I thought the whole point of Jimmy Carter's White House conference on the family was to encourage the preservation of the family. It irritates me to learn that the conference must be postponed for a couple of years because we are having trouble defining what a family is.

And I think Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano ought to put his foot down. He was the one who turned up unexpectedly in New Hampshire to announce that he was Jimmy Carter's family expert and that he would shortly tell us what could and should be done about the family's parlous state.

And about the rising divorce rate, the number of children born out of wedlock, the fact that one out of every seven children lives with a single parent.

Califano handed us a batch of statistics about juvenile crime, hinting broadly that the divorce figures and the juvenile crime rate had much to do with each other.

He suggested that government policies were partially at fault and that a White House conference on the family might serve the useful purpose of devising ways and means of restoring and bolstering the family.

By which he certainly meant the traditional family - that is, a married man and woman living under the same roof with their children. That's what a family is. That's what Mr. Califano said he was trying to preserve.

But now, according to news reports, he is all sixes and sevens. First, he appointed a divorced woman to run the conference, which naturally irritated Catholics. Then he heard from the homosexuals. They wanted to be considered as families. Then came the divorced parents and the unmarried parents, and the whole thing got out of hand, and the easy way out was to postpone it.

One can see the sort of thing that worried Califano: "This conference is going to be dealing with the shape of the American family in the 1980s, not with the traditional intact family of the past," said Dr. Robert Hill, research director of the Urban League.

And one can sympathize. Califano is dealing with an enormous desertion rate among blacks. He is dealing with the fact that twice as many blacks as whites live together as unmarried couples. He is dealing with the fact that many of these unmarried couples have children.

But he knew all that to begin with. He pointed it out to the rest of us as a "problem."

I don't see why the rest of us should consider ourselves passe because those who represent the problem want to ts Passed because those who represent the problem want to tby changing the meaning of the word.

Back in the campaign days Califano was very persuasive as to what government might do to help the family. He told us that unemployment and inflation were destructive of families. He pointed out that unmarried couples living together were three times more likely to be below the poverty line as married couples. He reminded us that those same unmarried couples were far less likely to have completed 12 years of schooling than were married couples.

Which facts pointed to his thesis: that the family was worth preserving and that government should help. Never once in those early days did Califano modify the noun "family" with the adjective "intact."

So I'm for the old Joe and not for the new. I think a little guts would be in order. If I were he, I'd ignore the homosexuals; I'd admit the political error of appointing a divorced woman to head the conference. And I'd call in the Urban League and say, "The purpose of this conference is to find ways and means to change the way your constituents choose, or are forced, to live." Then I'd go ahead with the conference.

Political trouble be damned. The family is more important.