It is 5:30 on a bleak, black winter morning, and I am driving my daughter Vickie to a friend's house so I can go to work. Tired and frustrated, we are living out of those dreaded nightmares that reside in the psyche of every working mother, the "who will watch my kid" nightmare that rears its head whenever the regular formulas cease to function.

My husband, a freelance artist with fairly flexible hours, has been called away overnight. Like a growing number of working mothers, I have a mother who also works and is not available to watch my child. So do all my neighbors and nearby friends.

Across the Delaware River, 20 minutes away, one of my daughter's nursey school classmates' mothers has come to the rescue. She, too, works, but will not be leaving her house for another two hours. So I am about to drop off my daughter, well before daylight, at her blackened house, where only a bedroom light stands notice that someone else, somewhere, is up.

Half-awake, a paper cup filled with dry Rice Krispies in one hand, a covered plastic one with apple juice in the other, my four-year-old eats her breakfast in the back seat, while I ramble on inanely about the glories of the sunrise that has not yet been willing to occur.

"This is a real adventure," I lie. "Just think: when you get to school, you can tell all the kids how you saw the sun come up this morning!"

Numb with tiredness, she doesn't answer. I chirp on, somewaht mindlessly, framing my argument for our "adventure" largely out of my gnawing guilt. "Spock says every growing child needs 12 hours sleep," a voice in my head says. "Tired children have lowered resistance and catch more colds," adds another.

Then comes the killer. "Oh my God," I mutter to myself. "In 15 years she's going to be telling some shrink, 'My mother fed me breakfast in the car!'"

Or perhaps I should tell you about the day the babysitter, the one who was so wonderful that I was going to write a short story about her, decided not to come -- forever.

It was Tuesday after Labor Day weekend, a phone call indelibly etched on my memory.

"I don't think I want to work," she explained, inexplicably.

"Of course not. What you need is some time off soon," I coaxed in my most understanding voice, trying desperately to mask my franticness.

"No, I'm just tired of it," said the woman who had made it possilbe for me to leave Vickie without serious concern since she was 10 weeks old. "I don't want to work anymore at all."

That was that. No more loyal, always-on-time, faithful surrogate at the door to scoop up Vickie and scopp away my guilt. At 8 a.m. I am expected to present my editor with a list of upcoming stories. It is 20 minutes to eight. Now what?

I call the nursery school where I have already been told, in an inquiring call before Vickie's birth, that no child under three is admitted. But Vickie is trained now, I tell them. Unimpressed, they reiterate the rule.

I call in to work, too sick for the story conference, I tell them, only half lying if anxiety is to be considered the beinning of illness.

Now the interviews must begin again. I have vowed I will not resort to "drop-off babysitting," I will not leave Vickie at someone else's house, a vow made after visiting too many babysitters happily watching a dozen youngsters wandering aimlessly in one room. ("You'll love Joan," I was told of the local babysitter-in-her-house who explained that she "never watches more than 7 or 8 kids, in case they need attention, you see!" Huddled around the TV in her living-room, sucking their thumbs and watching TV at 8 a.m., the 7 or 8 were hardly an inducement to peace of mind.)

To find a sitter who will come to our home, I take the 3 X 5 cards to the bulletin board in the Wawa food market, and the library, and the church where the senior citizens meet. ("Senior citizens don't want to mind kids, honey," one of them tells me. "They want to swing!")

No one calls. Put an ad in the paper? Why, the scum of the earth will come to our door, my husband has warned. I put an ad in the paper. If not the scum of the earth, then at least some of its less appetizing inhabitants respond. The woman with the 10 children, who would be delighted to watch Vickie in our house as long as she can bring her five little ones with her. The 300-pounder in the low-cut V-neck blouse who immediately informs m that she "don't walk no steps and don't fold no laundry!"

I call the nursery school again, ready to beg, and this time they urge me to bring Vickie right over. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact they have learned I write for a newspaper. They also ask me to bring along my notebook, and I laugh, as though I think they are really kidding.

