WHEN the United States Census Bureau announced last week that the number of never-married women raising children on their own had risen sharply, the news created little stir. Ho-hum, editors seemed to say, another set of dry statistics from the government number-crunchers; no need to play the story big. Yet the statistics are worthy of Page 1 attention. Between 1985 and 1987, the number of unmarried women rearing children without fathers in the home jumped from 2 million to 2.6 million. That represents an astonishing 30 percent increase in two years. Only 20 percent of these unmarried mothers receive child support, compared with 74 percent of divorced or separated women.
The casual media approach may stem in part from a late-20th century attitude that could be called the ``Myth of the Expendable Parent.'' Mothers, the reasoning goes, can easily be replaced by day-care providers, at least during working hours.
Fathers are viewed as even more expendable. First, medical advances such as sperm banks and artificial insemination have created an image that men are biologically replaceable. Then there is the supposed economic obsolescence of fathers, made possible by mothers with paychecks or welfare checks.
This notion of the Dispensable Dad gets further enshrined in the media. Unwed motherhood becomes positively chic when People magazine trumpets the birth announcements of celebrities who bear children on their own. And when professional women in their late '30s decide to have babies without husbands, lifestyle articles make the experience sound like the ultimate in liberated womanhood.
From Hollywood to Harlem, the cavalier question in the air seems to be: Who needs two-parent families anymore?
This redefinition of the family began in earnest a decade ago, when delegates to the White House Conference on Families debated endlessly about what constitutes a family. Arguing that ``the family'' is too limiting a term, they insisted on the plural form, ``families,'' to reflect American diversity.
Fair enough. But have Americans gone too far in this anything-goes approach to domestic arrangements? Even the gender-neutral phrase, ``single-parent family,'' masks a harsh reality: Most of these are mother-headed families, many of them struggling financially. Half of black mothers in the census report were poor - a rate twice as high as that for white mothers.
Beyond money, there is the matter of time - a commodity in short supply even in two-parent homes. A 1988 nationwide federal survey of 8th-graders notes that profound changes in family life leave single parents and working parents with less time to spend on children's education - a major cause of declining student achievement. What is needed, educators say, is not education reform, but ``parent reform.''
What can be done? Rather than new social programs or statements of public policy, the most urgent need is for this beleaguered institution, the family, to regenerate itself from within. Among the ways parent reform can begin:
First, emphasize to teenagers - boys as well as girls - the importance of establishing families the old-fashioned way: marriage first, babies later. If teens choose to be sexually active, they must understand the importance of contraception.
Second, underscore the financial obligations of both parents in caring for children. Census figures show that mothers of children with absent fathers are more successful in getting child support than in the past, but the sums are still pitifully small.
Third, restore fathers as key players in the family. The role of fathers has been neglected. The old narrow-but-specific injunction, ``Bring home the bacon,'' has been replaced by fuzzier commands: ``Be sensitive. Be nurturing. Be supportive.'' All this makes fathers appear secondary., a kind of superior au pair. Ideally, it takes two people - at least! - to rear a child, short of extraordinary efforts on the part of one. This truth of family life needs reviving.
Not all marriages will endure. But historical experience - not just moral theory - shows that the two-parent family, with its vows of commitment of husband and wife to each other and to future offspring, is not as easy to replace as modern experimentalists once thought. In a time of change, the family may remain the last of the Mom and Pop stores.