Washington — ''MOTHERS have no role models at all; your present life can't compare with your mother's,'' says Phyllis Silverman, manager of the Corporate Child Care Resource Center at Catalyst, a nonprofit firm that studies women and employment.
At a conference on ''Working Parents and Achieving Children,'' sponsored by the Home and School Institute, this theme of living in a changed generation popped up continually. A few statistics prove the point: Women are now 44 percent of the work force and expected to be half the work force by the end of the century; 45 percent of women with children under 12 months old work outside the home; women with a spouse present are turning to the work force more rapidly than any other group of females; the number of single working mothers is now roughly equivalent to the number of so-called ''traditional'' families - those with two parents present, one of whom is working.
''My life is very different from my parents' lives,'' says Mark Kiefaber, an author and lecturer on parenting. ''As parents, we live in a day of increasing responsibilities and diminishing control. Do you consider yourself responsible for your children's TV watching?'' he asks, citing something our grandparents never worried about. ''What if the kid down the street gets cable with the Playboy channel?''
''There are more pressures now on families than there have been in many, many decades,'' concludes Ann Rosewater, deputy staff director of the US House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, which has held hearings around the country this past year on family issues.
''Take an issue like child care,'' Ms. Silverman continues. ''How do you interview a child-care worker? How do you negotiate with her? No one knows how to do this, because their parents never did it and they've never watched it done ,'' she says.
''One woman told me she'd been interviewing day-care workers all day and her test was - you'll love this - whether or not the worker washed her hands before she held the baby. We don't even know how to ask someone to wash their hands!'' she exclaims.
Even though women are going to work in increasing numbers, ''our families are still organized the same way, with the mother at the center doing the organizing ,'' Ms. Silverman points out. ''Maybe that's not the best way - maybe she should take a side role instead.''
Men are also having to relearn their role, says Bob Levey, a working father and Washington Post columnist, who has a toddler named Emily. ''Before she was born, I'd never used a needle and thread, never changed a diaper, never done anything but my own wash,'' Mr. Levey explains.
He works hard to overcome the stereotype of ''Daddy as Mr. Bucks, disappearing every day,'' by bringing his daughter to the office, taking time off for lunch at home, trying to be an ''interchangeable parent'' with his wife, and calling his daughter ''six times a day,'' he says.
Yet at the office, if there is any conversation about children among fathers, it is chiefly, ''How am I going to pay for Harvard?'' says Mr. Levey. ''We talk about money, about things and phenomena like whether my child can type the ABCs, and see our children as extensions of our own competitive selves. But we never talk about what kind of human beings we're bringing up in this world,'' he says.
''You see a lot of fathers out there in the shopping centers with the Snugglies (baby carriers),'' says Mr. Kiefaber, ''and a lot of fathers getting involved in the birth, but I think that the New Father is a sham - we aren't any more sensitive to our children than our fathers were.''
But, he admits, ''Sometimes a man can let himself be vulnerable with a child - society allows that. I've been overwhelmed at times by the emotional joy of being with children.''
Finding time to spend with those children is top on any working parent's list of special needs, it seems. The conference detailed several initial attempts by both the public and private sectors to address some of those needs.
John Svahn, assistant to the president for policy development, spelled out attempts by the White House to support working parents: support for a bill to aid in collecting child support, which has passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate; an increase in the day-care tax credit for middle- and lower-income parents; a bill to make contributions to nonprofit child-care centers tax deductible; and efforts in the private sector to support the founding of on-site day-care centers in the working place.
Private-sector initiatives have been, for the most part, creative and individualized. One popular ''low-risk, low-cost way for corporations to address the needs of parents,'' says Ms. Silverman, is the so-called ''work and family'' seminar, going into issues such as child behavior, balancing career and family, returning to work after maternity leave, and deciding when to have a family.
''Working parents are stuck in a changed situation, and they're panicked,'' says Ms. Silverman, who monitors countless parenting seminars held in a growing number of large and medium-size companies around the country. ''We try to make them feel like normal people in a weird situation, not weird people in a normal situation.''
