The women waited in the dimly lit, antique-filled Cleveland Park living room, their tea and coffee mugs poised, their eyes on a dark-haired stranger with her hands folded tensely in her lap.

"I've got a girl and a boy, they're 10 and 12, and, um, they're with their father, and I haven't seen them since 1978," the woman said hesitantly, in a high-pitched mountain twang.

A collective intake of breath. A dozen faces registering sympathy. They, too, were mothers and did not live with their children. They had assembled for the monthly local meeting of a national self-help group called Mothers Without Custody. Each woman had a compelling, often tragic story of divorce and loss. But even the most frustrated of them could not imagine so many years without seeing their children. And so the conversation kept coming back to the stranger and her dilemma.

She had called the children once, but her ex- husband immediately changed to an unlisted telephone number. She used to send Christmas cards, birthday cards and other mail but stopped after three years of hearing nothing from the children. She had called relatives and been rebuffed; she didn't even know exactly where her children went to school.

She did not elaborate and no one asked her to. Instead, she received advice and encouragement. Contact the county and find out what school they are attending, one woman urged. Ask about their health records. Develop a rapport with a teacher or counselor.

"After this amount of time . . . of not contacting them, would that be some sort of bad reflection?" asked the woman, still uncertain.

"You still have legal rights," said another woman with a brisk, no-nonsense air. "And to be quite frank, it's none of their business.

The newcomer broke into a grin that turned to outright laughter as the women called out a dozen more ways to circumvent a hostile ex-spouse and communicate with her children: contact their religious group, keep copies of all mail to give to them later, send flowers, send candy, send balloons, have friends in other states mail letters to them, have their addresses typed or hand-written by friends, use official-looking or business envelopes. And most of all, keep trying, because the kids may be treasuring every scrap of paper their mother sends.

"MOMS WITHOUT CUSTODY still love, still care, still there" is the motto on the Mothers Without Custody brochure. According to the group's bylaws, it exists "in order to enhance the quality of life for our children by strengthening the role of noncustodial parents in regard to custody, child support, visitation and parenting."

On a practical level, it offers emotional support to noncustodial mothers and tries to educate a society that is often hostile or doesn't know what to make of those mothers.

The group is based in Greenbelt, Md., and has a membership of about 450 nationwide, with a potential pool it estimates at 1,000 times larger.

Child Trends, a Washington consulting firm, says 1.3 million children lived with their fathers in 1983 -- and 90 percent of them had mothers living somewhere else. Census figures indicate that the percentage of children living with their fathers nearly doubled from 1970 to 1983.

The four-year-old, self-help group for noncustodial mothers attempts to provide constructive, practical support for people often facing the simultaneous loss of their spouses, children, incomes and expected roles in society. The women often believe they are alone; who ever heard of a mother without custody? Equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunity notwithstanding, motherhood remains a potent American ideal. Whether or not they have chosen their circumstances, mothers without custody often pay the price for violating that ideal.

"Society is not very understanding," says Cynthia Malament, a Rockville attorney who represents men and women in custody cases. "A father with custody is treated as being very cutesy. Mr. Mom. Kramer versus Kramer. What a marvelous thing. If a father has custody, there's a mother without custody. But no one focuses on that. Is that cutesy? No. That's not cutesy at all."

In contested cases, custody awards in the United States are about equally split between mothers and fathers. Yet the myth of the unfit mother -- negligent, evil, alcoholic, abusive or just plain selfish -- persists. "There's such a stigma that many mothers without custody don't even tell people they have children," says Dottie Keville, regional director of Mothers Without Custody for eight states.

"People who wouldn't think of going up to a man and saying 'Why aren't they with you?' have no hesitation about going up to a woman and saying it," adds Maggie Hillis, D.C. coordinator for the group.

Mothers without custody have reached their destination through a variety of routes: dire marital circumstances, strained finances, unsympathetic judges, painful decisions made for "the good of the children."

