief just to know that she knew, even if none of the others did, as somehow it felt like someone had my back.

The text I sent my friend, at just 4 weeks pregnant, breaking the ‘rule’ of the ‘secret first trimester.’

I was dying to tell the others though, particularly as I sat in the back of my friend’s car on the bumpy journey across town, feeling increasingly car-sick as I stared at his smartphone, politely watching a family video he’d made and wanted me to watch, the motion of the car beneath me combining with the flickering screen to create a nauseating bog of doom in the pit of my stomach, as my friend excitedly babbled away in the driving seat, oblivious of my plight. Once at Primrose Hill, as I struggled up the slope holding my ten-tonne son and all our picnic things without asking for help, I was dying to explain that actually, I wasn’t really managing very well at all and that it felt like I had Arnold Schwarzenegger strapped to my body in the Baby Bjorn rather than a toddler, with my lungs feeling like they were going to explode at any given moment. Later, at the picnic, as one of my friends unwittingly took my only can of non-alcoholic sparkling grapefruit drink that I had specifically bought to alleviate my nausea (bubbles and tang help!) and gulped it down thirstily, not realising that it wasn’t just any old can of drink, but my refreshingly crisp, nausea-alleviating lifeline (ok, a bit dramatic, but you try keeping your cool when you feel like you’re on a rough boat crossing even though you’re on land, and you have newly arrived pregnancy hormones surging through your bloodstream ), I wanted to unleash my inner banshee and let out a long, guttural scream along with the words “I’m f*cking pregnant, you mother-f*ucking, sparkling drink-stealing bastard!!!”.

Putting on a brave face: I was already feeling nauseous and tired at a picnic with friends, but hid it under a smile because I was keeping my pregnancy a secret.

I didn’t of course, because I was keeping my pregnancy a secret, so instead I smiled politely as I watched the drink I’d been looking forward to for the last two hours disappear down his unenlightened gullet. A few weeks later, after I’d had my nine week scan, I met up with the same group of friends again, only this time, I had texted them in advance to announce that I was expecting. I did this less to induce a inpouring of congratulatory replies, and more to give them a heads up that it would be likely that I would be spending most of the picnic lying down, with my hands on my tummy and my eyes shut, and that they weren’t to think me rude if my pained expression gave the impression that I was secretly thinking that I’d be having more fun sat with a bunch of carrion birds, picking bits of rotten flesh of a carcass. It worked; everyone understood that it was the morning sickness, and not their company, that was the cause of my sad-sack demeanour, no-one expected me to be the life and soul of the picnic and… no one stole my drink. 

With this pregnancy, we decided to tell people at 9 weeks, which is when we saw the baby’s heartbeat on an early scan.

And this, for me, is an important part of why I believe couples should feel that it’s ok to tell people they’re expecting, even in the early days. The first twelve weeks are precisely when a woman should be wearing her “Baby on Board” badge and being given special dispensation and a seat on the tube. When you’re feeling like sh*t, you don’t want people having any expectations of you; rather you need a friendly face, some understanding, hell, sympathy even, a bit of assistance and regular access to food and drink, without looking like some sort of rabid snack-devouring, demanding diva-b*tch. Once people know you’re pregnant, all is forgiven. And if it doesn’t go your way, if you do lose your baby in those first twelve weeks, being able to tell people and hear about similar experiences from other couples who have gone through the same thing lightens the load immensely. Keeping the whole thing a secret, as if it never really happened, isn’t fair on you, and it doesn’t do justice to the people you know and love, because the truth is, people are generally kind; we can all relate to the pain of losing someone, and to share that pain with those around you, if not halving it, certainly makes it a lot easier to bear. It also invites other couples to talk about their own experiences of miscarriage, which they may previously have felt too embarrassed, ashamed or nervous to bring up for fear of judgement or stone-cold, awkward silence. 

In my case, when another another couple replied to my message in which I’d told them I’d had a miscarriage, to reveal that they too had gone through the same thing just eighteen months earlier (and had subsequently gone on to have a healthy baby, who by that point was four months old) I was so relieved. It wasn’t that I was glad to hear that they had suffered, but it was a relief to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t abnormal and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. To hear them speak of the devastation they had felt, which sounded so much like that which I was drowning in there and then, and to hear that they had got through it, recovered and gone on to have a healthy baby, gave me a life buoy to hold onto. More and more people opened up to me about their own experiences as a result of me telling them about our loss; not just about miscarriages, but pregnancy complications, problems conceiving and all manner of fertility anxiety, all echoing the same desperate agony that I was feeling, and all making me realise that this feeling was not unique to me. 

The Baby on Board badge, which many women wait until the 2nd trimester to wear.

Silence only serves to make something which is very common feel like it’s some horrendously abnormal thing that is only happening to you, and shrouds the whole horrible experience in unnecessary taboo. According to Tommy’s, the charity that funds research into miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth, an estimated one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Most of them will be a “one-off”, caused by chromosomal or genetic abnormalities in the embryo, and will have no bearing on a couple’s chances of having a healthy baby in the future. But the tradition of keeping the first trimester —and any negative events that happen during it— a secret, somehow makes it seem like it isn’t real or valid, and that your pain isn’t deserving of any sympathy or relief. But the opposite is true. Just because your baby was only around for six, ten, or twelve weeks doesn’t take away the fact that she existed. She was alive, she was real and for that short time she was loved. Her birth was looked forward to and her future and a life of her own was imagined with perfect clarity. It’s a pretty cruel tradition that turns this painful loss into what feels like a shameful secret, and to cause a couple to fear tempting fate if they dare tell anyone their news, and to leave them to mourn the loss of that baby alone if they’re unlucky enough to have a miscarriage, seems like some sort of gruesome, outdated joke. 

