THE mystique of the 1970s declared that woman - make that Superwoman - could do it all, as wife, as mother, as careerist on the fast track.
The merciful late-'80s repealed this unrealistic expectation before would-be Superwoman burned out all her circuits.
But now the '90s are loading up the agenda again, this time by calling for a fast track at home starring Superparent. The pressure to be a complete mother or a complete father after a long hard day at work is being felt from all sides - and often that pressure is exerted through guilt.
Secretary of Education Richard Riley is understandably unhappy over the less-than-excelling results of his department's ``Reading Report Card,'' which finds that at least two-thirds of American students now read below grade level. He blames excessive TV viewing for some of the poor results. His accusing finger also points at parents who ``rarely intervene to help their children read anymore.'' He advises busy parents: ``Slow down the pace of your lives and help your children read more.''
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is equally prepared to scold parents for not performing their duties, relying instead on schools to do the job. Teachers, he says, ``are asked to be social workers, therapists, moms and dads, cops, and even medical technicians.'' While Mr. Riley wants parents to be teachers, Mr. Shanker wants teachers to stop having to play surrogate parents.
Furthermore, in a Louis Harris survey of teachers earlier this year, 86 percent of those polled felt that parents should be punished by fines when their children play truant. A considerable 42 percent believed that fines should also be levied on parents who fail to show up for appointments with teachers.
Attorney General Janet Reno has been stumping the country with speeches exhorting working parents to be parents first and workers second. She emphasizes the need to give children love, guidance, and a sense of right and wrong early in life. Yet she understands the problem parents face, saying, ``There is no quality time with kids, all too often.''
Few parents - or nonparents - would dispute that bringing children into the world is a serious responsibility requiring the utmost in love, discipline, and guidance. But there now may a danger of swinging the pendulum too far the other way in assuming that semi-literacy, boorish behavior, and even crime among the young are to be laid exclusively on the heads of parents.
The experts' advice is well-intentioned, even useful. Yet amid the stern sermons and the or-else threats of what will happen if fathers and mothers fail in their duties, there seems to be too little sense of the pleasure of being a parent. In the grim battle against illiteracy, where, for instance, is a taste of the pure joy of reading? The warning scenario of the decline and fall of the family too regularly makes fear the motive: If you don't want your children to turn into drug-abusing, gun-wielding young barbarians, you'd better spend a lot more quality time with them right now, quick.
What gets ignored is that, while much of the job may consist of duties, the indispensable essence of being a parent is love. The good news is that parents themselves appear to be recognizing anew the rewards of being devoted. According to the National Study of the Changing Workforce released this month - the most comprehensive study ever of the work and family lives of American workers - parents are putting family first, not because they are being coerced but because they are revising their priorities.
Although there is not a lot of evidence that bosses support this view, Ms. Reno sums up the challenge: ``We must find ways to put the family first before everything we do, while creating opportunities for both parents to achieve professional fulfillment.''
Working parents will continue to work. What they need now, if they are to fulfill without guilt and exhaustion the requests of respected voices like Riley, Shanker, and Reno, is time. Time to read to their children. Time to monitor their TV viewing. Time to give them more guidance. In an era of tight corporate budgets, time - in the form of flexible schedules, part-time jobs, and telecommuting - may be the one perk employers can best afford. In the long run, it might also be the perk they can least afford to deny this generation of workers - and the next.