When cost accountants start calculating the baby boom

``Can we afford a baby?'' Today's prospective parents ask the question in the same way their parents might have wondered, ``Can we afford a new sofa?'' Adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing, the parents-to-be (or not-to-be) threaten to become the ultimate victims of a consumer society in which everything, including the next generation, comes with a price tag attached.

A subindustry of baby-budget economists has sprung up to advise young couples on the cost of raising a child to the age of 22. How the red ink spatters!

Two recent books -- ``Costs of Children,'' by Lawrence Olson and ``Investing in Children,'' by Thomas J. Espenshade -- chart what Mr. Espenshade rather ominously calls ``the financial implications of parenthood.''

A ``typical'' middle-income family with two children and a wife working part time will spend nearly $100,000 to raise each child, he estimates, although figures vary wildly. Everything from the parents' socioeconomic status, number of children, wife's employment status, geographic location, and projected inflation gets factored in, causing the needle to jump from a low of $82,400 to a staggering $310,000.

There are legitimate and necessary uses for these figures, which originally served as guidelines for welfare costs, child support payments, ``wrongful birth'' settlements, and foster care allowances. But as all these calculators click away, the danger is that parents will come to see children as liabilities, obstacles standing between themselves and a fast-track career or a Caribbean cruise -- a ``fulfilling'' life. Worse, children may begin to see themselves the same way.

If the first question is ``How much does it cost?'' the inevitable second question must be ``Am I getting my money's worth?'' This attitude gets carried to an absurd but sad extreme in one recent book on the great baby debate. Undecided about a family? the author asks. Check with friends who are already parents, she advises, and find out, ``Do they consider their children a worthwhile investment, or might they have done better in the commodities market?''

And while you're doing your cost accounting, don't forget to compute children as a double liability, figured not only in direct costs (everything from obstetrician fees to college diplomas) but also in indirect costs (a mother's lost earnings during the years she stays home with children).

The irony is that for centuries children were an economic asset for many married couples. In the family business children were the apprentices. On the farm they were the field hands -- in both cases a capital value if one insisted on looking at life that way, and even in the past, parents sometimes did.

In her book ``Family Politics,'' Letty Cottin Pogrebin writes, ``Contrary to the belief that we are collectively a child-loving people, America is a nation fundamentally ambivalent about its children.'' At the moment maternity has become chic, and, on the one hand, books on ``parenting'' crowd bookstore shelves. But on the other hand prospective parents want babies to be ``convenient'' -- to fit into their careers and their busy, peripatetic ``life styles.''

It is as though couples who sign pre-nuptial contracts also want pre-birth baby contracts -- some guarantee of what this commitment will represent in limited outlay of both money and time.

As full-time motherhood has been systematically devalued during the last decade (``I'm just a housewife'' remains one of the most abject confessions around), children too have lost value in ways that go well beyond money. Excluded from adults-only apartment buildings, voted against in school-bond issues, allowed only one-week visits to their grandparents' retirement villages, many are learning early that the welcome mat is often not out.

In fashion or out of fashion, there will always be those who decide they do not want or cannot afford children. In fashion or out of fashion, there will always be those who realize that, whatever the price, they can't afford not to.

In both instances responsibility, financial and otherwise, ought to play a part, but the bottom line can never be the bottom line. Some things in life must remain an act of faith. Having a baby is one of them.

Marilyn Gardner is the Monitor's Home & Family editor.

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