I am thinking about having a baby but want to learn as much as I can about child rearing first so I can be as good a mother as possible. So far I've taken an excellent course called "self-esteem management" at a local hospital.

Could you recommend a reading list for someone like me? I'm a college graduate who knows very little about child rearing or what's involved, but would very much like to have a child to love and grow with and to share my life.

a)There are many good books about parenthood, and you should read at least a selection. Before giving a list of favorites, however, it's only fair to tell you what so many pediatric nurses, kindergarten teachers and super sitters have found: Nothing really prepares you for a child of your own.

How could it? Your baby will be so special, so different, so tied up in your heartstrings, that you can't believe any method, any school of child care, could meet the needs of this child.

And so, despite the best of books, and the best of intentions, you'll bring up the first and perhaps the second child by the most popular (and least acclaimed) techniques of all -- the ones you'll learn on your own in the Muddle Through School of Motherhood. Take it from one of its once-muddled students, it's as good as any.

This is where you learn how to juggle your fears and your finances; to define your style and your values; and where you discover that love cures anything between parent and child, if you both keep talking and listening (and hugging).

You and your baby will teach each other how to be good at your jobs, to be sensitive and kind to each other, to solve problems even though you always find solutions about two steps after they're due.

All mothers have some trouble with this, and you may have a little more than many, because you want to be so good at your job. It's time to learn that there's no such thing as a perfect mother. If you're going to expect too much of yourself, you're also going to expect too much of your child, who won't be perfect either. This is just asking for disappointment.

As a mother, you have to learn to forgive yourself when you can't do it all -- which is most of the time. The "good-as-possible" parents are those who drop the standards they can't meet -- and then laugh about it.

This isn't always easy. There will be days when you feel like a failure, and then your hospital course should serve you well. As much as your new role will enrich and strengthen and delight you, it can play havoc with your self-esteem. Your ego will be fairly fragile in the baby's early years, unless you work -- for pay or as a volunteer -- for a day or so a week. The encouragement you get from other grown-ups will help you keep your self-confidence and sense of competence when your child goes from throwing peas on the floor as a baby to rubbing butter on the chairs as a toddler.

Read the books now, by all means, so you'll know where to look for help when you need it. By then you can absorb what they say.

Start with The Amazing Newborn by Marshall Klaus, M.D., and Phyllis H. Klaus (Addison-Wesley, $10.95), to learn how to interact with an infant; Your Baby and Child by Penelope Leach (Knopf, $14.95), a warm, encyclopedic coverage of the first five years, with good medical information; Toddlers and Parents by T. Berry Brazelton (Addison-Wesley, $10.95), which explains what makes 2-year-olds tick; The Magic Years by Selma Fraiberg (Scribner's, $8.95) on the emotional passage of a young child; Child Behavior (revised) by Frances L. Ilg, M.D., Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D., and Sidney Baker, M.D. (Harper & Row, $7.95), so you'll know how children behave (and misbehave) and why; Your Child's Self-Esteem by Dorothy Corkrill Briggs (Doubleday, $8.95), to sensitize you to the psychological needs of a child; and Childhood and Adolescence by L. Joseph Stone and Joseph Church (Random House, $23), a breezy yet very authoritative book that covers birth through the teens.

It's also a good idea to take a course in child development, to learn how the body, the mind, the psyche and even the morals of a child each develop step by step, and always in sequence, although they may not always be in sync. This can be confusing if, for instance, a child is big for his age and yet quite immature.

For practical knowledge, help to care for a friend's baby or go to a hospital regularly to rock the sick or disabled children or to sing or read to them. This is where you'll begin to realize how much children need love and how good it feels to give it.

Whether you read any books, take any more training or play with any babies, you'll know it's time to get pregnant (or adopt a baby or take in a foster child) when the idea is so constant, so alluring, so pressing that life seems empty and dull if you don't.

Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

1987, Tribune Media Services Inc.