Q: Motherhood has become an "obsession" with me. My family takes priority over everything and I feel 10 years older because of it. I have a 3 1/2-year-old and a 17-month-old and am exhausted by 1:30 in the afternoon. Time for myself is rare and guilt is my faithful companion.

My guilt stems from the fact that I want to devote my children's waking hours to quality time, not just let them entertain themselves.

Our son is bright and loving and his sister seems to be following in his footsteps and yet it is increasingly difficult to engage them in activities where both won't fight over the same toy or require constant supervision.

My 17-month-old can't be left out of sight for a minute and my son is quite possessive of me. He becomes mischievous when my attention turns to his sister or housework, even after we have played together. When my daughter is sleeping, he is my constant shadow, asking me to do one thing or another.

During their afternoon naps, I collapse on the couch where, instead of getting rest, my mind churns over things I could be doing. I get up feeling just as tired, only to get my daughter from her crib and start all over again. This causes most of my stress, which goes unresolved. It's getting to the point that my health and attitudes are affected.

In addition, I work part-time outside the home, and the prospect of unfinished housework creates more guilt and stress.

My husband is very helpful at times, but it irritates me when he glues himself to the TV and our son calls to him with no response. During my less than "good" days, I feel like airing some feelings.

How can I take charge of my own life again and still be a devoted, loving mother?

A: It's never a good idea to play with children just because you think you should. You'll only look unhappy about it, your children will think you're unhappy with them, and they'll try to get still more attention.

To give your children quality time, every waking minute, would be like giving them a diet of desserts: poor nutrition. Not only would your hovering make them need you for them to feel important -- which would only add to their natural rivalry -- but it would overwhelm them with all the dreams they would feel expected to fulfill.

They may feel particularly harassed if you need to push them to learn for your sake as much as theirs. Despite the surfeit of educational toys on the market, preschool children can get along fine without their ABC's and their numbers. Although you'd teach them if they were antsy to know, these lessons should be part of your play with them, not the reason for it.

Book learning may give your children the jump when they start school, but it's a lead that lasts a few years at best. This is because children's minds develop in the same sequential way all over the world. One concept follows another and there is no more than a two-year difference in the understanding between children in the most advanced culture in the world and the least.

Your children need you in other ways. If you were to list all the intangibles a parent gives a child -- time, love, acceptance, respect, appreciation, discipline -- you'd find respect the most important of all.

Unfortunately, in your zeal to give your children so much enrichment, you're neglecting their need for respect.

That's what you give when you let them entertain themselves. This encourages them to fend for themselves; to develop a bit on their own; to find out how inventive they are. The love of learning is what matters, not what's taught or how much.

Consider a box of dress-ups; a cloth to drape over the dining room table for a space shuttle or a wigwam; a stack of canned goods and a cash register to play store; some cardboard boxes to play train. This won't win you the Tidy Mother Award, but your children will play a hundred games and learn from all of them, for children are their own best teachers.

Give them a bit of time here and a bit there -- when they're not begging for it -- and an interesting project to help you with every few days. Whether it's drying flowers or building a bookcase, they'll like it and learn from it, because it's something you like to do.

You'll find your new policy will encourage your children to let you alone a little longer and even if it doesn't, you still have to take care of yourself.

First see a doctor to make sure you're fatigue isn't due to anemia or some such problem, and then break a few of your own patterns. Do your housework only between breakfast and lunch -- child care and dinner are enough for the rest of the day -- and take your nap in your own bed, where you're used to sleeping, rather than the couch. Or forget about the shut-eye and take a bubble bath.

And in the evening, follow your husband's lead. Parents don't have to answer their children every time they call. A little benign neglect is good for the soul -- yours and theirs.

Questions may be sent to Family Almanac, P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.