THE FIRST time I felt it in my gut was when I saw the magazine picture: A mother in uniform was handing over her baby to someone as she headed off to war.

How did she feel? Reading more of these stories, I wondered how they all must feel -- the American women in Saudi Arabia who had taken down pictures of their children because they were too painful to look at, mothers unable to call home for weeks a time and, above all, the children.

And then the horror stories, cases where both parents were sent off to war, sometimes with 48 hours notice, leaving their children behind with relatives -- or even friends and neighbors. It seemed unthinkable that in our society, both parents could be taken away from their children in this way.

There were serious dimensions to this problem -- particularly the wartime separation of mothers and children. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed wrong on every level. I could respect, and respond to, all the traditional arguments about feminist choice and military duty. But nothing could explain or excuse what all this was doing to the children.

The statistics tell only part of the story. Eleven percent of the military is now women -- 6 percent of those in the Persian Gulf theater. The Pentagon says there are no statistics as to how many single parents, mothers or both parents are actually in the gulf, but there are about 67,000 single parents in the combined services.

Then a week ago, pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, author of "Infants and Mothers" and other "bibles" on child care, spoke to the Association for the Care of Childrens' Health. He told a story about parents who had 48 hours to find a place for their infant daughter. She was sent to her aunt (who had four children of her own), carried to Boston by a flight attendant because the parents didn't have time. When she was handed over, according to Brazelton, the child arched, turned and screamed with high-pitched terror. After 10 days of autistic behavior, the child also was discovered to be deaf.

Brazelton believes that sending mothers away from their children is "terrible, reprehensible, and not necessary . . . . A child whose parents leave has two resources. Either to mourn and turn inward or to say, 'I'm bad. Why did my mommy leave me?' Or, 'Is my mommy bad because she left me?' I can't imagine a country doing that to its children."

When Brazelton spoke, something in me snapped. I had been overwhelmed with feelings of conflict -- as a feminist, as a mother. After all, at Smith College, where all the smartest people were women, we were taught that women can do anything -- and I was having a very hard time grappling with this mommies-at-war issue.

It suddenly became clear that this policy was wrong, terribly wrong. Mothers (mothers, not women in general) should not go to war. Period. Icannot separate this issue from my own experience as an Army brat. I grew up on Army posts around the world. I have seen what happens to children of war.

My father fought in World War II shortly after I was born. When he went to Korea, I was 9 and living with my mother, sister and brother in Tokyo. I was traumatized by his leaving, couldn't retain any food and was hospitalized at Tokyo General, the primary receiving hospital for wounded soldiers coming in from Korea. We didn't have television to bring home the reality of war, but the papers were full of terrifying stories. My father, commanding officer of the 17th Infantry Regiment, was Buffalo Bill, much-decorated war hero, leader of the famous fighting Buffalos. He was on the front lines.

I was fed by an IV for nearly a year. There was no medical diagnosis. It was presumed to be psychosomatic. Hospital policy was that parents could not visit sick children because it was too disruptive. My mother only visited a handful of times in that year when, in her Gray Lady uniform, she managed to sneak in.

But they didn't really have time for the sick kids. The halls outside our ward were filled with wounded, maimed and dying GIs from the front, crying out in pain. My friend Mikey in the next bed got pneumonia and was dying, so they sent for his father from Korea and his mother came too and they stayed with him until he died right there.

I decided the only way I could get to see my parents was to die. So I tried. And they brought my father home from the front. When I saw both my parents, my recovery was so miraculous that I was discharged two days later, only to end up deathly ill after he went back. Later, I was sent back to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Tex., on a military transport plane filled with litters of more wounded and dying soldiers calling out for their mothers.

What if it had been mothers in those litters, crying out for their children? What if it had been my mother? If my mother had been sent away, I don't think I would have survived.

Even now, thinking about that time reduces me to tears. And that's why it's unbearable to read about these children separated from their mothers or fathers, not to mention both parents. On the night Brazelton spoke, Barbara Bush spoke too. After praising the doctor -- "In our office, we consider you the father superior" -- she observed that "children are human beings who feel and their emotional well-being has everything to do with their physical health." And she talked about the American family, a favorite subject. "George and I believe so deeply that the family, of whatever size and shape, is key to living well," she said.

I believe that too -- and also that women can, and should have careers equal to men. They could be CEOs, engineers, mechanics, lawyers, doctors, pilots, editors. And they can be pilots and Marines, generals and admirals.

Yet it's hard to get around the fact that nature gave women the role of childbirth, the role of nurturing. Tell me how separating a Carolynne Zales or a Faith Stewart from their two-week-old babies to join their husbands in the gulf is not grotesque. And what is the effect on 3-year-old Tamantha Duncan when both of her parents are hurriedly deployed to the gulf? As The Washington Post reported yesterday, the Rockville girl prays each night, "Dear God, will you please hurry up and bring my mommy and daddy home?"

This is not just modern life in the age of equality, but femininism gone awry. And the mothers are particularly eloquent. "I'm a woman and a mother before I'm a soldier. Out here I think more about my family than about my job, and yes, that could affect my performance if things got intense here." That from Spec. 4 Robin Williams, who couldn't talk about her children without crying. Or this from Lori Moore at Fort Benning, Ga., who got a general discharge because she refused to leave her children. "I'm a soldier," she told The New York Times. "I was ready to go. But I produced these kids and I need to take responsibility for them. I'm afraid the children are the unsung victims {of Desert Storm}. There's no question that women can do this. The question is whether we should."

Then Spec. 4 Melissa A. Rathbun-Nealy became the first woman missing in action. Was this MIA a mother? The other night, Brazelton had said to me, "You better hurry up and write this piece, because the first mother who comes home in a body bag is going to have this country traumatized."