Anyone who has experienced miscarriage will know, that as well as the acute sense of loss, our pesky human minds also heap on a whole load of other unhelpful emotions when left to swirl around in their own lonely cosmos; sadness; guilt, regret and anger, and it’s normal for women —and their partners— to agonise over what they did ‘wrong’ or to fret about how the miscarriage could have been prevented. The loneliness you feel at such a time of loss, especially one shrouded in secrecy, leads to the mind scampering down a rabbit hole of over-analysis, causing more pain than the actual miscarriage itself. I found that being able to talk about what had happened, including the actual physical events of miscarriage, the way I had felt when I was pregnant and when I lost the baby, normalised the experience and helped me make sense of it in the context of the real world, not an anxiety-ridden parallel universe where there were a million things that I could have done differently to prevent my baby from having died. For people to hear about my baby and how she or he had made me feel, also felt like I was giving him or her the send-off they deserved, a eulogy if you like, for the future child we never met. 

And thats the thing, despite the secrecy and the lack of official ‘validation’ of your pregnancy in those first twelve weeks, the first trimester is a time when it all feels overwhelmingly real for the mother –and often the father— of the baby-to-be. The excitement of discovering you’re pregnant, which can be the culmination of months or even years of trying to conceive, the realisation of your hopes and dreams of having a baby, the excitement of wondering whether its a boy or girl and the sudden awareness that your world is going to change beyond recognition make it, emotionally speaking, the most real experience you’ve probably ever had. Couple that with having to adapt to the rapid onset of nausea and exhaustion, and the whole things makes for the ride of a lifetime, one whose highs and lows, I believe, should be shared with those who can support you and share in your happiness, trepidation and excitement.

Of course, keeping it a secret isn’t all doom and gloom. It can be quite fun exchanging glances with your other half as he surreptitiously sips your drink as well as his own so that your not drinking alcohol doesn’t raise suspicion, and it can also be a time when you and your partner enjoy the knowledge that you have a little person on the way in the privacy of your relationship, before the world starts interfering. However, my wish for those parents-to-be who are keeping mum because of the fear that something will go wrong that they will have to ‘explain’ to those they’ve told, is that they feel supported and encouraged enough to tell whoever they wish about their pregnancy, at whatever stage they want. The more we talk about our experiences of the first trimester, both good and bad, the more we can give it the recognition it deserves, support new pregnant mums in what can be the most physically demanding stage of their pregnancy, and lend a life-line of understanding to those struggling with the agony of an early miscarriage, instead of their pain, which is every bit as real and acute as any other loss of a loved one, being shrouded in silence.

Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents, along with her partner Rob. Follow Freya on Instagram @the_amateur_mama for more parenting articles and photos.

Egg Freezing: Is it all it’s cracked up to be?

During the thirty minutes I spent knocked out on the operating table, I would have my legs spread open and hooked up in stirrups, my ovaries drained of their contents and my eggs sucked out via a long, thin needle inserted into my vagina and through the wall of my womb. My surgeon, Mr Shah, would skilfully navigate his needle through the labyrinth of my insides and suck out my eggs one by one, shooting them along a tube across the room, through a hole in the wall not dissimilar to a 1980’s dining room serving hatch, into a glob of cryoprotectant freezing solution to be plunged deep into a tank of liquid nitrogen. None the wiser, I slept a dreamless sleep, oblivious of the events unfolding between my legs.

Waiting to be wheeled into surgery to have my eggs collected.

Nine eggs and forty-five minutes later I was waking up in the recovery room, a cup of tea and some rich tea biscuits next to me on a table. A nurse gently let me know that as soon as I’d had them, it was time to be on my merry way. It was surprisingly anti-climatic; the end of a journey that had taken an immense amount of thought and preparation, not to mention an immense amount of money. In a drug-induced daze, I ignored the polite nurse and let my heavy, morphine-clouded head clonk back onto the pillow as my eyes drifted back shut. Some time after, I woke up properly, sat bolt upright and scoffed the biscuits before bouncing out of the clinic and into bustling Marylebone. As I skipped towards the tube, I was surprised to note how pain-free, on top of the world and seemingly invincible I felt, not realising that I was still flying high from the anaesthetic. I was so full of beans I felt like I could take on the world.  

Immediately after egg collection: still drugged to the eyeballs.

Thirty-eight and single

Needless to say, I didn’t take on the world that day, or the day after. I came down from my anaesthesia-induced high approximately two hours and thirty-five minutes after reaching home, and holed myself up in bed to spend the afternoon working on my laptop, a dull ache slowly spreading across my tummy to remind me that that I had just had abdominal surgery to suck out nine eggs, and that one of those now-frozen ovum might one day be my child. I was three months short of my 38th birthday and single, and the realisation that maybe I wouldn’t meet someone in time to have a baby had suddenly, and quite recently hit. I’d heard of egg freezing before; I’d seen the little advertising plaques they have on the tube, but I had never considered it relevant. I hadn’t thought it would ever be something I’d need to do and had assumed that at some point I’d grow up and meet someone, and we’d decide to have a family. But now, after years of putting it off, FORTY was suddenly fast-approaching and I realised that despite years of never really caring either way, I did now want children after all. But had my time almost run out, and if so, should I invest a whopping five and a half thousand pounds on trying to pause it? 

