``We had a conviction that things weren't as the media were telling us,'' says Linda Burton, co-founder with Cheri Loveless and Janet Dittmer of Mothers at Home, an organization that supports women who choose to stay home with their children. Four years ago, the women - who bring together a yeasty mix of feminist politics, public relations know-how, and an ardent love of home - set out to prove that ``smart women do stay at home, and love it there,'' says Ms. Burton.
They started a newsletter called ``Welcome Home'' (which now reaches roughly 10,000 homes), testified twice on Capitol Hill, and appeared on everything from Phil Donahue to Good Morning America. ``And everywhere we've gone,'' Ms. Loveless laments, ``people only talk to us about women at work - like all women go to work full time every day and only a few freaks choose to stay home.''
In ``What's A Smart Woman Like You Doing At Home'' (Acropolis, $7.95), a book that harvests from the thousands of stories they've heard from mothers at home, the women contest that perception. They point out that of the 57.6 percent of mothers with children under 18 categorized as ``employed'' by the Department of Labor, many work as little as one hour per week. A school crossing guard, they say, is a ``working mother'' under this label; so is a baby sitter caring for her own and other children, and so is a farm wife.
The majority of American mothers today, they contend, are either at home full time with their children or working their jobs around their children - part time, night time, or out of their homes.
``It looked like, a few years ago, that it was a real luxury to be able to afford to stay home with your children,'' Loveless says. ``But now, with the service sector growing and more women taking on entrepreneurial jobs, it looks like mothers are finding ways to work around their children.
``We've come through these two extremes,'' she continues. ``In the '50s, women felt like they all had to stay home; and in the '70s, women felt like they all had to go to work. Now we can see that there are choices.''
In their book, the three women speak of these extremes as the Betty Friedan/Phyllis Schlafly choice. ``Over the years,'' they write, ``these voices have grown angrier and more extreme - and women have grown more confused.... They weren't ready to view men as public enemy No. 1, but they also had no desire to stomp their feet like a petulant, curly-headed moppet to get their way.
``Now, a new population of women is arising which is beginning to realize that no one is under any obligation to select between these two ideologies. Many mothers are turning a deaf ear to two groups which, for 20 long years, have simultaneously fought for their allegiance and ignored their needs.''
The choice that doesn't work, Burton contends, is the one that says ``you can have it all.'' As a mother of three who worked for a couple of years after her first child was born, she says she spent months looking for the perfect person to take care of the baby. She had a fairly typical mix of good and bad care arrangements, all of them temporary, until ``I finally realized that the person most qualified to pass on my values and emphasize my priorities was me.''
But do smart women really stay home, making themselves financially insecure and emotionally dependent, surrounded by toddlers and a peanut-butter cuisine? All three women spoke freely about the trap many perceive homemaking to be - an isolating experience in which you become utterly dependent on your husband.
``There are so many more opportunities for women at home now than there were in the '50s. Women move about more, go out at night, take classes, keep their hand in their careers,'' says Loveless, who has co-written two books, started a 100-family food co-op, helped to found Mothers at Home, and lectured on parenting with her lawyer husband, Scott, while raising her six children.
``Women are surprised to find how much they use their education and creative ability raising children,'' says Mrs. Dittmer, mother of four. ``When you're at home with them, you have time not just to take them places, but to work with them on thinking skills and values.''
The book points out that ``the kinds of [college] degrees we sought prepared us for a fairly narrow range of activities. Overnight, motherhood thrust us into an entirely different world, where equations, treatises, and expert opinions (even on the subject of childrearing) did amazingly little to solve our immediate problems.'' Motherhood, like any creative field, uses far more than a bachelor of arts degree, they say.
Still, staying home with children is not all happy, creative moments. In the book, Burton tells a story of one of those awful days mothers (and fathers) sometimes pass through, when she blew her stack at her children. She finally apologized to the kids, explaining that she was tired and a little scared of a forthcoming class she had to teach.
``At that unlikely moment,'' she writes, ``I made the firm decision to remain at home with my children.... If my children saw me only during my `good' times, how might they feel about themselves when they got mad?'' They also learned, she thinks, that ``we do not allow ourselves to continue repeating an unkind behavior,'' and that ``when we feel angry, something else may really be going on, such as fear or lack of sleep.''
``From this very bad time ... this supremely `unquality' time,'' Burton states, ``I learned why it is crucial for me to be at home with my children. I knew that my children would be carefully examining how I handled my own inadequacies to use as a model for overcoming their own.''
But being at home still carries the onus of being ``just a housewife,'' the women admit. They quote from one of their readers, Louise Biemer from Tampa, Fla.: ``At 51, I have six `children' ages 12 through 28, and have seen mothering at home go from the expected to the tolerated to the actually antagonized position it holds today. I have even been called a parasite for remaining at home in recent years.''
Another reader from Michigan wrote: ``Why should I, or we, be put down for tending our country's most precious resource - our children? When people ask me if I work, I say, `You're darn right I work - I work hard at a challenging job. I just don't get a paycheck.'''
The authors conclude that ``whether [it's] a tradition that says women belong in the kitchen or a media that says they belong in the work place, such expectations will continue to rob us until we quit reacting and start purposefully charting a course of our own.''
All three authors are charting different courses; the book is their last project together. But the job they began - letting mothers at home know they're not alone, a minority, or making a dumb choice - has just begun, they feel. ``There are millions of mothers out there who either don't work outside the home or only work part time,'' Burton says, ``and we're only tapping 10,000 of them with `Welcome Home.' I'd say we have a long way to go.''
For more information on the Welcome Home newsletter, write PO Box 2208, Merrifield, VA 22116.