Victoria E. Markus of Gaithersburg has sparked a lively debate in the letters to the editor column of The Washington Post by addressing what is probably the most inflammatory topic of our time: motherhood. She said that "motherhood as we know it is deteriorating," and she offered some intriguing suggestions about what could be done to help women combine motherhood and careers.

What prompted her letter was a personal experience. She wrote that she had recently turned down a 22 1/2-hour-a-week job because the company didn't pro-rate benefits for permanent part-time employes. And she proposed that women's organizations lobby for federal guidelines--similar to those that exist for hiring minorities and the handicapped--that would require companies to have a certain number of six-hour-a-day jobs and prorated benefits.

"Could the current crisis in education have anything to do with working mothers too tired to tutor their children after a hard day's work?" Markus wrote. "Think about it. Something's got to give."

Her letter provoked an answer from Maria Rowan of Arlington, who wanted to know where Markus' husband has been all this time. "It's a good thing motherhood as we know it is deteriorating," she wrote. "Maybe it's high time fatherhood started taking up the slack."

Before long, one male correspondent questioned whether a spouse who contributes $90,000 to the family income should contribute as much to household chores as a spouse who earned only $9,000 (hire a maid, is the obvious answer). After a flurry of responses, another man wrote in to defend his male cohort against "a brace of modern females."

That was too much for Roberta Davis of Columbia who described that contribution to the debate as "without a doubt the most infuriating letter I have ever read in a newspaper.

"What is it with these men?" she asked. "Why should salary--his or hers--enter into the question of whether people should treat each other with kindness and consideration?"

Clearly, the war between the sexes is not over.

Probably the most satisfying aspect of the exchange so far is that it is taking place in the A-section of a newspaper, rather than in the advice columns. The end of the Supermother era left many families with difficult questions about sharing responsibilities in the home which deserve a serious rather than a trivial forum.

But it is not particularly gratifying to find someone referring to a "brace of modern females" or to "the strident, utter contempt that the 'modern woman' exhibits for basic facts of life, including basic arithmetic." There is a mean spirit that has arisen in this debate that will serve only to divide the sexes instead of uniting them in what should be a common goal--namely to figure out how modern fathers and mothers can do a better job of blending work and family obligations.

Over 39 percent of the labor force, or more than 38.2 million workers, have children under 18. More than 46 percent of mothers with children under 3 are working. Companies that want to draw from a well-educated, responsible workforce have a vested interest in adopting policies that enable parents to do a good job of raising the next generation of workers.

Victoria Markus has an important point: one such policy is to pro-rate benefits so that permanent part-time work of 20 or 30 hours a week is an option for working parents. This would create more jobs and more career opportunities, making each parent less vulnerable in case of divorce. Both spouses would have more time to help children with their homework and to pay more attention to the caliber of their education.

The strains on working mothers are enormous. A survey of workers at General Mills found that 51 percent of the professional women would prefer part-time work to full-time. Markus is right when she says something's got to give. What's giving right now is the relationship between men and women, with women demanding that their husbands do a fairer share of housework. More and more men are feeling this pressure and, as is clear from the letters, some are resenting it.

All of this is to the good. Once men begin to feel some of the pressures that working mothers have been feeling, we might start seeing some of the changes in the workplace that Markus was talking about.

Working mothers can't change the system alone. Working fathers need to help, too.