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My tax return for 1991, the year my first child was born, shows that I earned a whopping $800.

Fortunately, my husband earned somewhat more that year. We were not sent to the workhouse.But did my lack of income make me "unequal" to him?

My meager earnings, after all, defied 20 years of government policy designed to keep me in the work force - from the pressure put on companies to hire and promote me, to guaranteed maternity leave, to the tax code's marriage penalty.

By letting my earnings trail off - not, I add, that they were so royal to begin with - I contributed to the depressing Census Bureau statistic that women earn 76 percent of what men do.

Feminists - from the halls of the United Nations to the research offices of the Labor Department - appear to believe that until women's earnings climb to 100 percent of men's, we cannot truthfully say we live in a just society.

They resist evidence that casts doubt on their grievances, like the striking finding of the economist June O'Neill, now director of the Congressional Budget Office, that women have achieved the magical, statistical parity with men in the work force - so long as they don't become mothers.

O'Neill reports that "among women and men aged 27 to 33, who have never had a child, the earnings of women in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth are close to 98 percent of men's."

It's the vast majority of us who become mothers who are responsible for dragging the average down.

What is so subversive about O'Neill's finding - subversive, at least, to advocates of workplace parity - is that it demonstrates that it's not cartoonishly chauvinistic male bosses who hold women back but the impinging nature of motherhood itself.

To these advocates, O'Neill's research no doubt demonstrates the need for more of the programs they champion - rigorously enforced affirmative action, government-subsidized day care and the like - so women may pursue the rewards of the work force unhindered, just like men.

But the question advocates dare not ask is: Is this what women want?

A more realistic conclusion to be drawn from the O'Neill findings is that, despite two decades of policies and social pressure urging them to do otherwise, the majority of women still need and want to mother their children.

No amount of government aid and regulation, no system of state-supported baby-sitting, will offset biological fact. The cry of a baby is more compelling than the call of the office.

Those of us who are mothers don't need studies to prove that having a child affects even the most insanely ambitious among us, and affects us differently from our husbands. This doesn't mean a woman has to abandon her career. But giving birth will certainly constrain it.

Maybe some women will have to go right back to work, and others will want to. Some will prefer to stay home during their children's early years or to work part time, and others still will drop out of the work force entirely. But no woman will be unaffected by the birth of her child.

Is this unfair? Probably. But it is an issue to take up with nature, not Congress.

Experts are just beginning to acknowledge the unhealthfulness of day-care-from-birth. I know working mothers who have "the best nannies in the world" and yet are collapsing under the mental strain of walking out the door every morning - a strain, by the way, which their husbands, thanks to their genetic wiring, blissfully do not suffer.

Until advocates of workplace parity accept that women wish to be with their children - and that this is not a bad thing - the discussion will never move from its rut in statistics toward measures that might be truly helpful.

So let me go back to my original question: Did my $800 earnings make me unequal to my husband?

If we are the sum of our tasks, and the tasks of a mother are valued less by society than the tasks of an employee, then yes, I am unequal.

But I'd like to think that a progressive society is one that understands that not everything worthwhile pays off in cash.