Erin Fox is a practical, rational person who once made a practical, rational decision with her practical, rational husband, Ed.
They would not have children.
Erin didn't want them. Ed was on the fence but went with it.
Each was pursuing a law career. Both liked order and clean floors, neither of which is compatible with children, who, in the course of human history, have been known to be illogical beings who will spill — nay, throw — milk.
Erin and Ed told their families and friends and made peace with society's expectations that they go forth and multiply. They joined the ranks of the young and fertile who are increasingly deciding not to have children, causing America's birthrate to fall.
But then, one morning, Erin sat up in bed. She felt funky. Her body was somehow different. She was either dying of some terrible disease, or …
She was pregnant.
When you think about it, becoming a parent isn't really a rational choice.
Children are expensive — $241,080 for the first 18 years, according to a 2012 federal government measure. Children are time-consuming, according to my own personal measure as the mother of three.
Children — for women, especially — erode your earnings potential. They clutter your home, kill your romance and, stunningly, prefer bad frozen pizza to anything with fresh summer tomatoes. They send you running to the bathroom — the only room in your house with a door that locks.
More than the money, the time, the waistline, the house, the books you're not reading, the trips you're not taking is this: Children steal your heart. Like the ancient Aztecs, they rip it out of your body and hold it aloft as you lie there powerless and strangely grateful. Their breathing is your breathing. Their pain is your pain. Their joy is your joy. Their very life is your life.
It is love, and there is nothing remotely rational about it. Love goes against your self-interest.
So does parenthood. The sacrifice it demands, especially for young Americans with lives and ambitions and crushing college debt, is arguably impractical. It's why a lot of people put it off.
And at last count, almost a fifth of U.S. women have decided to forgo children altogether, nearly double the portion from 1976 — a time when the Pill and Roe v. Wade and lots of ways of stopping biology already existed.
Going “child-free” — a term I'll use because it connotes choice, which “childless” does not — may be more socially acceptable today. But that does not mean the choice escapes judgment, a hectoring relative, a well-meaning friend or the first-day-of-school pictures posted ad nauseam on Facebook.
Last Sunday, World-Herald columnist Matthew Hansen explored the child-free case. This week I explore why — in light of all the reasons people give for not having children — the species continues.
Certainly, the numbers are still with procreators, especially in Nebraska.
True, the birthrate is falling here as it is in the U.S. But four out of five women nationally have given birth by their mid-40s, according to census data. And the birthrate is even higher in Nebraska (one of the most baby-having states in the country, coming in fifth between 2007 and 2011, behind Utah, Idaho, Alaska and Texas).
This is true for Nebraska women regardless of race, income and other measures.
So now I know it wasn't merely perception — it was reality — that when we were trying to have children, it seemed like every woman I saw at the grocery store was pregnant.
So what compels the human race forward?
The question somewhat baffles me.
I knew child-free was on the menu. It was just never on mine.
Oh, I understood childless. Multiple miscarriages, the indignities of infertility treatment, the interminable wait of adoption all hammer that home. My husband and I were child-free, then childless, then child-full. But during that tough journey, we never considered stopping.
Was it biology, a reptilian impulse to keep the species going? Was it a Catholic culture with big families all around?
Or was it genes? One of my grandmothers had 12 children despite bouts of tuberculosis. My other grandmother ignored her doctor and her priest after the birth of her third child left a warning to stop. She went on to have two more children. Her doctor said he'd refuse to deliver another. Her priest, bowing to Mother Church, suggested separate bedrooms. An emergency hysterectomy finally settled it.
Then there's my mother, for whom the pull was so strong, she left the convent after six years as a Mercy sister. She hoped to marry and produce, but her first marriage ended suddenly when her husband died of cancer three months and one day after their wedding. Eventually she met my dad. They had the five of us. And the refrain she repeated at home was this: I'd do it all again, exactly the same, to have you kids.
So maybe, like the rest of the lemmings, I was by nature and nurture programmed to step into the parenthood line.
