The "Insurance" of Motherhood: Implications of Modern Fertility Preservation Technology for the Salience of Motherhood to Gender Identity

Zeno, Elissa, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Corse, Sarah, Sociology, University of Virginia
Bair, Jennifer, Sociology, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the social meaning and implications of fertility preservation for the salience of motherhood to gender identity in the contemporary age. As American women pursue higher education levels and establish careers, they are incentivized to delay childbearing into their 30s and 40s—the window of time in which having children can become more challenging. Egg freezing is a new fertility preservation technology that appears to give women more control over their lives by altering the timing of reproduction to facilitate motherhood at later ages. However, women undertake egg freezing in a context in which they are severely constrained by cultural understandings of womanhood that emphasize motherhood, conditions of professional work that create irreconcilable time pressures between career advancement and family formation, and a medical context that promotes health and the prevention of illness through invasive biomedical interventions.

This dissertation utilizes a mixed-method analysis to examine this tension at the crux of debates about egg freezing regarding, on the one hand, claims about women's expanding agency, and on the other, the persistent privileging of motherhood as essential to a woman's identity. I use content analysis to trace the historical development of egg freezing technology, exploring how scientific and social claims were mobilized in developing it from a treatment for women with compromised fertility in the 1980s to its more liberal use among healthy women of reproductive age in the present day. I also completed ethnographic observations at 42 marketing events and 28 interviews with commercial actors who advertise egg freezing to examine how the market for egg freezing constructs meaning around fertility, aging, and motherhood in the contemporary age. Finally, I interviewed 67 women who froze their eggs and 40 women who are targeted for egg freezing through company-sponsored health plans to explore the most salient concerns, anxieties, and inequalities that shape their motivations and justification for pursuing the technology.

This dissertation contends that egg freezing, as it is currently practiced and advertised, upholds dominant ideologies that link motherhood and womanhood in an age when motherhood feels less certain, and the reconciliation of work and family life is less tenable. Egg freezing relies on assumptions of women as future mothers and the primary caretakers of children and equates women’s value with their youth and reproductive viability. Observations and interviews reveal that the commercial egg freezing industry sells egg freezing as a responsible anti-aging measure, wellness practice, and self-investment that ensures future motherhood. Women’s narratives show that egg freezing is a tool to enact (hetero)normative femininity by displaying their prioritization of the pursuit of marriage and motherhood alongside other goals. Finally, professional women use egg freezing to anticipate, strategize, and maneuver around maternity discrimination in the workplace and assume responsibility for managing normative ideologies of work and motherhood in workplace cultures and structures that penalize women for having children at the "wrong time" in their careers. I conclude that egg freezing reflects and serves to reinforce cultural definitions of hegemonic femininity in service of existing gendered power structures.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
gender, motherhood, reproductive technology
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