Four-year-old Marie leans over and plants a big, slobbery kiss on Pauline Connole's cheek.
"I love you, Mommy," coos Marie.
"I love you too, sweetie," Mrs. Connole purrs.
It's spontaneous moments like this that make staying at home worthwhile to Connole, who quit college and work when her twin daughters were born.
"My mother was at home with us when we were kids, and I liked that," Connole says, then pauses.
"I just wish at-home moms got more respect," she continues, her reserve lifting slightly. "Sometimes I get the feeling people think we're not so bright or not so ambitious. It's better than it used to be.... Just don't call me a housewife - I never married my house!"
Lisa Bucci, a project manager for a high-tech company near Baltimore, gets equally frustrated at times with her life as a working mother - and some of the judgments she has felt along the way.
When her son Paul started preschool, some of the stay-at-home moms seemed skeptical about letting their kids play with Paul, out of fear that they'd pick up some kind of bad behavior, Ms. Bucci says. "But I'm happy to say that was overcome," she reports.
Still, she makes clear, it would have been nicer not to have to go through that.
Are Connole and Bucci combatants in the media-fueled "mommy wars" that pit at-home mothers against working moms? Or is there something else at play here?
At heart, these two women share a deeply felt emotion, one held by most mothers in America, whether they work 40 hours a week for pay or all the time for no pay: that no matter what, you just can't win.
If you work, you're ignoring (read: damaging) your kids. If you don't work, you're wasting your education and betraying the modern, feminist ideal of womanhood. If you're poor and on welfare, you have no choice - now you must work - even if low-quality day care is your child's only alternative. If you're divorced or widowed, your choices may also be limited.
For many women, the real war rages within - you want to work, you want to have kids, you want to do your best at both. How do you accomplish that without collapsing in a heap of exhaustion and have any time left over for yourself or your husband? As liberated as women seem today, they still seem to face this conflict more than men do.
In the end, a family's decision about how to structure itself - whether a parent will stay home full time once a baby is born, or maybe part time, or perhaps try to work from home - is a fundamentally personal one. What works for one family may not work for another.
It is the kind of decision that brings everything to the table - your own upbringing, your temperament, your personal goals, your religious beliefs. If your own mother didn't work, you may feel your kids deserve the same. And if you do choose to work outside the home, you may sense the worst judgment of all: that, somehow, you don't love your children as much as someone who is at home.
No issue cuts to the core quite like this one.
Getting static on the radio
Author Susan Chira will never forget her appearance in May on Boston radio station WBUR-FM.
She was a guest on a call-in program, for a segment ominously called "The War Against Mothers." The discussion quickly devolved into a war against working mothers, as Ms. Chira faced callers hostile to the thesis of her book "A Mother's Place" - that "good mothers" don't have to stay home full time.
"It was a horrid experience, in the sense that I had some mothers call in and tell me I was ridiculous," says Chira, deputy foreign editor of The New York Times.
Most of the time, working and stay-at-home moms happily coexist, collaborating in parent-teacher associations and carpooling for soccer practices. Still, sniping between the two camps occasionally flares up:
In Massachusetts, social conservatives have called on Jane Swift - Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, who is pregnant - to quit the race or agree to work part time. In Arkansas, Democratic Senate candidate Blanche Lincoln, the mother of two-year-old twins, frequently fields questions from voters about how she will combine work and parenthood - an issue male politicians rarely face.
The at-home versus work debate flourished during the trial last year of British au pair Louise Woodward, convicted of manslaughter in the death of a baby boy. At times, it seemed as if the boy's mother, who worked only part time, was the one on trial for allowing someone else to care for her child.
When Brenda Barnes, a top executive in Pepsi-Co., quit her job last year to be at home with her three school-aged kids, groups openly advocating at-home motherhood called it proof that women can't and shouldn't try to "do it all." They tended to ignore what Ms. Barnes actually said: She wanted to be at home because she needed more time with her kids, not because her kids were suffering without her.
These flash points reflect the natural tensions that occur when a society goes through a major transformation. Each period responds to what came before it, and so, says Chira, this "renewed cult of domesticity" is a way of "talking back" to 1970s-style feminism. It's a reaffirmation that full-time motherhood is a fulfilling task.
The image of the modern mother has become as much a woman in a business suit with a diaper bag slung over her shoulder as a jeans-clad woman overseeing a play date at the park. The result can be misunderstanding and insensitivity.
Challenges in the workplace
Despite their prevalence in the workplace, working mothers can still face questions from bosses and colleagues, both male and female, over their ability to combine work and motherhood. A working mom with a sick child may call in sick herself rather than admit the real reason for taking a day off.
For mothers at home full time, there remains a feeling of being left out. Some women at home also say they resent an assumption that their husbands must make a lot of money or that they must have "family money." Statistics show that the median income of families with at-home mothers is $38,835, not an extravagant sum. The median income of dual-income families is $57,637.
"I don't like it when people tell me I'm 'lucky' to be at home with my kids," says Meredith McGuire, a former TV producer in Denver with two preschool-age daughters. "There was no luck involved. We made a conscious decision to do with less so that I could be with them."
When Pauline Connole and her husband decided she would stay home with the twins, they started shopping at a discount grocery store, and now they drive older cars.
Some families tap into savings to allow one parent to stay home for a year or two. Others run a balance on their credit cards. Longer-term goals, like saving for college and retirement, are postponed.
