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Putting family on freeze

GILLIAN St Lawrence is practically perfect. Clever, funny, beautiful and, by most people's standards, rich.

An alpha-type, always driven to succeed, she leaves nothing to chance. Ever. So when she hit 30 last year and decided she wasn't yet ready (or wealthy enough) to have children despite the ticking of her biological clock, she and her husband, Paul, used IVF to create and freeze five embryos that can be thawed out and implanted at a future date when they feel better prepared for parenthood.

St Lawrence knew that her actions, which she describes as an “insurance against future infertility”, would be considered unusual. Freezing embryos is now accepted for those undergoing cancer treatment, but it is unusual for a healthy couple with no fertility problems.

What she didn't bargain for was the torrent of abuse when she wrote about her plan in The Washington Post last month. “Arrogant, selfish, naive”, said those who sneered at her “quest for optimal parenthood”. Others took offence at her invention of the term “preservation IVF”, compared with the “desperation IVF” undergone by couples with fertility problems.

SELFISH

Her supporters, though, ask what is wrong with wanting to provide for your children and planning your pregnancies accordingly. Plenty of couples use contraception (or “family planning”) to do just that. Hasn't St Lawrence merely taken advantage of new technologies offered by the infertility industry to achieve the exact same result?

“I was shocked by the responses,” St Lawrence says in her home in the upscale neighbourhood of Georgetown, Washington DC. “People said, ‘What you are doing — delaying parenthood — is so selfish'. But if we were to have kids now that would be selfish. It’d be having kids because we want to and not because it's the best timing for that child.”

Tall, blonde and athletic, St Lawrence is no less striking in her appearance than in her views. She attributes the negative reaction to the fact that she is “a bearer of bad news”. Women who have had their children young but before they have built up much of a nest egg feel that her choice to stockpile some cash before childbirth is an implicit criticism of their choices.

And those who postpone childbirth until they are established in their careers do not welcome being reminded of their looming infertility: that they will lose nearly 90pc of their eggs by age 30, and after age 35 the risk of Down's syndrome increases by more than 500pc compared to the early 20s. It is this latter group that St Lawrence considers her “target market”. “I wanted couples in our situation to understand that if you wait, you take on the huge chance that you won't get pregnant in your late 30s or at age 40. This is what you are in for and it's pretty severe.”

For St Lawrence, who says that she is emotionally prepared for motherhood, being “ready” means having enough money to make sure her child wants for nothing, whether it's private tennis lessons, fees for Harvard, or simply time with his or her parents. “We both want very reduced work hours so we never have to look at daycare or a nanny.”

STRESSED

She points to a recent report, which revealed that the one thing that kids most wanted in life was for their parents not to be stressed and tired all the time. If money is no longer a worry, that concern immediately disappears and the parents and child can concentrate on doing what they like doing best, she suggests.

She and Paul have set themselves a financial target they must reach before they will consider thawing out one of their embryos. She will not divulge how much it is, saying only that she thinks it will take another 10 years or so to build up a sufficiently big baby-fund from his job as an attorney and her job managing a portfolio of rental properties in Washington, DC that they own jointly.

However, she does cite studies suggesting that it costs between $500,000 and $1.6m (€393,000-€1.2m) to raise a child to age 17 in the US. The couple have added a premium in case their child is born “with some kind of disability or with a below-average IQ or has special needs”. If it all seems a bit mercenary, St Lawrence is unapologetic.

At 31, she is surrounded by friends who hit 30, fear they are running out of time to reproduce and rush headlong into parenthood without figuring out how a baby might change their lives. Many assume that their parents will step in to provide free childcare. “I've read about it happening elsewhere,” she says. “People are delaying parenthood and then expecting the grandparents to pitch in.”

FAMILY

Born in Missouri, St Lawrence is the eldest of three daughters in a close-knit army family. Her father was a military doctor who saw active service in the Gulf War and was later assigned as a physician to President Clinton.

Her mother was a full-time housewife and the family moved around constantly before settling in Washington, DC. Her parents, who had their children young, didn't have much money, but worked hard and instilled in their daughters a powerful work ethic.

“By the time I was nine, I realised that all the problems in the world seemed to stem from the fact that people who shouldn't be having kids or weren't ready to have kids, were having kids,” St Lawrence says. “I would see crack addicts having babies. I saw that the biggest way to be in control was to work hard and not saddle yourself immediately with kids.”

Her ideas were also heavily coloured by her time at university in Georgetown, where she met her husband, the academically gifted son of two teachers.

“We were the only poor kids there,” she says. The couple left college with $250,000 (€196,000) of student debt between them and watched enviously as fellow graduates, all trust-fund brats, left without any debts or any cares. They decided that no child of theirs would ever take out a student loan.

INFERTILE

St Lawrence began researching IVF when, at 30, she gave up on the idea of parenthood. She became convinced she was too old, deciding instead to donate her eggs to infertile women, but learnt in the process that she could preserve the advantages of her fertility by creating embryos and freezing them for future use.

Although the success rates for thawing frozen embryos can be as low as 50pc, the use of an ultra-fast freezing process called vitrification (which prevents the formation of potentially damaging ice crystals), together with the fact that the couple were young and healthy at the time of their IVF, convinced St Lawrence that a thaw rate in the 95 to 98pc range was more likely.

She believes that those who tell her that at 31, she still has plenty of time to have a child naturally, are in denial. “I hate it when there are women in their late 30s who say, ‘It worked for me, I got pregnant'. Well, that's great for them. But what about the other 30pc who don't get pregnant?” she says.

Oddly, she has no plan B for what might happen to the embryos should she divorce. It will never happen, she says. Her determination to be in control must be so exhausting. Will she be able to keep it up, once she has children?

Of course not. But that, as she will hopefully find out for herself one day, is the beauty and the joy of being a parent.

You can follow Gillian St Lawrence's story on her blog preservationivf.com