AT 7 o'clock on a Monday evening, seven couples gather in the conference room of a brown brick storefront called the Family Tree. All are in their 30s. Most have been married at least five years. Sitting around a large table, they will spend the next two hours considering one of the most profound decisions of their lives -- what one participant calls ``The Great Baby Debate.''
To have or not to have a family. That is the persistent question bringing these 14 people to this community clinic for a five-week course called ``Baby Maybe.'' Through films, discussions, and readings, they will examine the ``pro- and anti-natalist'' influences around them. In the process, they hope to come to terms with their own ambivalence about parenthood.
``People who take this course tend to be very deliberate and conscious about everything they do in their lives,'' says Norma Denbrook, who conducts the class. ``By habit or by nature, they think through very carefully and very logically all the options and all the consequences. When you're making a pro and con list on an emotionally charged issue like this, it just doesn't work out. So there's a lot of confusion as a result.''
These couples are not alone in their confusion. In a nation that reveres youth but is often uncomfortable in the presence of the young, mixed signals abound. In 1970, 53 percent of women surveyed in a national poll cited motherhood as one of the best parts of being a woman. By 1983, that figure had dropped to 26 percent. The proliferation of adults-only apartments, and books with titles like ``Childless by Choice,'' hint at negative attitudes. Essays and talk shows of the '80s have even asked: ``Do we hate children?''
At the same time, a flood of books on child-rearing (more than 300, by one count), a booming toy industry, and public outrage over missing children and child abuse suggest a continuing commitment to children, sometimes bordering on veneration.
Until the last decade the intellectualized ``Baby Maybe'' form of decisionmaking was largely unknown in America. Children were considered assets. Marriage rhymed with baby carriage, and, either by accident or design, most couples became parents.
Then the accepted value of the family rather suddenly changed. Instead of seeing children as extra hands -- a resource -- parents saw them as extra mouths -- a liability. Calculators began clicking as couples added up the staggering cost of child-rearing -- perhaps as high as $150,000 from birth to age 18.
Even so, cost is not the prime factor for many vacillating couples.
Allan C. Carlson, president of the Rockford Institute in Rockford, Ill., traces much of the ambivalence to the cultural revolution that has occurred in the United States in the last 30 years. First came a surge of feminism and its radicalization in the late '60s. Around the same time, he says, there was ``a revival of Malthusian concern about overpopulation, which translated into a campaign heavily directed against anyone who dared have more than two children. The message was: `You're a better person if you don't have children. You're more socially responsible.' ''
He also cites ``the triumph of what's loosely called the sexual revolution -- the almost total disappearance of social mores that confined sexuality within the marital bond, and the loss of a normative, shared sense of what a family is.
``When you add all that together,'' Dr. Carlson continues, ``the surprise is not that people don't have children or don't like them. The surprise is that many people still do have children despite all of the cultural, economic, and governmental pressures that are imposed.''
The pertinent facts are these: Childbearing has dropped to its lowest level in this decade. The fertility rate now stands at 65.8 births per 1,000 women age 18 to 44 -- down from 71.1 per 1,000 in 1980. To take the long view, in 1800, women bore an average of seven children. Today, the average is two.
Harold Richman, director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, offers one explanation for these declining figures.
``My wife is a career counselor here at the university,'' he says. ``When she talks to graduate students and even undergraduate women, the question is, `Where do children fit into this?' Many of these women say they'll think about it later. Or they say, `I'm going to have them -- someday.' They're engineering themselves into a career path where that's going to be an increasingly difficult decision.''
But Ms. Denbrook contends that present circumstances leave many women with two choices: ``not to have children, or to be a Supermom, which is an impossibility, an unrealistic pressure or expectation.''
Joan Palmquist, a vice-president of a marketing-research firm in Minneapolis, is a case in point. ``I don't believe everybody should be a parent. The way I've let my career go, I don't think a baby would fit. If I couldn't do both perfectly . . . .'' Her voice grows wistful and her mixed feelings become apparent.
