“Wisdom is truly knowing what is of value in life, what happiness is and how to put it into practice and share it with others.”
Brendan Lo is a father of two from Byron Bay, Australia who decided to launch his own business, “smartassundies” two and a half years ago, after what he describes as a ‘3am brain fart’. From the moment his kids started to read, he’s been collecting toilet wall quotes and snippets of wisdom from the likes of the Dalai Lama, Thoreau and Dr Suess, to help his family reflect on life’s values and what brings true happiness. One night, Brendan lay awake trying to think of a way to incorporate these inspirational messages into his everyday routine, and realised that undies and socks would make the perfect billboard. Two and a half years later, smartass undies sell underwear and socks that feature inspiring, motivational messages which, Brendan believes, help the wearer stay on track with what really matters.
“Of course, you can’t see the undies’ messages while you’re wearing them” he says, “butt when you pull’em out of the draw to put’em on, take’em off, put them in or out of the wash, hang them up, take them down, fold them and put away, the messages are always there to help keep you on track.” His smartass socks’ values are visible when worn, and act as toe-wiggling reminders of how we should act throughout life.
Brendan grew up in Darwin, in the North of Australia, living across the road from a large Aboriginal community and surrounded by Crocodile Dundee country —an environment that formed his love of nature and a desire to protect it (Smartass undies are made from recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) while their socks are made from certified organic cotton. Brendan’s also committed half the company’s profits to supporting the planting of trees and the protection and regeneration of rainforests). He describes himself as a 3rd generation Australian-born Chinese man married to a Dane, with two children who are a blend of East meets West; North meets South. Two year old Mini Fox Terrier Juno completes what he says is a quirky family who aren’t shy about laughing at themselves.
Like most budding entrepreneurs, Brendan continues in his day job while smartass undies gets properly off the ground, and indeed his career as an Occupational Therapist has been part of what has driven him to understand and seek meaning and purpose in life —and put the answers on his underpants! He’s worked as both a paediatric and a disability specialist, and has been training staff who support people with a disability for more than a decade. He currently works with one of Australia’s largest disability services.
Another motivator for starting his business is Brendan’s family. His amazing mother used to say to him, “Wisdom is truly knowing what is of value in life, what happiness is and how to put it into practice and share it with others.” Since he and his wife had children themselves, riding the “big-ass learning curve” and embracing the kaleidoscope of uncertainties that parenting brings, one thing he believes most parents are clear on is that they want their children to be happy. But how many people stop to think about what the key ingredients are that lead to a deep sense of happiness?
As a parent, Brendan feels that starting his own business has also been an exercise in modelling to his children that it is worth stepping out of your comfort zone to take on challenges, to learn, to pursue your ideas and have a purpose that is bigger than yourself. He’s a firm believer that children learn a little from what we say, but they learn much more from what we do.
I See Magic Everywhere!
Freya: When did you first see the magic in starting a sustainable undies company, and how do you keep the magic alive two and a half years later?
Brendan: Starting a business is so like having a child, it needs nurturing, attention and care. There’s a mighty steep learning curve; learning to roll, crawl and getting up on your feet, and of course there is a whole bunch of mess along the way.
The magic of being a parent and starting a business is in seeing it grow and reach its first milestone. We went through a bunch of teething problems to reach the point where we were able to launch in the midst of the Covid pandemic in July 2020. We’re still working to find our ass in many ways, butt, there is magic in creating something off your own back, that reflects your values and vision, and serves as an outlet for your wacky ponderings!
In a modern world with an infinite array of entertainment available at our children’s fingertips, it’s perhaps never been so important to encourage our children to see the everyday magic that exists around them. I love those moments spent with our kids observing things like a caterpillar contracting and expanding as it moves along a twig, or how a drop of water stays intact while it glides across the surface of a leaf. What totally lights me up is when our kids discover something new; an insect they haven’t noticed before perhaps, or a mythical creature formed by the clouds, and they race to grab us to share in the magic. There is magic everywhere, and if I can give my children the gift of developing the eyes and mind to see it then I will have made their life rich indeed. If our unconventional tools for motivation can do the same for our customers, then I hail mission success.
