EARLY in her third pregnancy, Anna Quindlen, the syndicated columnist, made an important decision: Quindlen would not undergo amniocentesis, a medical procedure commonly performed on women over age 35 to determine the condition of the fetus.
She and her husband, she reasoned, were prepared to raise and love the baby, due in November, regardless of its physical or mental condition.
Later, when Quindlen wrote a column about her decision, the piece drew more mail than any she had written. Although she had expected a lively response from readers, she says she ``didn't expect so much of the discussion and the distress to coalesce around me personally.''
One woman in particular rankled her by writing, ``The Anna Quindlen I know would never have made this decision.''
``I was stomping around the kitchen,'' Quindlen recalls, ``and I said to my husband, `She doesn't even know me!' He replied, `For 2 years you've given people permission to know you, and you've invited them into this house. You can't pull the plug now just because you don't like it.'''
For a writer, this kind of emotional connection with strangers is one of the perils of Quindlen's brand of self-revelatory reporting.
Yet for readers, her weekly invitation into the kitchen, nursery, and psyche of a thoroughly '80s family has proved to be enormously appealing.
About 60 newspapers now carry her column, syndicated by the New York Times. And 65 of those columns - dealing with everything from marriage and motherhood to sibling rivalry and junk food - have been collected in a book, ``Living Out Loud'' (Random House, $17.95).
``We've sort of edged into this first-person, home-based journalism, which has really taken over now,'' Quindlen explains.
``It's taken us a while to get to the point where people are comfortable with you saying, `Gee, my mother died, and it changed my life.' Or, `I'm going to have a baby, and I don't want to have this test, because I couldn't do anything to end its life.'''
For Quindlen, the oldest of five children raised in what she describes as ``the silly branch of a funny family,'' the strength of her columns derives from the 15 years she spent as a reporter - first for the New York Post and then for the New York Times, where she covered city hall and served as deputy metropolitan editor.
Now, instead of reporting breaking news, her beat involves ``reporting on my life.''
It's a life she shares with husband, Gerald Krovatin, a criminal defense lawyer, and the couple's two young sons, Quin, 5, and Christopher, 2.
It's also a life she describes as ``charmed,'' saying, ``I have the kind of work that makes it easy to work part time and at home. And I have the kind of husband who, A, is there, and, B, makes enough money so we don't have to worry about getting quality child care.''
At the same time, Quindlen empathizes with parents who do not share those advantages. ``It's still incredibly hard to combine career and family,'' she says. Yet, she admits, she is ``not as thrilled as I should be'' by the current political debate over family issues.
``When they start talking about child-care programs, I get nervous at the idea of the feds running child care. My experience is that the feds don't run things that well. If a national child-care program ran the way some other federal agencies did, it would be deeply troubling.''
Instead, she argues in favor of more corporate initiatives, such as on-site day care and six-month parental leaves that would include ``a fair amount of salary, no loss of seniority, and, most important, no onus attached to them. That's why men don't take paternity leaves. It's considered a wimp thing to take paternity leave. That attitude has got to go.''
Last year, during a two-week tour of the Soviet Union, Quindlen interviewed many working mothers, hearing firsthand about that country's paid leave policy and national day-care system.
``It all sounds hunky-dory on paper,'' she says. ``But what so many of those women were saying to us was, `I wish I could have stayed home with my kids for a year, a year and a half, two years.'
``It was so ironic. They would say, `Well, we have these nationally sponsored day-care centers, but they're not very good, and the kids get sick all the time.' Many more of them were using their own mothers for day care - the babushka system.''
In the United States, she argues, ``We have really fooled ourselves that if we had this superstructure in place, everything would be cool.
``For some people it will make things immeasurably better. But we don't want the feds to make the choice for us about whether we're going to provide our own child care for our kids, whether we're going to stay home with our kids, or how long we're going to stay home.''
As one measure of progress, Quindlen believes women are getting better at making their own choices about working or staying home.
``There's finally been enough written about how, once again, women were conforming to other people's expectations. Except instead of the Betty Crocker expectation, it had now become the three-piece-suit expectation. More and more women are saying, `To heck with the expectations! I've just got to do what feels right to me.'''
Despite obvious advances for women, Quindlen sees evidence of ``a little too much gusto in the debunking of the having-it-all myth, and a little bit of the sense of `Well, you wanted equality - don't complain that you're tired.' I also think there's some complacency settling in.''
She tells of one incident four years ago when a respected editor at the Times told her, ``The woman thing isn't a problem anymore. We have so many of them, and in 10 years they'll be running the paper.''
``He really believed it,'' she says. ``I couldn't get over it. Sure, there were so many more women than when I came to the paper. But there wasn't a woman on the masthead, and there wasn't a woman in a senior editor's position. Some of that has changed in the years since then.
``But you worry that nationwide the corporate leaders are going to develop that kind of mentality. That they're going to look around at an office that's now 25 percent women and say, `We don't have to worry about women anymore.'
``I won't worry about women anymore when half of the top management positions in most companies are filled by women who will help other women. There's safety in supremacy, not just numbers.''
At the end of November, Quindlen's column-writing days will end.
``I think columnists usually outstay their welcome,'' she explains, adding, ``I don't want to take that chance.''
But fans will have another chance to follow her family in a television series - timing still uncertain - to be based on her book of columns. And next year Random House will publish her first novel.
``I'd be perfectly happy to stay home and write book-length fiction for the rest of my life,'' she says cheerfully. But she doesn't rule out the possibility of eventually returning to the newspaper business.
``There are certain places where you feel at home. Certainly one of them for me is at home. But another one for me is in a newspaper newsroom.''
Whatever she does is likely to matter less than the energy and style with which she does it. Behind a certain professional wariness, Quindlen is a celebrator, extending to her readers the same deal she promises her children.
``I want to give my children a sense of joie de vivre,'' she says. ``If I only give them one thing, that's it. I want them to wake up every morning and think, `Life is great.' That's so much more important than even intellectual achievement.''
``Occasionally, over the last ten years, I have met a woman with children in school all day and no job, and I have thought, quite uncharitably and almost reflexively, what in the world does she find to do with herself all day? I don't think that anymore. Now I imagine lunch with a friend, considering slipcovers, doing a little gardening, spending an hour working on dinner before everyone arrives home. ... It's not that I would like it as a way of life. I'd just like a little fling with it every once in a while. ... It's not a big thing. But I'm tired of big things. Sometimes I just want the time for the little ones, the hours to feather my nest.''
- Excerpt from `Living Out Loud,'
by Anna Quindlen