An agonizing dilemma faces the American mother today: doing right by her children versus doing right by her job.

"We have established conditions where these two essential activities are in head-on collision," says Cornell professor Urie Bronfenbrenner, a principal architect of Head Start and consultant to the White House Conference on the Family. "The outcome is destructive to the quality of work and the next generation of Americans."

The emerging conflict between work and family is reaching a crisis point, say feminist leaders like Betty Friedan, who is calling for a revolution in the work place to relieve working parents and give women equal time to pursue a career. "The family is the new frontier," said Friedan in an interview for this article. "It is utterly hypocritical for leaders of government to pretend to be concerned about the family and not face reality that today both parents are working," says Freidan, whose book The Feminine Mystique helped trigger the exodus from the kitchen when it was published 17 years ago. "You are having increased signs of stress among young parents and women not wanting to have children at all because they don't see how they can do it."

"What I need to survive is a good wife," joked one Washington woman. And even though more and more husbands are pitching in with house and children, a recent University of Michigan survey found that only 4 percent of the men surveyed put in more than 3 1/2 hours a day on household chores, compared to 44 percent of the women.

The feminist rally to the family cause is final recognition that there is more to life than a career. No one, however, is seriously advocating women's return to full-time motherhood. Sixty-six percent of women work because they have to (14.6 percent of American households are headed by women), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it stands to reason that if inflation continues at its current rate more women will go to work to make ends meet. The economy has even become dependent on their labor. Without it, analysts say, we couldn't maintain the country's $2 trillion gross national product.

Even in the unlikely event that day care was adequate, that domestic help became cheap and available, or that fathers shared chores, 50-50, Supermom and Dutiful Dad can only do so much after a rigorous day at the office without reaching for the Valium.

With galloping inflation and Congress in a budget-slashing mood, working parents are turning to private industry for help. The eight-hour day, says Gail Rosenberg of the National Council of Alternative Work Patterns, could become an exception. The workplace needs to be overhauled, insist advocates of change like Rosenberg, not only to help women but also men. The family, after all, is a joint responsibility. Apart from giving parents time for their children, futurists predict that alternative work patterns will help elderly workers wanting to reduce hours and handicapped individuals unable to work full time, not to mention people who want more leisure time.

While the U.S. has lagged behind Europe in experimenting with new ways to work, the federal government, some state agencies and private companies are beginning to respond to the family's cry for help. As it turns out, there are a number of ways to split the traditional 40-hour week.

Shorter Work Week: Today's working couple spends an average of 75 hours a week working and commuting, which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, leaves them no more time for family chores and leisure activities than their counterparts in the 1900s and even less than a family in 1940.

Motivated more by predictions that technology will put people out of work rather than a desire to give working parents a break, labor unions have renewed their efforts to shorten the work week. Work five hours less a week, says Frank Runnells, president of the All Unions Committee to Shorten the Work Week and you create 8 million new jobs.

Last year Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a bill to reduce the standard 40-hour week, which hasn't changed since 1940, to 35 hours by 1983. This bill, still in committee, also requires double-time payments for overtime, which is particularly hard on women with children. Many companies have, in fact, already reduced time on the job by increasing paid holidays and vacations. For example, after six years of continuous service, the Rolm Corporation, a California manufacturer of military computers, gives its employes three months' paid leave with full benefits.

Flextime: In 1967, the West German firm of Messerschmitt-Bolkow called in a mangement consultant in an effort to combat absenteeism and lateness, which was seriously affecting proudction. She opened the factory from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., giving employes "core" hours between 10 and 3 when they had to be on the job, and left them to work out the remaining 40-hour week to suit their convenience. The results were so dramatic that the idea took off in Europe and made its way to the United States where it is estimated more than 6 percent of workers outside the federal government set their hours within a basic framework set down with employers. In a 1979 sampling of firms using flexitime, two-thirds reported increased productivity ranging from 5 to 14 percent. In 1978, Congress passed legislation introducing a three-year experiment in flexitime and compressed time for government employes as an example.

The compressed week (i.e., the 10-hour, four-day week or the 12- or 13-hour, three-day week) has been abandoned by many companies. "Longer hours at physically demanding jobs are particularly hard on women," says Dr. John Haldi, an economist with Haldi Associates. "As regards boredom, when white-collar workers could hardly stand an eight-hour shift, a longer shift made the job intolerable for some workers despite the day off."