Vickie is only three months past two years old, but trained and verbal and bright enough, I am hoping, to "pass" for older and adjust.

She walks in willingly. But when I come to pick her up each day, her greeting is always the same. Never hello. Never "Hi, Mommy." Always the same, immediate, "Can I go home now?" It if seems overly dramatic to say that greeting sent ice to the pit of my stomach, forgive me. For it is true.

Guilt and horror stories -- every working mother has them. They are the glue that holds us together when we gather in a group, in doctor's offices, PTA meetings, at nursery schools and day-care centers, where we rush past each other to reclaim our kids on the way to rushing somewhere else again. As different in our interests and backgrounds as ditchdiggers and ballerians, we are united by and sympathetic to each other's guilt and horror stories.

For Amy, the guilt was most unbearable the day she found out that the 12-year-old son of the darling, grandmotherly babysitter to whom she'd entrusted her sweet, 3-year-old Becky, had one day decided to try to "put his boom-boom into my boom-boom, Mommy!"

Two days later, Amy enrolled Beckey in a nursery school she really couln't afford but where she knew her child would be nurtured and watched. "I had to get her out of that sitter's home," Amy remembers thinking. "I felt that if only I weren't working, she would never have been there in the first place."

Never mind that the same incident could have happned when Becky was visiting a friend with an older brother, or even in the corner of a schoolyard. For Amy, the message was clear. It was all her fault.

For Barbara, the horror story is the endless fragmentation that drains and wearies her, the conviction that at neither of her "jobs," either as reading teacher in a junior high school or as mother to her two young daughters, is she truly able to give 100 percent. Particularly when cries arise, when she knows her daughter is home sick with a fever with a babysitter and she must teach a class, or when she has chosen to stay home with her sick child and must forgo a parent conference for which she has prepared, is the conviction most strong. "There isn't a day when I don't feel as though I'm being pulled apart in two different directions," Barbara puts it. (While I have been working on this story, Vickie has been sick with flu. Shall I tell you about the nights worked so days could be spent wither her, the longed-for interview missed, the guilt when she angrily learned I would not be there on one of her at-home-in-bed days?)

Some women -- all too few in this 9-to-5 society that worships the 40-hour week as though it were the 11th commandment -- solve the problem by working part-time. That is what I did for Vickie's first four years.

For us, the choice offers further fragmentation -- and further chance to quiet our consciences. If offers the joy and the economic reward of work (as well as some of its durdgery), the joy and drudgery of parenting, patched together in a difficult, never-perfect attempt at balance.

I returned to work three days a week when Vickie was less than three months old. At that point she was easy to leave, a crying, wetting and rarely responding mystery, whose unriddling was well beyond my patience of adequacies. Frustrated with my inability to deal with her better, lonely for the satisfactions of my work, I made peace with a part-time return, without fooling myself that economics was the only reason for it.

It was not long before she became harder to leave: a charming, laughing, loving little person, full of surprises, constantly in awe of things I had forgotten to notice years ago; a carrier of delight who, in spite of her occasional orneriness, looked infinitely more appealing than some gruesome interviwee, some pompous editor.

I continued to leave her -- partly because I believed my selfish need for other satisfactions was healthy, partly because I was convinced then, as I am now, that each of us must get on with our own difficult, lonely lives, the ones that take place aside from the people we love. I remember once watching Vickie struggling to fall asleep in her crib. Even then it struck me, hard, that I could do little to help with those kinds of individual struggles. Like all of us, she was, in the end, alone, stuck with herself. I, too, am stuck with myself and with the fact that, for better or worse, I am not only a mother but also a journalist. For some crazy reason that Freud would probably have fun with, I am simply not happy functioning as a journalist without the mix and migle of work outside my home.

Working part time was not the ideal answer, either for me as a journalist or for me as a parent. "You have the perfect life," a co-worker, whose writing sytle I'd envied, said to me one day in the newspaper cafeteria, referring to my part-time status.

