Melissa Myrick is photographed at her home in Fenton, Mo., on July 11, 2014. The Myrick couple’s dream for having a baby is being deferred by the economy, first by their loss of jobs and later, the high cost of in-vitro fertilization, their only chance of conceiving. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

FENTON, Mo. — Her husband gets home close to 4 p.m., first day in 20 he’s 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 — babyproofing measures they took a few years ago in still-simmering anticipation. The house is quiet. Just Rick Myrick and his wife. He kisses her hello. Then he checks to see how many hours he’s worked this year: 130 in four months. Not nearly enough. Not if they ever hope to start a family.

Melissa Myrick is 33, blonde and quick to smile. She thought for sure she’d be a mother by now. She could picture it: One boy, one girl, both with her bright 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 they’d struggle to conceive. The best shot for Melissa and Rick to have a baby would cost at least $15,000 – money they didn’t have, a financial risk they still feel unable to take.

Their dilemma 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 own outlook 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 now, sitting at the kitchen table. And the already difficult economics of the decision are made even harder by the discovery that they will need 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 the chance.

***

The decision to have a child is not coolly rational, yet clinical calculations often play a role. Kids are expensive. Diapers. Doctor’s visits. Childcare. Food. Clothes. 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 the 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 in this recovery, five years after the recession ended officially.

Last year, the nation’s fertility rate hit a historic low — 62.9 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some of that decline comes from a long-term shift toward smaller families. But finances also play a pivotal role. A Gallup poll last year found the main reason Americans were delaying parenthood was worries about money and the economy — even as the stock market rallied and broad indicators pointed to a brighter future, highlighting a disconnect felt by many Americans. A report by Pew Research Center showed birth rates in many states rise and fall in tune with personal income.

Births have slowed so sharply that researchers note that future economic growth could be stunted by a smaller labor pool. Immigration is often seen as a fix. But the downturn crimped supply lines for both babies and new foreign faces. The change was so dramatic that the Census Bureau in 2012 was forced to revise the 2050 U.S. population projection it made just four years earlier, dropping it by 9 percent, to just under 400 million.

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

The barriers are even higher for Melissa and Rick, among the 6 percent of U.S. married couples facing infertility. Living in Missouri, one of 35 states that doesn’t mandate insurance coverage for infertility, they are 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 brighter. That’s frustrating to them.

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

***


Melissa Myrick, left, watches as her niece, four-and-a-half-year-old Ariana Ashbrook, and husband Rick Myrick kick around a ball in their backyard at home in Fenton, Mo., on July 11, 2014. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

She skips baby showers now. Just hearing that someone is expecting overwhelms. Once, a friend surprised her with black-and-white ultrasound photos (“I’m pregnant!”), and Melissa stood there with a tight smile, afraid that uttering a single word would end in tears. She hated that she felt this way. It cost her friends who didn’t know how to react. But her battle brought her closer to others, too, like the one woman who spent hours looking up advice on how to share pregnancy news with someone struggling to have a child. When she finally called Melissa to deliver the news, she was the one crying.

The support helps. But Melissa still worries about a future that doesn’t include what she always assumed would be theirs.

“What if we never have children?” Melissa asks her husband as they sit at the kitchen table. “What are we going to do, go on vacation all the time?”

The recession does appear to have changed who is having IVF: The number of cycles for women under 35 has fallen or flatlined since 2008, a possible indication that younger women are delaying treatment.

Rick, 35, his short-cropped hair going gray, wants children, too. But he thinks it’s out of their hands. He doesn’t see it as some cosmic judgement against them. “It’s not like we’re doing wrong,” he would later explain, “or we’re bad people or we shouldn’t be parents, you know?”

He reaches his hand toward Melissa across the table.

“Oh, we’ll just play a bigger role in your niece’s life,” Rick tells her.

They adore her 4½-year-old niece. She stays at their house most weekends. But Melissa recently asked Rick to remove the girl’s child seat from the SUV. She couldn’t bear glancing in the rearview mirror and seeing it empty during the week.

