"Back in the first grade it seemed like I had the only mother who worked," mused 12-year-old Kurt Weirich of Rockville between bites of the salad he had prepared for his family's dinner. "I felt like she was a pioneer."
Today Kurt has a lot more company. One of every two children under 18 in the United States has a working mother, according to the most recent U.S. Labor Department statistics.
The Washington area has one of the highest proportions of working mothers in the country. About 54 percent of area mothers who have husbands present and 77 percent of all other mothers work outside the home.
Although there are also great numbers of women who choose to stay at home with their children, the "should-I" questions for others are diminishing in the face of both double-digit inflation and women's acknowledged needs for career satisfactions.
"Sure, your children need you, but they also need food on the table," says clerk-typist Carol Johnson, 32, who has three children in District elementary schools. "And I like working; I have ambitions and I want to achieve."
Six area women and their children were asked to examine their feelings about home when the mother is gone most of the day on a full-time job. All the women except one are currently married. Their individual salaries are $10,000 to $47,000 annually. The children range in age from 9 to 12.
Although all the mothers said working provides important financial and emotional rewards, most admitted to twinges of guilt.
"Guilt is our constant companion," confessed Montgomery County economist Andrea Weirich, 39, who waited until her two children were in school before taking a full-time job. "You're constantly torn in so many directions, and you always feel like you should be doing more."
Some mothers agonized about missing great moments in their children's growth.
"The babysitter told me my daughter took her first steps, and I almost preferred she not tell me because it hurt so much," said Pamela Reid, 32, a Howard University developmental psychology assistant professor. "But I gradually realized that I was being the best mother I could, because if I didn't work I wouldn't feel happy with myself or be a very good role model for my daughter."
Other mothers agreed that the advantages of working make it worth grappling with the problems that arise.
"I still feel guilty, especially when I get home and something's happened," admitted Bernadette (Bitty) Brown, 30, who started working nine months ago as a service representative for Pitney Bowes. "But I have been a different person since I've been working.
"I feel better about myself as part of the majority of the world, earning my own living and not on the welfare hassle anymore."
"I feel I'd be selfish not to work," said Gwen Graves, 27, an engineering associate for A.T.&T. whose income, combined with her husband's, allowed her family to move from a two-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom house in Maryland. "My kids have been to places other children only read about."
Most mothers say they assuage guilt by spending "special time" with their children on evenings and weekends. "It's the quality of time that's important," said lawyer Fran White, 39, of Bowie. White also advised taking the children to the office "so they understand what Mommy and Daddy are doing all day instead of just disappearing into The Great Beyond."
"We have a little ritual where every day when Mike gets home from school we talk for 5 or 10 minutes on the phone," said Lynn Pilkerton, 29, a secretary from Mitchellville, Md. "We go camping or boating together as a family on weekends. And we might not be able to afford that if I didn't work."
Most mothers also gave their husbands credit for sharing parenting duties and easing the combined stress of working and motherhood. They suggested holding family conferences to anticipate and discuss problems.
Despite their mother's occasional hand-wringing, most of the children interviewed seemed remarkably well adjusted, realistic and sensitive to the reasons why their mothers work outside the home.
"The week my mother stayed home she went crazy," chuckled 10-year-old Melony Graves of Upper Marlboro. "She's a better mother when she's happy, and she's happy when she's working."
"My mom tells me that it's hard teaching, but that she likes it a lot," said Nicole Reid, 10, of Silver Spring. "When she comes home she's happy and we do things together."
Several youngsters said they considered themselves more grown up and resourceful than their friends whose mothers are home all day.
"Most of my friends have mothers there ready to feed them snacks, but I get to fix my own," boasted Mike Pilkerton, 9. "And in a way I'm glad she works because she has money to give me for bowling."
Almost all of the children mentioned this bonus of having extra money for clothes, sports, toys.
"I'm glad my mom works so she can buy me what I want and get what she wants," said 10-year-old Donald Brown, who lives with his parents and two brothers in a storefront apartment in Northwest Washington."I think she's trying to do her best for us."
A few children seemed surprised that having a working mother might be a subject of discussion.
"It's like having a father who goes to work," shrugged 10-year-old Bill White, whose mother Fran White took just a few months' maternity leave after the birth of each of her two children. "It might be fun to have him home sometimes, but it's just the way it is.
"I love being alone in my room, and I think I get a little more privacy than some of my friends. It's okay, except sometimes when she comes home late and my sister's not there. It gets scary."
The most frequently cited disadvantages were occasional feelings of loneliness or resentment. Several children said the toughest times were when they had to stay home alone or with a babysitter.
"Sometimes I'll be sick, and I'm the only one here by myself," lamented 12-year-old Harold Brown. "Times like that I wish the whole family was here."
"It's okay if my mother's gone during the day," said one 10-year-old. "But when she's not here at night I get frustrated and upset."
Two youngsters offered this advice to other children whose mothers work:
Erica Weirich, 11: "I would tell other kids to think about what kind of job their mother's doing.Realize it's going to take her time and be prepared to deal with it."
Melony Graves: "Be proud of your mother, and don't take it so hard . . . Just remember that she's going to be back home soon." CAPTION: Picture 1, Donald Brown, 10: "I think she's trying to do her best for us."; Picture 2, Service representative Bernadette Brown: "I have been a different person since I've been working."; Picture 3, Econimist Andrea Weirich; Picture 4, Kurt Weirich, 12; Picture 5, Psychologist Pamela Reid; Picture 6, Nicole Reid, 10; Picture 7, Mike Pilkerton, 9; Picture 8, Secretary Lynn Pilkerton; Picture 9, Engineering associate Gwen Graves; Picture 10, Melony Graves, 10; Picture 11, Attorney Fran White; Picture 12, Bill White, 10; Photos by Tom Allen, Vanessa Barnes, Joe Heiberger, Harry Naltchayan and Fred Sweets-The Washington Post