A couple of years ago, a close friend of Effi Barry's remarked, "She is imprisoned in other people's illusions and expectations." Today, a few weeks into her husband's second administration, the willowy and guarded wife of Marion Barry seems bent on breaking the chains of other people's expectations and her own ambivalence over the goldfish bowl public officials occupy. Her decision? Retrench, cut back on activities.

In turning down twice as many appearances as she once did, she gives health and family reasons, but adds emphatically, "I have just decided I can't be so available to other people. I have to march to the music within me. At this particular time, it's called personal time . . . trying to make sure I'm fulfilling some of the lifetime goals I have set for myself."

Watching the fragile face as she says this, her manner framed in frustration born of the conflicts of her status, it's hard not to sympathize with her dilemma, a traditional conflict for political wives made more difficult by present-day standards.

Yet at a time when the city desperately needs leadership, including the unique form offered by a first lady, is this the time for Mrs. Barry to be "a private citizen," as the mayor's press office recently was quoted as describing her? Can she or we afford the luxury of this decision? Or is there a better way to use the time she has to give?

A newcomer to Washington and a political neophyte in her husband's first term, Effi Barry weathered storms in which she was at times the center. There was intense public questioning of her husband when, for instance, they got a sizable discount on their home mortgage from the bank where Effi was a board member. (She resigned from that board but sits on several community-oriented boards.) Through the demands and commands of political life, she has insisted on trying to keep alive her personal goals and aspirations--perhaps returning to school to earn her doctorate--and from that spring the frustrations, the occasional lines of tension in the attractive face, some rigidity in the frail body.

She was truly shaken by her emergency surgery for removal of an ovarian cyst last year and is still in physical therapy. As "reborn" as she felt with the birth of her son, Marion Christopher, nearly 3, she says she was unprepared for the "terrible impact" of politics on the family. "Marion is never home . . . and the mother has to assume the role of two parents," she says. Part of her cutting back has been in declining to accompany the mayor to many night-time events.

The frustrations are myriad. She says she can't "get a decent job because of conflict of interest." The Barrys are not wealthy people, and she says with a daily radio show on WYCB her only paid employment, she is feeling a money crunch.

"It's very expensive. Most of the things I do, the money comes out of my pocket," she said, although she does have the available services of a full-time, $20,000-a-year secretary who works in the mayor's office. "I'm in a nebulous position . . . . I don't get a paid salary and you don't really get many perks. You're out there on a limb trying to define your position . . . ."

But I think there is an important role that Effi Barry could play now, an extension of one she has already played. She has made many appearances in local schools, telling young people, she says, "to get out of their neighborhoods . . . benefit from the magnificence of this city."

But they don't take the advice, because many are struggling with lives of poverty: low motivation, high unemployment, few prospects for the future and low self-esteem--almost an identity crisis. The city's "magnificence" is lost on them.

They need more than just to be told to grow, to gain self-confidence or to feel part of the whole city. They need concrete help to accomplish those things, and Effi Barry could be in a unique position to give it. She travels that narrow lane between the two cities that are Washington, and with more focus on specific projects involving young people, she could help some of them cross that gap.

She could give leadership and visibility to the urgent struggle for identity many of them are experiencing. Such a use of her own influence and power could bring her more satisfaction and less frustration. And the city would be the richer for it.