WHEN high-achieving, professional women quit their jobs to stay home with their young children, the ending isn't always as simple as a fairy tale's. For these women, there is the joy of being with their children - no more snatching moments together at the end of a long workday. And there is the satisfaction of being there for them - no more scrambling to make complicated child-care arrangements.
But when a dozen of these women - doctors, lawyers, writers, a stockbroker, a psychotherapist, and a film executive - were interviewed recently, many also expressed ambivalence.
They said they often felt isolated, and sometimes missed the structure, as well as the rhythms and rewards of their careers. Some said they were worried about losing touch with their professions. And the majority said they felt a diminished sense of status, now that they are perceived as full-time mothers.
Society today sends women a mixed message, says Emily Taitz, a feminist and author. ``It says, `Be independent, have a career. But also stay home - be the nurturer, the traditional mother.'''
Yet, when women do leave careers for home, they find ``society tends to denigrate anyone who doesn't make a lot of money,'' Ms. Taitz says. ``It's considered more interesting to talk about the stock market, or even about tires, than about feeding babies.''
Despite their reservations, all the women interviewed said they felt - at least for now - that they had made the right decision.
Six weeks after her daughter Isabelle was born, Anne Harrison got a call from film director Martin Scorsese. ``He offered me this fabulous job,'' she says, ``to set up a company for him so that he could both produce and direct.''
For the next three years, Ms. Harrison, who lives in Manhattan and had previously been a screenwriter, worked as Scorsese's director of development. The work was exciting, but required long hours: ``I was getting up at six in the morning to make phone calls to England,'' she says, ``and I was still making calls at nine at night to California.
``I never saw my husband,'' she says, ``and I didn't have any time with my daughter. I felt I was missing out on her life, especially after her second birthday, when I began to see a complex person in there.''
Her second pregnancy, with her son Malcolm, forced the decision to stay home, but it wasn't easy. ``I said to myself, `I'll try it for a year and see how I feel.'''
She has now been home almost half a year, and the adjustment has been enormous, she says, for both herself and her daughter.
``Having me home was the biggest change for her,'' Harrison says. ``It was confusing; her routine was broken. She didn't know what to make of me.''
It took time, but her daughter has now adjusted well, Harrison says. ``She likes having me around and knowing that if I'm working'' - Harrison is working part time on a couple of film projects - ``I'm right there in the study and she can come visit me.
``But I'm still struggling with being at home,'' she adds. ``I love drawing pictures with Isabelle and going to the park, but you don't see the great strides, you don't get the same sense of concrete accomplishment you do at the end of a workday.''
Her husband, a magazine publishing executive, was very supportive when she was working, she says. ``But he's glad I'm now with the kids. And it's nice to have a household that's more ordered. When I was working, a lot of things in our lives were sliding - there was never food in the icebox.''
Harrison says she's still learning ``how to be a mom.'' And like any student, she has apprenticed herself to an expert, ``a friend, who's a wonderful mother - she knows everything.''
`I LOVED being a pediatrician,'' says Llana Schmitt, who left her residency four months ago when she was seven months pregnant. ``Actually, I still am a pediatrician,'' she corrects herself. ``But right now I'm 100 percent involved with my baby.''
Once her son, Levi, was born, she was surprised by how quickly her self-image changed from doctor to mother. ``I didn't expect it to be so engrossing, so fascinating,'' she says. Yet, she worries about losing touch with her profession: ``I've stopped reading journals.''
Though she has misgivings about being away from her son, she plans to return to work in a year. ``I've invested so much in my training,'' she says, and she needs to work to repay her school loans. However, she is considering a less rigorous program in which ``you're on call from home,'' she says.
Dr. Schmitt says it's odd to find herself in a position of dependency, ``where you're unable to do some of the things you've always done - like earning money.'' Her husband, she added, is now her main link to the adult world.
But for now, she says, both she and husband Bill, a businessman, are enjoying ``the sweetness and warmth of being a traditional family.''
JULIE MILLER, a psychotherapist who lives in Brooklyn, quit her full-time position in a clinic when she and her husband adopted Molly, but retained a few patients from her private practice.
``I always knew I wanted to raise my own children,'' she says, adding that her mother, a successful interior designer, worked long hours when she was growing up. ``I was raised by housekeepers,'' she explains.
Ms. Miller is rapturous about her 7-month-old daughter, and says she is ``in my element.'' But it can get lonely. ``Most of my friends had their children when they were younger, and are now back at work.''
Her solution, she says laughingly, is to let Molly play with her friends' children, ``and I hang out with the babysitters.'' When her daughter is older, she plans to start a play group so she can meet other mothers.
Her husband, Jesse, a businessman, is ``comfortable with my being at home,'' she says. But it bothers her that she and her husband have fallen into traditional roles.
Before, they split domestic chores equally, she says. ``But now I don't feel I can ask him to help.'' However, he helps out on weekends by ``being on midnight and morning duty with Molly, so I can catch up on sleep,'' she says.
Though Miller says she feels ``proud to be home full time,'' she worries about taking time off from her career. It's also rough, she says, when someone comes up to her at a party and asks, ``What do you do?''
``I really feel the loss of status then,'' she says. ``I answer that I'm a psychotherapist. And then I qualify it by saying I work part-time. And then I tell them that I'm a mother.''