IT is early evening. In the living room of a beige stucco house, nine-month-old Sarah Weiss is hugging an oversized stuffed camel near the fireplace. She smiles at her mother, who is behind her on the floor, then crawls across the room to the sofa, where her father is sitting. He picks her up and she smiles again. It is time for a bottle, and then bed. For Sarah's parents, this cozy domestic scene would have been hard to imagine a few years ago. Her father, Ron Weiss, admits he had long been ``very skeptical'' about having a family. ``The future for children just seemed awfully bleak, politically and environmentally,'' he says, adding that his outlook changed when his daughter was born.
Similarly, Sarah's mother, Susan Eilertsen, spent 10 years pursuing a career as a book publicist in New York. ``I had a very, very exciting life there,'' she says.
But three years ago the glamour faded, and Ms. Eilertsen moved back to her native Minneapolis to start her own public relations business. She and Mr. Weiss, a lab manager for an audio visual company, were married in 1987.
``I was 37 and Ron was 40 when Sarah was born,'' Eilertsen explains. ``She's the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me in my life.''
Although most women still give birth for the first time in their 20s, the percentage of those, like Eilertsen, who nurture careers first and then nurture babies after 30 has increased fourfold since 1970. Well-educated and affluent, they find later parenthood producing dramatic changes not only in their own lives but also in the broader patterns of late-20th-century childbearing and child-rearing.
Unlike teenagers and low-income women, whose pregnancies are often random occurrences, upscale parents-to-be specialize in planning. The operative word is control, which may begin with an at-home ``ovulation predictor test'' that promises, ``Whether you want to plan for a winter, spring, summer, or fall baby, the 10-minute ... test just made it easier.''
Once a pregnancy is under way, the attentive mother-to-be will average 13 prenatal visits - five more than a healthy woman needs, according to new guidelines issued by the US Public Health Service. She will read books and magazines on ``parenting.'' She may even call special hotlines for advice on nutrition and breast-feeding.
In addition, she and the father-to-be will enroll in courses for expectant parents. At one typical class at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Fla., nine couples assembled on a Thursday evening to watch videos on infant care and to practice diapering dolls. They also listened attentively as Jean Heath, an obstetrical nurse for 20 years, dispelled myths about perfect parents and model babies.
``Your friends may brag, `My baby sleeps through the night,''' Mrs. Heath told the group. ``But that may be from 11 to 4. You have to redefine what night is.''
Kari Bjorhus, a vice president of a public relations firm in Minneapolis, whose first child, Nicholas, was born last week, sums up the feelings of many career women when she says, ``I didn't know anything about babies. It would be a pretty frightening thing without books and classes.''
When the time comes for the baby's birth, the father-to-be, fresh from coed baby showers and Lamaze coaching, will participate in the delivery, perhaps videotaping the newest family member moments after birth. In some hospitals he will even be permitted to stay overnight with the mother and newborn in a private room decorated to look more like a luxury hotel than a maternity ward.
It sounds like an infant utopia - and for many families it is. Yet with choices come consequences, and despite all their advantages, the mothers and fathers of these silver-spoon babies face decisions their own parents never could have imagined.
One of the first - and most bewildering - involves high-tech prenatal tests that reveal the sex of the fetus and signal possible abnormalities. For some couples, the procedures offer reassurance that the pregnancy is proceeding normally. For others, they necessitate anguished choices about possible medical intervention or abortion.
Eilertsen, for example, felt pressured by her doctor to undergo one of those tests, amniocentesis. Because she has a sister with mental retardation, ``The decision was a very emotional one for me, very complex. But the bottom-line question was, If I found out I was carrying a mentally retarded child, would I terminate the pregnancy? No. Having grown up with Betsy, I know that retarded children do have a life that can be fulfilling in their own terms.''
After the birth, when parents take their newborn home, many face other hard choices involving work and child care. For the estimated 51 percent of mothers who now return to work before their baby's first birthday, the question is not whether to go back, but when - and how.
``Child care and fatigue - I hear so many people talking about those two things,'' says Sarah Gavin of St. Paul, Minn., whose third child, Ryan, was born in October.
``When you're pregnant and at work, people are really aware that you're pregnant because of how you look, and they're fairly solicitous,'' explains Ms. Gavin, the executive vice president of Mona, Meyer & McGrath, a public relations company. ``The day you come back, you're thin and you have a briefcase in your hand. It's like they forgot about the baby. You kind of go along with that, as if to indicate, `Oh, everything is fabulous, and I've got it all buttoned up at home and at work.' But it really creates a lot of stress and fatigue, because there are days when it falls apart.''
For a second group - those who stay home or cut back their work schedules drastically, as Eilertsen has done - there are other challenges, including tight budgets. Eilertsen's decision to work from home and limit herself to 20 hours a week has cut her own income by two-thirds.
``We're just barely making it,'' she says. ``At this point in my life, Sarah and my family are more important to me than making a lot of money and being a powerful corporate leader. But in making that choice, I feel sometimes like an alien from another planet. My friends and peers are all working full time - more than full time. I don't find many women like me. I'd be happy to have some company.''
That search for ``women like me'' has led to the growth of an '80s phenomenon, the new-mothers support group. Nancy Pipe, who teaches a New Moms group in Clearwater, Fla., notes that the 19 women in her current session are ``mostly upper middle class, very well educated, and very secure.'' Even so, many feel sadness at ``not having the support of an extended family near them. They also miss the richness that grandparents afford to a child, and the passing on of the knowledge, experience, and love that only a grandparent has to share with a child.''
Other changes are evident in the growing participation of men. ``There is a lot more co-parenting,'' Gavin observes. ``I see a lot of active fathers.''
Even so, total equality often remains theoretical. ``I don't think I know any women who say it's 50-50,'' Ms. Bjorhus says.
``What really makes me feel a little nervous is that life is already so fast-paced that I don't even have time to think,'' she continues. ``I fear racing through life without taking time to savor anything. I don't look out there and see anybody whose lifestyle I'd like to emulate, which is kind of a scary thought. No one seems to have been able to put it all together, to have a satisfying career, a happy family life, and time to enjoy it all.''
But even now, as they try for ever-more ingenious ways to ``put it all together,'' new mothers and fathers continue to find the same wonder, the same pleasure that has always rewarded parents.
Eilertsen says, ``Not a day goes by that I don't thank God for Sarah - for her health, her gifts, her brightness. She's just wonderful company.''
Then, giving her daughter one last hug as the baby settles into her crib for the night, she adds wistfully, ``I'd like to see a time when society values the raising of children so much that it wouldn't be a surprise to find a person like me staying home - that it would be as highly valued for a woman to stay home with a baby as to return to work.''