BELMONT, MASS. — For the 25 women gathered in the tiny basement room at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church here, the next few hours are a haven from the routine of changing diapers, sterilizing bottles, and keeping a tether on two-year-olds.
What brings them together this evening is not how to expand their careers as lawyers, accountants, consultants, and real estate agents in the hard-driving 1990s.
It's how to be a full-time mom in a different sort of decade.
Most of these women have left their jobs or adopted part-time work to stay home with their children. While all agree they would do it again, the transition from task forces to daily feedings has been anything but easy.
"It can be very isolating," says Sue Morris, who left her job as an editor at Houghton Mifflin five years ago when her first son was born. "During the first three months at home, I was in tears watching my husband walk up to the subway. I'd think, 'I've got nine or 10 hours on my own here. How can I do this day after day?' "
Now, she would never consider returning to work, but the challenges of staying home were real.
About a year ago, Ms. Morris started the local chapter of FEMALE, or Formerly Employed Mothers on the Leading Edge. Now with 70 member mothers, the chapter belongs to a national organization founded by an Illinois mother, Joanne Brundage, who left her job as a mail carrier to stay home with her children.
The national group, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this fall, has taken off. In the past two years alone, membership has doubled to 5,500 women in 150 chapters.
Balancing work and family has become the great American juggling act of the '90s. Many couples argue that it's financially impossible to have one spouse at home full time. And women, who still do most of the juggling, often see stepping out of the labor force as career suicide.
In fact, the number of women in the office with young children is higher than ever.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 62 percent of mothers with children under 6 now work, up from 47 percent in 1980.
With companies demanding more from employees, more couples find themselves at a crossroads.
Brenda Barnes, chief executive at Pepsi-Cola North America, recently reignited the debate when she left her post to be at home with her husband and three children.
Nationally, the women in FEMALE hail from blue-collar and white-collar jobs. Half have college degrees; a third hold postgraduate degrees.
In the Belmont chapter, about a quarter work part time and a few full time, but most are full-time stay-at-home moms.
All acknowledge that staying home is not for everyone. It's a road paved with as many rewards as challenges. Some even surprised themselves when they decided to ditch corporate life.
They all agree that a network of other at-home moms gives vital support. Besides meeting twice a month, the chapter sponsors weekly play groups as well as "Moms' Nights Out."
The network plays a crucial role in maintaining both a sense of equilibrium and well-being. "You can talk to family and friends about some of the things you're experiencing, but unless they've been through it, it's not the same," says Laurie Neylon. "And husbands just don't understand, because they're not in the same genre."
Ms. Neylon decided, a week before her maternity leave ended, not to return to work as an international business consultant. "I looked into day-care options, but it just didn't feel right," says Neylon, at home 2-1/2 years now with her daughter and, as of last month, a new baby.
"It was difficult personally and professionally, but I'm glad I made the decision," she says. "In the consulting world, you can make a lot of money for your clients, but the biggest joy is watching your child tie her shoes for the first time."
Morris, whose sons are now 5 and 2, also struggled with leaving her editing job.
She too had planned to return to work after three months' maternity leave with her first son, but couldn't turn him over to a caregiver. After 10 months, she took a part-time editing position at a small publisher. Her second son, two years ago, brought the issue home again.
"I didn't know I wasn't going back when I left," Morris says. "When I was [on maternity leave] I changed my mind daily, if not hourly. But economically it didn't make sense to have two kids in day care on my salary."
One big challenge is the sudden loss of identity, brought on, some feel, by a society that overemphasizes "where you work."
"Society portrays these superwomen - that you can have it all," says Neylon. "Well, you can't have it all, and you have to make some hard choices."
She was shocked at being called "housewife" when her husband filled out an insurance form.
"I almost started crying. I was shocked. I said, 'Am I really a housewife,' " she recalls, now able to laugh at the scenario. "I've gotten over that."
Most of the women say being a mother is tougher than going to the office - with 2 a.m. feedings, potty training, and tots who throw tantrums.
"Some people think being at home is sitting around and playing with a baby and doing whatever you want," says Maura Toomey, a former career counselor who left 17 months ago when her daughter was born. "I found it is much more difficult than going to work.
"In the beginning it's a 24-hour job because the baby is up at night. "You are always on the clock. At 5 p.m. you don't punch out."
What about husbands staying home? "We had the discussion, but it didn't last long," laughs Neylon. "He just didn't want to stay home, and I didn't want to push it."
But ask about the biggest challenge, and it's almost unanimous - feeling isolated and alone. Unlike their own mothers, many of these women are the only at-home moms on the block. A few joke about extra trips to the grocery store just to mingle with other adults.
"Most of my social contacts were at work," Morris says. "I figured I would meet mothers strolling down the street or at the playground, but it didn't happen."
While many members have the financial means to stay home full time - their husbands make good salaries - some have cut back back lifestyles.
Neylon and her husband sold their Boston waterfront home and second car and moved to a working-class suburb. They actually settled on a one-salary home before Neylon decided to stay home. She says she was glad for the option.
"Economics often gets pushed to the side when you're having a child," she says. "As a result, a lot of women become slaves to going back to work because they have a [big] mortgage."
In the Belmont chapter, most women say they plan a return to "paid labor" and have used the time away to consider career changes. Morris, for one, wants a degree in landscape design, something she's always wanted to do.
Yet FEMALE founder Joanne Brundage speculates that many members probably would have stayed with work if their companies had offered more flexibility.
"We have seen so many incredible women come through our organization who were pushed against a wall and not given the options they needed," says Brundage. "A lot of employers said, 'Hey, you signed on to this. If you can't cut it then we'll look for another person.' But think of the lost investment."