Permanent Part Time: In a 1979 survey of nonworking mothers, conducted by the National Commission on Working Women, half said they would take a job outside the home if it were part time. Already 69 percent of the estimated 12.5 million part-time jobs are held by women, who earn 25 to 35 percent less than women working full time at the same work. Benefits are poor and promotion virtually non existent.

Part-timers are second-class citizens, says Diane Rothberg, director of the Association of Part-Time Professionals, which is trying to upgrade the image of part-time employment in Washington as well as persuade firms to create part-time jobs for college educated men and women instead of just for unskilled workers. "It's a difficult idea to get across," she says, especially in a 60-hour-week city like Washington. "What makes a professional? Is it really because he or she is ready to work 50 or 60 hours a week?"

In 1978, Congress passed the Part-Time Career Employment Act to force the federal government to create more part-time positions, including some in the upper-grade levels. The California state legislature is also considering a leisure-sharing bill to allow state employes to reduce their working hours.

The ideal situation is where both partners cut back, says Rothberg, pointing out that flexible work hours actually save money in the long run. For example, a couple both earning $10,000 a year are expecting their first baby. If they both cut back to four days a week they still earn 80 percent of their combined income. If they both chose a different day off they will only need child care three days a week. In addition, the wife retains her seniority and her skills don't deteriorate, so in the event of a divorce she doesn't risk ending up on the welfare rolls.

In many cases loss of income when a person cuts back work hours is not as dramatic as it first appears, especially among professional couples. Two salaries can push a couple into the higher income bracket, says Ed Gant, a Washington accountant which a lot of people don't realize when the wife returns to work. A young lawyer, for example, earns $30,000, while his spouse earns $20,000. She cuts back to half time. "For a reduction of $10,000 they would reduce their taxes by $6,000, so they would only in fact be out by $4,000," Gant points out.

Job Sharing: A future fantasy -- two presidents of the U.S. for the price of one.

"When you share a job," says Judy Hodges, co-director of Job Sharers Inc., a nonprofit group which has chapters in most major U.S. cities, "you get two creative minds, and more work done." Job Sharers Inc. organizes two-member teams to knock on the doors of Washington employers to convince them to create jobs for two people because it reduces absenteeism and makes for greater efficiency and employe satisfaction.

The idea of sharing a position with a partner caught on in the early '70s when professional women wanted to reduce working hours for family reasons without jeapardizing their careers. Part-time employment only offered dead-end jobs with poor pay and next to no benefits. Since then job-sharing experiments have succeeded in a large number of professions, including teaching, research, counseling, social services, medicine and law. A 1979 study of work sharing published by the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research found that 33 percent of job sharers held supervisory positions.

Job-sharing duties can be split many different ways besides down the middle.

In fact the Upjohn Institute study found that 50 percent of job sharers were paid at a different scale than their partners. In many cases, one aspect of the job merits a higher salary than the other, as for example, when an older person shares a position with a younger employe. Benefits are prorated. A U.S. Department of Labor study found both productivity and satisfaction higher among job sharers than full-time employes.

Flexiplace: Industrial economists predict that future employes will not go to the office; it will come to them. The Industrial Revolution eliminated cottage industries and congregated people in factories and offices. Now, 150 years later, the silicone chip may propel people back into the home and revitalize family life.

According to research, 50 percent of American work is in information-related activities. Since it is now possible, for example, to encode the contents of a library on a 5" x 4" microfiche, much of this work could be done from home computer bases or from satellite work centers in local communities. On days employes work at home, they can retain lines with co-workers on closed circuit television or video phones.

"It's the ultimate in flexitime. You can arrange to work when you like -- early in the morning, late at night, at week-end," says Frank Schiff, chief economist of the Committee for Economic Development, pointing out that an employe who works at home only two days a week could save 16 hours a month if he spent two hours commuting to the office daily. An added advantage, of course, would be energy savings.

When the Continental Bank of Chicago couldn't find people to work their new credit card operation, they established a computer terminal in a suburban community outside the city. Within four days they had recurited 65 people willing to work because they were within walking or bicycling distance of their jobs.

