Before Harriett Taylor became a judge in the District of Columbia she was cornered in her kitchen by her 9-year-old daughter. "Why can't you be like the other mommies and stay home and bake cookies?" the little girl asked.

Taylor, now 47, the mother of three children and the wife of a lawyer who works 10 hours a day, remembers that in the kitchen she tried to explain whey her work made her happy. Her words were not understood, and Taylor continued to work.

The query of the lonely little girl in the kitchen typifies the painful questions that growing numbers of professional couples in Washington must answer about their marriages, their children and themselves. The questions include who should wash the dishes, who should take off work to nurse a sick child and, ultimately, what is more important - work or family.

While the exact number of professional couples in the Washington area is unavailable, the number nationwide has jumped more than 266 percent in the last 19 years, from 488,000 to 1.3 million.

Demographers say that because Washington has the highest average spendable household income ($22,991) and leads major American cities in the percentage of working women (57 percent), the area probably is at the leading edge of the increase in dual income professional couples.

The stress imposed of these couples who struggle to find answers to questions about work and family while juggling the demands of bosses and bill collectors is the major mental health problem in the Washington area, according to Dr. Burton L. Kraff, a psychiatrist and director of admissions at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.

A recent study of mental health in affluent Fairfax County showed that dual-income couples who spread their money and their time too thin tend to have serious marital problems and difficulties raising their children.

The stress begins to grow when professional couples find that more and more of their needs can be met outside their marriage, Kraff said. The psychiatrist said it is easy for a husband and wife to drift apart, getting their egos "stroked" by their professions and growing unaware of the other's happiness or suffering.

"Washington is a tough place to be marrid in," said Michael Memeroff, a 33-year-old Chevy Chase lawyer who has been married 4 1/2 years and whose working wife Sharon had a baby eight months ago. "There are so many women around. There are so many things to do. It is easy to slip away."

To keep from slipping away. Nemeroff said he has forced himself to overcome his eticence and spend at least a few minutes every day telling his wife about his worries and listening to hers.

Many psychiatrists and psychologists say that unless professional couples force themselves to understand each other, finding time together away from newspapers and televisions and kids, marriages are likely to fall apart. The symptoms of the collapse, they say, are depression, alcoholism, sexual encounters outside marriage and illness.

Further confusing the marriage of professional couples is the radical difference between the way their parents shared household work back in Buffalo or Cleveland and the way they, with their commitments to women's liberation and martial equality, share such mundane chores as vacumming the rug and shopping for groceries.

"When my mother called last week, I told her that what my husband and I needed is a wife." said a 27-year-old Arlington wife who is a lawyer and who works 70 hours a week. "My mother didn't take it too well."

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American wife has undergone a radical change in the past 20 years. In 1959, one fifth of all married women worked; today nearly half do. Kraff and other mental health experts say the sharp increase in the past 20 years in the number of married women who hold jobs that make them happy is a long-needed and healthy change for American women.

Yet, Kraff said, the change "plays havoc" with the roles that men and women learned when they were growing up.

In their forthcoming book, "The Two-Career Family," Northwestern University sociologist Douglas and Francine Hall wrote that the most serious fights over women's liberation occur in the kitchen between couples who profess commitment to the ideal of marital equality, but who find the ideal elusive.

"We try to divide up the labors around the house," said Paul Friedman, a 35-year-old lawyer who lives on Capitol Hill. "I'm philosophically committed to that, but on a practical level it doesn't work."

When it comes to a choice between whose job can be abandoned in midday to let the plumber in, it is Paul's wife, Liz, the assistant director of continuing education for the District of Columbia Bar Association, who always leaves work.

Paul Friedman said the difference between what he believes and what he does makes him feel guilty. Such feelings are common in professional marriages, according to social psychologist Robert C. Weigl, who counsels couples in the affluent Mount Vernon area of Fairfax.

"The man is guilty for what he doesn't do, and the wife is angry for what she had to do," Weigle said. For the husband in a marriage to change, so he'll actually do what he beleives, is difficult, Weigl and other psychologists say.

"The reworking of roles in a marriage is like deprogramming a cult member. It involves changing fundamental learning that exists below awareness," said Weigl.

