Jamie Hammell always assumed she would just wake up one day and want kids.

That's normal, right? she thought. After all, doesn't every woman want kids?

"But as I got older, I started to think, 'Wait a minute, when is this supposed to happen?'" she said.

Hammell, 30, a human resources manager for a local retail chain who loves to travel in her free time, isn't ready for a child in her life anyway -- she's not married, or in a serious relationship. But as time has gone by, she's realized that even when those things come, she's just not sure she wants children.

She's not alone. More than ever before, women are deciding to forgo childbearing in favor of other life-fulfilling experiences, a trend that has been steadily on the rise for decades. Census data says that nationally, the number of women 40 to 44 who did not have children jumped 10 percentage points from 1983 to 2006.

In the Twin Cities, a one-year-old Childfree by Choice group's numbers are growing weekly. On Meetup.com, the site through which it is organized, other such groups are cropping up nationwide, with such names as No Kidding and Not a Mom.

"There's definitely a group of people weighing costs and benefits of having kids that would conflict with the way of life they've made for themselves," said University of Minnesota sociologist Ross Macmillan, who is studying global fertility trends.

The number of children born is dropping "like a stone in pretty much every country we can find," he said, and the United States has seen a 50-year rise in the number of childless women.

"The more women's lives in their late 20s and early 30s are filled up with other stuff, then, yeah, you are going to get a growing group that decide not to have kids at all," he said. "It's just not what's on their minds."

For some women, that "stuff" isn't the traditional house in the 'burbs with two kids and a dog. It's their high-powered careers, ambitious travel plans or static lifestyles that aren't very kid-friendly. And the cost alone -- studies say about $250,000 to raise a child to 17-- is daunting for many, particularly when the economy is in the tank.

Other women are just putting that lifestyle on hold for awhile. Some researchers say the statistics are skewed by the fact that more women are having children much later in life, due to young-life commitments and furthered by advancements in fertility medicine.

State Demographic Center research analyst Martha McMurry points out that the number of childless women is rising in Minnesota, although more modestly than across the country. The biggest drop in births is with women in their 20s, while the number of women having children in their 30s and 40s is actually rising, she said.

The mommy track

It has long been established that women can "have it all," balancing work and families, while maintaining the habits they love. But that has its own set of challenges.

"Actually, while it is true that women can have it all, it is also true that women who have children suffer from some penalties in the workplace," said University of Minnesota associate professor Ann Meier.

She was referencing Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll's research that shows that mothers looking for work are less likely to be hired, are offered lower pay (5 percent less per child) and that the pay gap between mothers and childless women under 35 is actually bigger than the pay gap between women and men.

Add to that the cost of raising a child. For some, it's just too much.

"Do people even think about that when they have babies?" said Hammell, pondering the costs of just two children. "When are you going to make a half a million dollars?"

No room for baby

Renee Gartner, 31, a caregiver for the elderly, said she likes her free time and doing what she wants when she wants to do it. "I often tell people I'm selfish, and I'm OK with that," said Gartner, whose 80-pair shoe collection takes up the other bedroom in her apartment. "I'd have to seriously downsize" if she had children, she admitted.

Aleja Santos, 44, a medical ethics researcher who started the Twin Cities Childfree by Choice group a year ago (greeting members on the site with "Welcome, fellow non-breeders!"), said she never wanted to have kids. "There were always other things I wanted to do."

In that sentiment, she's found an eager community of men and women. The group, now at 73 members, gains almost one a week, Santos said.

For some, the idea that women would intentionally pass up their chance at childbearing is downright strange.

"I think that humans crave intimacy; we want to love and be loved," said Margaret Burns, a mother of six whose blog, Minnesota Mom, details the lives of her homeschooled children. "If you don't have that spouse to share the love or the children to love and be loved by, otherwise you need to find that intimacy."

Even some of the women who have chosen not to procreate don't deny the "natural" pulls.

"I see [children], and it's like I'm kind of drawn to them in a strange way that I just didn't before," said Hammell. "I think it's my hormones, I really do.

"But I think that if all of a sudden you're 35 and you wake up and want a child and your whole life you haven't wanted one, you should think very carefully about what it is that is driving that."

Amelia Rayno • 612-673-4115