Stay Focussed On The Important Shit And Leave The Rest Behind!
Freya: What was the most important shit to focus on when you started your own business?
Brendan: From the get-go I knew I wanted to create something that would bring more positivity to the world and have a net benefit to the planet. The effect of climate change is the most significant threat to our children’s future. It impacts on everything, from the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the price of our home insurance, to a broad swath of illnesses and diseases that are on the rise. If the world becomes 2°C warmer, the impact will make Covid appear as an insignificant blip in comparison.
It’s been one hell of a journey exploring the world of textiles and swimming through the cloudy waters of what is and isn’t sustainable for our undies. I was completely naïve about the apparel industry when I started out and I was convinced that natural fibres were going to be the most sustainable materials to use. But as I dug under the surface, I discovered numerous complexities, such as modal and bamboo which are all the rage in sustainable fashion, butt the actual impact of converting these hard, fibrous plants into soft fabric requires extreme processing which often uses harsh and toxic chemicals and substantial amounts of water. Cotton farms have seen river systems depleted and chemical use has lead to the death of marine life on a grand scale.
All natural fibres still use petrochemicals throughout the farming practices and half the world’s natural forests have now been cleared, with the vast majority of this clearing due to agriculture. I think most people now realise that single use plastic is an exponentially growing monster, leading to immense landfill issues and degradation of our oceans, so when I discovered that single use plastic drink bottles could be turned into a high-performance, soft, moisture wicking fabric, I was sold. With a million bottles a minute being discarded, I wanted my biz to be part of the solution to this big ass problem.
From the concept stage I planned to be carbon-neutral through partnering with organisations that plant trees. I’ve been a long-time fan of Sir David Attenborough’s work, growing up with his soothing, yet stately voice beaming the wonders of the world straight into our lounge. His recent film and witness statement: A Life on Our Planet had such a profound impact on me that I have now made the decision to become not just carbon neutral, but carbon positive. To achieve this I’ve partnered with HalfCut.org (referring to half the world’s forest already having been destroyed) and have committed 50% of our profits to the planting of trees, joining the international Billion Trees Campaign and supporting the saving of precious rainforests. HalfCut are quirky like us; in their trademark annual campaign they encourage folk to go out on limb and shave, braid or colour half their hair to raise funds and awareness of the need protect forests and plant trees.
The data and science is clear; we all need to make changes in a broad range of ways. We can turn things around, butt it will take all our asses.
You Only Fail If You Quit!
Freya: What ‘failures’ have you had to overcome in the course of launching your own business?
Brendan: Oh the list is long, but each failure guides the next step and those steps they have led me to connect with some amazing, open-hearted people such as yourself. I want our children to understand that there will always be things that are difficult, hard and even painful, but that they are not to shy away from them; it is the tough stuff that makes us stronger, not the easy. “Easy now” often leads to “hard later”.
Happiness Ain’t Luck or Privilege, It’s a Badass Choice!
Freya: What conscious choices do you make to stay happy?
Brendan: A commitment to mindfulness, to put the effort in to keep dragging my ass and mind back to the reality of things and reign it in from creating looping negative stories. I created smartass undies because I need regular reminders to keep my own mind on track, I absolutely get high off my own supply.
Surround Your Ass With Those On The Same Mission As You!
Freya: What tips do you have for finding the right co-workers, employees, joint ventures and collaborators to work with your brand?
Brendan: Skills and specific knowledge are of course important, but it’s shared vision and values that are the real deal breaker for me. My experience tells me that being up front, open and honest about your intentions is the key. All elements of smartass undies come from my values and desire to bring more positivity to the world, and to do what I can to create a more sustainable future for our children. It’s these intentions, along with a little cheeky humour thrown in, that attract folk who also give a cr*p.
The Way Your Ass Sees The Problem Is The Problem!
Freya: How do you teach your kids to approach the problems they face?