It seems insipid to have to explain that there are, of course, no perfect answers, no perfect lives. If being a working mother has taught me anything, it has taught me the necessity of compromise, a necessity it seems to me far too few of us want to admit is necessary.

A successful, thriving career demands time and energy. I had less to give (if, as I like to think, of higher quality than most). Parenting, too, demands time and energy. I remain convinced that, for me, the time spent with my daughter is richer because of the time I am away working. (I'm not necessarily talking about "quality time." I'm talking about the fact that I don't resent Vickie, and that I truly relish days and hours with her -- most of the time, that is. As for quality time, my energy level plays a great role in the fact that by the time I return from an eight-hour day at the typewriter or from chasing a story in the car, the "quality" i have to give is not always high, another reason I opted for part-time work.)

Over the years I have been working part time, dozens and dozens of women of every kind and stratum have sighed to me, "You are so lucky to have the option." They, too, they tell me, would have (a) had a child; (b) stayed with a career they enjoyed; (c) been happier, if they could have worked less than a 40-hour week.

Most of them do not have the option. "Please don't print this," a brilliant and highly honored New Jersey research scientist told me when I was working on her profile, "but I don't know what I would have done about my career if the laboratory hadn't permitted me to work part time while my children were small. I would have missed so much of my children's growing-up years. Or else, I suppose, I would never have had the chance to do this research. But don't say so in print -- there are so many poor women who have to work full time and need our support for full-time day-care."

God knows there are. There are also many who, unlike me, do a super job of working full time, bopping in from the office, tuning in to their kids and managing their homes. They are the "quality-time queens," those super superwomen who make me droop with envy (and vicarious exhaustion). For them, three cheers. For the others for whom work is a suffered-through necessity with no gratification other than a check, my sorrow and my hope that legislation will soon provide support whether through day-care for those who want it, recognition of household workers with community aid, income supplements or social security.

Everywhere, those things are being fought for, and I stand with the fighters. What amazes me as the '80s begin is how few women are fighting for part-time options, despite the sighs of envy my setup always drew. "That's because to get day-care you only have to fight the government, but for part-time work you have to fight industry, and that's a fight you can never win," a woman suggested recently when I posed this question.)

Where are the parades of women (and of men in this era of "Karmer vs. Kramer" custody battles and joint custody) urging real, feasible work alternatives? And by alternatives I don't mean simply the four-day, 10-hour-a day week, after which I'd be willing to bet even Wonder Women wouldn't be able to rouse any "quality time."

Where are the letters pointing out facts such as those in the 1978 Labor Department report, which found that part-time employes show greater company loyalty, are more productive, reduce absenteeism and are more dependable?

I fear the reason for the lack of an outcry has not as much to do with how 20 percent inflation is affecting the poor and the real, uninflated middle class as it has to do with a lot of women who are buying the line men bought for so long. You know, that line about "dressing for success," making it to the top and all the other garbage that equates success only with the side of one's life involved with a paycheck. Will the liberation movement of the '70s lead someday to a lot of 50-year-old women who, like their male predecessors, wake up wishing they had "spent more time with the kids"?

Will the liberation movement of the '70s end in the '80s with only two real options: full-time work and full-time day care for working women, or women who opt to stay home? Whatever happened to the multitude of options for women and men that movement was supposed to be about?

Maybe the problem is bad press. Maybe for too long the baloney about the total glory of diapers and doody has now become the baloney of overpraising "making it in a man's world." Suddenly, it is shocking and newsworthy to admit you enjoy having a child or, as one wise wit put it, "growing your own friend."

Well, I say now, out loud and laugh if you will, that having interviewed Bella Abzug and Sonny Bono, covered a few parties at a Democratic National Convention and corresponded for 10 days from Israel, nothing has convinced me that the special, unexpected joys of rearing a child are second-best to anything.

Sometimes the thrill is nothing more than looking up and seeing how lovely she is (tough wood, and spit three times, Mother, for I'm going to talk about Vickie now). At other times, it is watching her from another room when she places her head lovingly on a friend's shoulder, and thinking, my God!, I had something to do with teaching that human being how to love.

