LOS ANGELES — Lesley Spencer discovered that a day at home can be just as demanding as a day at the office.
For the past two years, the mother of two toddlers has been running a national organization for work-at-home moms from her renovated attic in Austin, Texas.
While being at home means lunches and afternoons in the park with her children - something her former job as a golf tour coordinator didn't allow - it doesn't mean a slower schedule.
"It's definitely harder than I thought," concedes Ms. Spencer, who clocks 30-plus hours a week around her children's naps, sitters, and play groups.
Indeed, the number of moms combining work and career under one roof is rising rapidly. In just two years, membership in Spencer's organization - Home-Based Working Moms - has climbed from zero to nearly 500 women. An estimated 7 million to 8 million mothers with young children work at home, and a new Labor Department study finds that the number of wage and salary workers working at home nearly doubled from 1991 to 1997.
With quality child care at a premium, working women increasingly want ways to spend more time with their children without sacrificing a paycheck or sidelining their careers.
Many opt to telecommute or work at home as independent contractors. Others start their own businesses or practices.
"Increased flexibility - about where and when you work - is a growing issue for women and men," says Marcia Brumit Kropf, a work and family researcher at Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit group. "Women with young children want to eliminate a long commute or feel more accessible to their kids, and working at home gives them the freedom to do this."
Indeed, many moms attest that working from home makes it easier to weave career, child care, and household duties throughout the day rather than trying to develop a rhythm outside of the 9-to-5 workday.
"When you're a work-at-home mom, you have to see it as one integrated job," says Lisa Roberts, author of "How to Raise a Family and a Career Under One Roof" (Bookhaven Press, 1997).
The Fairfield, Conn., mother of four - ages 2 to 11 - has been working out of her home since she had her first child.
She now runs a desktop-publishing and communications consulting firm and will soon launch the National Association of Work-at-Home Professionals. Three years ago, she decided to try corporate life again, as membership director at a trade association, but left after several months.
"We went through three nannies in three months," says Ms. Roberts, whose children were 7, 4, and 1.
"I missed my children," she says, "and I didn't feel in control like I did when I worked from home.
"It made me realize how much easier it is to balance work and family when you're doing it from one location," Roberts says.
And children get to see their parents at work - and see them happy about working.
"When they see their Dad come home, he's tired," Roberts says. "They don't get to see him at the height of his day."
Echoes Margaret Wermer of Needham, Mass: "Unless you're going to use full-time day care, one person needs to have a flexible job in a family today."
Seven years ago, she realized she spent most of her salary on child care and left her job as an attorney to tend her two children (then ages 1 and 5).
After a year, she set up an office in the basement to practice law about 15 hours a week. "It can be enjoyable if you don't have to worry about money," says Ms. Wermer, whose husband is a doctor. "It can be stressful if you are under pressure to make it work from the start."
The rise in work-at-home moms also signals a shift from the "do-it-all" ideal.
"In the 1980s, we saw a big push toward the supermom image, where moms thought they could raise children and have careers and peace of mind," says Tina Champagne-Egge, founder of the Association of Enterprising Mothers in Carlsbad, Calif.
That image has worn thin.
When Ms. Champagne-Egge had her first child four and half years ago, she went right back to her job as a regional manager for a medical manufacturer.
But after a year of balancing an infant, 12-hour days, and travel, she quit to launch a work-at-home magazine.
While the hours were grueling at the start, working at home meant more time with her daughter. "Working from home has definitely given me better balance," says Champagne-Egge, who also has a four-month-old son.
Kirsten Coleman, recruiting director for an Austin, Texas, software consulting firm, takes a similar view.
"I used to be extremely career-oriented and very much on the fast track, and now that's not as important to me," says Ms. Coleman, who began working at home when her daughter was born last year. "I realized I had to make a conscious decision: 'Do I want to go the career route, or ... prioritize parenting?' "
Yet, while ditching the office cubicle for the spare bedroom means more time with the kids, plenty of moms find out it requires a whole new juggling act.
Spencer, for example, often pulls up to her desk by 6 a.m., checking e-mail and writing newsletters. She hits the computer and phones later in the morning while her daughter is at preschool and her one-year-old naps. At noon, the three eat lunch. Spencer then works two and a half hours during nap time and logs an hour or two at night or on the weekends.
"It can be very frustrating," adds Roberts, who is often working by 5 a.m. but still feels pinched for time.
Despite the wild schedules, most prefer work-at-home, for now.
"Back in the [corporate world], I had my own office and assistant, and I thought I was going to have eight-hour stretches of time," Roberts says. "But there are so many interruptions. At home, the interruptions are the loves of your life."
Juggling Act: Career and Kids Under One Roof
1. Create your own private work space.
2. Get a separate phone line. Make sure your children know not to answer this phone.
3. Establish rules with your family. Let them know when you will be working and when they may interrupt you. You should also tell them not to bother you when you're on the telephone .
4. You will probably need some sort of child care. How much depends on the age of your children and whether you plan to work full or part time.
5. If you plan to start a business, consider how fast you want it to grow, especially if your children are very young.
6. If you never worked at home before, try it first before you have kids.