It was nearly Mother's Day, and the public-relations department still didn't have a role model. Mother's Day without a role model would be like Christmas without a Santa Claus. A role model was a cultural necessity, a merchandising must!

Besides, they reasoned, you couldn't leave an entire generation of mothers on their own, winging it. It was entirely too unscientific. Definitely bad for business. Probably un-American.

So, once more they spent their morning meeting sifting through the files. First there was the Devoted Selfless Mother file. They pulled out a quote by Gloria Connors, "I've donenothing for 23 years but work for Jimmy."

The PR people looked at each other silently. Twenty-three years ago they could have sold that one. American women would have sighed, "My Son the Tennis Champion." But now if you offered that up as a role model, they would gasp.

Back at the filing cabinet someone found the mother who once wrote to her son's camp counselor, "When my boy wakes up in the morning, it's like a flower opening." Good Gawd, she couldn't even say that on Hallmark greeting cards these days. She was too sweet for a Candy-gram.

So they went on. Past Mrs. Whistler, past Elaine May, past Betty Crocker, past the peculiar lady who ironed her daughter's underwear, past the Heloise heiress who polished her son's copper baby shoes with secondhand tooth-brushes.

They simply wouldn't make it. They were restrikes of early model role models, barely able to take a nostalgic trip around the block.

Then, one of the PR People fondly recalled the last model they'd tried to sell. It had come with lovely accessories for home and work. The most marketed mother of th '70s had been the chic Wonderworkingmother of four children and three corporate titles who jetted to Paris but was always home in time to make dinner. Yes, she was the one who cared for houses and children and corporations without ever once neglecting her skin-care routine. She jogged inflight.

They had a tough time letting go of her. They had, after all, used up some of their favorite lines in her cause: "The Woman Who Wants It All, Does It All"; "You Too Can Be a Supermother With a Little Organization"; "The Fine Art of Juggling."

But the Wonderworkingmother model had gone over like an Edsel. The final attempt to sell her had been a recent Vogue article on "Supersuccess! Mary Wells Lawrence." Someone, a traitor in the office, no doubt, had written graffiti all over that piece: "Think What God Could Do If He Had Money."

Well, that role model had been a gas guzzler. The women who tried to follow her act had produced a psychic energy crisis all over America. The fact was, the boss was right. They needed a better idea - a baseball, apple-pie idea. A new road-model role model for the Era of Lowered Expectations.

So, on deadline, they went back to the drawing board. One drew a portrait of a mother who was neither martyred not oblivious to her children. At least not all the time. Another drew a profile of a woman holding a list of priorities that had kids' feelings at the top and their ironing at the bottom. Usually.

One sketched a mother at work who wasn't defensive when someone asked her, "Aren't your children suffering?" Another sketched a mother at home who wasn't defensive when someone asked her, "What on earth do you do all day?" At least not always.

They had a picture in their minds of a mother who was asking the right questions: When are kids being demanding and when are they needful? How can a mother lead her own life and not let down her children? What is the line between encouraging independence and fostering neglect? What is the line between nurturing and smothering?

But in the end, they simply couldn't draw a compostite. The mother of the late '70s came with options and hassles and individual chassis. Her one standard piece of equipment was a simple Desire to Cope.

The truth was that she needed another of those role models like she needed another guilt trip. So they called it quits. Maybe a Mother's Day without a role model wasn't Christmas without Santa Claus. Maybe it's Halloween without the wicked witch.