My twenties: footloose and fancy free

I can’t remember the exact moment I decided to go for egg freezing and that’s probably because it wasn’t one exact moment. Like lots of big decisions, this one had taken a long time to germinate, somewhere in a cosy womb-like space in the back of my mind. Bit by bit the accumulation of birthdays and failed relationships, and the realisation through years of counselling, therapy and life coaching that I had deep-rooted desires of which I’d been long-denying myself, all gradually combined in one big tail wind, pushing me towards a big fat crossroads in my life. Throughout my twenties and early thirties I had insisted that I didn’t want children. I pitied women who gave up their lives to look after kids and was incredulous of anyone who’d want a snotty little leech running their life. In relationships, my baby-aversion and fear of commitment had not yet become an issue because let’s face it, what twenty-something bloke wants to hear his girlfriend saying “Shall we have a baby”. It was a dating advantage to be footloose, fancy free and unshackled by the maternal instinct that I felt blighted many of my peers.

My own childhood was problematic and I have no meaningful contact with my mother to this day.

A difficult childhood I didn’t want to repeat

The first time the idea of babies had really came up in any seriousness was in a relationship I was in when I was thirty-two. Despite this guy’s devotion, I became more and more ambivalent, repeating the familiar self-sabotaging patterns that had become my go-to crutch when faced with emotions I couldn’t handle. I rejected any possibility of marriage or children, convincing him as well as myself that neither would be on my radar, ever. Because he loved me, he reluctantly went along with what I ‘wanted’, and it was only during a huge fight at the end of our relationship, in which I hurled undeserved abuse at him, that I realised I did want those things, only I couldn’t fathom any way of being able to have them. My own childhood had been unsettling to say the least and I no longer had any real contact with my mother (and still don’t to this day), so the thought of opening up a can of worms by starting my own family was too painful even to contemplate. Instead of bringing fulfilment, relationships had only triggered fear, confusion and panic. I wanted to run back to the safety of not being needed, and not needing anyone else.

Facing my fears

After that break-up it dawned on me that I had emotional baggage yet undealt with since childhood, so I began a course of life coaching (with the super-duper women’s coach Nikki Armytage). It turned out to be the first of many steps in breaking down my emotional barriers, steps that subsequently included both counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Gradually I was able to make sense of my fear of relationships and negative thought patterns, and find strength in vulnerability, and gradually I allowed my angry defences to lower a little in order to see more clearly the things that I was missing out on. To my shock, I found that I was actually quite good with children, and I found myself wanting to spend more time around them. I started volunteering with my friend’s charity in Kenya, travelling to Mombassa to run holiday programmes for the fifteen orphaned and abandoned children she supports there. Closer to home, I volunteered my time to organise a marketing campaign for a another friend’s charity supporting women and child survivors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and on a personal level, I was made godmother to my baby nephew, born in 2015.

I was made Godmother to my nephew in 2016.

When egg freezing first seemed like a real option

It was a period of great change, but at almost thirty-eight, was it too little, too late? In amongst all of that growth, another relationship had started and ended, and I was now enjoying a long list of Tinder dates crammed into lunch hours or brunch hours or after-work, pre-gym squeeze-you-in hours. Whether it was choosing the ‘wrong’ type or plain bad luck, I languished in a string of relationships that wouldn’t budge beyond the three month mark. I didn’t want to plump for just ‘anyone’, but equally the time pressure to find the ‘right’ one to settle down with was ruining all the fun as the clock ticked ever louder. So when a friend of a friend went to Harley Street to get her eggs frozen, a light switched on. It was no longer just an advertising plaque on the tube. It wasn’t something that other women, unknown to me, spent their designer handbag money on. Egg freezing had all of a sudden been catapulted into the forefront of my mind as something most definitely relevant; an actual possibility that I was literally considering. I was finally ready to admit it: I loved kids, I was great with kids and I wanted my own kids. But now that I was able to say that, was my biological clock going to let me down?

London’s famous Harley Street, where Fertility Plus was located.

Getting a ‘fertility test’ in Harley Street

I decided to book a meeting with Mr Amit Shah of Fertility Plus, still not thinking that I’d really go through with it. Somewhere in a secret, anti-feminist corner of my brain, there was a version of me secretly dreaming of being rescued by a knight in shining armour, riding in wanting a serious relationship and saving me from having to go through with such a big emotional and financial commitment. What I was yet to see, was that this commitment was going to be my way of saving myself. Mr Shah offered me a fertility test as a first step, and as it only cost a fraction of the full egg retrieval procedure, it seemed sensible —if nothing other than to get an idea of the state of play ‘down there’. It would be a measure of my ‘ovarian reserve’; which is a test of female fertility potential, or to put it more bluntly ‘how long you have left to have a baby’. I coughed up £350 and took the plunge.

Antral follicles and AMH levels

Mr Shah explained that the test would be a two-step process. The first step was a vaginal ultrasound (cue medical dildo complete with condom and lube) which would show us my antral follicle count. Ovaries are filled with follicles, which are fluid filled sacks each containing an immature egg. Each menstrual cycle, several of those follicles will start developing eggs, and usually, just one of them will be released, while the remaining follicles disintegrate. Think of antral follicles as ‘follicles of the month’ because they’re the ones that have the potential to grow, mature and release an egg. Because of their larger size and fluid-filled cavity, these follicles can be seen on ultrasound, and are what Mr Shah would be counting. Your number of antral follicles can indicate how much time you have left, and perhaps more importantly, what your body’s response will be to stimulation of the ovaries for egg retrieval.  It’s important information to have because, not only does it tell you how prolific your ovaries are (follicles with the potential to ovulate decline with age) but also tells your surgeon how much medical stimulation you will need if you do decide to go ahead with the procedure.

