At the beginning of last year, Shira Miller had hoped to meet someone soon to start a family with. Then the pandemic happened and her dating life all but vanished.
"I’m 37, I’m single, I know I want to have kids," Miller told TODAY. "But because of everything going on, it’s been much harder to meet someone and move forward with that part of my life."
Some of her friends had tried Zoom dates and even begun virtual relationships during the pandemic, but that wasn't for her. Last fall, Miller decided to freeze her eggs.
"The pandemic has put me in a holding pattern," said Miller, who lives in New York City. "So I decided, why not move forward in a way that I know I can have that opportunity (to have children) later on?"
For an entire year now, many aspects of our social lives have been put on hold, but some women continue to feel the pressure of a ticking biological clock — especially during a time when people are having children later than ever, and even a year or two can have an effect on fertility.
While it's now clear that the pandemic baby boom that some anticipated last spring is in fact a baby bust — multiple states have reported significant drops in birth rates, which had already been steadily declining — there may be some hope on the horizon. Fertility clinics across the country told TODAY they've seen an increase in the number of new patients for egg freezing as well as other fertility treatments in recent months. It's true that some of that volume is simply patients making up for lost time, since many clinics were forced to halt treatments at the beginning of the pandemic. But doctors say that the pandemic is likely the catalyst for a new wave of patients who are seeking treatments.
For people who work in offices, the pandemic has created permanent changes to our work lives, with more people working remotely. For some, that increased flexibility may make it easier to have more children. Others may have found that, with travel and other big events on hold, they'd now like to have children earlier than they had planned. Yet others, like Miller, have had their plans shift in a different way — putting kids on hold for now but making sure the option is there later on.
"Some people are speeding up their timeline and some people are slowing it down," said Dr. Fahimeh Sasan, an OB-GYN and founding physician of Kindbody, a women's wellness and fertility startup in New York City. "But both of those lend themselves to wanting to know more about their bodies and (asking), 'Where do I stand?'"
The clinic, which has additional locations in California and New Jersey, told TODAY it has seen a "tremendous" uptick in the number of both egg freezing and in vitro fertilization (IVF) patients during the pandemic. Other fertility clinics reported similar growth. At Shady Grove Fertility, which has 37 locations in the U.S. and Chile, and where Miller is a patient in New York, there was a 50% increase in the number of egg freezing cycle starts between June and November 2020, compared to the same time period the previous year.
Of course, fertility treatments, which can be expensive even with increasing health plan coverage, aren't an option for everyone — and not everyone's life has been affected by the pandemic in the same way. But some families have found that the pandemic has created a unique set of circumstances for family planning.
Dr. Robert Setton, a New York City fertility specialist for Shady Grove, pointed out that fertility treatments have been on the rise for years, but what he's seeing now feels separate from that.
"I've seen patients this week that have told me they started trying (to conceive) when they were just sitting at home during the pandemic," he said. "But, you know, things weren't working out so easily, and so now they're being evaluated for fertility. A lot of people have been thinking about their reproductive future."
While Miller is not his patient, Setton also pointed to the difficulties of a procedure such as egg freezing, which involves frequent appointments and daily hormone injections, and how going through that experience may simply be easier during a pandemic, when many people are working from the comfort of their homes and removed from social situations.
"I hear time and time again people saying, 'I’ve been thinking about doing this for years ... and now I'm doing this because I can,'" Setton said.
Doctors also wonder if there's a deeper explanation for the increased interest in reproduction — put simply, how the pandemic has caused so many to take stock of their lives and what they want out of them.
People have a lot more time to think about what's important to them, where their life is going.
Dr. Michael Alper
"I think what's happened is people have a lot more time to think about what's important to them, where their life is going," said Dr. Michael Alper, co-founder and medical director of Boston IVF, which has 25 fertility clinics nationwide, most of them in New England. "When life is tough, you begin to reevaluate your priorities. And I think having a family is one of them."
Boston IVF saw a 40% increase in general inquiries and a 30% increase in subsequent treatments during the pandemic.
As the marketing director for Boston IVF, Theo LoPreste is well aware of the trends in family planning and reproduction — but he also understands what's happening now on a personal level.
“I'm 45," he said. "My wife and I have gone through infertility treatments. We have one embryo on ice in storage and we’re looking at each other and saying, ‘Should we give it one more try?’ Things have changed."
Gabrielle Frank contributed to this report.