Professional couples say the roles they learned back home from their parents, which cause haggling over household chores, have more serious, marriage-shaking implications when the question of having children arises.

"I am definitely saddled with these old attitudes that I should have children," said Liz Friedman, whose job for the D.C. Bar Assocation often demands that she work 12 to 14 hours a day. "But I know myself, I just couldn't take staying home all the time."

An Arlington wife who is a lawyer said that she wants to keep her job and her children too. The result, she says, is that "some stranger" will take care of her child all day. "I just can't accept that," she said.

Because the birth of a child often forces professional couples either to make career sacrifices or hire a "stranger" for child care, a growing number of couples are delaying having children. The delay, according to Charles Westoff, head of the Princeton University Office of Population Research, amounts to a decision not to decide.

"If a woman has been working for 10 or 15 years, the cost of quitting gets more and more prohibitive," Westoff said. And the costs are not just financial, he said. The decision can change the whole life she has built.

"The decision never to have children is usually not made consciously. I call this backing into childlessness," Westoff said.

The U.S. birth rate in this decade is at its lowest point in history (the average family has 1.8 children, about half the number of 20 years ago), and Westoff and other population experts predict a continued decline.

"In terms of the woman's time, children are becoming too expensive to afford," Butz said.

A study of the 20-year decline in the birth rate by the Rand Corporation in Santo Monica, Calif., links the decline to the increase in female employment. William Butz, who designed the study, predicts that as wages for women go up the birth rate will decline even more.

In the Washington area, many professional couples in their 30s are deciding both to work and to have children. While numbers are not available, couples who recently had a child say there must be many others like them because finding live-in housekeeper is growing increasingly difficult.

Evelyn Miller, who runs Evelyn Miller Associates Inc. a housekeeping and child-care service in Chevy Chase, said it can take as long as dix months to find a live-in housekeeper who will put up with infants.

"It is getting harder and harder to find help in Washington," said Miller, who has five file drawers in her office filled with names of people seeking help with child care. "A family has to live in the right area, be near public transportation and be lucky."

Michael Nemeroff and his wife, who live in Chevy Chase near a bus line, said they're licky. Their 55-year-old Chinese housekeeper, whom they located through a newspaper and who charges them $150 a week, is "just perfect. Without her, life would be a living hell," Nemeroff said.

Even with a "perfect" housekeeper to watch them during the day, psychiatrist Kraff said that "kids are extraordinarily stressed by having absentee parents."

Kraff said that a child will somehow demand his parents' attention when he feels they are ignoring him. "The kids will get attention; one way or another they will demand it. Typically, when a mother starts to work, her child within six months is wetting the bed. The kid unconsciously thinks mommy and daddy care more about work. He will bring mommy and daddy back."

The study of family life in Fairfax County released last month indicates that many professional parents fail to pay enough attention to their children because they are preoccupied with their careers and with paying off debts.

"The crisis hits," said psychologist Weigl, "when the kids become adolescents and their parents find they have no control over the kid because they don't know him that well."

Harriet Taylor, the judge and mother of three, said she tried, at first to be home with her children all the time and give them the attention they demanded.

For two years, when her first two children were born, Taylor didn't work. "I was very unhappy. I was turning into a shrew," said the Columbia University Law School graduate who is married to William L. Taylor, director of the Center for National Policy Review at Catholic Universiy.

"It seemed obvious that it was not benefiting those little children to have someone around the house who was miserable," said Taylor. So she went to work part time and when her youngest child was 8 years old she took a full-time job.

The Taylor's children are now 21, 19 and 16. One attends Yale University, another George Washington University and the third is in high school. Harriett Taylor said her children have grown up happy and independent. She said, though, that as they grew up she was nagged by guilt for not being able to spend as much time with her children as did other mothers in her Northwest Washington neighborhood.

The Taylors argue that children can be neglected regardless of how much parents work and that raising good children is a matter of love, not time.

"The main benefit (of my working) for my family is that I am in a much better frame of mind when i'm home," Harriet Taylor says. CAPTION: Illustration, Couples: The Dual-Income Dilemma; Picture, Sharon Leininger and husband Michael Nemeroff of Bethesda, who both work, play with son Teddy, 8 months. By Linda Wheeler - The Washington Post