Melissa and Rick, who went to high school together in the St. Louis suburbs but didn’t start dating until later, were in no rush to get married and have children. They wanted to be prepared. Both of their parents divorced when they were young. Money was tight in both households growing up. Rick recalled how his mom tried supporting him and his sister on her overnight nursing shifts. It wasn’t always enough. Sometimes they relied on public assistance. He didn’t want that for his children.

By 2008, they felt ready. He was 29. She was 27. They got married in Las Vegas, at the top of the Stratosphere Tower, surrounded by friends and family. It was August 2008, one month before the financial meltdown. It didn’t take even that long to hit them. The day after they married, Rick got 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 hold off on getting pregnant for one year. Just one year. By then, they had new jobs. A month after stopping birth control, Melissa started having severe cramps. She was diagnosed with endometriosis. Getting pregnant would take help. The next summer, she started on Clomid, a common prescription for boosting pregnancy odds. Nothing happened. That fall, they tried interuterine insemination, the first of two rounds, $2,500 a pop. Melissa was certain it would work. They babyproofed the house. She bought tiny shoes and pink onesies. Disappointment followed.

Exhausted by the doctor’s visits, they kept trying on their own. Melissa downed vitamin concoctions. She visited an acupuncturist. She kept believing. She stocked up on home pregnancy tests. Her friends bought her even more.

“It’s just a vicious cycle every single month,” she says.

Then, in January 2013, they met with a doctor specializing 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 U.S. are conceived this way. But the procedure requires close medical monitoring and daily injections. A single attempt costs at least $15,000. And even then her odds were maybe 50-50.

Despite the recession, the overall number of IVF cycles in the U.S. has grown steadily for more than a decade, even though the annual growth rate briefly stalled out in 2009, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. But the recession does appear to have changed who is having IVF: The number of cycles for women under 35 has fallen or flatlined since 2008, a possible indication that younger women are delaying treatment. “Older women don’t have the luxury of waiting until the recession ends,” said Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.

Rick asked around work about IVF and learned a co-worker had twins that way. He told Rick that he’d opted for a shared risk program, one of several creative financing options, which charges a flat rate for multiple IVF cycles, until a baby is born. It cost him $30,000.

“Just think about it like buying a car,” Rick was told. “Just do the financing.”

But 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. Two years ago, he struggled for hours. Last year, he logged more hours and his paycheck grew. This year has been the worst since he started out in the trade 16 years ago. Now, they risk losing their health insurance if his hours don’t pick up.

“If we could stay consistent and know he’s not going to be off work, we could do it,” Melissa says. “It’s just that as soon as we start thinking about it, it goes straight back down.”

***


Melissa Myrick and her husband with four-and-a-half-year-old Ariana Ashbrook wave goodbye to Melissa’s parents at their home in Fenton, Mo. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

They need 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 a hasty decline after age 35. Any delay will not improve her odds of getting pregnant.

But Rick is unsure about work. Summer, especially, should be a busy time. Construction work seems slow, but his boss said he expects it to pick up. The schools that sustained the electrical crews last year with jobs running telecom cables have cut back. Rick hopes he doesn’t get laid off and fall to the back of the union’s rehire list. With hundreds of names in front of his, he could be out of work for years. “I’d probably have to find another career,” he says.

Other expenses pop up. His truck needs new tires. The cats need surgery. The washing machine breaks. Every time they build up a little savings, something seems to happen. The sliding glass doors in the kitchen open to a steep drop into the backyard — for years, they’ve put off building a deck.

Melissa worries about finally taking what feels like their last shot at having children. She can close her eyes and imagine her perfect blue-eyed boy and girl. But she can’t bear to imagine if the plan doesn’t work.

Just calling the IVF doctor and setting up an appointment feels like a huge step, no matter the price tag.

“I probably should make it,” Melissa says now. Maybe soon. Maybe later this summer. Maybe by then their future will seem more certain.

Later that night, they leave their quiet home and hop in the truck to run errands. It’d been a good day. Rick is back to work. For now. Melissa has a plan. For now.

Their house sits at the top of a cul-de-sac, where 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 is a reporter covering people and policy. You can follow him on Twitter: @tcfrankel.