Q. I am 32, married and have two small children and a college degree. I worked part-time throughout high school and college and for about 2 1/2 years afterward, then became pregnant and decided to stay home with my children.

In all this time, I've never had any real idea of what I wanted to do with my life. Right now I want to be home for my children until they are both in school.

Every so often, I look ahead and feel distraught to realize that I have no notion of what my life will be, outside of wife and mother. This makes me feel empty and wanting, although I know I wouldn't want to add any more activities -- and stress -- into my schedule now.

It's upsetting because I have struggled with low self-esteem for so long but never seem to resolve the problem. I'm so confused that I don't know just who I am, what's really me, and what I'm doing to please someone else.

A. Once upon a time it was mostly the rich who had careers and the other workers had jobs. They may have worked in a factory or a farm, or served or washed clothes at someone's home, but they did it for just one reason: to put bread on the table.

Today we want our work to give us psychic income, too, and this new expectation doubles our fear of failure. This can be particularly daunting to the woman who stays home with her babies, for motherhood is a paradox. It's the relentless day-to-day buffeting that causes most of the trouble, and nobody buffets better than a couple of small children and nobody takes away self-confidence quicker.

No matter how hard you try, you have to deal with some grousing, some tears, some bumps and falls every day and before long you start blaming yourself. The overt praise of a boss is clear, but the praise of children is not. You only know how important you are by the way they squabble for your attention and cry for a quick hug and a quick fix.

It's even harder to hear a child's praise if you didn't grow up with much encouragement, because encouragement helps you believe the compliments you get as an adult and gives you the nerve to take risks, to follow your star.

Even if you didn't get much encouragement, however, you can give it to yourself, just as you give it to your children.

You do it by learning practical skills, and learning them better this week than last. Competence is the bedrock of confidence, because no one can ever take it away from you.

You have to figure out the way your mind works, so you'll know what skills are best for you. If the right side of your brain dominates your thinking, you're a creative, visual person, who responds to feelings and impressions and sees the big picture, but if you're left-brained, you're the clock and calendar sort -- logical and habit-bound -- who chops information into many small chunks. Either is fine, as long as you suit your work to your basic way of thinking.

Don't pursue a skill just because it's the latest fad, however, or because you can make money with it. It's much better to look at your life and expand on your interests. They may be narrow but they reflect your three or four natural talents and will guide you to success; for the more you build on your strengths, the more you define them, and the more you like what you do, the better you'll do it.

You don't even have to worry about making impractical choices now, for if you like what you learn, you'll find ways to use these skills, in some way, for the rest of your life. We draw on the same area of intelligence at work as we do at home, even though the outlets may be different.

If you instinctively draw out people when you talk with them, you'll make a good counselor or salesperson, for people rely on the advice of those they can trust. If you like to work with children, you'll make a good teacher or recreation leader, as long as you choose the right age, for all of us enjoy some stages more than others. If you like to handle the family books, however, you process material in a systematic, sequential way, which could lead nicely into computer jobs, bookkeeping and library work, but if you like to work with your hands -- to sew, to garden, to knead dough -- you may like to teach occupational therapy, or be a sculptor or a photographer. There are at least seven kinds of intelligence and each has many uses.

You can also assess your talents better if you volunteer a few hours a week, to try out various jobs you think you might like. This may seem impossible, as busy as you are, but volunteer work is a lot cheaper than graduate school and it lets you switch majors as often as you'd like. It's not enough to assess your strengths, however. You need to analyze your temperament, so you can choose your best work style too. Some people like to run things, some would rather work on a team, and others want to operate alone.

If you still feel uncertain in a year or so, you probably need some counseling to understand yourself and decipher the messages of your childhood. Most parents are pretty stingy with their compliments, but they don't love their children any less.

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