The babies lie on their backs atop a soft, plush vanilla-colored blanket on a living room floor in Bethesda. It is February, and they are just a few months old, little wisps of what their futures hold.

Beside them sit their mothers--adrift in conversation that sounds ordinary but hints at larger, private dramas.

"I think I should be with her more," says one.

"The grass is always greener," says another.

"It sort of seems unfair," says a third. "We're all struggling, and for the men, it isn't much of an issue."

They are new mothers, relaxed in blue jeans and stretch slacks, gathered in simple conversation about what babies need. Woven into casual back-and-forth are their own internal tensions--about dreams and careers, about balance and sacrifice, about why a woman works and what she can afford.

Somehow, women arrive at this juncture without knowing it will be so hard. Oh, they know. But they don't know. They believe, with history to bear them out, that other women have forged this path before. They are not pioneers. They simply want a life that works.

No one believes in the myth of superwoman anymore.

But hasn't anything replaced it?

"I always thought it would be easier," says one mother.

Her new friends nod softly.

Over six months, the nine women in this group reinvent themselves in ways they never imagined--quietly, subtly, adding hours at work or stealing time to spend at home. It is a delicate journey, held close to the heart. In their meetings, the idea is support. But their heartache about the trade-off between home and work sometimes dwells between the lines, in what is not spoken.

The experience of these women is striking partly because they have arrived at this crossroads in some of the best possible circumstances--college degrees, careers, a measure of financial strength. These are women with more choices than most.

They are an economist, a lawyer, a psychologist, a law professor, a television producer, a computer analyst, a presidential appointee, a policy wonk, a business marketer. Two are over 40; one is 28. The others are in their thirties.

Their lives converged last December because of their delivery dates and the advice they got--from friends or relatives--to join a discussion group organized by PACE, an agency that brings together new mothers.

So here they are, women who were mostly strangers, gathered in one of their living rooms every couple of weeks, with babies content beside them, tiny feet kicking in the air, hands turning, bending. Fathers rarely come to these sessions; in fact, the women talk little of their husbands. This is a tug of ideas--if occasionally an awkward, even silent one--among women.

In these transforming months, they learn as never before that for all the social progress their generation has reaped, motherhood is still painfully complicated. There is pressure to work, pressure to stay home, money constraints, career sidetracks, child-care conundrums. All of it hits with a crushing emotional force.

No one here is surprised when one mother allows, "I just wish I had fewer choices." It may not be literally true. But it is true nonetheless.

Bethesda

Like the other mothers, Lisa Gaisford was successful in her work before her baby was born. At 32, she was a policy analyst at the White House's Office of Management and Budget. Hers was an exciting job that she lived and breathed and talked about at the dinner table.

But dinner was late each night because of the meetings, the deadlines. This being Washington, that was the norm--and at crunch times it was worse. The night before she delivered, she was at work until 10 p.m. The office called 12 hours after she gave birth.

Exactly how does this life work with a baby?

"It wouldn't," she told herself.

Gaisford's maternity leave was four months. Then she put on her hose again, pulled on her dresses and suits. Back to the office. But not the OMB. She traded her high-profile job for a more predictable one at the Federal Communications Commission. The hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

She took a deep breath.

That first February morning, as she marched up to the federal day-care center where her infant would be tended, she read the sign out front. It warned that a child had come down with viral meningitis.

Gaisford gasped.

She is telling the group her story later in February, incredulous as she speaks--far enough beyond the moment of terror to be somewhat numbed and amused. Like, can you believe it? Could it get worse?

A pile of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies beckons, but no one eats them.

"What did you do?" another mother asks.

Gaisford tells: She threw a fit with the day-care center, took her baby home and set out to understand viral meningitis. Ultimately, she put her new job on hold for a week while she sorted it all out.

Since then she has been cautiously satisfied. Gaisford knows why she chose to work: "I would be bouncing off the walls if I stayed home, and we would have a lot less income." Her day-care center has a ratio of three infants per staffer and is located in the building where her husband works. Isn't that ideal?

"How does she like day care?" someone asks tentatively, gazing at little Nicole.

"She loves it, she loves it," Gaisford answers. Then: "I think she loves it more than me."

Silence.

