IT is naptime on a rainy August afternoon. In a gray colonial, six-month-old Stuart Bullen sleeps in his crib. Across the hall his three-and-a-half-year-old sister, Claire, rests on her bed, looking at picture books. Downstairs their mother, Martha Bullen, talks with a visitor.
But then interruptions occur. Claire, with her mother's permission, pads downstairs to meet the guest. Before long Stuart cries, and Ms. Bullen brings him into the living room. End of naptime.
This schedule change is all in a day's routine for Bullen, who left her job with a Chicago publisher when Claire was born. Now, as an at-home mother, she sees herself as part of a growing band of professional women who are putting their careers on hold - for now - to be with their children.
So convinced is Bullen of the viability of this option that she and a co-author, Darcie Sanders, have written "Staying Home: From Full-Time Professional to Full-Time Parent" (Little, Brown & Co., $19.95), to guide other parents through the transition.
At a time when many neighborhoods are like ghost towns during the day, and when Americans tend to be defined by a job title, Bullen finds people viewing at-home mothers as "a cross between a household drudge and Betty Crocker." Yet she finds encouragement in a 1992 Harris poll showing that 71 percent of all women - and 63 percent of women working outside the home - think children benefit if one parent does not hold an outside job. Patterns emerge
Labor Department figures for last year [not indicated on chart above] showed the percentage of women in the work force dropping for the first time since 1948. Government analysts attributed much of the decrease to women staying home with children.
Among women who take this step, Bullen and Sanders found surprising patterns emerging when they surveyed 600 at-home mothers across the country. More than half said they made the decision to stay home before their child was born. And 97 percent said they were happy with their choice and would do it again.
"I thought that was phenomenal," Bullen says as she cradles Stuart. "Most didn't stay home because they had trouble finding child care or couldn't make it in the work force. It was really a value-based decision." But, she emphasizes, "Husbands and wives must have some agreement about the reason for staying home and the value of doing so."
Even with that support, many mothers experienced a profound "culture shock" after quitting their job. Losing status, friends, income, and structured days left them feeling adrift initially.
To counter those feelings, Bullen and Sanders urge parents to define what they want their role at home to be. "We caution women never to say, `I'm just a mother,' " Bullen says. "Acknowledge your skills and consider yourself a feminist. Don't let housework dominate your life."
Bullen credits much of her own contentment to friendships with like-minded women. Nearly four years ago she joined an organization called Formerly Employed Mothers at Loose Ends, or FEMALE, based in Elmhurst, Ill. The group, which began five years ago this month around a kitchen table, has grown to 1,250 women in 55 chapters nationwide. As membership increased, so did members' confidence. Last year, they gave their name a more positive spin: Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge.
Beyond camaraderie, members have another goal. "The more we can update the image of home-based mothers and make it realistic, the more respect will be gained for parents, and the more comfortable people will be in their role as the primary care-giver of their children," says Linda Rush, president. "In the media we still see references to how easy it is to be at home - that life is under control, that there is a great deal of idle time available to turn on the television and contemplate household cleaners ." Keeping your hand in
That idleness is foreign to many respondents of the Bullen-Sanders survey. About 20 percent either plan to start a business at home or already have. Some serve as consultants to their former employers. Others turn hobbies into a career. Bullen does consulting for small publishers.
"Savvy women know you have to keep your hand in your career a little," she says. "Many are being very creative in finding ways to make money, but not at the expense of their families."
Even with that creativity, a quarter of those surveyed are raising a family on a household income of $30,000 or less. "If two-career couples receive a deduction on their income tax for child-care costs, we think couples with one spouse at home should also receive that same deduction," Bullen says. "They take a big salary hit already, and they could use some help as well."
Parental leave, part-time work, telecommuting, and job-sharing would also make it easier to combine families and jobs, she notes.
Despite her own satisfaction at home, Bullen insists that every woman must make the choice that is right for her and not be criticized for it. Noting that two of her closest friends have continued their careers, she says, "They both love their children, but they're much happier working."
That kind of mutual tolerance - the antithesis of the so-called "mommy wars" - will help to change stereotypes, Bullen says. She also expects demographics to help. "Once people realize how many of us are out there, I hope we'll stop being so invisible." After all, she adds, staying home "doesn't mean forever anymore."