My Pregnancy Choices and the Economist Inside My Head

From the Editors: This essay was submitted by Hillary Sackett-Brian. Continue the conversation with Hillary in the comments.

I recently read an article in The Atlantic titled, “Thinking About Pregnancy Like an Economist” and it reminded me how much my own economic brain has weighed in on my decision whether or not to have children.

As a child I played “house” with my friends and younger sisters, imagining the wonderful husband and cherub-faced babies I had in my future. Even as a teenager, those who knew me wouldn’t have predicted that I would stray far from that path.

My journey took a sharp turn in college, when I came out as a lesbian the summer after my freshman year. My mother insisted it was just a phase. I vehemently denied it, but secretly felt a sense of loss, wondering if this meant I was giving up the fantasy life I had dreamed of as a child. I worried my new identity would prevent me from becoming the wife and mother I always thought I’d be.

I grew to know myself better over the next four years, as many do during college. I moved to the Midwest for graduate school and started dating a straight cis-gendered male, as if confirming for my mother that my foray into lesbianism was indeed just a phase. He had no interest in having children. He was a proud member of what I soon learned to be called the “zero population growth movement” (ZPG) and I, too, now in love, was soon convinced of its principles. According to those in the movement, a demographic balance where the population neither grows nor declines is an ideal to which the whole world should aspire in the interest of pursuing long-term environmental sustainability. (American sociologist and demographer Kingsley Davis is credited with coining the term).

I was in the thick of my Ph.D. program in resource economics, and I endeavored to apply what I was learning to my real life. The overarching goal of resource economists is to better understand the role of natural resources in the economy in order to develop methods of managing those resources to ensure their availability to future generations. So, naturally, the zero population growth movement intrigued me.

Essentially, followers of ZPG recognize three ways to achieve this goal:

  • voluntarily limit births
  • enlist coercive family planning policies (many will cite China’s “one child policy”)
  • do nothing and let nature limit population growth through famine, disease, and war

Sounds scary right? So, I thought I should “do the right thing” and voluntarily have no children. After all, I was born into a situation of privilege – unlike many women without the financial, physical, or political means to access contraception and other family planning services. They would not be able to make this voluntary choice, so it was my responsibility to share the burden.

I carried the torch of the ZPG movement even when that relationship ended.

In Spring of 2011 I met the woman who would become my wife. She had dreamed of having children her whole life and told me many times over the first year of our relationship what an amazing mother she thought I would be. But I continued to beat the drum of ZPG, now adding even more economic flair to the narrative.

In a lesbian relationship conceiving a baby is no small expense. The methods available can cost anywhere from hundreds, to tens of thousands of dollars each try. I posed this to my partner, “Think about all the things we could do with that money instead.” We could save, travel more, invest in our hobbies, live for ourselves and be perfectly happy. Or so 25-year-old me thought.

After a couple years, I had convinced my wife of the storyline, and she no longer pushed the baby plan. Then, in 2014 everyone I knew (or at least it seemed) started having babies. It wasn’t until my younger sister gave birth to my nephew that year that it really hit me. “I want this”. But now it was me who had to convince my wife that having a baby was a good idea. I was flip-flopping and she wondered why. Except this time I didn’t have any economic storyline to provide. I could no longer employ cost-benefit analysis as to why we SHOULD have a baby, it was just a FEELING.

Ugh, feelings. I was confused and conflicted with these things I hadn’t felt since childhood. I even felt guilty for wanting something that I knew I couldn’t reason through. When I try to explain WHY I want to have a child, all the reasons sound narcissistic at best. But, here we are…(maybe?) back on the baby plan. And boy, does it involve a great deal of planning.

Every day I tell my students that every decision involves costs and benefits, and only by carefully and intentionally weighing those costs and benefits can we hope to make good decisions. I do think that approaching my pregnancy planning with an economic eye will help me, but I think there may be more wiggle room than I was previously willing to admit. But one thing that I can agree with in The Atlantic article is this: “It became clear quickly that I’d have to come up with my own framework–to structure the decisions on my own.” So here I am, with economic tool box in hand, accepting that as methodical as I may plan to be, sometimes I might just have to wing it.

Hillary Sackett  headshotHillary Sackett-Brian is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Westfield State University where she teaches Environmental and Natural Resource Economics among other courses. She lives in Brattleboro, VT with her wife Rachel, three dogs (Gunner, Duke, and Raisin) and two cats (Grover and Gatsby). In her spare time she enjoys trail running, garage-saling, and coffee drinking. Follow her on Twitter @HillarySackett.

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