Baby maybe

Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post

Economic insecurity has meant fewer kids for many

Her husband gets home close to 4 p.m., first day in 20 he has been back on the job as an electrician. He walks through the house, past the outlets with safety covers, the gated basement stairs, a bookcase bracketed to the wall - baby-proofing measures they took a few years ago in still-simmering anticipation. Their house in Fenton, Missouri is quiet. Just Rick Myrick and his wife. He kisses her hello. Then he checks to see how many hours he has worked this year: 130 in four months. Not nearly enough. Not if they hope to start a family.

Melissa Myrick, 33, thought for sure she'd be a mother by now. She could picture it: one boy, one girl, both with her blue eyes. That was the plan when she and Rick married in 2008: Get pregnant right away. But first he lost his job, then she lost hers. They decided to wait. A year later, barely back on their feet, a doctor's visit revealed that they would struggle to conceive. The best chance for Melissa and Rick to have a baby would cost at least $15,000 - money they didn't have, a financial risk they feel unable to take.

Their quandary echoes that of millions of American families in this recovery, people who have watched the economy grow and the unemployment rate fall, but who are still waiting for their outlooks to brighten. Choices large and small hang in the balance - whether to buy a house, go to college, get married. Have a baby.

"I want to get ourselves in a better situation before we start trying," Melissa says, sitting at the kitchen table. The difficult decision were made even harder by the need for expensive treatment to conceive.

They've hashed this out hundreds of times. Pledged to find a way. Mapped the options, tracked his hours. They know they can't wait much longer. But is this the right time?

"We don't want to bring children into this world if we can't provide for them," Rick says, hitting upon his fear.

For Melissa, the fear is different. It's that they will never get a chance.

The decision to have a child is not coolly rational, yet clinical calculations often play a role. Kids are expensive. Diapers. Food. Clothes. Doctor's visits. Day care. Maybe college down the road. Assuming that kind of responsibility is an act of optimism, the belief that tomorrow will be better than today.

So when the economy plunged into recession in 2008, shedding jobs and expectations, the U.S. birth rate followed, reversing an upward trend seen when times were good. And the birth rate has continued to fall, a sign of just how many Americans continue to struggle, five years after the recession officially ended.

Last year, the nation's fertility rate hit a historic low - 62.9 births per 1,000 mothers ages 15 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of that decline came from a long-term shift toward smaller families. But finances also played a pivotal role. A Gallup poll last year found that the main reason Americans were delaying parenthood was concern about money and the economy.

The languishing economy has caused people to doubt whether they can afford to be parents.

The barriers are even higher for the Myricks, among the 6 percent of U.S. married couples facing fertility problems. Living in Missouri, one of 35 states that doesn't mandate insurance coverage for infertility, they would be on the hook for related doctor's visits or drugs. They face a huge upfront price tag - a cost that can't be pushed down the road, when their economic outlook might be better. That's frustrating to them.

"Why should the economy play into my family planning?" Melissa asks.

She worries about a future that doesn't include what she always assumed would be theirs.

"What if we never have children?" she asks her husband. "What are we going to do, go on vacation all the time?"

Rick, 35, reaches his hand toward Melissa across the kitchen table.

"Oh, we'll just play a bigger role in your niece's life," he tells her.

They adore her 4-year-old niece. She stays at their house most weekends. But Melissa recently asked Rick to remove the girl's car seat from their sport-utility vehicle. She couldn't bear to glance in the rearview mirror during the week and see it empty.

Melissa and Rick, who attended high school together in the St. Louis suburbs but didn't begin dating until years later, were in no rush to get married and have children. By 2008, the Myricks felt ready. Rick was 29. Melissa was 27. They married in Las Vegas, at the top of the Stratosphere Tower, surrounded by friends and family members. It was August, one month before the financial meltdown. It didn't take even that long to hit them. The day after their wedding, Rick received a call. The small shop where he worked was closing. On their honeymoon, another call. Melissa lost her job helping a real estate appraiser.

"There was no way we could start a family," she recalls.

They decided to delay pregnancy for one year. Just one year. When the year passed, they had new jobs. A month after stopping birth control, Melissa began having severe cramps. She was diagnosed with endometriosis. Getting pregnant would take help. The next summer, she started taking Clomid, a common prescription drug that increases pregnancy odds. Nothing happened. That fall, they tried intrauterine insemination, the first of two rounds that cost $2,500 each. Melissa was certain it would work. They baby-proofed the house. She bought tiny shoes and pink onesies. Disappointment followed.

Then, in January 2013, they met with a doctor who specializes in infertility. He told them Melissa was an ideal candidate for in-vitro fertilization. IVF offered the best odds. About 1 percent of babies born in the United States are conceived this way. But the procedure requires close medical monitoring and daily injections. A single attempt can cost at least $15,000. And even then, her odds were maybe 50-50.

Rick and Melissa struggle with the idea. When they are both working full-time, they earn good money, reaching as much as $125,000 a year. Melissa has a seemingly solid job at a prison health-care company. Rick's job as a union electrician is less predictable. The couple needs to make a decision. Does it make sense to wait? Will things be better in six months or a year?

"And I watch the clock," Melissa says, knowing that most doctors believe fertility begins to decline rapidly after age 35.

Their house sits at the top of a cul-de-sac. On this day, two young boys bounce a red ball. A little girl rides her bike in the street, training wheels holding her steady. Another girl, maybe 2, stands in a neighbor's yard and points at a passing dog.

Here, then, is everything they want.

Todd C. Frankel writes Storyline features for the Washington Post, which examine how U.S. public policy affects the everyday lives of Americans.

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