''When we're at a party and someone asks me what I do,'' says Beth Bruner, a Chicago mother of two, ''my husband puts his arm around me and says, 'She's the director of a small economic concern.' ''
''If someone asks me what I do,'' says Susan Gittings, past president of a parents' support group in the Chicago area, ''I tell them I'm working in child development on a one-to-one basis. If they ask, 'How's the pay?' I say 'Not enough.' Eventually someone figures out that I'm a mother.''
Perhaps it's a sign of the times that these women, whose role as full-time mothers was once encouraged and respected, find themselves having to devise snappy job titles to disguise their careers. ''I hate having to go to parties with just my husband's business friends,'' says Mrs. Gittings, ''because I don't fit into their culture, and they don't fit into mine.''
Another mother - Mary Beth Ketchum of Washington, a former special education teacher - defines the at-home-mother culture as one of ''little moments that cannot be replaced. My daughter and I have time to relax and enjoy each other, eat lunch together, and make a snowman outside.''
Mrs. Ketchum says she finds it awkward to talk with so-called ''working mothers'' (what mother isn't working?). ''I think the women's movement has made women worry that if you don't go back to work, you'll look like you're stupid and have no career goals. But if you do go back to work, you're just being selfish.''
Many women simply do not have the financial means to make the stay-at-home decision, but Sally Fisher of Lorton, Va., thinks those who want to be with their children full-time should do so anyway. ''Many months we must pay the bills,'' she admits, ''and for birthday treats we go to McDonald's. I've learned to make everything from scratch. But it's just as hard to worry about your kids as to worry about finances,'' she has found.
A mother who quit her job as a programmer after her second child's second birthday, Mrs. Fisher says she feels she ''missed a lot'' by being away from her children during the day. ''Now I can sit down in the middle of the day and just hold my children, and they tell me, I love you for being here.''
Experiences like this strengthen their decision, say these mothers. ''In our parent support group, we've found that the later the woman puts off the decision to have children and the more educated she is, the more isolated she tends to be once she's had that baby,'' says Mrs. Gittings. ''All her contacts are work contacts, and the only relief she can see is in going back to work.''
But husbands, children, and especially other stay-at-home mothers help reinforce the decision to stay with the children, a decision all the mothers interviewed said they questioned at times. ''It gets tiresome,'' says Mrs. Ketchum, ''especially in the beginning. But now that my daughter is two, I really don't regret it.''
''I believe that I am the best caretaker my children can get, because they're my children and I love them,'' says Mrs. Bruner, whose children are both preschoolers. But she also believes ''in the light at the end of the tunnel. I know in just a few more years I will have time for myself.''
Those interviewed agreed that they had less - not more - time for themselves since deciding to stay home, since the housework, meals, and errands tend to multiply by their presence. But Mrs. Bruner, who quit her job as an editor before the arrival of children, reports that ''the quality of our life went way up when I stayed home.
''All the daily things that must get done - the insurance paid, the dry cleaning picked up, the groceries bought, the car inspected - went much smoother once I stayed home. When we both worked, there was never any time for us to sit in front of the fire and relax together, because one of us was always at the grocery store or doing the laundry.''
Being home all day also means ''being there for all the little things that don't happen at convenient times - like the first time your child writes his name, or ties his shoes,'' says Mrs. Gittings, who thinks motherhood at the home front is exciting, ''because you discover the world again as your child discovers it.''
Most women interviewed see motherhood as an overlapping career - one that will go on after they return to work or school. ''If it's done right, it will self-destruct somewhere down the road,'' says Mrs. Bruner, ''so I think it's absolutely necessary for women to have interests other than just their children.''
She speaks of another great danger among the stay-at-home set: ''I try not to measure my success by my children's success. But mothers get no gold stars and no report cards, so you have to reward yourself,'' she believes.
Being at home took the pressure off of Mrs. Fisher to be a ''perfect mother, '' she believes. ''When I was working, I worried that I wasn't giving them enough. Now I can relax with them - I don't have to try to be wonderful all the time,'' she says.
It also gives these mothers the chance to concentrate on their job of mothering, says Mrs. Bruner, who made the decision to quit the salaried world because ''I wasn't doing either job justice,'' she says. ''When you're trying to be the breadwinner and a mother,'' adds Mrs. Fisher, ''something's got to give. Some people can do both, and that's great. But I can't - I want to stay with these kids.''