Mr Shah’s ‘wand’, primed for a vaginal ultrasound.

The second step was to have blood tests to measure the levels of Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) in my blood. AMH is a hormone produced by your active ovarian follicles, so your levels of AMH often relate to the number of your antral follicles. AMH levels in isolation can also depict the remaining lifespan of the ovaries, and again, tell you how much time you have . Like antral follicles, AMH declines naturally with age, while high levels can suggest polycystic ovaries. All important stuff.

The results

Suddenly, despite having never heard of them before, how many antral follicles I had became all-consumingly important, and I found myself hoping and praying for a good result. After an agonising few days, I met with Mr Shah to discuss the findings. “Your AMH levels have come back at 22 pmol/L”. I stared back at him blankly. “Which is higher than expected for your age” he added. Ok, well that’s good, I thought. “I would normally expect AMH levels to be between 15-17 at your age” he continued. “Well done, ovaries!” I cheered, silently. Mr Shah went on; “the ultrasound scan showed 12-14 antral follicles which, again, is a good number, and your ovaries aren’t showing any polycystic ovarian morphology. It’s a satisfactory result”. It was like getting a 2:1 from York all over again, except this time I hadn’t had to read any books, study any scholarly essays or write any dissertations. But somehow I still felt as smug as if I’d passed a test; my ovaries were adequate… for my age. Yay!

My clinic letter after the antral follicle count and AMH test.

And that’s the caveat; at almost thirty-eight, having adequate ovaries ‘for one’s age’ still isn’t the best prognosis when it comes to the business of baby-making. Especially if you’re currently single with no sign of a partner on the horizon, and you’re hoping to harvest strong eggs that will withstand the freezing, and maybe also one day, the thawing processes. The second caveat is, that just because you might have a relatively good egg count, it doesn’t necessarily mean that quantity equals quality. Nor does it mean that you’ll definitely get viable eggs, or any egg at all. So while the news was as good as it could be, I still had to keep my feet on the ground. The question now was: should I shell out five and a half grand and take a chance on freezing my fertility?

A close up of an antral follicle as seen on ultrasound.

Raising the £5500 it cost to freeze my eggs

Mercifully, I did at least have the five and a half thousand pounds to be in the position to make that decision. But I had worked really hard for it, so it wasn’t an easy decision. I had been saving up to launch a new business; my baby, if you like, which was an idea I had gone to ITV with to turn one of their iconic TV gameshows into a real-life immersive experience, and I was in the midst of developing the idea, finding a London location, and most importantly, raising over a million pounds to launch it when I first went to see Mr Shah. Having previously been a jobbing actor (translation: unemployed), I had no money whatsoever when I first started the business, so in order to raise some much needed seed capital, I had landed a temp role with a telecommunications company, moved out of my flat and joined a housesitting website.

Housesitting turned out to be the best way ever to live in London for free. Literally for free. The only snag is that you are constantly moving; each ‘placement’ would last anything from one week to three months, with my average stay in any one home lasting about ten days. So if you housesit full-time, you’re constantly on your toes, always having to line up somewhere new to live so that you’re not out on your ear. With a full-time, pressurised job to maintain plus a start-up to launch, having to find somewhere new to live every ten days can be unsettling at best and stressful at worst, so you have to be comfortable with the unknown. And you have to love pets, which I did, so that part wasn’t a problem. I would move from swish Marylebone townhouse to forest retreat, from Richmond terrace to Paddington house boat; from cat to parrot, to pug to hen with nothing but a suitcase and a prayer. I was a hobo in heels.

Housesitting was a way of saving up to afford the operation.

Taking my future into my own hands

So when I say I worked hard for that five grand, I really mean it. Literal blood, sweat and tears. But in a way, all the effort, energy and passion that had gone into making that money was the last push in my marathon  towards motherhood. Because the way I see it, spending a significant amount of money on something is like making a big statement. It might not necessarily be a statement that anyone other than you can hear, but nevertheless you’re choosing to transfer all the energy and effort that it took to make that money onto something you think is a worthy investment. And when you make an investment, you’re doing so with the hope, the belief even, that something will grow and develop from it; that it will be worth more in the future than what you’re spending on it now.

For me, it was a powerful commitment to the change I had initiated five years earlier when I had decided to do something about my destructive pattern of relationships, my self-limiting beliefs and my fear of vulnerability. No knight in shining armour arrived to save me from Mr Shah’s needle, and thank God they didn’t, because it was time for me to woman-up and take responsibility for my own future, to have the balls, nay the ovaries to make that silent declaration to the universe that I was ready and willing to invest in having a family of my own. Who knows whether, had I not gone through with it, the amazing events that followed soon afterwards would ever have happened. 

The drugs

I transferred the money and took a deep breath. In order to get my ovaries ready to be ‘harvested’, I would have to inject myself with a combination of two drugs; Bemfola, a follicle stimulating hormone which would encourage several of my follicles to mature their eggs all at the same time, and Fyremadel, to prevent my ovaries releasing those eggs before they were ready to be collected. Because of the decent amount of antral follicles I had, Mr Shah decided to put me on a ‘low dose stimulation protocol’ in order to avoid Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome, a side effect of the treatment which can cause uncomfortable and potentially dangerous symptoms including nausea, bloating and vomiting in mild cases; weight gain, severe pain and blood clots in severe cases and kidney failure, ovarian torsion (twisting of the ovary) and haemorrhage in the worst.

