Reports from the home front. Columnist Joyce Maynard's `beat' is her own rural backyard

JOYCE MAYNARD is an adventurer. Her life may not sound like much of an adventure - raising three children in rural New Hampshire with her husband, Steve - but then, adventure is where you find it. Ms. Maynard began her professional life when she was barely out of high school. Her first book, ``Looking Back,'' an autobiography, was published when she was just 19. In her early 20s she worked as a reporter at the New York Times for a year, then traded urban living for marriage, a farmhouse, and the first of the children.

Dark-haired and slender, Maynard looks more like a college student than the mother of three. She leans forward in her seat, explaining how she happened to start writing about family life.

``After my daughter was born I briefly imagined that I was going to be able to carry on just as before,'' she says. ``And then I saw this was going to be a little tricky.

``What I did was to decide that I would still be a reporter and I would report on the home front - like a beat. I did this sort of grumbling a bit, `Well, I guess I've got to stay home for a while, and if I'm going to I'll just invest it with as much adventure and excitement and drama and suspense as I can muster' - but lo and behold, not instantly, but kind of gradually, I became aware of the fact that in fact I didn't have to invent this adventure - it was there. And that very important things were happening under our roof.''

These ``important things'' have become the basis for her syndicated columns over the past decade, columns she has recently collected and enlarged on for a book, ``Domestic Affairs: Enduring the Pleasures of Motherhood and Family Life'' (Times Books, $17.95). In it, she chronicles with poignancy and humor the day-to-day joys and challenges of raising a family.

The episodes are those any parent can relate to: trying to feign sleep at the crack of dawn for just a teeny bit longer as a wide-awake three-year-old dangles his current favorite book (``The Pokey Little Puppy'') in your face ... frantically searching through every wastebasket in the house for the missing shoe to your seven-year-old daughter's Crystal Barbie ... spending an hour getting three children suited up in turtlenecks, socks, snow suits, boots, hats, and mittens, only to have them announce, after eight minutes of romping in the snow, that they are ready to come back inside for hot chocolate.

Her pen doesn't always paint a rosy picture. She writes of her father's alcoholism and the effect it has had on her life, of arguments and financial struggles.

``I feel a certain obligation,'' she explains, ``if I'm going to be writing about family life at all, to do it in an honest way, and not to paint this portrait of total harmony and ease, because I think that would be really discouraging.... I'm a fellow struggler. Just about everything I've learned about raising children and being in a marriage I've learned from one error or another. So that's what I do - I tell the truth.''

Although she writes at home - well, out behind the house in a little office her husband built for her a few years ago - Maynard faces many of the same quandaries as mothers who work outside the home: finding adequate day care, making enough time to spend with the children, keeping the manifold details of a home running smoothly (``executive mothering'' as she calls it). All of which makes grist for the mill of her weekly column.

The column isn't the only work she does. Maynard also writes magazine articles, and has a novel to her credit, as well as a couple of children's books, illustrated by her husband, Steve Bethel.

And lately, she's finding that her horizons are broadening beyond the home front to an increased involvement in nuclear issues.

This was forced upon her one day a year and a half ago, when the Department of Energy announced that her hometown of Hillsboro, N.H., had been chosen as a finalist for one of the nation's two nuclear waste dumps.

``For us, at first the issue was very simply keeping our home,'' she says. ``We were right in the center of the spot that would have been taken, and we would have, among other things, had to wait as long as 12 years to find out [the department's final decision] - so you can imagine what that does to your life.

``There was a time during that period when, like many people in our town, Steve and I talked about leaving....''

What ultimately persuaded them to stay was the message that leaving would convey to their children.

``That's one of the things about being a parent, that once you have a child, what you do is no longer simply what you do, it is what you teach them to do,'' she says. ``They look to you, and how you view the world will shape their way of looking at it. And if you take the attitude which many people in our town were taking, `There's nothing I can do about this' - if you take that view, that you are powerless, then what kind of cynicism about our country and their lives would they come out of that with?''

So Maynard and her husband stayed, and joined in the public outcry against the waste dump, and worked to educate the community and public at large about its hazards. Their efforts weren't in vain. A year ago this past May the DOE announced that the project had been postponed indefinitely.

But, says Maynard, the issue is hardly dead.

``They are pursuing the dump in the West, but it's no safer out there than it is here. It's just going to be in some different person's backyard and trucked across different highways. And finally - they're still making it! So they've got to put it someplace.''

The ordeal taught her a great deal. ``I got the lesson loud and clear out of this one - that there is no place you can move to that is so safe that you can really just leave it to the rest of the world - that you're outside of the danger zone. The only real way for a safe world is to make it be safe - to take a very active role.''

Parents in particular have a responsibility to take an active role, she feels.

``I think mothers - parents - are very powerful. The people who are affecting the direction our country goes in should not be the business interests but the interests in the future - the parents.''

Maynard's life has changed considerably since the nuclear dump issue. She's just finished research for a lengthy article on the Three Mile Island accident. The topics of nuclear waste and nuclear arms surface often now in her column, and she speaks about the issues when lecturing. Her own newfound determination to take an active role is directly related to her role as a mother, she says.

``If the rest of the world gives you no credibility whatsoever, pays you not a penny, there's one person who thinks you could bring the sun out of the sky, and that's your child. And that's our trump card, that we are extraordinarily powerful in their eyes, and how can we let them down?''

Excerpts from `Domestic Affairs' by Joyce Maynard

On growing up:

`Charlie has his moments, still, when he climbs into my lap...needing to hear, one more time, that dinosaurs are extinct.

`But there are also some things my children know that I don't. It starts with silly, odd bits of information: the various types of Care Bears available, which He-Man figures are good and which are evil. Then, gradually, it gets a little closer to home, and before a person knows it, her children are explaining photosynthesis and teaching her how to make an origami box. Which is just what we all want to happen, of course. Still, when it does, it's a shock.'

On midnight surprises:

`These stories I've been telling about my children and the frequent havoc they wreak on our home were mostly about times I wouldn't trade for the world. At midnight, finally sponging off the last counter, turning out the lights, heading upstairs, and finding Willy wide awake and sitting on the steps, in total darkness, with his toy chain saw on his lap, his face beaming. `Happy New Year,` he says brightly, (In fact, it is March.) Who could be angry?''

On the responsibilities of parenthood:

`I seldom feel like much of an adventurer--standing in my kitchen, pouring cereal into bowls, refilling them, handing out paper towels when the inevitable cry comes: `Uh-oh, I spilled.' But sometimes at night the thought will strike me: There are three small people here, breathing sweetly in their beds, whose lives are for the moment in our hands. I might as well be at the controls of a moon shot, the mission is so grave and vast.'

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