What's a smart woman like you doing at home?

I hadn't intended to stay at home. I wasn't born for it. Having children at the ages of 33 and 34 created an upheaval in my life unlike anything I had ever experienced.

Before the birth of my children, I had been a professional full-time fund raiser for a public-interest law firm. It was a harrowing job, sometimes, but it was fun and made good use of my energies. At the end of the day, I used to look forward to meeting my husband and friends somewhere in town. We would relax, catch up on the day's events, and generally enjoy each other.

After the birth of my first child, the end of the day found me less convivial than it had in five years. Walking the floor with this child, knowing that he was keeping me from doing much that I really wanted to do, made me angry. When my husband and I first discussed having children, we had no real idea how radically they would change our lives, limit our time, or confine our space.

Like many other modern young couples, we had followed the dictates of Lamaze and LeBoyer. We had one baby by natural childbirth, spent hours ''bonding'' with our newborns, and never let them cry without picking them up. According to the new ''parenting'' books, we were teaching our children that their needs would be met, first thing in life.

But while our children didn't cry, I did. I missed my job and my friends; I felt poverty-stricken and I looked awful. So, like many young women faced with the same predicament, I decided to go back to work.

Without too much trouble, I found a job writing for a public television station - and I happily set out to enjoy life once again. I assumed that I would simply give my children good ''quality'' time in the evenings and on weekends and, in the meantime, I would use all my energies to find an absolutely sterling person to care for them during the day. I researched child-care with a vengeance. Luckily, I did find someone to care for my children who seemed fine. She lasted a month. During that time at the office, I had made some remarkable discoveries.

I discovered that I had no ''quality'' time for my children in the evening; indeed, I really wanted to have no time at all. I was tired. I loved my children , and I knew that they needed attention from me, but somehow I was unable to give much of it after a day at the office.

I also discovered, to my surprise, that I missed my children when I was gone. I worried about how they were being dressed, fed, cared for. I worried that their bright inquisitiveness was being dulled by the housekeeper who, while a kind and decent person, lacked a certain intellectual vitality.

I was almost relieved when my housekeeper quit. I came back home to attend to my children and, again, searched for child care. Diligently, and over what came to be a period of two years, I searched for child care everywhere from the local town newspaper to the best nanny schools in London, Wales, and Scotland. I talked to friends. I tried to recruit at senior citizens' centers. Although I will admit to a prejudice against institutional day care, I even investigated that.

And I discovered that there were millions of mothers like me trying to hire the same sort of person I was. No matter where I had looked, a long waiting list of mothers had been there before me.

All of a sudden, the notion occurred to me that perhaps the elusive, almost mystical ''she'' was not out there. After all, here we were, 17 million women trying to hire someone to replace ourselves. We all wanted someone warm, wonderful, motherly, and loving. All of a sudden common sense just told me that there simply weren't enough warm, wonderful, motherly, and loving people to go around. And even if they were out there, it was clear that they didn't want to give priority attention to my children. They wanted to take care of their own children.

While I - and most of my friends - were all saying our minds were too good to stay at home and raise our children, none of us ever asked the question, ''Who did that mean was leftm to stay at home and raise our children?'' The natural conclusion - and the most realistic one, to me, after my search - was that in far too many cases people whose minds were notm very good were left. Unqualified, insensitive women were approaching child-care agencies in droves. They were answering my newspaper ads. Their names were scattered over supermarket bulletin boards.

My carefully worded advertisements for child care literally came back to haunt me. I was looking for someone ''loving, tender, reliable, responsible, nurturing, intelligent, and resourceful.'' I had wanted someone with a driver's license, good English, a sense of fun, and an alert, lively manner. I wanted someone who would encourage my children's creativity, take them on interesting outings, answer all their little questions, and rock them to sleep. I wanted someone who would be a ''part of the family.''

Slowly, painfully, after really thinking about what I wanted for my children and rewriting advertisement after advertisement, I came to the stunning realization that the person I was looking for was right under my nose. I had been desperately trying to hire me.

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