JUST AS America's first female astronaut was prepared to blast off on the

space shuttle, a very perceptive cartoon drawn by Mike Peters appeared: says space-suited woman to male cockpit companions, "Before we start the mission . . . I've got to drop Bobby off at Little League, Molly at her violin lesson and . . ."

Although professional women may avoid mentioning domestic duties in their particular cockpit, the overwhelming majority still carry the primary responsibilities of enriching and organizing their children's lives. And if they are unable to enrich or organize up to the standards of, say, their own mothers, or the full-time mothers they see around them, they feel guilty, inadequate, fragmented or just plain angry.

Ann Dally, a British psychoanalyst, offers some comfort to those of us who feel anxious that we're not living up to the highest standards of mothering. Although mothering is important, particularly during the child's early years, Dally argues that it does not have to be provided solely by mothers. Instead she presents a convincing case for the importance of exposing young children regularly to a variety of care-givers--fathers, babysitters, daycare teachers--any of whom may be motherly. "Motherliness," she declares, "is by no means confined to the female sex and often not found in mothers."

Yet we persist in our notions that, first, motherhood is a special and exclusive relationship which can exist only between a woman and her young and, second, that any job or condition, however necessary, which interrupts that relationship is artificial and harmful. Drawing on the work of social historians like Lawrence Stone and Phillippe AriMes, Dally demonstrates that these notions of motherhood are not only irrelevant, but outdated--products largely of notions which appeared in the West about 200 years ago but are, historically speaking, recent.

Today's ideals of motherhood and childhood, those promoted by conservative politicians, women's magazines and books on child care, developed alongside European romanticism. In the late 18th and early 19th century, as romanticism blossomed, so did the idea of childhood as a special time, a circumscribed idyll. Naturally, the role of the mother as principal moral influence and architect of the child's character and well-being achieved new prominence. All of which made motherhood ripe for the interpretations of Freudian psychology so fashionable in this century.

Until the late 1700s children, if they survived all the diseases which assaulted them, were considered by society as small adults. They worked alongside their parents. They married early and were often parents themselves in their teens. As for mothers, they too lived at risk, and death in childbirth was fairly common. Children and mothers were frequently separated from one another, not by mothers' careers or divorce but by death.

Yet even in these "bad old days" when life was so much more brutal and harsh, children still managed to grow up, to thrive and contribute to society--all without the constant attention of their mothers. Servants reared the children of the well-off, while poorer children grew up in extended families or communities.

Having more than one "mother" figure early in life is actually beneficial to the child, says Dally, and learning to cope with a mother's absence can build a young person's confidence. She points out that in England before World War II, it was difficult to find a middle- or upper-class adult who had been reared exclusively by his mother, so common were servants, particularly the ubiquitous British nanny, and the custom of sending boys off to boarding school at the tender age of 8. Even though that system, as Dally points out, "produces its own problems and neuroses . . . it is probably one of the best training grounds not only for leadership but also for learning to cope with extreme situations."

Not that Dally is an apologist for neglecting children--far from it. She reserves some of her harshest words for those she feels do not recognize the importance of children. She is particularly critical of the radical feminist movement, which she accuses of often "ignoring and trivializing motherhood."

"If the feminine mystique was the 'problem that had no name' for unliberated women, one might say that motherhood is the problem that cannot be faced by modern feminists. Another way of avoiding it is by denigrating it. Running through the women's liberation movement has been a thread of hostility to mothers and babies. Lip service is paid to them but the effect is often the feeling that they are really rather a nuisance," she charges.

Instead of dismissing motherhood, Dally insists on more effective mothering, on spreading mothering more widely through the community and relieving mothers not only of today's burdensome ideal but also the isolation many women face as they struggle to achieve that ideal.

If there is a villain in Inventing Motherhood, it is John Bowlby, the Freudian psychoanalyst appointed by the World Health Orgnaization in 1948 to study the needs of homeless children after the war. His report, published in 1951, has had enormous influence and, perhaps more than any other single postwar document, has been responsible for idealizing motherhood. The orphans who figured in Bowlby's report suffered severe problems which he described in detail and then blamed on "maternal deprivation." In fact, most of their difficulties probably resulted from institutionalization, rather than maternal deprivation per se. Nevertheless, Bowlby's report caused a whole generation of women to hurry back to the nursery lestttheir children be victims of similar deprivation. Those mothers who remained in the work force, where they had secured a successful toehold, were encouraged to feel guilty.

The weak side to Dally's argument is her contention that "politicians"--all unnamed and, she appears to assume, all male--have conspired to perpetuate this limiting ideal of motherhood. They have done so because "it is, after all, an economic measure and, on the surface at least, it saves a lot of public money"--in the form of funds which might be spent on child development, child care, and other services which make it easier for mothers and their children to be apart as well as together.

There's little evidence that many politicians ever consider the economics of mother/child issues, unless it's to make an example of the occasional welfare cheater. On issues of the family, politicians, as usual, simply reflect the views of society.

Protestations to the contrary, society today simply does not place very much value on children--witness the status and salaries of those who nurture and direct them. Mothers receive no compensation for their labors, while most teachers, babysitters, and child care workers make pitifully little considering the importance of what they do.

Ann Dally argues persuasively for changes in our attitudes toward children and mothers that would endow them with more real status than they now enjoy. She would have them both released from the confines of the nursery. Mothers should be encouraged to regain the productive roles they once held, although those roles have changed radically now that spinning wheels and cheese presses are gone and the home is no longer a center for productivity. And although Dally certainly never argues for returning children to the productive roles they played before the advent of child labor laws, she does maintain that children should be recognized as individuals capable of independence and responsibility.

Any parent who has ever watched with that glow of pride mixed with a growing sense of freedom, as a 6-year-old finally masters the art of shoe-tying, knows that s ow a child's independence increases a parent's independence. And, according to Dally, an independent parent is usually a much happier and healthier one.

Change never comes easily, especially where families are concerned. But women are changing, and today's young women who do not yet have children seem much less likely to let themselves be trapped in the myth of ideal motherhood. In Inventing Motherhood Ann Dally provides some signposts which should help them on their way, and she offers much that is provocative and worthy of consideration for all parents, present and future.