Many two-worker families say they need both incomes to make ends meet. But advocates of the parent-at-home philosophy argue that many mothers are simply working for "extras" - a bigger house, newer cars, more vacations.
The answer from some working moms is to stop hiding behind "we need the money," and call it as they see it: They work because they enjoy it and are fulfilled by it in a way they wouldn't be by full-time child-rearing.
In reality, the two "camps" aren't as exclusive as they seem. Today's working mother could become tomorrow's at-home mom, and vice versa. Part-time work and work from home allow many women to straddle both worlds.
What's really happening is a "mommy spat," says Stephanie Coontz, a historian on the family at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "There's an attempt by certain elements in our society to turn it into a war," she says. "But whatever its original reasons, it plays the function of allowing us to ignore the dilemmas facing all parents and all caregivers in society."
The long and steady trend of women entering the work force is simply not going to reverse, she says, and society has to address how children are cared for. And not just little kids, but also teenagers who get out of school at 3 o'clock and come home to an empty house.
"These issues are not going to be solved by women quitting work for a couple of years while their kids are young," says Ms. Coontz.
Still, a significant minority of mothers stay home. One-third of mothers with children under age 6 are out of the work force completely, while many of those counted as "in the work force" are in fact working part time - some just a few hours a week.
The question, then, is how to help everyone feel better about their lives - and not just women. Polls show that a growing number of men, too, want less time at work and more time with their families.
No less a figure than Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book, "The Feminine Mystique," launched modern feminism, has now moved beyond women's rights and into the search for a "new paradigm" for modern life that embraces work, family, and community - and helps men as well as women find their place.
On women's rights, "I think we've come as far as we can go, and maybe as we need to go," Ms. Friedan says. "But we're not going to have equality until children are seen as as much men's responsibility as women's, and as society's responsibility."
For social conservatives, who strongly support policies that encourage women to stay home with their children, comments like this hint at a push for a certain androgyny in adult roles they see as unnatural and unhealthy. When the 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention recently declared that a woman should "submit herself graciously" to her husband, it was a strong reminder that the desire for traditional family structures remains powerful.
Still, what many men have discovered is that the movement of women into the work force - and into well-paid jobs - has opened up possibilities for them. More men are happily staying at home with children while their wives make the money for their families. Men who want to pursue low-paying professions can do so with fewer concerns when their wives work, as can men who want to return to school.
When a mom can't stay at home
Renee Catacalos, a public-relations practitioner in Houston, became pregnant just after her husband had started law school - two welcome developments with less-than-ideal timing. In the mid-'80s, as a Foreign Service officer fresh from college, Mrs. Catacalos hadn't been sure about marriage, let alone kids. But she softened on matrimony, and eventually on the baby issue, after she married her husband, Damon. What she didn't expect was how she'd feel after daughter Catie was born.
"I was like, whoa," she recalls. "You just have a whole range of emotions that you never knew existed.... It really choked me up, thinking about having to leave her with someone."
But Damon was in school, and Renee knew she had to keep working. So she left Catie with a neighbor who was at home with her own child, an arrangement she was happy with. Now, during summer break, Damon's at home full time and can bring seven-month-old Catie to mom's office for lunchtime visits. Still, Renee looks forward to the day she can stay home and raise her family.
Like Catie, most preschool-age kids with working moms spend their days with family members, in home day-care settings, or, in higher-income families, at home with nannies - not in day-care centers. Some parents work staggered shifts to avoid day care, which can be costly and uneven in quality.
Improving day care, in fact has become a major social initiative of the Clinton administration and many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. But social conservatives would rather see public money go toward tax breaks that would make the stay-at-home option more feasible for mothers.
"We've had this great social experiment, saying that men and women can be the same and have the same careers, but the people who end up suffering are the children," says Charmaine Yoest, a policy analyst for the Family Research Council in Washington. "I think, just from the way we're wired, women feel it more than men do."
The bottom line, she says, is that children simply need more time with their parents.
And it's not just the social conservatives who are sending out guilt vibes to working mothers. Throughout the media, stories covering the range of social ills - teen pregnancy, drug abuse, lower academic performance - speculate over a possible connection to mothers' movement into the work force.
Indeed, when author Chira was a young, hard-charging reporter at The New York Times, she thought she'd have to choose between work and motherhood. Then she realized she was responding to what she believes is an old-fashioned, unrealistic definition of "good mother" - one who sacrifices her own needs for the sake of her children. There had to be other paths, she thought.
Now Chira has two children, a demanding job as deputy foreign editor at the Times, and a supportive husband with a flexible work schedule. And though, like almost all mothers, she feels the occasional pang of worry, she also knows she's doing what works for her and her family.
Finding a middle ground
Can women raising children - an activity that between 85 and 90 percent of women engage in at some point in their lives - ever move beyond those pangs of conflict that appear unavoidable?
It's likely, say some observers, that as America moves further from that idealized period called the 1950s, that the edges will soften somewhat - though probably never vanish completely.
"The logical thing is to work on both fronts at once," says Coontz. "We can provide more supports for working parents - paid maternity leave, for example - and we can make it easier for parents to stay home [through tax breaks]."
At the same time, Americans have to decide for themselves what they want.
In the research for his new book, "One Nation, After All," sociologist Alan Wolfe found that most middle-class Americans, in fact, are not overly judgmental about others' decisions about work and family - they believe in the traditional and the modern version of family simultaneously.
"They are torn between nostalgia and necessity," Mr. Wolfe concludes. "The culture war lies within."