Q. For years I've watched one smart capable friend after another who would have a baby and then find herself overwhelmed.

I just can't believe parenthood is so demanding.

After all the milk is ready made, one way or another; the food comes in jars and it can't take more than a minute or two to diaper a baby. Even if he uses 20 diapers a day, that's at the most a half-hour, and with disposable diapers, what's the hassle? It shouldn't be such a production any more.It shouldn't be the only topic of conversation.

And yet, now that I expect my first child (I'm 34), I find myself talking about natural childbirth and breatfeeding the way I used to talk about my work. And it makes me wonder about my other ideas. If my smart, capable friends had trouble, I'm afraid I will too. What should I expect?

A. It probably takes as long for a parent to learn how to be a parent as it does for a child to grow up. Yes, there's going to be trouble, but not more than you can handle.

Other elements cause more grief. Even though you will take fine care of your baby, there will be times when you wonder who's going to take care of you .

It takes years to accept the responsibility of being a parent 24 hours a day, and even then a little kid in each of us will pop out when the going gets rough.

PARENTHOOD ISN'T EASY FOR ANYBODY. you'll never have another job that requires such problem-solving, such a care for details or demand for attention as a parent. And you'll never do anything that matters so much.

It is the relentlessness, perhaps more than anything else, that can be overwhelming. You will have your getaway weekends and if you both work, your housekeeper, but once the baby is born you'll never take a trip to the cleaners or a trip to Bermuda without considering him. In fact, it will seldom be automatic in the first few months and every plan will require a double-think. This in itself is exhausting.

You also have to learn to time everything. Whatever you do -- baking a cake or making love -- has to fit between the feedings. And when you go to a party you have a curfew again, so your teenage sitter can get home on time.

It may be months before you get a whole night's sleep, which won't happen until the baby is old enough to last through the night, or you quit eating whatever it is that gives him colic -- whichever comes first. But there will be nights when you will rock him from 2 to dawn and weep with the injustice of it all: How can anyone so perfect be such a squalling monster?

This is the child who will wet your designer jeans, throw up on your husband's three-piece suit and shriek when you leave the room. But he will look so dear in your arms and so delighted to see you return that you will wonder how you ever lived without him. The pre-baby world will seem empty in retrospect.

You can quit your job; get a divorce; win the lottery; catch a disease; make a million; go on a three-week binge or a six-month safari, but whatever you do and wherever you go, you will never forget this child.

Within his first year or so he will say a few words, and after that you will never hear a child yell "Mommy" without catching your breath and looking around. And each time you'll know you've been blessed.

Every day of a child's life is another investment for parents, and like money in the bank, it keeps piling up and paying dividends. While he gets more and more independent, the memories you make, the stories you read, the Christmas tableaux you endure at school will bind you tighter to him.

Forget your doubts. You are about to bring forth a miracle and life will never be the same again. Lucky you.