He explained that some doctors like to administer as much medication as possible in order to encourage the ovaries to mature the maximum amount of eggs, but in addition to the risk of gruesome side effects, a high dose protocol doesn’t necessarily guarantee plentiful eggs. Just because the follicles are large, and even if they each contain an egg, the quality may not be sufficient to go ahead with freezing, and they could, in theory, all have to be thrown away. Under or over developed eggs have a lower chance of conception success, so the whole process is a fine art, combing precision timing, balanced pharmacology and skilful handiwork. 

Hormones!

Mr Shah’s approach was to use a modest amount of drug-induced stimulation in order that the eggs that I produced were viable.  My follicle growth would be monitored carefully with frequent vaginal scans, and when they were at just the right stage of development, I would inject the all important “trigger shot”, precisely thirty six hours before going in for the operation (this shot is usually a hormone shot of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG), which triggers the ovaries to mature their eggs). In a natural menstrual cycle, HCG would tell the follicle not only to mature its egg, but crucially, to release it. However, in a medicated cycle where the endgame is to collect the eggs, it’s imperative that this release doesn’t happen. Eggs, once released from the ovaries, can not be collected, so the timing of the trigger in relation to getting to the operating table is vitally important. Miss your appointment and you could potentially have multiple mature eggs floating down your fallopian tubes towards your womb (note: do not have sex at this point unless you want to risk being the next Octomum). 

Mr Shah and I had to work out the best dates to go ahead, because not only was the timing of the operation going to be vitally important, the date that you start the drugs depends on where you are in your monthly cycle, and we had to make sure that we were both going to be available at the right moment to proceed with the operation once my follicles were ready. Dates decided, he handed me a big box of pre-filled syringes and told me it was time to practise injecting. Having never been a diabetic nor a drug addict, I had never had the opportunity to master the art of using a syringe, so I didn’t realise what a wuss I was until Mr Shah demonstrated how to do it before asking me to have a go. It was imperative he could trust me to administer the drugs myself on a daily basis, and if not, I would need a nurse to do it.

Learning to self-inject

My hand trembling, my eyes welled up as I tried once, twice, thrice to stab the needle into the fold of tummy flesh I was nervously gripping between the finger and thumb of my left hand. My needle-holding hand seemed to belong to someone else, someone with vibrating fingers and an annoying habit of retracting the needle just at the point where it was about to touch the skin. The harder I tried to plunge the needle in, the more violently my hand would tremble. Presumably accustomed to such muppetry, Mr Shah politely assured me that my pathetic reaction was completely normal. Beads of sweat poured down my face and I began to worry about the distinct possibility that I would be staining the posh chair I was sitting on with the perspiration that was now pooling between my legs. Was it me or was the room unbearably hot? 

“Come on you idiot”, I said to myself, not helping matters. “Stick it in”. If I couldn’t inject myself, I’d have to traipse into central London every day to have a nurse do it, and seeing as I’d planned a cosy two weeks working from home while I would be pumping myself with hormones, the thought of having to commute into town every day to be injected by a nurse really didn’t fit with the programme. After what seemed like ten eternities, and with tears of embarrassment rolling down my face, I finally stabbed the needle into my skin and pressed down the plunger. Surprisingly, it was like slicing through butter. The initial pain was immediately replaced by shock as alarmingly cold liquid shot into my skin. “Well done” said Mr Shah, and for a moment I thought I was going to get a gold star. “It’s completely natural that you’d feel some anxiety if you’ve never done it before, but you’ve done really, really well”. A look of smug satisfaction crept across my face —I really was nailing this whole fertility thing. Deserving of praise or not, I’d done it, and Mr Shah had a unique way of making you feel like you were top of the class. Now I just had to do it every day for the next two weeks, and without Mr Shah cheering me on. 

Self-care

What I would say to anyone contemplating fertility treatment, either for the purpose of egg freezing like me, or for IVF, is that self-care during your treatment goes a very long way. Mr Shah recommended I work from home during the lead up to the operation, which I was lucky enough to be able to do, and I didn’t regret it. The impact of the daily hormones should not be underestimated; some days felt like I’d mixed a hundred doses of pre-menstrual tension with ten good pinches of puberty and downed the whole bloody lot in a glass of good old fashioned Victorian hysteria. Some days, within ten minutes of injecting, I would feel a huge wave of nausea and fatigue envelop me, sending me running to my bed to curl up under a thick duvet and let out a long, primeval moan.

Other days, as the wave came crashing down, it would bring with it a complete emotional breakdown; a friend once made the unwitting mistake of calling my mobile just after I’d injected one day, only to hear me wail down the phone for ten minutes straight, for absolutely no apparent reason. Another day, after learning of the death of a (very old, terminally ill) cat that I had previously looked after, I cried for the rest of that day, and intermittently for the rest of the week. Couple the emotional instability with the fact that you get a fair whack of bloating, breast tenderness and general premenstrual funk, it’s fair to say you won’t be rushing out to put on a designer frock and Live Your Best Life during this period.

Nourishing, organic food was what the doctor ordered during my treatments.

