ON the console stereo in Gary and Karen Mann's living room, a gold frame displays a color portrait of their dog, Rusty. ``That's our child,'' Mr. Mann says jokingly as Rusty, part retriever, part springer, settles down at the other end of the room.
The Manns, married nine years, have had ``serious talks'' about a baby for five or six years. ``But we discussed this even before we were married,'' says Mrs. Mann, a dental assistant at the University of Minnesota. ``I wasn't sure. Gary contended, `It's fine if we do, fine if we don't.'
``I don't know why it's been so hard. It has a lot of implications. It's the unexpected, the unknown. There are lots of questions nobody can answer.''
Those questions and concerns, still unresolved, take many forms.
``When our combined salaries were $30,000,'' Mr. Mann recalls, ``we said, `If we just had a little more money. . . .' When they were $40,000, we said the same thing. I suspect we would say the same at $80,000. I suspect this may be another convenient excuse.''
For Mrs. Mann, watching other mothers sometimes increases the confusion. ``I work with women juggling work and day care, and I see them uncomfortable with it,'' she says. ``I also see challenges with discipline.''
Her husband, an auditor at the university, believes differences between urban and rural settings also influence decisions about a family.
``I grew up in a little farming community,'' he says. ``The vast number of kids I grew up with graduated, came home from Vietnam, got married, and had kids. Everything there is based on little family groups. People say, `Let's get together with Betty and Bill and the kids.' It's a social structure that supports having kids. We don't have that down here [in Minneapolis]. There are so many temptations -- theater, sports, the whole cultural and social gamut.''
As he talks, the doorbell rings. It is a neighbor's preschool son who visits the couple frequently.
``Nick is the neighborhood kid,'' he explains affectionately. ``But being a pal to somebody is different from being a parent. Children need a role model.
``I don't have a problem with giving up things,'' he continues. ``I don't have a problem with financial issues. But having a child is going to force me to grow up. I have a close friend who has three kids. I can be irresponsible until the day I die. He can't.''
At the same time, he is quick to acknowledge the positive effects of watching friends raise children. ``Most of the people we know do an outstanding job as parents,'' he observes. ``That's been a real asset to us. We've had a tremendous field study here.''
For now, the Manns are philosophical. They are adding a family room and two-car garage to the house they built several years ago, and Mrs. Mann is completing her BS degree.
``When school is out of the way, maybe it will be easier,'' she says. ``Our obstacles as we see them -- the house, school, whatever -- once they are gone, maybe we can more clearly see the answer. Or maybe there will be new obstacles.''
To which her husband adds, ``In this situation, non-decision is decision. Ten years from now it's going to be academic.''