Each weekday at 4:30 a.m., Jaye Gabri's job begins when her husband, Stephen, leaves their home in Lake Ridge to start his long commute to the District. Her job ends long after dark, when Stephen, a Marine major stationed at the barracks in Southeast Washington, arrives home at 7 p.m.

Gabri, 34, loves her work -- she's an at-home mom to their son, 19-month-old Nicholas. But she says the 14-hour days can be grueling. "It's hard," she said, "really, really difficult."

The job of at-home mom is never easy -- any woman who is devoting herself full time to rearing children knows that. But in Prince William County, many at-home moms face an even big ger challenge because their husbands have lengthy commutes to work, meaning that their wives' responsibilities stretch from dawn to past dusk.

"To a large degree, these women are single parents," said Diane Puckett, a therapist with the Women's Center of Vienna who lives and practices in Manassas. "The vast majority of them have responsibility for everything -- other than earning a paycheck. {It} all falls on them."

Because of high housing prices elsewhere in the Washington area, Prince William has become known as the place for families who want a more traditional lifestyle. Couples who want to live on one income say they're more able to afford a single-family house here than, say, in Fairfax or Loudoun counties.

But the lifestyle of father as breadwinner and mother as homemaker has its price -- long absences by dads.

To cope with their husbands' absences, at-home moms in Prince William have built extensive support systems among themselves. They use play dates, baby-sitting trades, e-mail, support groups, prayer groups and regular get-togethers with friends and neighbors to stay in touch with each other.

"A lot of it is networking -- just like we used to do when we were working," said Sue Hemphill, 35, a Manassas mother of two who serves as president of Club Mom, an at-home mother's support group in Prince William.

Although there are plenty of at-home moms in the county, they say they still sometimes face the stigma of being "just" a mother -- someone who doesn't have a career outside the home from which to derive status.

Vanessa Tranquil, 34, of Nokesville, whose husband is a corporate consultant and commutes to Maryland, said she and her friends sometimes call each other during the day to joke: "How many bonbons have you had today?"

Unlike mothers who work away from home, at-home moms need to make an extra effort to get daily contact with adults outside the realm of teachers, pediatricians and grocery store clerks.

When Gloria and David Dickison moved to Montclair in early October, she wasted no time signing up for two at-home mom support groups and attending a drop-in play group for toddlers at the Dale City Recreation Center.

The groups help her 18-month-old daughter, Kathleen, socialize with other children, said Dickison, 37. They also attend, she said, "so I don't go insane."

Leslie Rowe trades off baby-sitting with a friend one day a week, attends meetings of Mothers of Preschool Children in local churches and checks in regularly with friends via telephone and e-mail. "I'm a people person, so if I don't see my friends, I go nuts," said Rowe, 37, of Westchester, who has three children and a husband who commutes to Herndon.

Therapist Puckett, herself a former at-home mom, said that it's essential that women with so much responsibility at home make time for themselves, in addition to reaching out to other moms.

"It's just like food and water," Puckett said. "It's not an option because at some point or another, they're going to fall apart" if they devote themselves solely to their family's well-being and neglect their own.

Lynn Hess, 33, of Woodbridge, said she and her husband John, a real estate tax consultant who works in Rosslyn, have worked hard to build in time for Lynn to unwind without the children. Each weekday evening, Lynn and their two children -- ages 4 and 7 -- eat dinner early and then, when John returns from work around 7 p.m., Lynn closes herself in their bedroom for about an hour. She takes a hot bath, reads and enjoys a brief respite from motherhood.

"I love my family to pieces," she said, "but I also have become aware that I need my own space and my own time" to herself.

Many at-home moms say the long hours and hard work are worth the effort. Molly Vasquez, 34, said she and husband Bud, 39, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force stationed at Fort McNair, looked in Maryland, Burke and Springfield before settling on a house in Old Bridge Estates outside Woodbridge. They have a 4-year-old daughter, a 15-month-old son and a 6-year-old son, whom she home-schools. Molly Vasquez said the couple were prepared for the sacrifices. "We just knew he was going to have a long commute and that I was going to be at home with the children, by choice, and therefore let's find a home we can really be at home with," she said. Jacqueline L. Salmon, the mother of two, is the co-author of two books about parenting. She will write occasionally about subjects of interest to Prince William parents. WHERE THE MOMS ARE Here's how to get together with other at-home mothers in Prince William County. Organizations: Club Mom (791-3739) offers weekly play groups grouped by children's ages, as well as "mom's night out" events and other activities. Mother's First (878-3645) holds regular meetings, as does Mothers of Preschoolers (361-4976), a Christian-oriented group that provides child care at meetings. Mothers at Home, a national group (1-800-783-4MOM), publishes a regular newsletter. Indoor playgrounds: On cold days, mothers and their preschoolers can gather at Kidsport (361-4966) and Discovery Zone (369-4885), both in Manassas. Fitness centers: Some centers offer child care, such as Fitness for Women (680-3348) in Dale City and the Manassas Racquet Club and Fitness Center (830-2139). County facilities: Local libraries offer story time for preschoolers. The Dale City Recreation Center (670-7112, Ext. 221) offers drop-in play classes and swim sessions for preschoolers. Parenting classes: Potomac Hospital (670-1504) holds classes at local schools. CAPTION: Jaye Gabri gets a push from her 19-month-old son, Nicholas. Gabri, of Lake Ridge, loves her work as an at-home mother but says the 14-hour days can be grueling. CAPTION: Jaye Gabri, an at-home mother, and 19-month-old son, Nicholas, greet the letter carrier at their Lake Ridge home. She says the 14-hour days can be grueling. CAPTION: Gabri reads a book to Nicholas. "It's hard," she says of her day, "really, really difficult." Her work begins early in the morning and ends long after dark.