You’ll benefit from peace and quiet (if you can get it), wholesome, delicious, nourishing food, plenty of water, herbal teas and heaps of self care. Clear your diary and don’t make any plans that you can’t easily and guiltlessly get out of, and make sure that as few people as possible have any expectations of you during the couple of weeks you’ll be injecting. As best you can, avoid any situations where there will be confrontation, emotional labour or painful triggers, but say yes to anything you feel like doing for yourself, whether that be your favourite meal, a lovely warm bath, snuggling for an evening of Netflix or indulging in your favourite body treatment. On the advice of my life coach friend, I assembled a support group for the few weeks that I would be going through my procedures, made up of five or so friends who I knew would be positive about my decision and support me throughout its ups and downs. I added them to a little whatsapp group and kept them up to date with my daily trials and tribulations, and they helped me keep a smile on my face along with a much needed sense of humour.

Acupuncture for fertility

Alongside all this, I treated myself to acupuncture. A lot of women undergoing IVF have acupuncture as a complementary treatment alongside the fertility drugs, and tests have shown it to significantly improve the chances of successful implantation of in-vitro embryos. Although I was not having any embryos implanted, I figured it couldn’t hurt to get me some of that acupuncture while I was maturing my eggs, as it’s meant to help combat stress, regulate your hormone levels, increase blood flow to the reproductive organs and regulate your immune system Sign me up! Whether or not it helped with creating better or more eggs is debatable, but it definitely helped me mentally, and it felt good to know that I was doing as much as I possibly could to ensure the best possible outcome. Overall, the time leading up to my egg freezing procedure was probably the most self-caring I’ve ever been; never before or since have I made such a concerted effort to protect and nourish myself physically, mentally and emotionally, and this, in hindsight, was another big part of my motherly awakening. It also meant that I bounced back after the procedure as good as new, without any lingering exhaustion or sense of depletion.

Acupuncture for IVF.

Stopping the clock: a contentious issue

The irony is, of course, that I embarked on the expensive and physically draining journey to freeze my eggs in the hope of never actually having to use them. I still had faith that I’d be lucky enough to meet someone and have a child naturally, but deciding to go for egg freezing helped to take the pressure off having to meet someone like, yesterday. It’s a contentious issue though; some argue that the egg freezing industry leads to dangerous complacency in women in their late thirties and early forties, who are led to believe that they can stop the clock, but who will unfortunately and inevitably find later down the line that when it comes to thawing their eggs for use in IVF, the guarantees of motherhood they believed they had do not survive the defrosting process and end up being discarded. But despite the statistics on the viability of thawed eggs, others argue that egg freezing removes the time constraint from finding the perfect mate, and with a new relaxed outlook and less emphasis on finding a man to father your baby, you are less anxious about the future and more open to letting things happen naturally.

A symbol of independence

It also marks a pretty powerful step forward for Feminism; men have never had to worry about being ‘past it’ in the fertility race, which has arguably put them in a stronger position in the dating game and beyond. Now, with advancing knowledge and increased availability of female fertility treatments such as egg collection, sperm donation and embryo freezing, women have more options —not as many as men enjoy, granted— but we are certainly freed up somewhat from the age-old notion of ‘being left on the shelf’.  I can’t speak for why other women go through with egg freezing, but for me, it was the final step in taking responsibility for my mental health, dealing with both my childhood trauma and my adult depression, and facing the fear of relationships and motherhood that had blighted my personal life for the preceding ten years. It was an important symbol: I was saying that I wanted a baby, that I was willing to invest care, time and money in a chance to have one, and that I believed I would be a good mother.

Good eggs vs Bad eggs

Once home and ensconced in my cosy bed after the operation, Mr Shah called me on my mobile for the moment of truth. How many eggs did they manage to collect? This was the most nerve-wracking part of the whole, entire process. Before the operation, the scan had indicated that I had a decent amount of mature follicles, but no one knows how many follicles will contain viable eggs until they’re actually collected. Mr Shah had described the way that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eggs look under a microscope. Healthy, mature, genetically viable eggs appear uniform in shape, nice and round with smooth edges, even borders, and a nice clear nucleus, and their surface should reflect the light. ‘Bad eggs’ on the other hand are irregular in shape, oblong rather than round, grey in colour and with rough, fragmented or jagged edges and poor light reflection. Being well over thirty-five, the chances of my follicles containing a few ‘bad eggs’ was pretty high, so I was anxious to know what they’d found; the whole thing would be in vain if most of the eggs they had collected were useless.

The all important number: how many eggs?

I held my breath as Mr Shah took me through the results. The news was good —ish. He had found ten large follicles and four smaller ones. Nine of the follicles had contained eggs, seven of which were mature and ‘looked good’. Those seven were immediately frozen. The remaining two had appeared immature and ‘possibly abnormal’, which Mr Shah assured me was not unusual. In his view, it was a good outcome with seven mature eggs on ice. Phew. I had a result which, by no means anywhere near a guarantee that I’d be able to have a child, at least meant that I had a chance.

My friend came to visit me after the operation with ‘nine eggs for nine eggs.’

The law of attrition

And here is where the numbers start to show the stark reality of egg freezing. In my case, it cost around five and a half thousand pounds to grow fourteen follicles which yielded an eventual result of seven successfully frozen eggs. Which, if you care for maths, works out at just over seven hundred pounds an egg. The observant among you may have noticed a decremental pattern forming in the numbers already; only fifty per cent of the follicles that I grew yielded viable eggs. You’d better get used to this number-halving pattern, because in the business of fertility, this ‘attrition’ only continues as you progress through the stages from follicle to baby, and it can make for slightly discouraging reading. Here’s how it works: To make a baby with fertility treatment you need to first stimulate the ovaries to mature several eggs all at once (tick), and then extract the eggs (tick) and freeze the ones that are deemed viable (tick).

