Over the past few weeks, Martha Zaslow has felt an uncomfortable kinship with Captain Hook.

"He was continually followed around by that crocodile who swallowed the alarm clock," said the 31-year-old research psychologist who returned to work recently after a 4 1/2-month maternity leave. "Everywhere I go, I feel like that 'alarm crock' is after me. I can always hear the clock ticking."

Since 1979, Zaslow and her colleagues at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have been conducting a study of about 60 Washington-area families with firstborn children to determine "significant differences" between those with employed and nonemployed mothers. Preliminary results indicate a striking difference in "reunion time"--when the family reunites after a day's work.

"Where the mother was employed," said Zaslow, "the father's time with the child was significantly less. In families where the mother was the full-time care-giver, she was often literally waiting at the door to turn the baby over to the father. It was seen as his time with the child.

"But where the mother was out at a job all day, that reunion time was seen as primarily hers. The family seemed to agree that the mother needed that time with her baby."

The employed mothers represent a variety of occupations, including teaching, law and banking, said research team member Beth Rabinovitch. Among the benefits of combining a career with a family, they cite "self-actualization," financial advantages and the "optimum balance of spending time with, and away from, the baby."

The disadvantages include time pressure--"no time for self or sanity"--fatigue, concern about the amount of time spent away from their babies and "feeling fragmented."

When asked about conflicts in "the work-career balancing act," said Zaslow, "the women tended to respond in extremes. Either they said they didn't think about it at all, or they were preoccupied with it."

The "big three"--guilt, quality time and setting priorities--were among items Zaslow discussed recently with members of Rockville's Working Mothers Resource Group:

1. Guilt. "The literature seems to indicate that it doesn't matter whether the mother is employed or not," said Zaslow. "What does matter is the way she feels about her employment.

"If a mother is employed but feels profoundly that maternal care is the only way for a baby to thrive, those babies had difficulty in attachment relationships . . . Also, if there are other stresses going on, the mother's employment can add to the stress."

Commented one mother: "I went back to work three months after the birth of my child, and I wasn't feeling guilty until I went to a wedding and saw my whole family. I felt this intense peer pressure that in order to be a good mother you should feel guilty whenever you're not with your child.

"Someone asked me why I bothered to have a child if I intended on returning to work."

2. Quality Time. "When employed mothers are home," said Zaslow, "studies seem to show that they tend to elevate their rates of interaction with their child and verbalize more, as if to compensate for the time away."

Said one mother: "I just negotiated with my employer to come in early and work through lunch for two months so I can leave two hours early and take my child to swimming practice. That relieves some guilt and satisfies a need for quality time."

3. Setting Priorities. "Women do better with time pressure," said Zaslow, "when they have a conscious coping strategy for dealing with their role conflict." Common "overload" coping strategies: renegotiating chores with other family members, lowering standards for housework, making lists.

Added one mother: "At one point I sat down to ask myself 'What do I want from my career and what do I want from my child?' I decided I can't be a full-time mother and a full-time attorney. So I negotiated to work part time.

"When my boss said he couldn't deal with that, I went to another department and found someone who could. At this point in my life it's just what I need. I feel I have the best of both worlds."