When 35 suburban mothers gathered one evening recently to hear Kay Willis, the mother of 10 children, talk about the challenges and rewards of motherhood, many lingered after the meeting to share their own experiences. ``Before my baby was born I worked for 11 years,'' one new mother told Mrs. Willis. ``I'm a very capable woman, but I just feel so inadequate at this job of mothering. I was managing 14 people at work, but for months I thought I couldn't manage one infant.''
Her comments are typical of those Willis hears from women who attend workshops she conducts for Mothers Matter, an advocacy and support organization she founded 12 years ago. New mothers today, she finds, ``have more questions and are more fearful'' than previous generations of women.
Most of them, Willis explained in an interview, come from a career to mothering.
``It's such a big transition,'' she says. ``They're well educated for their career choices. They're used to feeling capable and competent to fulfill the role they've chosen. But most of us with that first baby feel anything but competent.''
Part of that sense of incompetence arises because ``there's no preparation for motherhood at all.'' Women themselves compound the problem, she finds, through a ``conspiracy of silence.''
``Mothers say, `No one told me what it was really going to be like.' Some time ago we got the idea that everything should be perfect and lovely. Except for the `terrible twos,' most of us are very cautious about admitting the tough parts.''
Adolescence, she continues, is another ``dreadful time'' for the conspiracy of silence.
``We're not about to admit to anybody that our daughter could live in a room so cluttered or dirty, or that our son could say anything quite as mean or hurtful as he said.''
In an attempt to break some of that silence, Willis, a calm, cheerful woman from Rutherford, N.J., is taking to the road this fall for a cross-country speaking tour. She believes motherhood is a profession, and she wants other women to share that view by valuing themselves and enjoying their children.
It was her own mother who indirectly provided the inspiration for Mothers Matter, Willis's home-based ``one-mother operation'' that focuses not on child development but on ``mother development.''
``My mother made me feel motherhood was the most important role, despite the fact that all of her other children were professionals,'' she says. ``She supported me intellectually with the importance of my work, and physically by making sure I got out for a few hours every week.''
Willis's children now range in age from 21 to 36. She and her husband, a vice-president of a chemical company before his retirement, also have three grandchildren.
``Grandchildren are very hard to get,'' she says with a laugh, noting that the couple's six daughters all have careers. ``It's a very slow market out there. I'm hoping business will pick up soon.''
In workshops and lectures, Willis acknowledges that there are ``no guarantees'' in parenthood, ``no surefire ways to do something that will assure us our children will be all we want them to be.'' But she emphasizes the importance of a listening ear and a loving heart - parental assets far more valuable than a padded bank account.
``We all want a great deal for our children,'' she says. ``We want lessons for music or dancing, computer camp, the best schools. That's fine, provided it's a supplement to what we're giving them, not a substitute for us. Many children who come from great advantage and attend the best schools do not have the best parenting.
``Our best gift to our children is ourselves,'' she continues. ``If we give our children a feeling of self-worth, give them their values and their self-confidence, they can achieve at their own pace, and achieve what they want from life.
``The best gift we can give them is the ability to believe in themselves and to cope.''
But coping can sometimes be hard in the face of ``tremendous pressure for high achievement'' that begins in the cradle.
Willis would like to see homework banned in the early grades, explaining, ``These little children are giving their hours in school, and they shouldn't be expected to bring their work home any more than parents should be. The cost to family life that homework creates is just dreadful.''
Another heavy cost to family life comes from demanding employers and competitive jobs. Willis offers a possible, if improbable, solution: a nationwide corporate agreement that parents with children under age 10 must go home at 5 o'clock at least two nights a week.
``If both parents are working, that's four nights, plus weekends, where you're assured of some parenting and some family life. Corporations would be saying, `Listen, you have a family. We want it to be strong. That's good for all of us.'''
Despite the challenges dual-career families face, Willis refuses to take sides in the working-mother debate.
``I don't think we should be judging which is better, the mother who is home or the mother who goes out to work, whether it's by choice or not,'' she says. ``We ought to be supporting one another, because both roles can be very difficult.''
When women combine both roles, Willis notes, ``in many instances the child does not suffer, and the career does not suffer. It's just the woman herself who pays a tremendous personal price for having it all. She usually has less than everybody else.''
To guard against maternal overload, she insists that mothers give a priority to themselves and their own value. Her own mother's ``big message,'' she recalls, ``was for me to take care of myself.'' It is advice she now passes along to other women.
``Because the work we do is so important, we have to take better care of ourselves,'' she says. ``That doesn't mean just physically. We have to have some fun. A happy mother has a greater shot at successful parenting than one who is simply accomplished.
``If you're in good shape and you feel good about yourself, you're going to be a better parent than the overextended or overtired, self-sacrificing role many people think is part of being a mother.''
Willis sums up her Mothers Matter credo in two sentences that could fit on a needlepoint pillow - if a busy mother ever could find time to stitch the canvas:
``You've got to take good care of yourself. You're that important.''
For more information, contact Mothers Matter, PO Box 1556, Rutherford, NJ 07070; (201) 933-8191.