Katie Kueny, director of behavioral medicine in the general internal medicine division at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said choosing parenthood, or not choosing it, can't be neatly explained.
“I'm not going to give you a cut-and-dried answer,” said Kueny, also a licensed family therapist.
“For a lot of people, it's that social pressure, then their desire once they turn a certain age,” she said. “For other people, it's a rational choice to pass down their genes. They want to have a legacy, they actually want to raise a child.”
Regardless, she said, if your heart's not in it, it's probably best you not get in it.
Mary Kelly, a stay-at-home mother in the Memorial Park area, played with dolls as a child, mother-henned her two younger sisters and worshipped the stay-at-home mothers in her neighborhood. One always was baking. One always dressed as a witch on Halloween.
“I always wanted to be (them),” she said. “Not that it was all glitter and rainbows. They made the bacon for breakfast, and the kids had their school lunches and their permission slips …”
Mary, 45, got her wish. She's the mother of five.
Ann Marie Bausch, 40, choked up several times on the phone in the Regency doctor's office where she works.
“Sorry for being emotional,” said Ann Marie, who described herself as “mostly a mom and kind of a pediatrician, too.”
“I'm never going to make a medical discovery,” she said about her one-day-a-week gig as a doctor. “But the choices I've made are happy for me and my family.”
To continue on with infertility treatment, as Kristyl Torres did, even though it tore her up emotionally.
“Toward the end of the cycle, you're stressed out every time you go to the bathroom,” said Torres, a 30-year-old former Montessori teacher in Gretna. “Then you get your period and it feels like the end of the world again.”
We're interrupted by a baby crying. It's Isaiah, her son.
“He turned 2 months old yesterday,” she said.
It never occurred to west Omahan Chris McGill that he wouldn't be a father. The 41-year-old is a stay-at-home dad to four. On a recent 10-year anniversary getaway to Kansas City with wife Beth Ascher, the two found they missed the kids.
“Every parent out there, whether you have one kid or nine, your world revolves around your kids,” he said. “I don't feel like we've lost ourselves and our identity because of that.”
Plattsmouth number cruncher Kristi Shotkoski, 48, said that the premature birth of son Cole, who spent his first 40-some days in the hospital, would mean the end of the line. She and husband Larry went to China for their second child, a beautiful daughter named Kaia.
“I guess I never considered not having kids,” Kristi said.
Katherine Dyche never considered giving birth, which is a bit ironic since her old job involved the artificial aspects of getting zoo animals pregnant.
She and husband Greg adopted five children through foster care and will add a sixth if the State of Nebraska gives its OK.
“I always saw kids in my story,” she said. “Someone who's having a child in the natural way, they haven't met their child before giving birth. They already love this child. It's the same thing for me in adoption. I love this child, the child I haven't met.”
Let's return to Erin Fox, the rational attorney who rationally decided against children and was in the bathroom looking at what was a pretty definite line on a pregnancy test.
She and Ed went straight to Google. They did a little math and figured that Erin was poppy-seed pregnant. The baby they never planned was the size of a poppy seed. They started calling this mass of cells “Poppy,” until they saw a penis on an ultrasound. Then they called “Poppy” a name they had irrationally picked out long ago, even when they knew they were not having children: Truman.
Truman is now 3, approaching 4, with blond curls.
Truman was “a good accident.”
“I always joke that even the most happy accident can overcome overly analytical people,” she said. “Our life is so good now. And Truman is such a joy. And we would never have had that. Because we had just basically ruled it out.”
Erin says some of her assumptions about parenthood, about herself, were wrong. But she's no parenthood proselytizer. She's not out to convert the child-free. In fact, she's on their side. She thinks no one should tell them how to live their lives.
“I don't think there's anything wrong with completely ruling out having children at all. It's a completely rational decision fighting against biological imperative and societal norm,” Erin said. “It's a valid decision, and I made it. But it didn't turn out that way.
“And I'm glad for me.”
I'm also glad for my husband and me.
Because we'd do it all over, exactly the same, for our three.