Some of these mothers have fled from physical or emotional abuse. At least one left an alcoholic, and one "kidnapped" her daughter for several months until the FBI caught up with her.

Mothers without custody are "the most poignant group that I've ever dealt with. It's heart- wrenching," says E. Anne Riley, a therapist and head of the Divorce Resource Center, a private agency in College Park that offers counseling and divorce mediation.

"No matter how much a man loves a child, he did not grow up thinking it's his role in life to have his children with him always," says Riley. "As much as the men miss them . . . there is that special something when a woman loses her child . . . It's their whole identity and they just never imagined it could happen."

ONE ON ONE, most of these mothers cannot discuss their children or their predicaments without tears and, sometimes, recriminations. But their meetings are calm, down-to-earth and, for the most part, free of bitterness. "This isn't a giant pity party that we have," says Keville.

Adds Hillis, "I've met some great women in this organization. They are not people who are derelicts or have some kind of social disease that makes them unfit. They are victims of things out of their control."

If Mothers Without Custody has a prime objective, that may be it -- to give back to these women some sense that they control their lives, that they need not consider themselves victims, that if they cannot prevail they can at least endure, and gracefully. They attend brunches and picnics, bolster each other with phone calls between monthly meetings. Occasional sessions can erupt into tearful frustration or angry bitterness, but usually the meetings are constructive. Sometimes there are speakers; more ofen, the women themselves talk -- about forgiveness, about long- distance parenting techniques, about how to survive holidays, emotionally and logistically. They trade legal tips, engage in good-humored commiseration about pushy stepmothers and awkward school conferences.

At one meeting, a glamorous young woman in makeup, heels, tight jeans and a leotard, said she cried uncontrollably when she returned her 3-year- old to her ex-husband after a recent visit. "I don't know what got into me. Hormones or something. I just said dammit, it's time for me to feel sorry for myself. Every three or four months I go crazy," she said, and then laughed. "I used to feel I wanted him to die -- then I could get her."

Many members of Mothers Without Custody feel they have been caught in a squeeze play, victims of a legal system that has outpaced the social progress it was modified to match. By 1970, most courts had switched from maternal preference to a sex-neutral standard in accordance with state equal rights amendments and changing roles and attitudes. But many women remain economically disadvantaged, limiting their abilities to establish a suitable home and pursue expensive litigation.

Nancy Polikoff, director of the National Project on Women and Child Custody of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, says most women are shocked to learn that they need not be considered unfit to lose custody. "They don't understand how vulnerable they are, and sometimes their lawyers don't either," she says.

Polikoff, who has written a 74-page handbook on custody battles, charges that many judges undervalue the contribution of the primary caretaker -- still usually the mother -- and give too much weight to financial resources and remarriage. Polikoff also contends that judges apply a double standard to the career pursuits of men and women -- leading the judges to conclude that women who work are not truly interested in being good mothers.

sts indicates that children adapt reasonably well to living with either parent. David Chambers, a University of Michigan law professor, reviewed 20 years of research for an article in the Michigan law review. Based on "meager evidence," he says, "there doesn't seem to be a great deal to worry about" in placing children with fathers. But Chambers, who supports the notion that children should be awarded to the parent who was the primary-caretaker, cautions that "there are no thorough studies yet done that compare over time a random sample of children with mothers with a random sample of children with fathers."

West Virginia is the only state with a policy of awarding custody to the parent who is already the primary caretaker, a standard that some view as a way to impose logic on a system that often works in inexplicable ways.

"I find the courts extremely unpredictable. I don't know what goes on in the minds of some of these judges," says Riley, who is often asked to testify in custody cases. "Sometmes there is no rhyme or reason. Sometimes the most rigid, authoritarian person gets the kids. It's just not a black and white picture."

Malament says it is "good and bad" that most judges are men, because "some men believe a woman should have custody no matter what the law says. Other male judges feel that times are changing, and they'll give a man a chance to be a good father." Judges have such sweeping discretion that "they can pretty much make any decision they want," says Polikoff.

