IT is almost noon on an overcast Tuesday, and in a modest row house half an hour south of London Karen Willis has just heated lunch for eight-month-old Kirsty. As Mrs. Willis lifts the baby into her high chair and fastens her bib, three-year-old Clare clowns nearby, clomping around in a pair of her mother's red high-heeled shoes.
This suburban domesticity has been routine for Willis since 1985, when she traded her briefcase for baby bottles and her structured days at Lombard North Central Company for the unpredictable schedules of babies and toddlers.
As a participant in Lombard's Return to Work program, Willis enjoys what many working parents consider an ideal arrangement: the freedom to be home while her children are very young, and job assurance when they start school.
``If I had to go back to work I would, but I would prefer to bring up the children myself,'' says Willis, a soft-spoken brunette dressed in a turquoise striped shirt and turquoise slacks. ``By the time you've paid a child-minder, you don't make that much.''
Willis speaks from experience. Before Kirsty's birth she held a part-time job for eight months, working 18 hours a week for 50 (about $90). Out of that she paid a baby sitter 17 ($30) to care for Clare, then a toddler. Her net earnings were small, ``but it was still 33 ($60) more than if I didn't do it. And I enjoyed getting out.''
This brief stint as a working mother convinced Willis that ``it's pretty hard doing both.'' Still, she shares the ambivalence many mothers feel when they give up a regular paycheck and the stimulus of a job.
``It's difficult,'' she says. ``Half of you wants to stay home with your children, and the other half wants to go to work.''
If you work, Willis explains, ``you don't see their first smile, their first crawl. You miss out.''
But not working brings challenges, too. ``Being at home all the time, you become a bit stale. You end up talking like the children.''
Then there are the economic considerations. ``It was a shame to leave, really,'' Willis says of her job as an advertising controller. ``We had to give up a mortgage at a preferential interest rate [obtained through Lombard]. And apart from that, I was earning more than my husband.''
Despite the loss of her income, Willis believes her husband, David, a surgical technician, ``prefers it this way. It's traditional here for the woman to stay home. If I said I wanted to go back to work and then complained about being worn out with all the housework, he would probably say, `Well, you chose to go back.'''
Mr. Willis puts in about 15 hours of overtime each week to bring in extra money. ``I would prefer not to do it so I could spend more time with my family,'' he says, ``but I don't mind working.''
Although he admits he misses his wife's paycheck, he adds, ``I do believe she shouldn't have to work because we've got a family to raise. Our house needs a lot of decoration, but the things for the house will have to come later.''
Still, any temporary trade-offs or sacrifices are offset by the couple's pleasure in watching their young daughters grow. Karen Willis also finds security in the knowledge that she can eventually return to Lombard.
``I don't think I shall ever regret staying home,'' she says, glancing affectionately at the children as Clare nuzzles her baby sister. ``The loss of an income hits you hard, but I don't think we made the wrong decision.''