A pregnant pause

Poor economy puts plans to have children on hold
By Shari Rudavsky
January 11, 2009 / INDYSTAR.com

Alicia and Craig Relford had a carefully thought-out family plan.

The Zionsville couple would wait four years between pregnancies. This way, they would never have to try to put two children through college at the same time.

Last year, their daughter, Sydney, turned 4. But that family plan is on hold -- a casualty of an economy in tatters.

The Relfords are one of many couples making the same pragmatic yet heart-wrenching decision to postpone starting or adding to their families.

A sour economy also has boosted the number of women seeking free contraceptives at area health clinics, and it has meant an increase in the number of pregnant women who are considering giving up children for adoption.

In the Relfords' case, the decision to wait was made after Craig and Alicia both lost their bank jobs. He now works in sales, and she's landed a temporary job. But they're still not feeling financially at ease enough to think about adding another mouth to feed.

"(It) was our plan to try again," said Alicia, 30. "But we're just kind of waiting to see if things become more stable."

Sidelining the stork

It's too early to see these sort of personal calculations show up in national statistics, but demographers say fertility rates typically correspond with the ups and downs of the economy.

During the Great Depression, the nation's fertility rate fell to a then-record low 2.1 children in 1936, said Carl Haub, a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. A decade later, the fertility rate hit 2.9 -- the so-called baby boom -- thanks to the end of the Depression and World War II.

The current fertility rate -- the average number of children a woman would have if the birth rate during her lifetime held constant -- is once again 2.1, but demographers suspect it will fall if the financial situation worsens.

"It depends on how protracted the current crisis is and how deep it goes," Haub said. "There will be a sufficient number of couples whose confidence in their immediate economic future is not very good and who might decide to delay a birth. . . . And sometimes delayed births are births that never happen."

Michelle Grady, 28, hopes that won't be the case for her family.

She and her husband, the parents of boys ages 3 and 17 months, decided they would have a third child once they found out their second child was another boy.

But business has dried up in the past year for Jeff Grady, who works in heating and air conditioning. Some days, business is so slow, his boss tells him to stay home -- without pay. Although winters are generally slow, this year has been worse than others, Michelle said.

Hoping for better times, Jeff plans to make a career shift to air traffic control, while Michelle will continue to operate a day care in their Greenwood home.

"We have decided to put all plans on hold for basically anything that will cost any money whatsoever," said Michelle Grady, and that includes her dreams of a pink nursery. "If we had X amount of dollars in savings, we would already be pregnant again."

New trends

Doctors are starting to see evidence of the trend.

The number of deliveries at St. Vincent Women's Hospital has been flat over the past year but likely would have fallen were it not for an increase in the number of high-risk pregnancies transferred from other area hospitals.

"I think most practices have seen a slight decline," said Dr. Rick Gates, the hospital's medical director and an obstetrician-gynecologist with Northwest Ob-Gyn.

A drop in pregnancies would come as no surprise to the Indiana Family Health Council.

The council, which funds 45 clinics throughout the state that provide subsidized birth control, has seen a 15 percent increase in visits over the past year, said Gayla Winston, president of the private nonprofit.

This increase likely stems from two factors, Winston said: an increase in women seeking to prevent pregnancies, and an uptick in the number of women who have lost their insurance coverage after losing their jobs.

At Planned Parenthood, the staff does not ask women why they're seeking contraception. But the clinics are seeing greater demand for forms of birth control that cost less money upfront, President Betty Cockrum said.

"People do tend to have an understanding of the cost of rearing a child," she said. "It's certainly much more expensive than using birth control."

Local infertility doctors, however, report they have not seen a drop-off in their patient numbers. But their patients also tend to be especially committed to pursuing a family.

What these physicians are seeing, however, are families less interested in spending money on a mix of strategies and instead focusing on approaches that might cost more but have a better track record.

"We're getting more quickly to the bottom line," said Dr. John Jarrett of Carmel's Jarrett Fertility Group. "(Families are) being more judicious in how they spend their money."

Couples who visit the Midwest Fertility Group are more likely to bring up finances earlier in discussions, said Dr. Brad Bopp, a reproductive endocrinologist.

More couples also are buying an insurance plan that guarantees 70 percent of the cost back if they do not achieve a pregnancy after six months.

For others, the challenge isn't getting pregnant but how to handle an already conceived pregnancy.

The number of birth mothers who turned to the Indianapolis-based Adoption Support Center has doubled since January 2008, said Julie Craft, the agency's founder.

The increase has cut the waiting time for couples who have remained financially stable despite the downturn. Other would-be adoptive parents, however, have seen their plans disrupted by layoffs or other money woes, Craft said.

It's not clear whether the economy has had any effect on the number of woman seeking abortions, though that number has been falling both nationally and in Indiana in recent years.

Unfulfilled dreams

Times are so uncertain that even families that are financially stable are holding off.

Beth Bray, 30, and her husband David, 29, have jobs they love and had planned on starting a family.

Then the high cost of everything -- including heating their home and gasoline for their car -- combined with the expense of child care led them to decide to wait at least a year.

"We're keeping above water, but that expensive day care really scares us to death," she said. "We're putting off having kids until that's more of a reality for us."

With such an uncertain economy, Alicia Relford doesn't know whether a second child will ever become a reality for her and her husband.

She was an only child, she said, and would love for her daughter to have a younger sister.

But if the economy doesn't change soon, Relford said, that's not likely.

"We would rather have our wonderful one child and be somewhat secure and comfortable," she said, "rather than put a strain on everything."

• Call Star reporter Shari Rudavsky at (317) 444-6354.
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