Let me repeat that I'm not saying here that women should have careers -- including military careers -- different from men. Women should be able to do anything they want to do, as long as they realize there are choices to be made.

Certainly women should be able to go into battle if they want to. It is hypocritical and sexist to accept women in the military academies, allow them to lead men and train with men and then not let them do their jobs just because they are women. Women should have the right to choose.

Women who happen to be mothers, though, are a different story. Mothers have made their choice -- to have a child and to nurture that child. What could be more important than that? Maintaining artillery? Driving a truck?

This is not to say that men are not responsible for their children as well. In fact, single fathers should be exempt as well as mothers. But to those who say that the father is equally important to the nurturing of a child, most mothers would reply by quoting Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf -- it's total "bovine scatology."

There's no disputing that these women volunteered for the military, but it's far less clear that they knew what they were getting into. In fact, few of them were mothers when they actually enlisted or had any idea how emotionally overwhelming motherhood would be. Many enlisted to provide a better life -- economic and educational -- for their families. That may be naive -- after all, what's the military for? -- but it's nevertheless the case.

(The Israeli army drafts women but exempts them for marriage, motherhood, religion, etc. Israeli military women are generally clerks, nurses, teachers, secretaries and social workers. By law, they are evacuated from the front during hostilities. In Iraq, women serve in the civil defense force but not in the army.)

It is true that staying back can adversely affect a career and that mothers would not get jobs and training that lead to a combat theater and quick promotions. But is that an unreasonable sacifice to make if they decide to become parents?

In any case, my concern here is not primarily with the mothers, although they are to be pitied, but with their children. The children, after all, had no choice at all. Do we tell impoverished mothers that we will not care for their children because they have made the wrong choices? Do we tell their children to look elsewhere? What about the children whose mothers are actually at war? Listen to Kate Jacobs, a Washington child psychologist who is treating children of military dependents who have been, or are being, sent away.

"For the very young child the absence of a parent is like the death of a parent," says Jacobs. "You create an orphan if you send the main caretaker away . . . . We are going to have to protect these children. Their mothers are conflicted and torn . . . . They have to use denial in order to go. They can't face what's happening to their kids."

A military child psychiatrist in Washington, who asked not to be identified, says, "We're going to be dealing with the effect of what we're doing for a long time . . . . It's the children who are paying the price."

Jacobs tells of some problems that could arise -- some all too familiar to me. She cites eating disorders, overeating or undereating -- "A child can literally starve himself to death." And sleep deprivation -- "During sleep the defenses go down and we regress. That's too frightening." And toileting -- the child, literally, may hold it in. "The child can't let go of another thing. You can die from that." She also mentions anxiety disorders, avoidant disorder and separation anxiety.

The Washington Post reported from Fort Hood, Tex., that two weeks after the war began, four sixth-graders whose fathers have been deployed were hospitalized for depression. And these are normal healthy children. What about Robin Rutledge, an Army specialist from Fort Carson, Colo., who had to separate her two children, leaving 7-year-old Zachary with her ex-husband? Zachary has cerebral palsy. She couldn't quit because she needed the Army's medical insurance.

Taking mothers away from their children in this situation is not a rational policy but a cruel one.

Some lawmakers are wondering what to do about this sort of problem. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recently introduced legislation "to prevent the assignment of both military parents of minor children to a combat zone." Boxer said she decided to introduce the bill after a trip to the gulf in January, when parents talked to her about the children they'd left behind. "They were anxious, nervous, hysterical," says Boxer.

Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) says she remains uncertain "how things should work ultimately with the families." She also says, "The system we've got isn't bad if people take it seriously. The problem is they didn't." As for mothers being away from their children, she says, "This is not a mommy issue per se. This is a parent issue."

Schroeder has proposed that Defense Secretary Richard Cheney grant a family medical leave for both parents for the first 18 weeks of a child's life.

Sen. John R. Heinz (R-Pa.) has been urging a voluntary change in Pentagon policy, recognizing that legislation to exempt single parents and military couples probably wouldn't take effect until well after the war is over. "Our military is going to great lengths not to kill civilians in Iraq," he says. "I'd like to take as least as much care that orphans are not created by {U.S. military parent policies}."

Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell that the Pentagon has been "sensitive to the needs of all of our families," adding that "it would be a serious mistake, particularly while we are engaged in combat, to reverse our longstanding policy." Heinz, replying, argued that the issue is spiritually akin to the American "sole-survivor provisions," which date from World War II.

Powell and Cheney argue that redeploying single parents and military couples would "weaken our combat capability by removing key personnel . . . and by undermining our unit cohesion and esprit de corps."

Pat Schroeder makes this point: "Everyone will tell you that the most important thing is high morale. It's better to have people who want to be there than having to draft people who don't want to be there."

If that's so, what are we thinking of when we send mothers, single parents or -- worse -- both parents into a war when they are crazed with worry over their children? To put things in perspective, Childrens Hospital here has designated 55 beds for wounded soldiers from the gulf -- a reminder of the costs of sending our 18- and 19-year-olds to war. But no provisions have been made for the children whose mothers have gone to war, even though some of them may suffer for a lifetime. In fact, the only sensible provision our nation can make is to forbid it. Dr. Brazelton has it right. Mothers aren't relevant to defeat or victory.

If we can't win a war without our mothers, what kind of a sorry fighting force are we? Even the evil Saddam Hussein doesn't send mothers to fight his war.

And what kind of policy is it for a nation to send both parents, single parents or mothers, to war? A shameful and uncivilized policy, that's what. For the sake of our children if not their parents, we must do something about this now, not when the war is over. We don't need legislation to change this; all it requires is a directive from the president or the secretary of defense.

Go for it, George! Go for it, Dick! Bring our mothers home!

Sally Quinn is a Washington writer. Her second novel will be published in the fall.