This group stands out from many others because it includes women who have made different choices. Of the nine women, four work full time at this moment, two work part time and three stay at home.

"As long as you are confident about your choices, then it's okay," one mother allows.

How many are so certain?

Danielle Johnson was among the more definite. Her decision to stay home was easier, she is saying in February, because while her job--as an administrator with the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce--was good, it was not a calling. Not a passion.

"I wasn't a lawyer or anything."

But money was an issue. So she and her husband debated. He said she should work, and she argued no. This had gone on for two years. By the time their daughter arrived, it turned out life was different: He'd moved ahead in his work and it was easier for Danielle to stay home.

Now her husband listens to stories about lax child care--and he is relieved, she tells the group.

"He is just very happy that I am going to bring her up," Johnson says.

A working mother looks away.

Someone launches a different conversation:

"Teletubbies," yes or no?

Palisades

Ann-Marie Haynie has returned to work. She announces this at a meeting in early March in a stately row house not far from the Potomac. Her baby is 5 months old, and it has been a surprisingly rough decision to resume her career.

When working motherhood was a lofty ideal--while she was pregnant--Haynie had resolved to go back full time. She enjoyed her job in computers, put in 10 years at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and had just earned her master's degree.

But once Haynie held her baby girl in her arms, the long separations of the working world seemed out of the question. And she did not trust day care or nannies; she had heard too many horror stories.

Eventually she landed on this idea: a part-time schedule from 7 a.m. until noon. That way, she would still have long days with her baby, and breast-feeding would be easier; she could limit outside child care.

To herself, she said, "If it doesn't work, I'll quit."

She returned with trepidation. Could she really pump breast milk while at the office? Her office door didn't lock. What if her colleagues burst in?

The first day back, she made a beeline to the nurse's office, hoping to borrow space. Her discovery stunned her: a lactation room, with a hospital-quality pump, a refrigerator, a bulletin board for baby photos. The door had a lock.

"It made it very doable," she sings out at the March mothers' meeting, in a lilting voice, her relief drifting happily around the room.

The other women, sipping hot tea from china cups and nibbling on yellow cake, take in her delight. They are sitting in a living room with mahogany furniture and oriental rugs and glossy cookbooks.

Amy Wilson is feeling a similar conflict, from the other direction. She is home, after leaving her job at the World Bank. Now she tells the others she is winding down on breast-feeding, so "if I ever go back" to work, she says with a small laugh, "I'll be ready."

Barely missing a beat, the talk changes direction.

"I think it's just as hard working as staying home," says a working mother.

"I think it's almost harder to stay home," says another.

The group over time has become a refuge, a place to gather and test ideas about life, about babies.

The banter can be mundane: about babies who cry a lot or suck their thumbs or don't sleep at night. About the wisdom of using a pacifier and whether an infant is ready for rice cereal--by spoon or in a bottle?

Their conversation reliably returns to hard issues, but the question of work is uniquely difficult. Some mothers don't bring it up, they admit, sensing it somehow puts off those who stay home. No one wants conflict.

"How long should you hold them?" someone asks.

"There are days when I hold her 15 hours," admits a mother at home.

"How do you know you're not holding them too much?" asks a working mother.

"You can't hold them too much," someone else insists.

But the working mother asks again: What if you cuddle them so much that they come to expect it and then, with less attention at day care, they feel less loved?

No one answers.

Langley

They are in Virginia a few weeks later, in a spacious home in a prosperous subdivision where Kathy Cromley bought a house because it was five minutes from her office at the CIA and because most mothers on her block go to work every day like she does.

Even before her baby was born, Cromley knew she did not want her child to be the only one in the neighborhood without a mom waiting with homemade cookies at the end of school.

She wanted to give her child every advantage but still work.

Can that be done?

It seemed clear from a distance.

Now there are times when Cromley is wistful. At 7 in the evening, she rocks her baby to sleep, and as her daughter drifts away, Cromley does not leave the chair. She holds her, she rocks, she lingers. Listening to her breathe. Stealing time.

"It's just not enough," she is saying.

But Cromley rolls with it. What exactly are her options? She is an upbeat, chipper, highly organized graduate of Princeton, a lawyer, a woman of 36 accustomed to mastery.

