Baby Carriages - In Spring, a Sign The Family Thrives

On the first day of spring last week, two blue balloons bobbed in a chill breeze outside a white Cape in our suburban neighborhood. Blue crepe paper streamers decorated the front hedge, and a handmade sign heralded the news many neighbors had been awaiting: "It's A Boy!!!"

With the arrival of little Andrew Robert on St. Patrick's Day ("He's not a bit Irish, but he'll always have a parade on his birthday," his mother says with a laugh), the owners of this neatly-kept house have gone from being DINKs - dual-income, no kids - to being first-time parents. They have also helped to create a mini-baby boom in the neighborhood: Within three months, three boys have been born on their block alone.

Andrew's elated parents - his father an engineer, his mother a nurse - are in their early 30s and have been married five years. As such, they neatly fit a Census Bureau profile released two weeks ago showing the median age of first marriages standing at a record high - 26.7 years for men, 24.5 for women.

The couple also helps put a face on another new portrait of the American family released this month, claiming the traditional two-parent family is making a comeback. That report, by the Population Reference Bureau Inc., in Washington, shows increases in the number of two-parent households with children and a declining divorce rate.

Some demographers call those findings overly optimistic. Yet like the first crocus peeking through the snow after a long winter, the report offers the first encouraging sign in years that the two-parent family may not be as endangered as Americans believe.

In the wake of constant media attention to the social problem of the week - teenage pregnancy, welfare mothers, deadbeat fathers, child abuse, or domestic violence - the conventional family has become largely invisible, a forgotten majority. Where, after all, would Geraldo, and Sally Jesse, and Ricki, and Oprah be without ever-more sensational subjects?

Even when ordinary families do make news, their efforts to be good parents can be misinterpreted by reporters and readers alike. Some couples find themselves subtly ridiculed by the media for trying hard to get their three-year-olds accepted at the "right" preschool. Others face criticism for over-programming children, filling up schedules with too many activities. Still others, whose jobs depend on reliable day care, must endure the disapproval of traditionalists insisting on an ideal, not always possible anymore, that one parent should stay home with young children.

"We'll build a little house for two - or three or four or more" - the words of one 1930s musical paean to domesticity and parenthood seem quaint and naive by 1990s standards. Yet such sentiment, outside the range of songwriters today, speaks to a dream of stable family life that endures with or without media attention.

In a few weeks, when the weather finally warms, there will be three mothers - and perhaps fathers too - wheeling baby carriages around our neighborhood. As parents have always done, they will probably stop to compare notes about their babies' feedings and sleeping patterns. And since all three women have jobs - and bosses - waiting for them to return, they will undoubtedly discuss other subjects specific to the '90s - the end of maternity leave, the beginning of day care.

Whatever their challenges as they factor careers into the demanding and rewarding routines of childrearing, these first-time parents reflect the optimism and hopes of new parents everywhere. Andrew's mother touches on those dreams when she describes her husband's awe in the presence of his new son. She says, "You should see him. He just sits there and stares at this child in total amazement and wonder."

That says it all. Parenthood may not be the exclusive concern it once was, but it keeps its unrivaled place in the heart. That seems as encouraging a sign as any this spring that the family, for all its radical changes in the past 25 years, cannot be undone either by doomsayers or shifts in demographics.

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