Then, at such time when you’d like to try making a baby from your eggs, you need to defrost them (cue some of the eggs perishing in the thawing process), take the ones that survive being defrosted and fertilise them with sperm (cue some of those eggs not fertilising properly and dying), nurture the surviving fertilised eggs into embryos (cue some of those embryos dying in vitro), and then, of the embryos that survive, transfer two or three of them into the womb, in the hope that at least one will implant successfully, grow into a foetus, survive to term and be born as a live and kicking baby. The fact is that at with every stage in the process, it’s fully expected that some of those eggs and embryos will be lost, so the more you set out with at the beginning, the better your chances.

Success rates: The frustrating confusion

The frustrating lack of accurate and comprehensive data on how many frozen eggs end up as live births makes it even harder for women to decide whether egg freezing is worth everything it costs them — financially and emotionally. The BBC earlier this year published an article which cited a quote from leading fertility expert Lord Robert Winston that claimed only 1% of all frozen eggs thawed for use in fertility treatment actually result in a pregnancy and subsequent live birth. Which, if it’s true, is really quite depressing. But it’s also confusing, because the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) – puts the success rate at closer to one in five. However, the HFEA are referring to how many embryos developed from frozen eggs result in a live birth as their success rate —which they put at around 19%. So the two statistics come from really quite different data when you consider the difference between a thawed egg on the one hand, and an embryo successfully developed from a thawed egg on the other. There’s a gulf —and a whole load of unsuccessfully fertilised eggs—between them. 

Self-injecting became second nature with practice.

So how many eggs do you need to freeze to get a baby?

The best way to think about it is to be realistic about how many eggs are likely to be lost at each stage of treatment. In 2016, when Lord Winston asked for data, 1,204 eggs were thawed. Of these, 590 eggs (49%) were fertilised, so it’s realistic to assume that half your eggs will be lost at this first stage. Of the 590 eggs fertilised, 179 (30%) were transferred back to a patient, but we don’t know how many of those fertilised eggs not transferred perished or were frozen for later use. Out of the embryos transferred, 22 resulted in a pregnancy (13%). There was no data for the live birth rate. These numbers vary from woman to woman of course, with the age at which your eggs are frozen being one of the most important factors in how well they will survive each stage. Having digested all of this, I decided to do the maths on my own little omelettes:

Follicle Stage: Follicles grown using Bemfola and Fyremadel: 14.

Harvest Stage: Of those 14 follicles I got 7 healthy eggs (50%). Egg count: 7.

Thawing Stage: If I apply Lord Winston’s 2016 data to my eggs; 50% of my egg will likely not survive the thawing process in order to be fertilised, should I ever decide to use them. Likely Fertilised Egg count:  3-4.

Fertilisation Stage: 30% of the 2016 fertilised eggs were transferred back to the patient, but as I pointed out above, we don’t know whether that means the others died or were kept on ice for future rounds of IVF. Because of this, I’m going to make a conservative estimate that 50% of the fertilised eggs from the last stage would develop into embryos suitable for transfer. Likely Transferrable Embryo count: 1.5 – 2.

Pregnancy Stage: 13% of the embryos transferred to patients in the 2016 data resulted in a pregnancy, so this is where the chances of my 7 eggs resulting in a baby become —on paper at least— negligible. Pregnancy count: 0.2 – 0.3.

Live Birth Stage: There was no data available for this. But if we take the HFEA’s statistic that 19% of embryos made from frozen eggs result in a live birth, and if my likely embryo count is 1.5-2, then my Live Baby Count would be: 0.3 – 0.4, which is not even half a baby!

Statistics aren’t everything

This is why statistics make for such alarming reading. To stand even a low chance (according to statistics) of achieving a live birth from egg freezing, I would have had to have spent in the region of fifteen thousand pounds so that I could have had three cycles of ovarian stimulation over the course of a few months, requiring me to inject hormones for every cycle. Assuming I’d produce roughly the same number of eggs each time, this would have resulted in about twenty one healthy eggs. Using the same maths above, this would have given me a chance of having five   transferrable embryos and one live baby. Makes grim reading, doesn’t it? But as history has proven time and time again, statistics aren’t always everything. One woman’s chances of success with IVF can vary wildly from another and there are plenty of success stories which fly in the face of statistics; I personally know of several that have defied all odds. So there is a small chance that, should I decide to take my seven little eggs out of the deep freeze, every single one of them could survive every stage of their fertility treatment and I could end up with more children than any multi-seater people carrier could accommodate.

Is it worth it?

Favourable statistics or not, going through the process of egg collection, with all its mental, emotional and financial labour, helped me reach an important and ultimately life-changing shift in attitude; one that quite soon after my operation led to me realising my dream of having a family –naturally. It’s my belief that in taking that very definite action in committing to having a baby, I was finally being honest with myself and others about what I wanted. For as long as I could remember I had been a commitment-phobe, but if you’re going to have a baby, boy do you need commitment, and in spades! I had spent years in a conflicted state between longing for something more, but making choices which ultimately ensured that I remained on my own; I was attracted to men from overseas, to ‘exciting’, noncommittal men, to younger men, to men who’d ghost me after three months of seemingly-amazing dating. When any of the nicer ones tried to get close, or whenever anything got remotely serious, I’d get overwhelmed and would convince myself that I was better off single.

