RAISING children to adulthood used to be a 21- or 22-year commitment, give or take a few tuition payments. After that, parents could assume that offspring were well on their way to independence, leaving Mom and Dad free to relax as they waited - not very long - for wedding bells to ring and grandchildren to arrive. No longer. As career patterns, dating relationships, and economic forces have radically altered the lives of young adults, they have also forced parents to revise expectations of ``typical'' timetables for their children.
Ruth Belzer of Chicago, a mother of four grown children, speaks for fond but perplexed parents everywhere: ``We expected our children to marry at a relatively early age and to live a much more traditional life.'' Instead, all across the country sons and daughters in their 20s and 30s are marrying later or not at all, producing grandchildren later or not at all, and staying in the nest far longer than they - or their parents - ever imagined.
A recent New Yorker cartoon illustrates the challenge for both generations. A bride and groom are chatting with two guests at their wedding reception, talking about their first home. ``For the time being we'll be living with my folks,'' the groom says, ``but our ultimate goal is to live with Denise's folks.''
Other generational changes could serve as the raw material for other wry cartoons. Fathers who supported a wife, children, and a mortgage on one salary now see married sons struggle to make ends meet in two-paycheck families. Mothers who stayed home with their children watch working daughters trundle babies off to day-care.
``These are not value changes, but pattern changes,'' emphasizes Mrs. Belzer, who speaks not only as a mother but as the executive director of the Harris Foundation, which focuses on children and families. ``But because our children's patterns are so different, I think we find the responsibilities of being parents much more intensive and extensive.
``You're still involved with your kids in a different way than you expected. ... It's a tension between admiring on the one hand, and feeling very sad on the other hand at the sacrifices they're having to make.''
In recent years, whole forests have been felled to supply the newsprint for articles examining the changing lives of baby-boomers. Television TV programs like ``thirtysomething'' extend the discussion, and the endless self-analysis, into prime time.
But except for a few books with titles like ``Boomerang Kids'' and ``Coping with Your Grown Children,'' the parents of these young adults have been largely ignored, both in print and on TV. Who ever heard of a sitcom called ``fiftysomething'' or ``sixtysomething''?
Miss Manners, where are you? A whole generation of parents needs answers to such etiquette questions as:
How do you refrain from sighing and hinting to your married children - again - that you wish they'd give you a reason to knit booties and display a bumper sticker reading, ``Ask me about my grandchildren''?
How do you tell your bridge club that your 25-year-old daughter no longer splits her rent with a sorority sister but with someone the Census Bureau calls a POSSLQ - Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters?
And how do you set house rules when parents who are bumping up against retirement find themselves still bumping into offspring every day in the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room?
Perhaps both generations caught in this new Tender Trap should consider dedicating the last Mother's Day and Father's Day of the '80s to these unsung family heroes - all the parents who continue to feather their sometimes crowded nests and provide nurturing, support, and money to their grown but not-yet-fully-launched children.
One lighthearted Mother's Day card seems to express the bemused affection on both sides. The cover carries the promise: ``The nest ... it's empty!!'' But when Mom opens the card, she returns to the real world with the punch line: ``May all your Mother's Day dreams come true.''