Maggie Hillis, 43, the hostess and moderator of Mothers Without Custody meetings in Washington, considers herself the victim of a capricious court system that took away her two sons 12 years ago in Pennsylvania. She had custody but she permitted the boys to spend every other night with their father. After one year, she felt the constant back and forth was not good for the children, but when she said she wanted to change that living arrangement, her ex- husband filed for custody. As she tells it, many witnesses testified that she was a good mother, and there was also testimony that he was a good father. The judge told her and her ex-husband to seek counseling but the counseling didn't work. When they went back to court five months after the initial hearing, the judge decided on joint custody and that the boys would live with their father -- a result that stunned Hillis.

"I fell apart. I couldn't believe this had happened to me. I could barely walk out of the place. In 20 minutes my whole life had changed. I was demolished. I felt like there was nothing in me. The most important thing in the world that I had lived for, had put all my energy and thought into, was just taken away," she said. "The judge set up a visiting schedule, three weekends a month. The first weekend was really sad. I probably cried 20 out of 24 hours. For two solid years I was unable to take them back to their father without crying the whole way over and the whole way back."

For many years she lived nearby, seeing her boys on the appointed weekends. "I kept up all the things with the friends sleeping over, the birthday parties and ice skating, and the scouts, all the things I'd done before," she said. When the boys became teen-agers -- their lives centered almost entirely on school and friends -- Hillis moved to Washington. Her children are older now, 15 and 17, more independent but still close to her. In retrospect, she says she should have appealed the custody ruling. At the time, "I simply did not have it in me."

Angie Mease of Silver Spring, state coordinator of Mothers Without Custody, blames her situation on slow-moving courts that let her children, 14 and 15, remain with their father while he challenged a ruling that gave her temporary custody pending their divorce. She said the court reversed itself and transferred temporary custody to him. Disturbed by her children's feelings of insecurity and problems in school, Mease decided not to challenge the status quo when her divorce became final in August 1983. Her ex-husband still has custody, and she sees her children every other weekend.

"I know that I'm a good mother. The courts didn't take my children from me. It's a decision I made. Enough was enough. There was too much fighting. I hadn't started to live a new life emotionally, and I knew they hadn't. It was a decision I made so that we could all go on," she said.

Not all mothers without custody feel victimized or anguished. Sandi Junevicus, who moved to Washington from Denver in the past year, left behind her two sons. At a Mothers Without Custody meeting she said she feels guilty about not feeling guilty. "I feel like I should be feeling bad that they're not with me -- and I don't." But she fears she may have problems in the future. She would like her boys to stay with her for a school year, and her husband, from whom she is separated, hasn't agreed. "I don't think I'm going n good terms now, everything's fine, but he's got it just the way he wants it." Given the nature of custody battles, it is understandable that some parents decide to cut them short or avoid them altogether. "I don't know anybody who sleeps well who's involved with this stuff," says Riley. "Judges hate it, lawyers hate it, I sure hate it. It's an ugly, nasty business in which nobody can win." But the choice to give up custody can sometimes turn into an ordeal nearly as haunting as an all-out war in court. Kathy Corrigan of Falls Church says it was obvious to her that her teen-age twin sons needed a father. Besides, with him they would be able to stay in the same house and have the same friends, take advantage of his greater financial resources. Things turned out differently; her ex-husband remarried and moved. Still, her sons have the stability and security she sought for them. "It's gut-wrenching when you realize you don't have the day-to- day contact," Corrigan says. She pauses. "I got what I wanted. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to you is that you get exactly what you want." There are murmurs of assent; and so the healing continues, month by month, woman to woman. One newsletter left readers with a poem called "Comes the Dawn" by Veronica A. Shoffstall. A few of the lines are particularly telling.

.. You learn that love doesn't mean leaning

And company doesn't mean security . . .

And you learn that you really can endure

That you really are strong

And you really do have worth

And you learn and learn . . .

and you learn

With every good-bye

You learn."