SHORTLY after she became president of Radcliffe College, Matina Horner found herself dashing about the house one evening, changing clothes, and saying good night to her husband and children before she left to make yet another campus speech. As she was going out the door, one of her sons stopped her with a quiet plea: ''It's not like you're my mommy anymore.''
Even though it happened 12 years ago, Matina Horner still values that incident as a poignant turning point in her approach to her family and career responsibilities.
''It was then, with those big brown eyes flashing up at me, that I realized that raising those three kids really meant a lot to me,'' she says. ''I decided that when I couldn't get home until late at night, I was going to wake them up if I had to, to talk with them.
''The rest of my family thought I was nuts, but it worked. When the children had something to say, they woke up and were ready to talk. And when nothing much was on their minds, we'd have a hug instead.
''I think you find ways to maintain the relationships you want to maintain,'' she adds, breaking out an incandescent grin. ''But they're not the ordinary ways.''
Relationships are at the core of Matina Horner's prismatic world. In her often overlapping roles as wife, mother, teacher, and administrator, as well as clinical psychologist and pacesetting researcher in the field of achievement motivation in women, she is finely tuned to the needs and aspirations of others.
''I guess my biggest thrill in life is watching things grow,'' she explains somewhat shyly. ''I've loved watching my own children grow, watching students develop, and watching Radcliffe take shape as an institution, too.''
When she was selected as the youngest president ever of the prestigious women's school in 1972, Dr. Horner was a popular assistant professor at Harvard, teaching a precedent-shattering course in feminine psychology. Since then, she has almost single-handedly created a new and independent sense of identity for Radcliffe. Undergraduate women now have equal access to all resources available to Harvard students, and a kaleidoscope of programs specifically designed for women has also been established, including lectures, colloquia, and internships. Largely as a result of Dr. Horner's continuing interest in women's lives, the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and the Henry A. Murray Research Center: A Center for the Study of Lives have become preeminent resources for research on women in the United States.
When her family and students are asked about the impact she's had on their lives, however, it's her sincerity that appears to count most. Tia, who was seven years old when her mother was appointed president and now is a sophomore at Princeton University, wrote in a recent issue of the alumnae quarterly, ''Her love of life and human beings is contagious,'' adding ''. . . she's so 'unpresidential,' so unaffected that I can't think of her in formal or official terms.''
Students interviewed for the same periodical recalled a presidential wink in the midst of otherwise solemn commencement ceremonies. They cited the annual Christmas tree-trimming party at Dr. Horner's home and even opined that she must be ''more popular than breakfast'' with classmates who have taken advantage of the open office hours she holds two days a week from 8:30 to 10 a.m.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Horner says she gets plenty of questions from undergraduates about her personal experience. They want to know how she and her husband shared child-care responsibilities while they were both in graduate school, how potential tensions were resolved when he found himself out of work for six months while she was teaching at Harvard, and why he encouraged her to interview for the Radcliffe position when she felt she was too young and too inexperienced for the job.
But the questions that most frequently come up in her office and in the classroom where she teaches ''Women and Social Change: Family, Work, and Children'' have to do with how students can balance their own personal and professional objectives.
''In the late '60s, we encouraged women to have a career instead of children, '' she begins, ''and the dominant pressure is still to pursue a career and one's own self-development before deciding to think about having a family.
''But the big difference now is that the younger women are questioning whether that's right. They're getting messages from the generation just before them - the women who are now in their mid-30s, who chose what was essentially the new stereotype of the early '70s. Today that group is beginning to say that it's lonely out there, that the rewards of having a high-paying profession are not as terrific as one might think, that if you postpone marriage, the quality of men available gets pretty negligible.''
Although she tells her students that there are no simple answers to their questions about how they can successfully combine marriage, family, and career, Dr. Horner contends that society has an obligation to help.
''The perception of a good man as one who's the sole provider for the family, and of a good woman as one who's home tending the children and fires isn't a viable option any more, except for the smallest number in our society,'' she argues. ''To pay back tuition loans, buy a home, and educate children today requires two salaries - and preferably three!
''If we value the contributions of the talented people we're training, and if we also want them to be the parents of the next generation, then we're going to have to find ways for them to do it without totally exhausting them.''