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WE DON'T MAKE IT EASY FOR MOTHERS TO FEEL AT HOME IN THE WORKPLACE

Every place I have ever worked, a strange thing happens at 3:00 in the afternoon. Women start grabbing for the phones.

It's the "anxious mom" phenomenon - mothers calling home to make sure their children have arrived safely from school.I know because I've done it hundreds of times myself. And, like any working mother, I can tell you about the times I have had to leave at midday or miss work altogether because of a family emergency.

Once, as a young lawyer, I had to be in court at 9 a.m. for a big trial. My husband was out of town. My daughter was sick. And I was in a panic.

I managed in situations like that - but only because I had extraordinary support: baby sitters, a mother-in-law nearby, a mother who visited regularly and a husband who was eager to help.

Most working women are not so lucky.

With American families as overworked and as mobile as they are today, relying on relatives and friends for child care is not always an option. Most workplaces do not provide or subsidize child care. Day-care centers don't take sick kids, and most charge high fees for late pickups.

And too often, employers penalize rather than help women who need to adjust their schedules to attend to pressing family obligations.

As a 42-year-old auto-factory worker and mother of two said to me recently: "What do you do with your kids when you are assigned the 4 p.m. to midnight shift?"

Whether they are federal judges or fast-food cooks, working women everywhere are not getting enough support as they struggle to meet the competing demands of family, work and career.

I know this from my own experience, as well as from conversations with my friends. But you don't have to take my word for it. Just ask any of the working women I met with recently in Atlanta and Santa Fe. Or ask the 250,000 working women who responded to a Department of Labor survey earlier this year.

"We have to be a wife, a mother and a professional, and to be ourselves, which usually takes last place," a 37-year-old intensive-care nurse said at a chips-and-salsa get-together in Santa Fe.

"I nearly kill pedestrians trying to get to the day-care center on time (to avoid the late fees after 6 p.m.)," an assistant bank vice president told me in Atlanta.

Even a federal judge was feeling the pressure. "When I was a lawyer, all of the partners had wives who didn't work," said this mother of four. "They didn't have to worry about picking up the dry cleaning or picking up the kids."

Today, three out of four working women have school-age children. The vast majority of working women earn less than $25,000 a year. Not surprisingly, stress ranks as the No. 1 problem for most of these women.

The clear message from many women - and men - I have talked to is that they need a more supportive workplace culture.

Even at a place as hectic and workaholic as the White House, we have tried to offer some flexibility to working parents. One of my husband's top campaign advisers took a month off right before the election in 1992 to spend time with his new son. One of my administrative assistants used to bring her newborn to the office and, when necessary, nursed him during meetings. Another member of my staff worked from home during the final two months of her pregnancy. In fact, we even keep a few toys around the office in case parents need to bring their children to work.

We are hardly alone in this. Employers and organizations in the public and private sectors are beginning to recognize that family-friendly workplaces are not just good for morale but also for the bottom line:

- In San Francisco, a group of businesses, unions and community groups joined forces to establish a 24-hour day-care center for airport employees.

- In Boston, a school-bus schedule was redesigned to make it easier for children to get to after-school programs.

- In northern California, a consortium of law and consulting firms are establishing an 800-hotline number that employees can call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for pre-screened, in-home emergency child and elder care.

- In New Jersey, a company with 3,000 employees is creating a pilot program offering compressed four-day work weeks, job sharing, part-time and flex-time options, and telecommuting for its work force.

Instead of leaving hard-working, stressed-out parents to fend for themselves, we all need to do more to bring some harmony to our work and family lives.