Washington — One day when her three children were very young, Phyllis Theroux felt uncharacteristically restless and discontented. ``I was bathing the children,'' she recalls. ``After they jumped out of the tub, I was sculling my arm through the dirty bath water, looking for the soap so it wouldn't melt. I suddenly thought, `Wait a second. I could be in Venice right now. I could be trailing my arm over the back of a gondola, charming some handsome Italian. And what am I doing in the prime of my life? I'm looking for soap in the bottom of the bathtub.'''
She laughs at the memory, then adds, ``Those traitorous thoughts do cross your mind sometimes.''
Her children are now teen-agers, and ``Venice still awaits me,'' Ms. Theroux says. But this is the kind of story - funny, candid, and oddly reassuring - that she likes to tell on herself, both in person and in the essays and books she has been writing since her children were toddlers.
In her latest book, ``Night Lights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark'' (Viking, $14.95), Theroux speaks as a kind of Everymother. In one essay she frets about a son's indifference as a student. In another she worries that her teen-age daughter's outlook might match her all-black wardrobe. She laughs at her own shortcomings as a homemaker, wonders how to teach everything from manners to the facts of life, and rejoices in small moments of contentment and peace. In the process, as the less-than-perfect parent of less-than-perfect children, she argues for tolerance, patience, fairness, and humor as indispensable aids in charting a navigable course between a child's infancy and ultimate independence.
The setting for many of Theroux's small family dramas is a comfortable two-story green frame house on Washington's northwest side. In the dining room, pots of ivy hang in sun-filled windows. Bookcases and wing chairs flank a wood stove in the living room. Snapshots of children decorate the refrigerator, and her own simple oil paintings hang in the hallway and bathroom. To complete the scene of urban domesticity, a ``routine'' black cat, Mimi, sleeps in a bread basket on a dining room radiator, and an exuberant black ``almost Labrador'' named Lodi follows Theroux everywhere.
Sitting crosslegged on the floor in front of a warming fire, Theroux talks about the joys and challenges of raising children - and writing about them. She jokingly describes her essays as ``sermons from Mt. Olympus in the swamps,'' explaining that whatever parental wisdom she possesses she has earned ``the hard way,'' through trial and error.
``I just never read any child-rearing books,'' she admits. ``I'd get confused.'' In one book that was popular in the '70s when her children were young, for instance, ``There was supposed to be a way to talk to your child. You weren't supposed to say, `Stop it!' You were supposed to say things like, `It is disturbing to see marmalade on the air conditioner.' It might have been effective, but I just never remembered the lines.''
What she does remember, ``very, very vividly,'' is ``how it felt to be a child. There's this terrible kind of vulnerability that you have as a child,'' explains Theroux, who grew up in northern California as the oldest of six children. At the same time, she says, ``I don't want my children to become invulnerable. I don't want them to become tough.''
With Theroux, family is a growing-up experience for more than the children. ``One of the implied challenges in raising children is that we're raising ourselves at the same time. No parent defines himself primarily as a parent. So you're trying to raise your children and at the same time find fulfillment and meaning in your own life.''
For some working mothers, ``fulfillment'' is the sneaky word that gets them out of the house. Not so with Theroux. ``I was a working mother downtown for a while,'' she says, referring to the 18 months she spent as a reporter for the Washington Post. ``I found I just couldn't handle it. There are people who are very organized, and they want it all. From what I understand, some of them have it.
``But I don't think the returns are in on what these kids are going to be like. You don't necessarily have to do what I did, which was basically wear an apron at the typewriter, so if one of my children got sick at school I could jump up and rush to school. But kids do need to know their parents are there for them.''
Being there, she points out, also means spending time talking to children, and listening. Using radios as a metaphor, She explains: ``Kids are such receivers. Sometimes we can get ourselves into such binds when parents consider themselves primarily transmitters: `Here's everything I know, shut up and listen.' Of course kids have a lot to transmit back themselves. The hard thing to realize is that listening is just as key for parents as well.''
This one-on-one communication serves another important purpose. ``In all the conversations a parent has with one's children,'' Theroux writes, ``it seems increasingly important to me to give children our assurance that we have endured their same confusions and emerged to feel the sun on our backs.''
As a single parent for nine years, she has had to do double duty in giving her children that assurance. In the process, she has been forced to ``draw a wider circumference'' of friends to meet her children's needs and her own. Given current divorce rates, she says, the nuclear family must ``dissolve its borders and admit non-blood relations to enrich it.''
Even within the divorced family, she continues, ``We've got to be much more open-ended in our family ties. Why should there be all these antiquated rules that we don't talk to the ex-husband? We create barriers that make it extremely hard on children. That's not to say there isn't a lot of bitterness and hurt feelings. But there's got to be some sort of relaxing of the old codes and strictures that keep families small and fractured.''
In her casual way, Theroux comes close to being a traditionalist. ``I don't think I've ever felt so entirely useful as I did when I was the parent of small children,'' she says quietly. ``I think the instinct to be useful is probably the strongest human desire. You feel that particular instinct gratified on a minute-to-minute basis when you're the parent of small children. In fact, one of the dilemmas for parents my age is that this kind of usefulness is no longer necessary. It's hard to give up feeling so indispensable.''
Still, Theroux would be the first to admit that a willingness to become dispensable is an indispensable part of successful parenthood.
She sums up her pragmatic credo thus: ``Parents are supposed to bring children to their full potential. That's our goal in life as far as being a parent is concerned. But where on earth would adults ever be able to expand to our full potential if we didn't have children? We would be so untested.''