AFTER more than a decade of dual-career couples and dual-income parents, another hyphenated social phenomenon is making an appearance: the dual-class family. All across the country middle-class parents are rearing upper-class babies -- offspring born not with silver spoons in their mouths (what working mother has time to polish silver?) but with designer clothing on their backs.
The old parental maxim -- ``Nothing is too good for my child'' -- is taking on new meaning as two-income couples go upscale, if not overboard, on nursery furniture, accessories, and clothes. From $1,500 brass cribs and $300 strollers to $1,200 christening gowns and $40 Irish crystal baby bottles, parents are pampering their offspring with the kind of indulgences that used to be supplied primarily by doting grandmothers.
Once upon a more middle-class time, a baby's layette consisted of a few practical, no-nonsense items. A 1969 edition of the ``Better Homes & Gardens Baby Book,'' for example, reassured expectant parents thus: ``Your baby's clothing needs are few, for his wardrobe has been simplified until it approaches the vanishing point. The basic dress, in summer or winter, is a shirt, a diaper, a gown, sacque, or kimono, and a bath blanket.''
No longer. A combination of delayed childbearing, smaller families, and two-income couples is producing a generation of ambitious parents who want even the tiniest family members to sport designer logos on their diapered derri`eres. Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent -- all have jumped into the lucrative kiddie-couture market.
An advertisement for the Baby Dior layette collection, for instance, encourages parents of infants to ``Introduce them to one of the finer things in life. The first step? Building the perfect wardrobe for the latest addition to the family. (Later comes dressing for success -- or recess!) But right now -- living in the lap of luxury is what's called for.''
What if an infant dribbles strained plums on a designer shirt or a toddler splashes mud on his pricey ``fashion playwear''? Not to worry. Upscale children require upscale child care, and any nanny worth her wages is undoubtedly trained in spot removal.
The upscale trend is further evident in CHILD, a glossy new magazine ``for today's new parents who want the very best for their children -- in fashion, food, schools, play -- in life.'' With fashion coverage on ``Nouveau Prep'' and features on ``The Uncanny Nanny,'' the magazine is clearly not aimed at the Sears, Roebuck and J.C. Penney crowd.
``We set high standards for our children's intellectual, physical, and moral development,'' the editors explain in the first issue, ``and we'll spend endless hours researching the ideal schools, sports programs, camps, and child care. Our children dress beautifully because it's important for their self-esteem and our sense of style. We decorate their rooms, plan successful birthday parties, find wonderful toys and equipment, and choose the ideal family vacation.''
This upward mobility comes at a time of growing class division in the United States, symbolized by what some observers see as the demise of the middle class in an increasingly two-tier society. Social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich, writing recently in the New York Times Magazine, worries about ``our slide toward a society divided between the hungry and the overfed, the hopeless and the have-it-alls.''
``To be demonstrably `middle class' in today's culture,'' Ms. Ehrenreich notes, ``a family needs not only the traditional house and car, but at least some of the regalia of the well-advertised upscale life style,'' including such trendy purchases as ``$60 sweatshirts for the teen-age and pre-teen children.''
Sacrifice, both emotional and economic, has always been a key word in any parental job description. Case histories abound of mothers who wear a tired cloth coat for six winters just to keep a teen-age daughter in cashmere sweaters.
Where will it all end?
Already, Nike makes ``running'' shoes for infants. And think of the other possibilities: Gucci diaper bags. BMW strollers. Ferragamo booties. Perrier infant formula. Porthault crib sheets. Obsession baby powder.
In a competitive world, apparently, birth is none too soon to start making one's mark. In fact, parents who want to give their offspring the ultimate head start can enroll in something called ``Prenatal University'' in Hayward, Calif., where they are taught to play games with a baby still in the womb to stimulate its intelligence. After birth, the infant is awarded a ``Baby Superior'' degree, complete with bib and T-shirt bearing the school's logo: a baby in a mortar board.
Speaking of his tiny graduates, the school's founder, Dr. F.Rene Van de Carr, has been quoted as saying: ``The child is already a success, has already achieved, is already a winner. We're trying to get that concept across -- that the parents' expectations have already been met.''
Only one question remains unanswered. For a tot on the fast track before it can even walk, will life after six months be an anticlimax?