IT is a rainy Saturday afternoon. Inside a cozy room at the Family Health Education Center, four names march across a chalkboard: Michael Douglas, Noah Joseph, Victor, John Brian. The list identifies tiny guests of honor at a reunion party of a childbirth class. Their ages range from six weeks to three months. In front of the chalkboard, sprawled on the floor or relaxing in rocking chairs, are the infants' parents - four mothers and three of the fathers. Wearing jeans and T-shirts, they proudly cradle their babies amid a cheerful jumble of infant carriers, diaper bags, rattles, and quilts. Coos, gurgles, and occasional cries punctuate the air as Sarah Wood Smith, executive director of the center, answers questions and talks about the life-changing, awe-inspiring privilege of parenthood.
"This work you're doing, being with babies, is very important work," says Ms. Wood Smith, a serene woman who has spent 20 years as a childbirth educator. "This first year is very important for the rest of their lives. When you think about what you've done all day, really value it."
Yet valuing the role of parents has become a challenge in a society where the idealism of "pro-family" values often clashes with such "anti-family" realities as tax codes and corporate policies.
"I went back to work when Michael was six weeks old," says Laurel Richardson, one of the reunion mothers. m working at night, until 11 p.m. Larry's working during the day. Nobody gets time off anymore. It's two full-time jobs - work and the baby."
For the Richardsons, as for many parents of the 4.2 million babies born in the United States in 1990, raising children has become a privilege with extraordinary problems attached.
'There's a feeling that the traditional work of women can be done in somebody's spare time," says Janis Keyser, a mother of three who teaches a course on families at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz. "People think you should be able to grow organic vegetables for your child and have a full-time job. It leaves mothers feeling that if they were just better people, they'd be able to accomplish it all."
A generation or two ago, preparation for parenthood was relatively simple: a copy of Dr. Spock, a baby shower for the prospective mother, and a grandmother or two nearby to lend support. Fathers were breadwinners, mothers were homemakers, and roles were clearly defined. Now Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has replaced Dr. Spock as the expert-of-choice, baby showers are coed, and the extended family has gone small and nuclear, with the nearest grandmother often living hundreds of miles away. To compound the chall e
nges, both parents frequently work.
"Most new parents just get abandoned in some way after the birth," Wood Smith observes. "The childbirth classes are over, and they don't need to see the obstetrician anymore. They're just sort of left isolated. It's a very important time if we're trying to build healthy families."
To fill that void, Wood Smith, like other family advocates around the country, offers classes and support groups for new parents and their families. In fact, to be a parent in the '90s seems to require the subtleties of an art and the complexities of a science.
No longer is the word "parent" synonymous with a kind of "Because I said so, that's why" authority. Now parents' roles appear far more tentative, far less empowered. Even greeting cards add to the confusion with salutations such as: "To my mother, my best friend." Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of dozens of volumes of "parenting" books, trying to define the new roles and set up guidelines.
By the time these four babies - Michael, Noah, Victor, John - graduate from high school as members of the Class of 2009, their parents will have changed thousands of diapers, hired dozens of babysitters, and attended scores of parent-teacher meetings, Little League games, and recitals. They will have waited up long past their normal bedtime, one eye on the clock, one ear on the door. They will have laughed and celebrated - and worried and cried. And from the first childbirth class, they will have unders t
ood the responsibilities of being a parent more clearly than their somewhat innocent parents did, while having less time to fulfill them.
This generation of parents seems to be putting more thought into the task, if the show of dedication in this room - and outside it - is to be believed. A Roper poll indicates that parents are spending more time with young children than they were in the mid-1970s. As if to signal a new emphasis on the nuclear family, there has been a proliferation of books with titles like "Rebuilding the Nest,Back to the Family," and "The Case Against Divorce." This spring, conferences on the family are popping up every w
here: "The Family at the 21st Century,Fortifying the Family," "Family Law and the Best Interests of the Child."
ABOVE all, parents themselves are talking about being parents as they have seldom talked before - married, divorced, single, urban, suburban, rural, rich, poor, middle-class - discovering what they share in common. Among them are present and past members of Wood Smith's childbirth classes, speaking for parents everywhere about what she calls "the big experiment" of being a parent. Some of the themes are all too familiar - for instance, the sheer work of bringing up children. Bob Hastings, the father of a three-year-old daughter and a 19-month-old son, says, "I never would have thought six years ago I would be getting up before 6. I never knew it would be this much work. It's just constant."
Larry Minden, the father of three-month-old Victor, says, m running as fast as I can to keep the bacon coming home." His wife, Linda Ponzini, is taking a year's leave of absence from her job as a speech therapist.
The dream of Supermom is supposed to have passed, but the guilt that went with it is still around. Ms. Keyser cites the collision of "a lot more expectations" with "a lot less time."
Economic pressure, of course, remains a perennial theme. What seems new to the '90s is the recognition of another, quite different pressure.
"Children get TV marketing things up and down to them," says John Moir, an elementary school teacher and the father of a six-year-old son. "There's all this pressure brought to bear on adults through the kids. This powerful avenue has never existed before. It presents a lot of tough choices for parents, and it's expensive.
"My son is sleeping on Ninja Turtle sheets," Mr. Moir explains. Although he and his wife "said 'no' to the latest Ninja Turtle movie," he adds, m feeling guilty. I wonder: Am I ostracizing him from his friends?"
The new concern about values, beyond the values of a consuming culture, is having its effect on how parents view the rat race among children as well. "Many kids go from a long school day to soccer, music lessons, and dance recitals," says Amy Escobar, a teacher and the mother of two young daughters. "They don't have time to lie down in the grass and think about the flowers."
Because values cannot be somebody else's responsibility, there seems to be a new sense in the '90s for where the buck stops. During the 1970s and '80s, parents began looking for institutions and assorted "experts" to help them bear the load.
Today, they are finding that being a parent is something they cannot totally delegate.
Parents are coming back to a hard-earned recognition that no matter how good a nanny is, or a day-care center, or a corporation, they cannot dump the children and have it work out.
As a result, old roles and expectations continue to change. Tom Beggs, a father of two, predicts: "In the next 20 years, you're going to see men look at their careers and decide that the next jump up just isn't as important as it was to their dads."
The new wisdom of the '90s may be an old wisdom: that parenthood remains the original state-of-the-heart venture.
Shari Hastings sums up the feelings of many parents when she speaks of her "eternal gratitude for being blessed with this beautiful family."
Wood Smith puts it this way: "There's a lot of pressure on people to figure out the right approach, and to read books and develop strategies. But raising children is not a technique, it's not a strategy. It's a deep sense of caring and love."