Once or twice a week, she lunches at the neighborhood home where her daughter spends her days with a babysitter. "I see her, I hug her, I sing songs." She returns to the office with spit-up on her blouse.

She takes every other Friday off, using flextime. In the evenings, she leaves her office punctually but tells associates to call her at home. Sometimes she will stir spaghetti, hold her baby and fine-tune legal language in congressional bills--all at once.

This is the life she has made.

Other mothers talk of their work, and one mentions how telecommuting--at least some of the time--would make things easier. But her bosses have limited it to occasions when she gets approval for a specific project, like three hours to write a report at home.

"That's not telecommuting," says another mother. "That's kindergarten. That's permission."

The would-be telecommuter nods, looking disappointed.

Kalorama

In April, they gather in a Northwest apartment with high ceilings and modern art and a wondrous view of the Washington Monument from the baby's nursery. It is a Saturday morning, not their usual Friday afternoon meeting time. After months of nudging the group to schedule a weekend session to accommodate those who can't break away from the office, Sandra Perlmutter serves up orange juice and bagels.

It's been three weeks since they've met, and all around babies are sitting up bright-eyed, grabbing at plush toys and rattles. "I never imagined it would be like this," says another mother, aglow. The oldest baby is 8 months.

"How's your nanny?"

"She's great. I'm really happy with her."

"What about separation anxiety?"

"That hasn't happened yet." Then, with a laugh: "But I don't know if she'll cry when I leave or when the nanny leaves."

Perlmutter describes her schedule in a world no one else knows. She is the group's only single mother--up at 5 to do chores and shower, waking her baby at 6 for two hours of breast-feeding and play, then off to work.

At 9 a.m. she takes her seat as head of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Perlmutter has held the post nearly five years; she is a somebody in Washington.

Her baby was a surprise at 45--a blessing beyond words. Perlmutter has no doubt about what she'd do if she possibly could: stay home. "I feel very clear about the importance of bringing up your own child," she says.

But she is older. "I've done a lot careerwise, whereas a lot of other women feel compelled to stay with it," she says. "If I had done this 10 years ago, I probably would have felt more conflicted."

Now the conflict is not what to do, but simply what is possible. "I cannot tell you how desperate I am to be with her every day," she says.

She finds herself leaving the office earlier than she once did, sometimes wondering what message that sends. "How do I set an example?" she asks.

Perlmutter sits on an Olympic committee on the disabled. She missed one out-of-town meeting to deliver her baby and a second when she could not sort out the logistics of taking her nanny to New Orleans.

"Sometimes I feel like quitting," she admits softly. "But we really need my income."

Another mother listens with a slightly furrowed brow. When she was a young lawyer at the Justice Department, Michele Gilman noticed that no one in her office dared to say: "Wait, I have to get home."

Still, Gilman has the notion that somehow, if she were more settled in her career, the calculations might be easier.

"It's really interesting," she tells Perlmutter, "that it doesn't get easier the higher up you go."

Bethesda

Amy Wilson always saw herself as a working person. In Scotland, her homeland, she managed a government group that developed anti-fraud systems in agriculture. It was a big responsibility, with a 20-member staff and 45 consultants.

Wilson chose to stay home when her daughter was born because she could. Her husband is a British diplomat, and for their stay in the United States the couple could afford to live on his income.

But as much as Wilson loved the days with her little daughter, Lara, she was not sure she could do it forever. She missed the intellectual stimulation of her workdays and worried about becoming "de-skilled."

When Lara was 3 months old, Wilson resumed her weekly volunteer work choreographing children's opera productions in the Virginia suburbs. She did this even though it always created a child-care crisis, with her husband racing home to baby-sit.

She did it even as a friend remarked, "I just am not selfish enough to want to do things for myself."

Her idea was that life after baby meant balance, not total sacrifice. Wilson gave up singing lessons, gave up her opera class. But she made time for a book group. She and Lara did a lot of lunches. She cooked Lara's baby food, sang her nursery rhymes and Schubert.

It was a rich and different life.

Then one day, she bumped into her old boss at the World Bank, who made a casual inquiry about when Wilson might come back. And here she is, telling the other mothers that she is making a change, returning to work, two or three days a week, shortly after her daughter turns 1. She is happy to have been home full time, but now part time seems best, a foot in each world.

"How do you feel about it?" someone asks.

