Boston — For a college professor who chooses her words carefully, Suzanne Berger becomes almost effusive when she talks about the surprises that come with being a new parent:
''It's astonishing! There's really no preparing yourself for the arrival of another person in your life. I mean, Daniel is a remarkably affable, agreeable, and sociable baby, but he's also a person in his own right. It's just extraordinary!''
We're sitting in Professor Berger's office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she's been teaching political science since 1968. The phone rings constantly, stacks of student papers threaten to engulf her desk, and she gets up occasionally to shake Max, the English sheep dog that lies sprawled at our feet, out of a deep, snoring sleep.
While Max sleeps the day away in the office, Professor Berger's son, Daniel, is napping at home with a babysitter. More than half of the women in the US are part of today's paid work force. And almost half of these 46 million working women, like Suzanne Berger, are mothers of pre-school children.
There's another statistic that Professor Berger figures in, as well. Like an increasing number of women, she became a first-time mother at what is considered a late age. She gave birth to Daniel a year ago, when she was almost 42.
A report due to be published by the National Center for Health Statistics in May, ''Trends in First Births to Older Mothers 1970-1979,'' cites a significant increase in first births for older women at the same time that first births for younger women have declined.
In 1970 there was a rate of 7.3 first births per thousand for women aged 30- 34, and in 1979 that figure had climbed to 12.1, an increase of 66 percent. During the same time, the rate of first births for women aged 20-24 dropped from 78.2 per thousand in 1970 to 56.4 per thousand in 1979, a decline of nearly 28 percent.
However, Stephanie Ventura, author of the NCHS report, says that the median age for first births has increased only slightly in the past decade, from 22.1 in 1970, to 23.0 in 1979, since the total number of first births by older women still are a small fraction of the overall total of first births.
Suzanne Berger and her husband, Kenneth Keniston, family researcher and author of ''All Our Children: the American Family Under Pressure,'' were married when she was 37 and he was 47. Both are full professors at MIT, and both have arrived at points in their lives where, she says, they have no ambitions for further professional advancement.
Whether to have a child was something they talked over for a year or two after their marriage. Dr. Keniston had two grown daughters by a previous marriage and realized that a new baby would mean that he would probably spend the rest of his life as an active father. With two good salaries, however, they both knew they could afford the best child care. Their financial security, says Professor Berger, was an important factor in their decision to start a family.
When Professor Berger became pregnant, her husband, who hadn't had the option of being at his daughters' births, was eager to sign up for a childbirth class. ''We were virtually the grandparents in the class,'' she recalls with great affection, ''but it was a wonderful experience.
''Now the problem is not who's forced to spend too much time with Daniel,'' she continues. ''It's that we both wish we had more time with him. We were so happy about having this child, he has been such a source of joy, that how things are shared has not become an issue.''
Two issues appear to be getting the most attention from today's family researchers: ''mid-life'' parents and the growing involvement of fathers in childrearing. Time magazine proclaims a ''Baby Bloom'' with celebrities in their 30s and 40s blossoming forth in chic designer maternity outfits. ''Mommy's 39, Daddy's 57 -- And Baby Was Just Born'' touts New York magazine, as two models on the cover strike a familial pose with their agency baby and her rented antique quilt and bassinet.
In local newspapers across the US, however, many parents are objecting to these media images. ''(The media have) managed to take one of the most profound human endeavors -- whether it happens at 20, 30, or 40, whether you have a career or you don't -- and reduce it to a trendy consumer opportunity, an exercise in solipsism,'' writes one working mother in the Boston Globe. ''. . . There is no sense of the magic, the awe, the responsibility. There is no hint of the illuminating discovery of what it is to love a little person unconditionally . . .'' A study on the timing of parenthood
''Enthrallment'' is the word Pamela Daniels uses to describe the feelings of the older first-time parents she has interviewed. ''The experience of parenthood of people who had their first child in their early 40s had a quality of bliss to it,'' she says. ''There was an undiluted joy that we didn't usually find in parents who'd had children earlier.''
A developmental psychologist who is dean of the freshman class at Wellesley College and the mother of two teen-age sons, Pamela Daniels is co-author with Kathy Weingarten of a recent book on parenthood that's getting high marks from many experts in that field. ''Sooner or Later: The Timing of Parenthood in Adult Lives'' (New York: W. W. Norton) is based on interviews with 72 couples who had their first children in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. It is one of the first comprehensive studies of what are termed ''late-timing'' parents, and it explores what difference it makes when married couples become parents.
Professor Daniels says that the women who surprised her the most were those who had postponed children until their late 30s or early 40s because of careers or other, involuntary, reasons.
''It was the women who were perfectionists in their own lives, who planned their children with a lot of careful, serious, collaborative thinking with their husbands, who found themselves shocked with parenthood,'' she says. ''(In their planning) they had left out the one thing which you can't include until you're on the spot -- the possibility of falling in love with the baby, the pull and power of the tininess of an infant, its total dependence, its delicacy. They found that their priorities -- whether they had careers in journalism or law or psychology -- didn't lose their meaning, but were shifted.''
What's happening in the 1980s, says Daniels, is a trend towards parenthood at any age. The purpose of ''Sooner or Later,'' she adds, is not to advocate either early or late parenthood, but to create ''a possibility and permission'' for a range of timing.
''We're talking about parents with career commitments who want to put their adult lives together in such a way that will make it more likely, rather than less likely, that they can have rich experiences in both the family sphere and the career sphere,'' she says. Many older couples are also free from the worries of finances and career changes that younger couples might face. ''And we're also talking about people in their 20s who may want to think twice about not postponing . . . because there is evidence that shows that becoming a parent at a young age can give you time to think things through and pull together your identity in a way that college or graduate school may not.''
