BOSTON -- Somewhere toward the end of ''The Birth Dearth,'' there is a cartoon of a woman running her hand through her hair, mournfully announcing,''I can't believe it. I forgot to have children!''
This absent-minded woman, this white, middle-class, educated American of childbearing age is the primary culprit of Ben Wattenberg's new book. She is the woman who left the six-pack of children off her life's shopping list until it was too late.
Women like her, women who have less than their share of children, are not just involved in personal dramas. They are, in his view, responsible for the impending population decline and political fall of the entire Western world.
Wattenberg is a demographer for the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and no slouch in the pop sociology division. He builds his thesis on one indisputable fact: today, with little warning, the total fertility rate of American women has dropped to 1.8, slightly below the replacement level.
This may come as a surprise to those still thinking about the baby-boom echo and population explosion. Two sorts of American birth stories usually make the news. One bemoans the fact that unprepared teen-agers are having babies, and the other details how educated, if ''forgetful,'' women are belatedly seeking babies through egg donors and surrogate mothers.
Somewhere in between is the Wattenberg proclamation: ''Let it be noted, the Birth Dearth is due to low fertility among the middle and upper middle class.''
In fairness, the author and father of four (three from his first marriage, one from his second) understands that people do not consult national fertility rates when making private decisions about children. He has a pretty accurate picture of the economic reasons we are having fewer children than before.
''The couples involved often care about whether the wife needs to work or wants to work,'' he writes, ''whether their dwelling is large enough for a child or more children, whether they will have the money to send their child or children to good schools . . . whether . . . they will be able to keep up their standard of living.'' Millions of private decisions nevertheless add up to a trend that he considers quite bleak.
Some of the items on his list of dire consequences are reasonable concerns. We may have fewer young Americans to support the social security of our elders or to consume the products of our manufacturers. Others seem a bit peculiar. Will an older and smaller population really ''become dispirited''? Is it so terrible if a shrinking pool of taxpayers can no longer ''support the defense systems which are the basis of national power and security''?
Wattenberg has written just the first salvo of concern about this un-growth and some of his freewheeling points make me more than a little wary. For one thing, he comes perilously close to suggesting that the right (i.e., the white) sort of people aren't having enough children. And he outright says that it's women who hold the fate of the Western world in their hands. Or, more precisely, in their wombs.
I hear all sorts of echoes in these messages. In the early 20th century, when American women first started on the path of higher education and lower fertility, there was a similar national concern about something called ''racial suicide.'' The concern in those days was that the Americans of Northwest European stock would be overrun by teeming masses arriving from such dubious genetic pools as Italy, Russia, Greece. Are we about to rerun this mix of subtle racism and subtler chauvinism?
Wattenberg supports all sorts of programs that I toast: day care, parental leave, flex-time, job sharing, community-minded housing. They can make it much easier for families to have both work and children, so that we don't have to choose one and ''forget'' the other. But he slips easily back into a traditional vernacular -- woman as exclusive child-raiser -- when proposing to redistribute income from those who don't have children to those women who would stay home and have more than two.
Finally, this demographer missed some powerful emotional reasons why Americans are having fewer children. It isn't just money. We see parenting as a much more complex, psychologically significant and demanding role than our grandparents did.
We are more anxious to do this job well. We are not sure if we can fairly distribute ourselves -- not just our income, but ourselves, our attention and energy -- over three, four or more children. Is there a birth dearth? The real culprit is the time dearth.