Some of her relatives shun her and occasional acquaintances think of her as "evil, like a woman of the streets," but Barbara Phillips is convinced that she did the right thing by leaving her young son with his father when she escaped five years ago from a marriage that to her was intolerable.

Being a mother without custody "just doesn't go with the United States, and apple pie and all that," sighs Phillips, who looks as wholesome as a high school gym coach. "Sure, I feel a little bit of guilt. But I felt guilt when I went to work leaving my son at a baby sitter . . . A mother feels guilt to a certain extent no matter what. I have an extra dose because he isn't with me."

Phillips, 38, a computer program analyst and former school teacher from Ellicott City, Md., never fought or protested or challenged her lack of custody. "When you have two parents that equally love their child . . . " Her voice trails off as she ponders how to explain an impossible dilemma. "The child can't be split in two. He has to be with one parent most of the time. He had a baby sitter that he knew, a school he liked, his environment was pretty good. That seemed like the best thing for him."

"I hurt now," Phillips says, her mouth trembling as she picks and chooses words. "I guess all three of us probably hurt a little bit now. But a court fight of any kind would have hurt all three of us more. From everything I've heard, it's too traumatic to go through . . . And I wouldn't want to go challenge it now, to hurt us when we've healed a lot. It doesn't make sense to disturb that, even though I hurt."

Phillips' situation is eased by the fact that she has been friendly with her ex-husband "from the very day I left" and gets along well with her son's new stepmother. She sees her child almost every weekend and talks to him every other da -- half as much as she used to.

"For a while we needed that daily check-in to know that the other person cared. Now we don't, so we communicate every other day," she says, smiling. She has seen her son, now 10, grow up enough to become protective of her, to call after she drops him off and inquire about traffic or weather on the 70- mile ride home. But there are also hurts, inadvertent but upsetting. Sometimes she'll look forward all day to an evening telephone conversation with her child, only to find him preoccupied or distracted and in no mood to talk.

"That makes me sad because I miss him so much," she says. "All he needs to know is that I called him. Because that means I care enough to call. I like to know what he did at school or the things that I've missed."

Despite occasional sadness, Phillips believes that she, her son and her ex-husband all are happier now than they would have been had she stayed. She says her son is doing well at school, enjoys both his homes and generally is cheerful despite his fragmented life.

"When you hear your kid

singing in the shower, you figure that he's pretty happy,"

Phillips says. "Sometimes when

my son is feeling down about

the situation, I say, well look,

you've got two families -- two

close families and then four sets

of grandparents. It's not so bad.

There are advantages."

Phillips, Howard County coordinator for Mothers Without

Custody, has been remarried for

four years and is unsure

whether she wants to have another child. "I wouldn't ever

want to

go through this again or have my husband go through it, if my marriage didn't work out," she says.

But she adds, laughing, "I've read that if a woman without custody has a child, then she's accepted. She's not looked on as a bad person."