Brendan: I constantly challenge my children, and myself, to find multiple angles to see things from. When we take a moment to step back, walk around and take a look at a problem from different perspectives, we can then see things more objectively, and we’re then in a better position to start problem-solving. Seeking opinions outside of our own framework is also important; perhaps not always easy to swallow but being open to others’ opinions can lead to greater understanding of a situation and a more effective approach. I encourage my children to seek out the stats, learn to understand the science. Some problems will seem overwhelmingly large, but when we can hone in on the part that we can solve, we then become part of the solution.
Today I Kick Procrastination In The Ass And Get Shit Done!
Freya: What is your tip for kicking procrastination in the ass?
Brendan: Ain’t gunna lie, this one’s numero uno on my challenge list and not something I can claim to have mastered yet. Not very original, butt my method is a simple handwritten To Do list that I go through at the start of each day. It often ends up being an A4 page or two, butt if I can knock off the top three priorities for the day then I feel like I’ve made progress.
Freya: Thanks Brendan for a great interview and some lovely undies and socks!
Intrigued? Wanna know more? Read my blog about smartass undies’ inspirational SOCKS, and how I’m using them to motivate me in 2021 HERE
Brendan’s company smartassundies sell men’s and women’s undies and socks that are available online for worldwide shipping at smartassundies.com They can also be found on Instagram. Note that I earn commission from any purchases made following the links in this article. But I never promote products I don’t try and love myself!
Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents and you can follow her for more parenting wisdom on Instagram at @the_amateur_mama !
Most of us are used to getting socks for Christmas, but how many of us can say those socks can INSPIRE us for the year ahead?! Brendan Lo is the dad of two who started his own company smartassundies in order to keep his favourite inspirational quotes about his person at all times —and encourage us to do the same! He kindly sent me a box of his organic cotton socks to try for myself, and after everything that happened in 2020, I am certainly in need of some positive vibes as I step into 2021!
I’ve decided to give myself a six day Instagram challenge; to think about how I can incorporate each value on my daily socks into my daily life! Here’s how Brendan does it:
Freya: What’s one way we can keep kindness in mind in both our professional and personal lives?
Brendan: Be aware of all the things small and large that others do to support our endeavours, and regularly thank them for their contribution.
Freya: Who do you most respect, and why?
Brendan: Mum dear mother is at the top of the list for all the wisdom and love she shared. The Dalai Lama for his compassion and laughter, Nelson Mandela for his fortitude and unity, the three David’s: David Attenborough, David Bellamy and David Suzuki for shinning the light on unsustainable practices, their impacts along with path to solving them.
Freya: What is one example of self-discipline you need when trying to start your own business?
Brendan: Starting something from scratch and being your own boss needs a tonne of self-discipline. I’ve discovered that self-discipline is uber important, not only for working hard and tackling obstacles but equally important for being disciplined enough to know when to put down the tools and spend time with family and friends. The discipline of balance.
Freya: Courage: How can we have more?
Brendan: I’m a firm believer in the value of reflecting on death, morbid as it is. Logically we know life is short, butt practically we often act as though it’s endless and it’s easy to put off doing things that really matter. Our message “Don’t let your ass go to the grave with your song still in you!” which is my tweak on a passage from Thoreau, is a regular reminder to get our ass off the couch and take on our fears, especially when there is so much potential for great things on the other side. The act of being courageous is really about recognising our mortality and deciding to embrace life and being true to ourselves.
Freya: Why is integrity important in business?
Brendan: Businesses that are respected are founded on relationships, and the value of relationships is not the mere measure of dollars and cents —OK, pounds and pennies for you mob in the UK — and let’s just say inclusive of all forex, metals and cryptos too! The value in relationships is a measure of trust. Trust comes from integrity, our ability to do what is right even when no one is looking. If you want a business with customers and partners that you have a great relationship with, integrity is a must.
Freya: What are you most grateful for?
Brendan: Everyday I reflect on how grateful I am to be a father and to have the privilege to nurture and support my children to live a life with meaning and purpose. My little gig, smartass undies is very much a culmination of the key lessons and values I want my children to follow in life.
Thanks Brendan for an uplifting interview and of course, the great socks!!
If you want to get yourself a box of inspirational socks to step into a more positive 2021, follow this link! smartassundies Note that I earn a commission from every purchase made through this link, but I never promote something I’ve not tried and loved myself first!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.