Some social psychologists fear that working at home will not only be distracting, but also isolating. Office futurists, however, argue that just the oppostie is true. Workers under deadline, they point out, often find the only way to escape interruptions from co-workers, the telephone or unnecessary internal meetings is to take work home. Isolation won't be a problem, they say, because most communications between employes takes place on the phone already. Time saved through increased efficiency and less commuting could, in fact, be spent with people -- family, friends or doing work in the community.

The U.S. has far to go before catching up with European innovations in the work place. For example, 30 to 40 percent of all Swiss workers are on flexi schedules. Most European countries, as well as many developing nations, give women time off with pay to have a baby. In the U.S. under a 1978 congressional act, pregnancy is treated as a short-term disability, and only companies who include such a plan for their employes are obliged to pay up. This is a far cry from the country like Sweden where either parent is entitled to nine months with full pay at the birth of a baby plus another optional nine months unpaid leave. In addition the law gives the mother or the father the possibility of reducing work hours up to 50 percent without harming their careers. The reduced working day, which, like the earlier leaves, the Swedish government encourages men to split with their wives, can continue until the child is 8 years old.

There are many obstacles on the road to the utopian work world where everyone clocks in to suit their family, career or leisure needs. First, employers must be convinced that alternative work patterns will not turn into paperwork nightmares or additional expenses; that production and worker satisfaction will improve. The employe, on the other hand, must be reassured that reducing hours won't affect promotion or benefits. In addition, the 40-hour-a-week managerial mind-set will have to be replaced with innovative ideas for restructuring jobs. Last, but not least, the unions must be persuaded that part-time work, job sharing and flexi-time, which many leaders oppose, is not a threat to people who need full-time jobs.

Convincing employers that the cost of alternative work schedules can be offset by increased productivity and work satisfaction is no big deal, contends Stanley Nollen, a Georgetown University professor who specializes in work-related matters. The basic, and possibly insurmountable, obstacle to alternative work patterns is the American work ethic which says there is virtue to hard labor. "Why do you think everyone is always overestimating the amount of time he works or telling you how hard he works?" he asks. Since men can no longer prove themselves in physical exploits, they need to be heroes in the office, he says. "Masculine identity require success, conquest and single-mindedness of purpose. Men need to compete harder and win bigger. They feel they can't succeed unless they are devoted full time . . . Who ever heard of a part-time hero or a part-time industry leader?" Women, he fears, are falling victim to similar socialization.

A number of ideas have been suggested to encourage firms to introduce new work patterns. Tax incentives, for example, could be offered to offset extra paperwork involved in restructuring jobs. Another idea, already in operation in some companies, is "cafeteria style" benefits, whereby each employe selects the kind of benefit he or she needs from a basic package. Many couples currently have overlapping insurance. "With computers," say Frank Schiff, "it should be virtually possible to tailor different benefit or work schedules to suit everyone."

Changes may be slow in coming, but experts believe that history, technology and good business sense are working in favor of the work place's adaptation to the family. A Rand Corporation statistical study undertaken for HEW's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development links the declining birth rate to women's preference for paychecks over babies rather than to the pill. When fertility rates fall below a desired level, as they did recently in the Soviet Union, it may be accompanied by social change in favor of children.

There is also evidence that the traditional American idea that work is second to godliness is being undermined by growing job dissatisfaction and a desire for increased leisure time. Pollster Daniel Yankelovich reports that "only one out of five people states that work means more to him than leisure." A recent survey of so-called male "pacesetters conducted by Gail Sheehy for a forthcoming book about men found that most of them wanted to work only six hours a day in order to devote more time to "personal growth." "I think there is more recognition that people have legitimate non work interests and other parts to their lives and they need to have time to devote to them," says John Schultz, a personnel staffing specialist at the U.S. Government Personnel Management Office, who has reduced his work week to four days in order to spend more time with his family.

Women, as is often the case, are in the vanguard for social change. "Men are facing what women faced 10 years ago. They obviously have much more of a barrier to overcome in terms of peer pressure against part-time work," says Gail Rosenberg, who sees growing evidence that women part-timers and job-sharers are being taken seriously by employers. "If we could only find a few more of them willing to take part-time work or to job share, then it would become respectable and take off," says Judy Hodges.