BOSTON — I suppose it is reassuring that when all hell breaks loose, the tabloids still keep their eyes on the heavens, or at least the stars. Even in the Middle East, a gossip sheet in the United Arab Emirates is dutifully chronicling the search for baby Suri.

The daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes is not exactly missing. No milk cartons, please. It’s just that the 3-month-old has not yet had her picture on the public show-and-tell circuit, a required rite of passage for celebrities.

The frenzied speculation about the TomKitten, as she is called in tabloidese, gives you an idea of the change in star tracking. These days the paparazzi are focused on the celebrity baby — from bump to birth and beyond. The fascination with these celebrity births has surpassed the fixation on celebrity love, marriage, infidelity, divorce and weight gain — unless they conveniently dovetail.

For most of Hollywood life, the bump was not a fashion statement, nor was it a smart career move. In 1953, when Lucille Ball had a baby in real life and sitcom life, you still couldn’t say “pregnant” on TV. In 1991, Demi Moore broke a barrier when she posed nude and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair. But when Britney Spears appears that way on the cover of Bazaar, she merely looks, um, overexposed.

Cameras now stalk celebrity wombs. The Onion turns its satirical eye to announce celebrity satellites that can spot “baby bumps” from 13,000 miles above the Earth. And when Reese Witherspoon sues Star magazine for false pregnancy reports, the mother of two is described as “empty-wombed.”

The 2006 crop of top tots — courtesy of Brooke Shields, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gwen Stefani, et al. — climaxed with the birth in Namibia of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter Shiloh. People magazine reportedly coughed up about $4.1 million for the photos to feed a public appetite for newborns that formerly was limited to grandparents.

Following the new script, celebrity parents are also displaying a post-partum glow and a few words of parental bliss. Even the zany Jack Black has publicly promised to enter and win the best-daddy-on-the-planet competition.

So how did this fixation on celebrity babies, this upbeat bump beat, happen just as we are being told that parenthood is onerous and grueling and that parents are overworked and overwhelmed?

Readers of Star, In Touch, OK! and US Weekly probably did not pick up the latest lament about parenting at their supermarket checkout. It was offered by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project and still best known for siding with Dan Quayle in his spat over single motherhood with Murphy Brown. Now, she’s painted a disheartening picture of parenthood as “a conspicuous source of anxiety and distress.” She then points to a demographic and cultural culprit. (full report / summary)

Parenting, writes Whitehead, takes up a shorter amount of the expanding life cycle these days, somewhere between a child-free youth and a child-free empty nest. So the culture that once thought of adulthood and parenthood as synonymous now portrays child-raising as an unsatisfying timeout from the fun.

“If the popular culture were the only source of knowledge about American parenthood,” she says, “one would quickly conclude that being a parent is one of the least esteemed and most undesirable roles in the society.” She describes a society that is “indifferent at best, and hostile, at worst, to those who are caring for the next generation.”

But if the popular culture casts parenthood as grim, who’s feeding the pro-natalist message to its audience? “What is happening to the joys of parenthood?” asks Whitehead in dismay. But in the tabloids, stars respond in a torrent of parental gush: “He inspires me!” “We stare at him.” “We’re so in love.”

Let’s be clear. The difference between being a celebrity parent and a civilian parent is probably the difference between working at Wal-Mart and Warner Bros. The stars get nannies and trainers, the rest of us get diapers and stretch marks. Hollywood’s baby flicks may ultimately be as useful a guide to real life as its chick flicks.

But I’m guessing that the media baby boom also fills a real desire for some counter-messages. Whitehead may rue the pop culture that makes “child-rearing values — sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity — seem stale and musty.” But Brad Pitt, scion of the pop culture, tells the world: “I got kids now. And it really changes your perspective on the world. … I’m so tired of thinking about myself.”

Parenting as drudgery? Or could it be that babies are the new bling?

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)


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