Spending such a large chunk of the savings that I had worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to amass seemed to tell the universe/God/my own subconscious that I was serious about becoming a mum. Sharing my honest experience of the process in all its darkness and light with my little supportive group of friends seemed to heap yet a more gravity onto my declaration. And making a conscious effort to heavily prioritise self-care during the months leading up to the operation turned out to be a pivotal move in how I prioritised everything in my life at the time. Not only was I spending time and money on nourishing, quality food, drinking more water, getting loads of sleep and taking supplements, I was becoming more discerning about who I gave my time to.

Growing up and being honest

A die-hard Tinder user, I had until that point spent many an hour conversing with men I wasn’t particularly interested in, going on dates with guys who I knew deep down weren’t going to turn into long-term commitments, and agonising over being ghosted or breadcrumbed for way too long than the experience merited. I had always put on an air of breezy nonchalance when it came to the subject of long-term commitment or having a family, never bringing it up myself or admitting that it was something I was keen to get on with. But because I was spending so much time and money on freezing my eggs, every minute I spent on my own or with others during the lead up to the op became extremely precious. I no longer had the capacity to engage with people (read: men) who were going to waste my time, or whose time I was going to waste. As a result I found myself being much more honest. For the first time ever, I would tell potential Tinder dates that I was looking for a serious relationship, and for the first time ever, I would tell one potential Tinder date in particular that I wanted to have children. Luckily, he said that he did too. That was Rob, my now-partner and the father of my child.

Baby Odhrán was conceived naturally seven months after my egg collection.

Everything changed

Within seven months of having my eggs frozen, I was pregnant with our first child, a little boy named Odhrán who we conceived naturally. At the beginning of our relationship, we had chatted for a while on Tinder, and because I had declined to meet on account of having to have an operation, Rob had asked me what the procedure was for. Because we were conversing over text, I had time to decide whether or not I wanted to tell a potential date that I was having fertility treatment. In the end I decided to just go for it; after all, there’s nothing like telling him you’re having your eggs sucked out of your vagina to test a guy’s mettle. I was tired of playing games, if he was the right guy he’d take it in his stride. “I really want to have children”, I told him, “…and because I’m not in a serious relationship yet, I’m freezing my eggs”. If he was taken aback, he hid it well; he responded quite readily to say that he really wanted children too, and he was very understanding about delaying our first date until after my operation. Needless to say, we did eventually meet, and in the early days of dating, while I was deliberating whether or not to go back to Mr Shah for a second round of egg collection, it was Rob who suggested that instead of doing that, we just try for a baby the natural way. We’d only been dating about six months, but I felt that I knew enough about him (and myself) to take the leap and make the life-changing decision to grow up already and have a baby. I was thirty-eight. 

Pregnancy in your late thirties and forties

Little Odhrán is now seventeen months old and we are expecting our second (also naturally conceived) baby in April 2021. I was two days short of my thirty-ninth birthday when I had Odhrán, and I’ll be a couple of weeks short of my forty-first when the next one arrives. I’d like to think this gives hope to anyone in their late thirties who is single, reading the statistics and wondering if it’s all too late. When I froze my eggs, I really had no idea whether they were even genetically viable, and to be honest I still don’t. My age was against me and according to statistics there was a good chance that none or very few of them would be good enough to develop into a baby. The ones we froze looked good under the microscope, but you don’t know until you try to fertilise them whether they are going to be up to the job. Then there were the two duds, the eggs that came out ‘immature and possibly abnormal’, and the five follicles that didn’t have any eggs in them at all. If you thought about all that too much you could drive yourself insane thinking about how small the chance of being fertile enough to have a baby really was.

“Baby 2021” was conceived naturally in August 2020.

It’s not too late

But the fact that I now have one healthy child and another on the way, both conceived naturally without any issues, is evidence that statistics don’t tell the whole story. It’s good to inform yourself of them, and indeed be aware of the fact that fertility declines with age, but it doesn’t mean that the death knell is ringing for your dreams of a family. For me, as a woman approaching my forties, the most important thing I did was to be honest with myself (and with the man I was contemplating being with) about wanting a family. My eggs are still frozen in time, still costing me just under two hundred pounds a year to keep in liquid nitrogen, and still, after everything, the best thing I could have done on my journey to motherhood.

Egg freezing: Not a guarantee but the chance of a Plan B

Freezing those little ooyctes, with the hope of never having to use them, turned out to be the pivotal moment when I realised my own potential as a mother, on my terms, in my own way, and no longer paralysed by the trauma of my own childhood or my own mother’s troubles, but free to give myself the chance to be a good mum. It took responsibility, courage, dedication, care and honesty to decide to go for egg freezing; the very same qualities it takes to be a good mother. My advice to single women in their late thirties and beyond? Don’t be scared by the statistics, but do respect them. Now’s the time to be honest with yourself if a family is what you want; and now’s time to take real steps in starting one. If one of those steps is getting your eggs frozen, who’s to say that it’s not the right thing to do? In my case it got me, albeit in a roundabout way, the family that I really wanted. 

Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents, along with her partner Rob. Follow Freya on Instagram @the_amateur_mama for more parenting articles and photos.

Mentioned in this article:

Mr Shah at Fertility Plus 

NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy 

Deborah Ubee Trust: Counselling and Psychotherapy 

Nikki Armytage-Foy Life Coaching 

Belinda Buchanan’s Kenyan charity  Hope Child Africa

FGM charity Desert Flower Foundation

Fertility Acupuncture at the London Acupuncture Clinic

BBC article: Egg Feezing, what’s the success rate?