What's a smart woman like you doing at home?'' That's a question Linda Burton has heard often in the five years since she left a job to give her full time to raising a family. It's also the subject of lectures she gives to groups of mothers in Washington suburbs.
Mrs. Burton has long been simmering over what she sees as the ''crummy press mothers get.'' Together with three other northern Virginia women, she has decided to turn that frustration into vocal support for mothers who choose to remain home.
The group calls itself Mothers at Home. In addition to Mrs. Burton, the founding members are Cheri Loveless, an author and mother of five; Janet Dittmer , a former researcher at Stanford Research Institute; and Leslie Grow, a former teacher. The four have a total of 14 children, with another due at Christmas.
''There's nothing else going between Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem - we're it,'' Mrs. Burton says. She adds that there are few role models, and little support, for today's at-home mother, who often has a college degree, a number of years of work experience, and an interest in maintaining her career skills while at home.
At the moment, the group's efforts center on a 16- to 20-page newsletter called Welcome Home. It's designed to counter what Mrs. Burton calls the tendency of many women to ''whisper'' that they stay home with their kids.
''We should be shouting it from the rooftops, saying, 'I stay with my kids, and I think I'm doing right for them and for me!' '' she says.
The women say at-home mothers can face ''extreme isolation'' today. Reasons for this, they say, include the sparse attention given them in the media and the emptying of some neighborhoods as more and more women go to work. It can be especially hard when a woman's friends are all back at the office where she used to work, they add.
But the message they want Welcome Home to bring to former working women who have chosen to stay home with their families goes beyond ''you are not alone.'' We want to affirm that ''raising your children is one of the most exciting, intellectually stimulating jobs there is,'' Mrs. Burton says.
''When you think about what you've taken on,'' says Mrs. Dittmer quietly, ''raising the future generation - the leaders and ideamakers of tomorrow - you kind of shudder. It's an awesome responsibility.''
''It's the difference between babysitting and raising children,'' says Mrs. Grow, who describes herself as a ''typical housewife.''
''Many of us are involved in teaching our children, trying to make our homes into learning environmemts,'' she says. Mrs. Grow writes an education column for the newsletter on ways to do just that: how to support your children's schooling and help them through rough spots.
The newsletter will also have a regular column on home management, or ''getting control of your household routines so that you have maximum time to spend on what really matters to you,'' says Mrs. Dittmer, the group's efficiency expert.
And they hope to address what they see as the real trap for working mothers - money.
''These things build into vicious circles: The family buys a bigger house and gets stuck with a large mortgage payment, and then (the wife) feels she has to stay at work to meet those payments,'' Mrs. Grow says.
The women seem to see little else besides money drawing people to outside, salaried jobs. ''I think of both the tension and hassle of just getting to work, '' Mrs. Dittmer says, ''and doing all those things to accommodate different schedules. Dinner conversation starts sounding like a taxi-dispatching service.''
Mrs. Burton, who works out of her home, wants the newsletter to address ways women can make money and maintain their career skills while caring for young children, and she expects to write about ''dozens of ways'' at-home mothers can make enough money to keep them at home. But the women in general are not intent on going back to work. As Mrs. Dittmer puts it: ''I like the freedom of being home and not being in someone else's routine. I don't think I'll ever go back.''
The newsletter was sparked by conversations between Cheri Loveless and Janet Dittmer.
''We talked about what we could do to give women at home more support,'' says Mrs. Loveless, ''and thought of lectures, books, a national group. Finally one day, the idea of doing a newsletter came, and something clicked.''
That was three years, a book, and a baby ago for Mrs. Loveless, who is the co-author of ''How to Cut Your Grocery Bills in Half.'' She says the idea started to jell last summer when she, Mrs. Dittmer, and Mrs. Grow, a mutual friend, started in on it. ''Within a week, I met Linda (Burton) and brought her in,'' she explains.
This month the first 1,000 copies of the newsletter were published with monies from their own pockets and distributed through Christmas card lists and friends. ''I have a friend in Colorado who's taking 50,'' says Mrs. Loveless. Regular production begins in January and will include articles and artwork the women themselves have produced, received from readers, or begged and brokered from professionals. Mrs. Loveless, for example, is writing an article in exchange for ''free'' artwork for the newsletter.
The four hope their publication will tap what Mrs. Loveless describes as ''the single largest profession in the country - half the mothers in this country stay at home with their children.''
Mrs. Burton says this potential audience has been hidden by the media. She claims that while opinion shapers ''say they support choices for women, . . . the only choice they support is women going to work.'' An article she wrote on well-educated women choosing to stay home was initially repeatedly rejected. ''One publisher told me, 'Smart women don't stay home,' '' she recalls.
The women hope to elicit ''outpourings'' from their readers - both poems and articles on children and homemaking and a regular readers' exchange of problem-solving techniques.
''We don't have all the answers,'' Mrs. Loveless says, ''but we want our readers to feel the support of knowing some woman across the country is trying to cope with the same situation.''
Writing the columns - and coping with the myriad of printing, postage, subscription, graphics - is all done in ''spare time'' carved out of four busy schedules.
The women say they are trying to avoid the kind of stone flinging that goes on between at-home and at-work mothers. ''We're not here to say that going to work is wrong,'' Mrs. Loveless says, ''but to support women who choose to stay home.''
Still, they sometimes describe the next generation as ''being raised in institutions'' and express the view that ''the only way to get good day care is to get less of it.'' ''You read about all those plans women at work are asking for - child-care support from their firms, tax cuts for day care, flexitime. We think the government ought to give women who choose to stay at home a stipend similar to (salaries paid) servicemen who are performing a duty for their country,'' she explains.
Don't they think that's a tad, well, unrealistic?
''Not at all!'' the four say in chorus. ''We're talking about a huge underground of women out there,'' Mrs. Burton says. ''That's an awful lot of mothers writing in to their congressmen.''