All mothers are working mothers.

But women with children who work outside the home are also tightrope walkers, engaged in an endless balancing act between work and home.

A few years ago, Letitia Baldridge, former social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy, wrote the first of several self-help books for working mothers. It was called "Juggling" and advised women to hire household help and rear children to understand there are times when a mother's job comes before the school play.

After reading "Juggling," I thought about writing a book called "Dropping the Ball." It would report that there are no understanding bosses or children. It would tell working mothers how to live with their guilt. And it would give advice on what advice to ignore.

For instance, the experts always advise planning. Working mothers learn never to plan ahead. As soon as you agree to attend an all-day office seminar out of town, the school system will announce an unscheduled teachers' conference for that same day. If the school system doesn't foul your plans, your child will develop chicken pox or dent a finger just as you pull out of the driveway.

Of course, if you take the morning off to sit in the hospital emergency room waiting to have a finger X-rayed, it won't be broken. If you send the child off with a kiss and a Band-Aid, the finger will swell and turn blue before you reach the Beltway.

Time is the constant challenge.

Morning and evening, what we really need is a two-minute warning system, like in football, to prepare those around us for our departure. No sooner do we grasp the doorknob of home or office than a plaintive voice cries out, "Before you go, could you find my notebook (or briefing book), sign my permission slip (or my memorandum), explain long division (or the deficit in the accounting department)."

We need to find a way to do away with teachers who schedule the annual parent conference in the middle of the working day and refuse to switch it, the dental hygienists who want to report us to the child abuse authorities for failing to encourage adequate flossing, the room mothers who balk at our store-bought baked goods for the PTA sale and the kids who claim that everybody else's mother is a clone for Carol on the Brady Bunch.

And we could do without the well-meaning folk who suggest it would ease our harried existences if we would "stop and smell the roses." If we do stop, it is because someone in the family has rose fever and we are adding allergy shots to the weekly schedule.

One thing can be said for the life of the working mother: when it works, we have the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, we don't have the leisure time to contemplate it. A while back, I was filling out an application that left ample room to expound on my community activities and use of leisure time. This was the space other applicants used to describe backpacking through the Himalayas, composing haiku or learning Hunan cooking. My response was uncommonly brief.

"I have two jobs, two kids, one husband and one house," I wrote. "I have come to consider sleep as a meaningful leisure activity."