In addition to findings about the satisfaction of parenthood later in life, Daniels says she and Dr. Weingarten were frequently moved by the eloquence of the fathers they talked with. ''Social scientists and journalists are just beginning to give men a chance to talk about their feelings,'' she notes. ''There's a story that needs to be written that describes what it is that is so compelling about what people have always called 'maternal instinct.' Because it's not just maternal. Fathers get it, too, when they become involved with a baby from the beginning.'' Father leads the way in caring for newborn
One new father describes it in a single word: ''Whew!''
''It wasn't until I drove home from the hospital the night Brian was born and was sitting alone on the couch in the dark that it finally hit me,'' says Don Anderson. ''I thought, 'You've got a little boy.' Then I thought, 'Whew!' ''
Don tips back and forth in his rocking chair beside a glowing wood stove, his lap full of two purring Siamese cats. Across the living room, his wife, Kay Hudock, is holding 14-month-old Brian, who's snoring soundly in a fire engine-red sleeper.
''When I went back to the hospital the following day, the nurse wheeled Brian into Kay's room and said, 'Here, diaper him,' '' Don continues. ''By the end of the week, I'd done it so often and held him so much that it was beginning to feel pretty natural. As a matter of fact, when Kay finally got home, I had to show her how to do it.''
Kay and Don had been married three years when Brian arrived. Kay was 31, had a master's degree in business management and a job she liked at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. Don, 33, with a doctorate in biology, was working as a researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Kay and Don wanted to continue with their careers but still spend as much time as possible with their new son.
After staying home with Brian for several months, Kay arranged for child care at home and returned to her job. She works four days in the office and one at home. As a result of her individualized schedule, a committee at the college is studying flexible working hours options that might be available to others. Established careers allow flexibility in work schedules
Don also tries to work at home on a fairly regular basis, usually one day every other week, answering letters and balancing accounts. Being well established in his career gives him a certain amount of flexibility in his working schedule. For example, he was able to negotiate a week of ''emergency leave'' when Brian was born, even though paternity leave as such wasn't available. And he now says he would ''bend over backwards'' to make that option available to any of his research assistants who request it in the future: ''You have to be a father to appreciate that time and be willing to support it for someone else.''
Don and Kay have converted their dining room into a play area, and on his day home, Don may work on the couch while Brian enjoys his toys on the floor. ''Brian will play by himself for a while, then notice me using my calculator and want to help push buttons. He loves it when I play the guitar, and we roughhouse a lot, too, so he'll be ready for his naps.''
Taking Brian for walks outside is more difficult for Don, however. ''I'm still a little inhibited about taking him out in the stroller,'' he says. ''I know it's not rational, but I always have the feeling the neighbors will think I'm unemployed.''
Mike Clary of Miami, Fla., had some of the same feelings when he took two full years off from his work as a newspaper reporter to stay home and raise his infant daughter, Annie, while his wife Lillian pursued her career. ''Sometimes I would get depressed or put down by the boredom and the hard work, and then I would resort to thinking that I was a bold pioneer of some sort,'' Mike recalls in a phone interview. ''Of course, nobody was paying any attention to me, but it was helpful to fall back on that traditional male idea of being daring.''
His years at home with Annie are recorded in his just published book, ''Daddy's Home'' (New York: Seaview). In it he writes with humor about changing diapers, making cornbread for lunch, playing basketball with the guys, and trying to crash the local mothers' morning kaffeeklatsch. There are exasperating times and there also are the moments that make it all worthwhile: he is there when Annie discovers her big toe, when she eats her first solid food, when she turns over for the first time in her crib. Mostly, he discovers through Annie that he is capable of loving beyond all bounds he'd ever thought possible. Some men would like to be at home with children
Although ''Daddy's Home'' has just arrived in most book stores, Mike says he's getting a lot of response from fellow reporters at the Miami Herald, where he now works. ''Many men come up to me and say they'd love to stay home with their kids, but their wives can't make as much money as they can, or they don't have as much experience with babies as their wives do,'' he says. ''But as more and more women move into the marketplace, and as women gain economic parity with men, that first excuse won't hold up. As for the second excuse, Lillian and I have proved that there's no such thing as men's work and women's work. You get the experience as you go along.''
Mike says many fathers are beginning to realize that by spending all their working years in an office, they're missing out on another half of life at home. ''As someone who's done both, I value the home part of my life much more than I do my professional career,'' he says. In fact, he and his wife plan to switch roles again soon. She'll go back to the work force, and he'll stay home to raise their second child, son Joey, now six months old.
Although Mike's experience is unusual, a growing number of researchers agree that the 1980s will be the decade of fatherhood. At Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women, the staff of the ''Fatherhood Project'' is looking at changes in employment, law, health, education, and social services which will enable men to become more directly involved in childrearing. Results of the study will be published in two books due out in 1984, ''Fatherhood U.S.A.'' and ''The Future of Fatherhood.''
Says project director Joseph Pleck, ''The difficulty is that while everyone agrees that fatherhood is a good thing and that fathers should have the option to stay home if they want to help with childrearing, people also tend to think that men's primary responsibility is breadwinning.
''What we'd like to see happen are institutional changes that would make it possible for active fatherhood to be an area of choice for men, because individuality and diversity in people is worth supporting. Probably many men wouldn't want to be that involved, but there are also many fathers who would be more involved if society made it possible.''