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A Long Walk Down the Aisle

ON an otherwise gray late-winter day, a friend delivers news as unexpected and cheering as crocuses in the snow: The couple's 27-year-old daughter is being married in June. As she outlines wedding plans and describes her future son-in-law, her eyes shine with the happiness any prospective mother of the bride might feel. But in this case, her joy carries an added dimension, made sweeter by all that has led up to this moment.

Not so many years ago, during the darkest periods of their adopted daughter's turbulent adolescence, no one in the family would have dared predict this kind of happy outcome. Youthful rebellion took many forms. The teenager experimented with drugs. She was truant. She became pregnant at 16, eventually releasing her baby for adoption. At times the problems seemed so severe, her companions so unsuitable, that counselors urged the parents to bar her from the house.

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Yet the couple could no more lock this wayward child out of their home than they could lock her out of their hearts. So they carried on bravely, smiling publicly and crying privately, trying to preserve a normal family life for their other children.

Gradually, their efforts bore fruit, and their daughter began taking the first tentative steps toward a more stable life. She received her high school equivalency degree and enrolled in classes at a community college. She also found employment, eventually training to become a nurse.

Under other circumstances, in a less supportive home, this young woman might have become one of a growing number of ``throwaways'' or ``pushouts'' - children whose parents will not or cannot care for them. Falcon Baker, author of a new book, ``Saving Our Kids: From Delinquency, Drugs, and Despair,'' estimates that more than one million children have been rejected by their families, forced to make their own way on the streets or in shelters. Their average age is 15.

These tragic failures, which can result from mistakes by both generations, run counter to the hopes and dreams and best intentions of most parents. They also defy the powerful images of happily-ever-after domesticity portrayed on TV sitcoms, where parents are understanding, children are malleable, and all problems are solved in 22 minutes.

Sitcoms have grown more realistic since the days of warm and fuzzy shows like ``Father Knows Best'' and ``The Brady Bunch.'' Still, the myth of the perfect family dies hard. Even ``Roseanne,'' with its shouting and domestic chaos, usually closes with misty-eyed hugs or loving smiles.

Yet even members of perfect TV families sometimes find themselves unable to hide their own imperfections. Earlier this year, fans of ``Father Knows Best'' were shocked to learn that the show's beloved patriarch, Robert Young, had attempted suicide. Mr. Young, who reportedly has had a long struggle with alcohol and depression, had admitted in earlier interviews that he felt guilty about the apparent contradiction of playing a contented and understanding father when he was often unhappy himself.

Despite more open attitudes toward changing family structures, the pressure to be the perfect, all-American family has intensified in recent years. From elite nursery schools to advanced placement high school courses, the obsession to produce children who are among the best and the brightest is being institutionalized. When offspring fail to live up to unrealistic expectations, both generations can feel the sting of failure.

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Not all parents possess patience in the face of repeated disappointments. Not all rebellious teens become repentant prodigal sons or daughters. But the family - what the sociologist Christopher Lasch calls a ``haven in a heartless world'' - still represents an ultimate alliance that cannot, must not be easily broken up.

Every marriage ceremony has behind it a history of earlier journeys by the bride and groom, separately and together, before their walk down the aisle. In June, when my friend's husband escorts their daughter to the altar, guests who are aware of the long journey from wayward teenager to committed bride may recognize that parents who keep the faith through the darkest wanderings earn a special share in the happy ending. In fact, on an occasion like this all the families in the pews - all the families in the community - have a cause to celebrate.

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