I'VE JUST FINISHED reading another exuberant article about Successful Women. It featured variations on a theme familiar by now to everyone who reads magazines: A woman breaks into what has traditionally been a man's profession, works long hours, earns a big salary (usually more than $35,000 a year) and, if she is married and has children, hires full-time help so she can spend "quality" time with her family.

This particular article was striking only because of its air of jubilation; one reads about successful women all the time these days. Four times a year, my college alumnae magazine brings me the latest thumbnail life-reports from up-and-coming bankers, doctors, lawyers, professors, authors and government people. In the June issue, for instance, I read the following about members of the class of 1970:

"Married: Elisabeth McKinsey to Thomas N. Clough. Elisabeth is assistant professor of English and American literature at Harvard, and Thomas is in a doctoral program at Harvard Business School. . . . Lindsay Ann Crouse to David Mamet. Lindsay recently appeared in a number of plays and films. David is a playwright of the critically acclaimed plays, 'American Buffalo' and 'A Life in the Theatre'. . . . Kathleen Moreno to Dr. Henry L. Dorking. Hank is a fellow in pulmonary medicine at Children's Hospital in Boston and Kathleen plays harp with the Opera Company of Boston and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga. . . ."

When I encounter Successful Women like these in magazine articles, their lives sound seamless and perfect. They insist that if it came to a hard choice, the family and children would come first -- but it never seems to come to a hard choice. There is no room for a sick mother requiring care, or for a husband who isn't supportive and helpful, or for serious and unexpected problems with the children. These women haven't had to give up anything they really wanted.

One reason for the smooth surface, of course, is that these women tend to have much more money than most people, and so they can afford to hire full-time help. Even when a mother chooses to work only part-time, she can still afford full-time help if she is a highly paid professional. So she's still free to stay late at the office, or to go back in an emergency. She doesn't have to divide her free time between kids and household chores, because someone else cleans and cooks for her. To the extent that it's possible to have it all, money is the means.

But even in the most toast-of-the-town female success stories, there's something left out. We photograph these women only from their best angles -- and we drop out the choices they make and the costs they pay.

I'm glad to be part of a generation of women who are free to make choices about careers and families. However, as far as I can tell, the seamless web of family-and-prestigious-career just doesn't work. At some point, you have to sit down and decide whether to conduct your life in pursuit of money, status, power . . . or something else. The something else is hard to describe, because it's not part of the official story of my generation of women. But I know it's there.

Our household runs fairly smooth. Our best days, the most I have to feel guilty about is sending out son off to nursery school on a bowl of Cheerios rather than the steaming oatmeal I would love to prepare, if only there was time. But on other days -- which occasionally drag into weeks, and which we try to pass off as "just a phase" -- I have more to worry about.

On those days, there are signs of strain that surface in various ways: our son's whining insistence that, No, he doesn't want to go to the babysitter's; asking hopefully whether it's Saturday today; his determination to slow down the whole hurried morning process, screaming when I try to change his soggy pajamas and put on clean school clothes, pulling his shoes and socks off as soon as I put them on and doing everything possible to postpone our departure through the front door.

I would love to humor him at these moments, to let him sleep late on overcast mornings, to let him play with his trucks and dawdle over his breakfast; but there is no time. I must be at my job before 9, which means we must leave the house before 8:30, which means he must start moving by 7:30 without fail. Certainly some of his balking is part of being 2 years old, and certainly he would do many of these things whether or not I worked. But I can't help feeling that my decision to work full-time this year has something to do with it. A child seems to sense unerringly when he is being rushed, when there's something on mommy's mind other than reading him a book or helping him assemble his train. Sometimes a child must be rushed, but I hate the thought of rush becoming the norm, replacing the sense that the child's parents have all the time and love in the world to give.

The imprint a woman makes on her family's lives is personal and private and not even much valued by the world beyond those few affected. A mother's efficiency and organization in running a household isn't particularly noticed (it's expected, taken for granted), but the care she puts into it is. To me, this means things like keeping our family traditions: making Czech dumplings on winter nights and fruitcakes for Christmas, compiling scrapbooks of the children's early years, and making special Halloween costumes they'll have fun thinking up and wearing (this time the costume came from F. W. Woolworth). It's a presence that is not always noticed but would be missed if it were not there, providing the things that make up so many of the memories of one's own childhood. In these things, there is not substitute for time and a mother's touch.

The more glamorous portraits of the Successful Woman are not faithful to her whole life because they underrate the things she has given up -- homely things that are important to women with different values.

I began working full-time during the summer, after our son turned 2. Earlier in the summer, I had taken him to the swimming pool -- something we both enjoyed immensely -- nearly every day. By late summer, he proudly shed his plastic water wings and developed a dog paddle which (to my eyes) was as good as any 4-year-old's. Nearly two months later, on my first holiday from work, we went swimming again, at an indoor pool. My son dived in as fearlessly as ever and sank like a stone. I rescued him and found that he was mainly startled and I was mainly disappointed -- not at his forgetting how to swim, but at the loss of something we were proud of, something we enjoyed doing together.