And sometimes it has something to do with being a working mother. When she was barely 5, for example, I spent one of my days off taking her to Mickey Mouse's 50th anniversary at the local movie house where, for some unknown reason, the feature film was "Davy Crockett." Durng most of the picture she was quiet -- bored, I hoped secretly, feeling our joint superiority to the material. But when a picture of Davy in Washington (in the Senate, no less), flashed onto the screen, Vickie stirred. "What place is that?" she asked.

"That's where they make laws to run the country," I answered, in my best parentese.

"How come no girls work there?" she queried.

At moments like that, when I realize my daughter assumes that women are part of every aspect of life, everything seems worhtwhile. (Not that she is particularly impressed with Mommy, by any means. Once, in that first nursery school, before she was 4, the class had a "career" day. Each child was asked what his parents do. Vickie announced brightly that, "My daddy is an artist and my mommy is a typewriter!")

I am glad my daughter knows that Mommy and Daddy both work for the money that makes our life possible. She knows, too, that many a night Daddy cooks or cleans and Mommy finishes her work. Most of all, I want her to see us as a team, not a "head-of-house-and-spouse." I am sure that kids in homes where mother's work in keeping the home running smoothly and creatively learn this, too. My daughter has learned it from watching us both pursue what we wanted to pursue (if underpaid and overtaxed) -- a luxury, I acknowledge gratefully, and perhaps one that will give her optimism about what the future can hold for her.

"Hasn't this five-and-a-half years flown?" my husband remakred innocently the other day when we sat down to discuss my daughter's upcoming sixth birthday.

For him, I answered, of course they have. Is he the one who took the notices to the library and the Wawa, who interviewed the crazies, spent hours searching for pink pantyhose for ballet class, ran home at lunchtime to make sure the babysitter wasn't watching soap operas, called in sick pretending to cough when Vickie had a temperature of 104 degrees? (It's all right to tell your boss you are sick, but find me the boss who will unbegrudgingly grant a day off when you inform him your child is ill, in this supposedly "child-centered" society!)

For most men, sadly, it is enough to be only secondarily involved, to assume it fair that, as was recently reported in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, "When mothers work, they bear the responsbility and burden of both home and job, both psychologically and physically," a fact not true similarly for most men.

"I wonder if Kennie ever finds himself going 70 miles an hour on the freeway at 5:30 because he can't wait to get home and see the kids?" my dear friend Pat asked recently, discussing what it is like to work all day and race home to see your children (only to find them mesmerized by the television, of course).

As long as men are reared to be job-centered instead of people-centered, it is unlikely many men will feel that surge Pat describes of end-of-the-day longing. And how much of it, I wonder, is our fault? Do we "liberated" and long-suffering working mothers really want to give up control when we give up chores? Are we willing to really let Daddy share the kids, without sticking our all-knowing hands in at the end and remaining "the most important parent"?

Probably not as long as women are reared to see their highest achievement only as nurturers. Ah, for balance.

Then there is the gloomy cloud of economics. As long as women continue to earn 59 cents for every dollar men make (no matter how little that dollar is worth), male time will be considered by everyone better spent working.

As long as homemakers receive no pay,no pension, what man will yearn for the job? What woman will feel free to choose it? When I chose to become a working mother, inflation was at 4 percent, and my income went to savings and supplements. Today, with 20 percent inflation looming like the ghost of Christmas future, the options seem even fewer.

"Don't try to tell them what they are missing," my successful scientist told me when we spoke of the many women we both meet who have decided painfully not to have children, not because they don't want them (a reasonable opinion, of course) but because it would mean no Aruba and no Betamax.

I couldn't begin to.

Society, advanced and self-satisfied, the self-conscious, searching '70s behind us, still offers far too few options for parenting, never meant to be an easy choice but, I believe, one of life's most rewarding.

Until that changes, we will be divided into fathers, mothers and working mothers.

Maybe by the time Vickie is grown, such categories will have ceased to exist.