Eliza Collins, senior editor of the Harvard Business Review, admits up front that she is neither a ''working parent nor an achieving child.'' She thinks we're in a period of transition in which the work force is changing far faster than the workplace. ''The problem is that we have values left over from the manufacturing economy,'' she says.
Dirty, dingy factories gave rise to the ''set of assumptions that workers are lazy and unmotivated, since they didn't want to go to work in those places and had to be coerced and controlled. That's called Theory X,'' she explains.
Along came Theory Y (first postulated by Douglas McGregor) ''which assumes that most of us are caring individuals who like to work and don't have to be coerced.
''Managers for the most part are very wary of Theory X and go on Theory Y,'' asserts Ms. Collins, ''but some old values persist when new situations arise.'' With more and more working parents needing increased flexibility, the situation confronting employers ''makes organizations retrench a little,'' she thinks.
In fact, upper-level management may not even be aware of the special needs of working parents, experts say. ''We have parents writing to us who are afraid to tell their child's teacher, let alone their employer, that they're single parents,'' says Ginnie Nuta of Parents Without Partners.
Such silence belies reality, says Ms. Collins, and adversely affects productivity. ''We have an almost Dickensian attitude toward the value of efficiency - getting the most done with the least amount of work - but we need to look at effectiveness first,'' she says. Workers who feel like their work and family lives are unbalanced ''aren't going to be that productive,'' she asserts.
Employers need to hear the challenges facing parents. ''But don't voice them as complaints,'' warns Ms. Collins. ''Present them instead as problems with solutions - the more solutions you can find, the better. Organizations are not large, impersonal beings, but people running them, and those people need to know how to help,'' she says.
She also suggests that parents voice their suggestions to ''senior executive women - they can afford to make statements that fashion policy.'' Or parents can work through the company's grievance channel, if there is one.
Kathleen McDonald, personnel development adviser at Exxon Chemical Company, thinks working mothers should make every effort to get working fathers to voice these problems as well. ''When a white male speaks, it still goes further and faster,'' she says. ''I had two single fathers come to me and tell me that when they travel for the company, they incur extra child-care expense, and ask if they could put that on their expense account. That went right up to a policymaking level,'' she says.
But she thinks that ''if supervisors regularly heard complaints from their employees who are parents and passed them up, something would have already been done. I'm just not hearing parents speak out.''
While Ms. McDonald understands the reluctance on the part of many employees to speak out for fear of retaliation on the job, she thinks most workers have more room for hard questions than they think. ''I tell people at Exxon that you can be as eccentric as you are perceived to be competent,'' she says.
Under eccentric, she lumps ''all kinds of things - strange behavior, using more creative ideas, asking hard questions, wearing outlandish clothes. A lot of people who do these things at corporations are perceived to be incompetent, so management pays no attention to them. But if you're perceived to be competent - if you've been in your particular job for a while and doing it well - you can get away with asking some hard questions, and management will pay attention to them because they see you as an employee worth retaining,'' she says.
Ms. McDonald also believes that the one consistent factor in this state of flux - between old management values and new, between a uniform work force and a highly diverse one, between traditional life styles and wider choices - is ''us.''
''The responsibility for making life-structuring decisions falls more and more on us,'' she says, ''which is difficult, since most of us grew up in institutions - schools, camps, military, jobs - where our expectations were that all we had to do was show up. We can no longer rely on external structures to make those decisions for us.''
Ms. McDonald is very positive about this: ''This is a democratic society, after all, and it depends on the contributions of each individual. If all we're trying to do is mold people to institutions, we're undercutting the contributions individuals can make. But if individuals are making these (life-structuring) decisions, it returns us to the principles espoused during the American Revolution.''
That's good, she says, but difficult: ''It's real easy to say, well, the government should be doing this, the corporations should be doing that, but it's hard to engage in full self-responsibility.''
Ms. Collins echoes this thought: ''The mistake we make is in thinking that this is going to be easy. These changes have happened quickly, and it will take time to get used to them.''
''Time will make the biggest difference,'' says presidential adviser John Svahn, father of two. ''In most companies today, the generation that is in management came up through the ranks without needing child care or having these problems. When the next generation is in management, we'll have a different outlook,'' he asserts.