When I was young, I never dreamed about becoming a mother. I didn't fantasize about my wedding dress, choose my kids' names years before they were born, or spend time wondering how many babies I'd have or whether they'd be boys or girls.

But when I did marry and have children, those decisions were the biggest and most important of my life, and I haven't for a second regretted my choices. Being a mother has been the making of me.

In the more than 16 years since I've lived in Newport Beach, my kids have been the center of my universe, the primary force driving my social, work and travel schedules. Virtually every aspect of my life revolves around being a mother.

My closest friends are other Newport moms, with whom I've forged an unbreakable bond amid countless school projects, coffee meetings and sob sessions over the complications of raising children.

I can't imagine it any other way.

But parenthood is a path not shared by all, and according to recent reports, it's one that's increasingly avoided. The U.S. birthrate has fallen to an all-time low, despite advances in fertility treatments that have made conception possible for those who would have found it impossible a generation ago.

By 2010, about one in five American women ended their childbearing years without children, compared with one in 10 in the 1970s, according to research cited in a recent Time magazine cover story. The publication also reported that the share of women ages 40 to 44 who had never given birth rose by 80% from 1976 to 2008.

Here in Orange County, the trend is reflected in data compiled by the state Department of Finance, which found that the county's birth rate peaked in the 1990s at more than 50,000 per year before going into a gradual decline to about 38,000 births in 2011.

The Time article, "The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children," prompted a slew of commentaries and op-ed pieces. We heard from "childless by choice" defenders, critics who bemoaned the alleged destruction of the American family, essayists writing thoughtfully about lifestyle choices and environmentalists concerned about overpopulation.

I've read all these articles with interest, but the question revolving around the issue of childlessness that plagued me most was this: Have I subconsciously bought into negative stereotypes of people without kids as either sad cases with big empty holes in their lives, or egotists too selfish to take on the responsibility of parenthood?

I've examined the many ways I've likely helped perpetuate this type of soft bigotry: the fact that I find it easier to fit friends who are also parents into my life; my constant steering of conversations toward the subject of kids; and my attitude — now that I really think about it — that society somehow owes me more because I have children.

Even the basis of this weekly column is a case in point. My original idea was to address topics of interest to local families. I never stopped to think that for some, the definition of family doesn't necessarily include children.

I've also thought about the bits of prejudice that tend to sneak into our thoughts even when it comes to the number of children in a family. Parents of only-children must have had fertility issues, or started late, or — come on, admit it — been too self-centered to focus on more than one kid at once, we secretly decide.

I recall once bumping into an acquaintance, a mother with several children, at a supermarket. We shared a brief conversation about how rushed we were, which ended with her comment, "And you only have two."

She meant that I had "only" two children compared to her gazillion. I felt dissed, as if her comment implied that every additional child somehow made someone more of a mother than me. Was this a competition?

But what I've come to appreciate is that for many of us, the decision to have children or not, or how many children we ultimately have, isn't just one big decision at all. Rather, it's a series of decisions and developments, large and small, made over the course of many years.

For some, it's not necessarily a definitive choice but the result of a road not taken: the ending of a relationship that could have led to marriage, or the deferring of parenthood so long that the question becomes moot.

Careers, health issues, financial concerns and a simple lack of desire can all play a part. So many factors affect childbearing decisions that I've vowed to try to avoid the kind broad judgments and unfair stereotypes that I'm now ashamed to acknowledge have sometimes colored my views.

I think of my big sister, a cancer survivor who was unable to have biological children, a fact that initially caused her some sadness. But Sis isn't one to dwell on what-ifs. She quickly put it behind her and focused on possibilities that remained, building a highly successful, meaningful life with her husband, doted-upon dogs and thriving business.

And she's one of the happiest women I know.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.