Sitting at an oak table in their dining room, where a teddy bear is propped on a child's chair in the corner, Ms. Palmquist and her husband, Randall Hildreth, who have been married four years, reflect on their ``focused ambivalence'' about having a child -- a mood that led them to ``Baby Maybe.''
At the moment, the couple is more focused, less ambivalent. On the assumption that they probably will not have a child of their own, they recently moved to a more expensive house in the suburbs, and they have started a college fund for several young nephews.
``We have a good and happy life,'' Palmquist says. ``I don't think too many people will really believe I haven't achieved my full potential if I haven't become a mom. There are other ways to achieve.'' But the couple has discovered that ``the decision not to have children is a decision you have to constantly remake. We're constantly challenged by everything around us,'' Palmquist admits. Her husband, a manager at a car dealership, adds: ``It'll never really be over with and decided until the options are taken away from us.''
As one exercise in the ``Baby Maybe'' class, couples are asked to draw up lists of what they expect to gain or lose by becoming a parent, and by remaining ``child free.''
``In every group,'' Denbrook observes, ``men have always made lists that are much more emotional, much more focused on the child already existing, on being able to love another thing who loves them back.''
By contrast, ``the women focus much more on the risks of pregnancy and birth if they're older, on the effect on their careers, how parenting responsibilities will be shared or divided up.''
The great debate of the '80s -- to have a child or not to have a child -- is so established that a debate has developed within the debate. What is the principal deterrent, the experts ask -- the hesitation of individuals, uncertain of their life style, or the failure of society to support the family under new andmore demanding situations?
Harold Howe II, a senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, places some responsibility on the individual. ``The self-interest of adults is moving center stage, and the interests of children are shoved toward the wings,'' he asserts.
Others, more pragmatic than philosophical, point to the lack of national policies on parental leave and day care.
``The No. 1 problem of America's families today is child care,'' says Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University, and former chief of the Children's Bureau under President Nixon, noting that more than half the women with children under 6 are now in the work force.
The general confusion -- both personal and social -- has produced its sad ironies. Internal conflict and consequent postponement seem to be a factor contributing to an increase in infertility.
The American Medical Association estimates that more than 4.5 million couples of childbearing age have been trying to conceive for more than a year and are experiencing problems.
To help some of those couples conceive, more than 125 infertility clinics throughout the country now offer advanced medical procedures in ``assisted reproduction'' -- from fertility drugs and in-vitro fertilization to surrogate mothering and artificial insemination.
Never has the process of bringing on another generation seemed so complex.
Yet for many, the debate is a luxury they'll never know. Every year nearly half a million teen-age girls, most unmarried, give birth. Abortions continue to be the alternative way to end all discussions. And 11.6 million women are so determined to prevent unwanted pregnancies that they or their partners have chosen surgical sterilization.
Having children, it may seem, has either become a blithely careless act, or, says social critic Vance Packard, it ``has changed from being a part of the natural flow of life to . . . an act of courage.''
``I see these people who are so in angst about having children as thinking about them as objects, something that might be owned or possessed, and not something you can relate to as people,'' says Marc Reigel of Rochester, Minn., a high school teacher and father of three.
Out of the sometimes hysterical pro-and-conning -- should I or shouldn't I? -- a middle ground may be emerging.
``One of the things we talk about in the `Baby Maybe' course is that there is never the `right' time to have a baby,'' says Denbrook.
``You never have the right amount of money, your career is never in the right place, your relationship with your spouse is never in the perfect place to have a child. We try to get people to focus on what we call the `want factor.' You have a baby when you want to, when the time is ready for you emotionally. That's the most receptive time to become a parent.''
For ambivalent couples who eventually decide to become parents, what seems to prevail are not the arguments but the timeless yearnings of the heart.
``I had grown up seriously considering being child-free,'' says Sandi Younkin, a former participant in the ``Baby Maybe'' course and now its program coordinator and the mother of two. ``I had not always thought I would have children. So one of the most startling realizations for me was the intensity of my feeling for this child, the power this little child has over me.''