Warsaw — Agata is worried. She finished high school last year and is not yet married with a baby. ``Many of my high school friends were pregnant at graduation,'' she explains. ``The marriages started at age 18. I'm now 20.''
Almost alone among industrialized countries, Poland is experiencing a baby boom. Elsewhere in Europe, and in North America, demographers say, birthrates have tumbled over the past two decades as urbanization, modernization, and women's liberation altered family patterns.
But in Poland, even though the birthrate is down somewhat, population has grown over the past decade by an average of a percentage point each year, raising the country's numbers to nearly 38 million.
``Children are this society's holy cows,'' says Mikolaj Kozakiewicz, president of the Polish Family Development Association. ``We have Europe's youngest population.''
The baby boom started right after World War II. More than 6 million Poles lost their lives during the war. Afterward, Mr. Kozakiewicz says, ``a psychological, nationalistic feeling overcame the country, and people replaced the losses.'' Many other countries, including the United States, experienced a similar boom, but the phenomenon was more pronounced and lasting in Poland.
A strong Roman Catholic heritage and the pro-birth stance of its communist government help explain why, say Kozakiewicz and other experts. The church promotes large families and opposes birth control and abortion, and until recently, the Communist Party believed that more births represented a sign of national virility.
Traditionally, birthrates fall as farm populations go to work in city factories. But unlike most urban factory workers, Polish workers continue to have a high birthrate. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, the son of a peasant and an electrician in the Gdansk Lenin Shipyard, exemplifies this phenomenon. He and his wife, Danuta, have eight children.
Politics, in fact, reinforced this tendency toward large families. Western demographers believe that Poland's political impasse after martial law was declared in 1982 produced a deep shift in attitudes. The birthrate has soared since then to a postwar high.
``People retreated into their families,'' explains Gerard Callou, director of France's National Institute of Demographic Studies. ``They no longer found any outlets for public expression.''
Agata and her friends illustrate these sentiments. They describe themselves as apolitical. If they have any strong public feelings, they are directed toward the church. They are pessimistic about their professional futures, even if, like Agata, they exhibit talent, speaking foreign languages and studying in the country's top universities.
What worries them most is a crushing housing crunch. Even after they are married, most couples have to live with their parents. A young couple wait, on average, 20 years for their own apartment.
``Life is so hard here, without any perspectives,'' Agata complains. ``The only thing we can hope for is the protection of a family.''
This protection does not come cheap, especially in an economically destitute country such as Poland. From maternity wards to bib manufacturing, state-provided services have not kept up with the baby boom.
Go to the second floor of Smyk, a large children's store in central Warsaw, and almost every afternoon a line of pregnant women forms in front of the baby goods counter. Each woman shows a clerk a pregnancy certificate and receives a red plastic basket containing towels, diapers, and other necessities for newborns.
Although the goods are expensive, costing an average of three or four months of a typical salary, the prospective mothers are thrilled. Many of the goods are not regularly available in stores. Once the pregnancy card is stamped, the women will not be able to buy the same items again, unless, of course, they have another child.
Over the past few years, supplies have improved, though shortages persist. Eva, who is wheeling around her two-month-old daughter, Natalia, says that baby food and baby shoes are particularly hard to find. As much as her budget permits, she shops in the Pewex shops, where Western goods are available for dollars.
``Otherwise, you can't get any fruit for the child,'' she says. ``My husband and I simply end up eating less.''
Expense and inconvenience are not the only problems Polish parents face in raising their children. Schools are so overcrowded that many now run in two shifts, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. What will happen when all the youngsters enter the job market?
``It's going to be difficult to avoid unemployment,'' says Kozakiewicz of the Family Development Association. ``And after all, the biggest promise of socialism is to ensure work for everybody.''
Just as ominously, the baby boom worsens the housing shortage. The few apartments available are usually small. Michal and Jolanta, a couple in their early 30s, consider themselves lucky. They live with their five-year-old daughter in a one-room apartment.
They say they know other families who have five children in a two-room apartment. Jolanta, who works for a children's rights protection committee that tries to help couples find apartments and ease the social difficulties of unmarried mothers, finds herself overloaded with cases. ``What you in the West would consider common problems - getting children clothes and toys - become pathological problems here in Poland,'' she says.
Belatedly, the government is struggling to adapt to these mounting problems. When the crisis first became apparent in 1975, Kozakiewicz of the Family Development Association tried to persuade party leaders to change their pro-birth policies. Afraid of offending the church, they refused, he says.
The present Polish leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, took action only three years ago when the problems could no longer be ignored. He permitted Kozakiewicz's organization to open more family-planning centers and distribute more birth-control devices. The Ministry of Defense started a contraception program for young draftees.
Still, it remains difficult to find contraceptives in Poland. In Hungary, 35 percent of fertile women use the pill; in Poland, only 2 percent do.
Tension between the government and the church is growing, particularly over the issue of abortion. The church blames the government for sponsoring some 1 million abortions last year. Government officials say that figure is much too high. The two sides continue to spar over a range of social issues - in particular, whether sex education should be offered in schools. The government says yes, the church, no.
Nevertheless, high as it is, the birthrate has begun to fall, dropping a third of a percentage point over the last three years. The trauma of martial law is now wearing off, demographers say, while economic constraints are finally forcing parents to have fewer children.
Agata doesn't care. She might be willing to settle for two children, but says she will have more if she feels like it, no matter how bad the economy gets. When she traveled to France last summer, she loved the abundance of the West. But she found relationships between parents and children much weaker than those in Poland.
``While there are many problems here,'' Agata says, ``at least we know we can count on our family.''