I convinced myself for quite a while that we still had many hours in the day together, enough that I wouldn't miss any important steps in his development. But late one afternoon recently, we went to play at a neighbor's house. My son hopped on his playmate's tricycle, and I expected to see him scoot off in his normal manner -- two feet at a time, feet on the ground rather than on the pedals, moving in fits and starts. But he set his feet on the pedals -- clearly a practiced and mastered skill -- and zoomed off. I knew that somehow I'd missed all the trial and error, the skips and skids, along the way to becoming an expert pedaler.

The point I never see in the success stories -- but that my life as a mother with a career has convinced me is true -- is that you really can't have it all. If you're going to do the things I think you have to do to be a mother, you can't go full speed over the course that my alumnae magazine lays out. It's not an all-or-nothing choice, but the compromises are real: I would never have been another Noam Chomsky, but I could have been more successful in the world of adacemic linguistics as a full-time, childless worker than I have a chance of being now, with one child already and another on the way.

Most of the women I know have arrangements for work and family different from the Successful Woman's full-time-job/full-time-help plan. Their lives reveal more obviously the choices they've made and the tolls taken on family or career. I have one friend who interrupted her career for eight years to raise children. It has required a long time and a lot of self-confidence to reach her current position. Another has held three jobs in the three years I've known her, because she resigns when a job presses her to the point where she feels she's sacrificing her children's well-being.

Several friends work part-time for different reasons. One wants to spend more free time with her children, because she feels she learns more about them on the way to the dentist or doing the grocery shopping than she does on special trips to the zoo or museums. Another wants to be at home to make up for the absence of a husband with an exceedingly heavy work schedule. Most of these women are very strict about their part-time, limited-success jobs as a result. Many of my other friends don't work at all because they intended to raise families from the start, or feel the children need their mothers full-time, or have responsibilities within an extended family.

Most of these women are not as successful professionally as the women we meet in the articles. They are no less smart or talented or ambitious, but they have simply chosen to spend a greater portion of their energies and time on their private rather than professional lives.

I've tried the whole range of motherhood/career combinations in the last two and a half years: full-time work, part-time work, no work at all. This year I do have very separate private and professional lives. When people ask me what I do, my answer is safe and fashionable: I tell them my job title (I am an assistant dean at Georgetown University) and add that my son keeps me busy in my time after work.

But I know how the world works, and I'm embarrassed that I already worry about what I'll answer next year, when the truth is that I'll be at home raising two children and otherwise unemployed. What do I say then? "I'm a linguist but I'm taking time off to raise the children now" or "I don't work any more because we have two children"?

One of my friends is in this situation now; she warns me that any of these answers is a conversation killer. Of course we agree that we'd rather be out of a conversation with anyone who considered it killed at that point. Our real complaint is that in towns like Washington, unlike the small towns in which we grew up, there is narrow-mindedness, ignorance, condescension and indifference about motherhood. The people we meet at parties don't know what it means to be a successful mother; but they know about the "achievements" a Successful Woman can list.

They don't know about people like my neighbor, a woman my own age with two children, who works as hard as any superachieving young lawyer or TV producer. Her son (about 1 year old) rises before 5 every morning, and her daughter (almost 4) does not go to bed until 9. In between, they nap at different times, so that one of them is always up. She has no company-dictated coffee breaks or business lunches; nor does she have any outside measures of the quality and devotion of her work. Twenty years from now, her children may remember if she sews that Halloween costume or takes them sledding on the first snowy day, if she helps them put together puzzles instead of turning on the cartoons, if she tolerates "helping" hands when making the birthday cake and deals with the broken eggs and spilled milk later on. But these count for nothing in the measure of a modern woman's success.

I used to think that child-rearing was as easy and uncomplicated as the success stories make it out to be. During my son's first year, he would nap in the day for five or six miraculous hours at a stretch. I would doggedly do my work at home while he slept, and I felt smug in my discovery of what I thought must be a truly well-kept secret: Children are easy; they sleep a lot and cry only a little. Men, I thought, were missing the boat. Better not to let them know.

I've become wiser, of course. Children are not easy. They quickly forsake naps and develp tempers. A stretch of free time now comes only in the dead of night, barring nightmares and sickness. Tending them requires vast reserves of patience, imagination and humor.

I've found, as well, that the satisfactions and rewards of the endeavor are far greater than its aggravations. But there seems to be no way I can convince a nonparent about the love I feel for, and the joy I take from, the son who has in so many ways changed my life. Over the years we have measured the success of men so much in terms of their careers that we have left them almost no alternative to missing the boat -- the important boat, the one that will not come back for them later. Now we are measuring the Successful Woman the same way, and with the same consequences. If the success of women is to be judged in terms of performance at work alone, then the contest we're all in becomes as trivial and silly as a beauty pageant -- and the rewards as meaningless, elusive and above all temporary.