"Good, actually," Wilson says brightly.

"What are you going to do for child care?"

Wilson's housekeeper has agreed to step in--a woman hired by other embassy families for years. Her daughter already knows and likes her. Problem solved, with uncommon ease. There are a few encouraging words. Surprisingly few, perhaps.

They are meeting in Bethesda, on a May afternoon when the babies are 6 to 9 months old--sturdier, more playful, reaching for each other's toys. Three have been on airplanes. One has sprouted dark hair and started to wave bye-bye.

Someone offers this: A new study shows that babies who sleep in rooms with night lights are three times more likely to be nearsighted.

What study? Why does it happen?

"One more thing to think about," someone laments.

Then Ann-Marie Haynie, the mother who works in computers at the FDIC, pipes up to say she has finessed a perfect schedule for her family: Her husband watches their daughter from 7 a.m. until noon, as she works. She comes home by 12:30 p.m. and he leaves for work, where he stays until 8 p.m.

"We don't need any outside child care," she says triumphantly.

Meanwhile, she notes, she was named a project leader. She told her boss: "Wait, you complain I'm only here until noon, and now I'm a project leader?"

She is laughing, a path clearly lighted.

Coda

The mothers' group goes on, but for six months each of the women has weighed her old life and ideas against her wish to give her child her best.

There has been one job change. One shift in choice. One reconfigured schedule. One mother gave up the idea of balancing priorities; now she tries to "blend" job and home, leaving the office only to resume work after the baby's asleep.

Many have grown more confident in their decisions. But their overall sense is that there is no road map and the ideal varies according to a family's means and aspirations. Also: What is right now may not be right tomorrow.

Some, like Michele Gilman, already wonder whether their choices will work in the long run. Gilman had just landed a two-year teaching gig at the University of Baltimore law school when she learned she was pregnant.

She offered to withdraw.

They told her, "That's ridiculous. The reality is that women have babies."

So she stayed--which meant 11 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Returning to work when her mind was on her baby. Feeling like work was harder than usual, like she had cobwebs in her brain, like she had forgotten things in just that short time.

She was exhausted those first months--driving to Baltimore, hoping she could stay awake. But she found a good nanny, and that was a big deal. Otherwise, "the whole house of cards would come tumbling down."

Gilman enjoys work--the teaching, the students, the flexibility. But to get the next job, for fall 2000, she needs to research and publish. And when she does, "I'm sitting there researching and I think, 'I could be with Julia.' "

She felt a touch hurt when an acquaintance remarked: "It's great you don't feel guilty about working," clearly implying that she ought to. Yet she insists that while she misses her daughter on weekdays, "I don't feel guilty. My baby has a good life."

Some of which Gilman discussed with the other mothers. But there was one question she could never broach in the group: What do women do when they stay at home? How do you fill the time?

"I don't have the guts to ask; I don't want to sound patronizing," she says.

It is clear, even after six months, that the women sometimes withhold their thoughts on the most polarizing questions. "Sometimes I get a little resentful of the flexibility the other women have," one working mother confides outside the group.

In the meetings there is a premium on harmony, a desire not to prick or offend. But at times fear bubbles up. Should I be doing something differently? What do my choices mean? Am I a good enough mother? What about my job?

The discomfort shows when, after months of speaking openly to a reporter, a few women get nervous. They want to limit their participation. They want to know what's being written.

The onset of motherhood creates an anxious kind of math, a lonely calculus. Many women probe these feelings only with husbands or confidants. It can seem costly otherwise. Employers often do not want to hear about job ambivalence. Whatever a mother's path, she may face a friend's cruel comment, a stranger's disapproving glare.

Gilman looks at her daughter, rocking on a stuffed swan in the family's gleaming white kitchen and wonders whether it will be any different when Julia grows up.

"Things changed so fast between my mother's generation and mine, and you wonder, 'Will things change that fast again or will it be more incremental?' "

She goes on. "It does not feel like you're the first person going through this. But you don't know where the other people are."

CAPTION: "Things changed so fast between my mother's generation and mine," says Michele Gilman, left, with Amy Wilson and Lisa Gaisford.

CAPTION: Lisa Gaisford, left, and Michele Gilman watch their babies play during a mothers' group meeting at Gilman's home.