After years of weathering a devalued reputation, there are signs that the role of a full-time mother is again gaining status. ''I've always felt confident about my decision to stay at home,'' says Laurie Hunt of Duxbury, Mass., who has a 10-month-old son, Wesley. ''A couple years ago I would have been made to feel like I settled for second best. That's not really the case now. There's been a mellowing [in society's attitudes]. Now I think people look at me and say 'What a great setup.' ''
Still, she senses some underlying misconceptions about the role of a mother.
''An insidious belief is that having a child keeps you from a sense of fulfillment. Sometimes outside jobs can be so satisfying you don't want to leave them. But if you look at child raising in the right way, your capacities for enrichment are increased,'' says Mrs. Hunt, who left a challenging management position when she had her son.
''Mothering is so creative. I approach each day with a low-key adventurous sense about what the day can hold. I realize I'm in a privileged situation because I don't have to work. I've tried to remember how special it is and take advantage of it.''
To keep her job skills sharp, Mrs. Hunt works part time at home, editing a computer-software magazine. ''I'm glad I can work on a project that keeps me fulfilled without compromising the standards I have for mothering.'' she says. ''Wesley is still my top priority.''
For Sethaly Jones of Wilton, Conn., who has four boys ranging in age from 5 to 11, it was an easy decision to stay at home. She, too, finds that negative attitudes toward mothers in the home are disappearing.
''I can honestly say there were times I felt defensive - I felt that what I had cherished so much and what I worked so hard at was put down,'' she says. ''I do think that attitudes have changed. People might be more aware of what a mother really does. The typical image of a mother sitting at home doing laundry and watching TV is being erased.''
Through the years Mrs. Jones has been involved in many volunteer school activities, such as helping tutor international students in English and serving as a ''room mother'' for field trips. She says these activities contribute to her own enrichment and help her stay in touch with her children's world.
''The boys are so proud to have their mother coming into school to do things. They really love it,'' she says. For a while ''they were volunteering me for everything.''
One of the greatest challenges, she finds, is structuring her time to accommodate everyone's needs, including her own. ''It is so important for a mother to balance her experience and not be totally absorbed in the kids.''
Her goal as a mother is to create ''a very happy, secure atmosphere for the children to grow up in - not a sheltered life, but something solid for them to always know while they are meeting the challenges of growing up,'' she says. ''It's also important for them to know that both their father and their mother are their best friends. The children are very open in communicating with us.''
Today, as more women establish careers before they start families, the decision on whether or not to opt for full-time motherhood at home is not always an easy one. For economic reasons, some mothers must work. But those who have the choice and decide to stay at home often approach mothering as a career in itself or as a valuable part of their larger career plan.
''It's really a multifaceted job,'' says Faye Titus of Duxbury, Mass., who has two children, ages 1 1/2 and 4. ''I suppose to some people it can be very mundane, but if you're doing what you really want to do to live fully and well, you are going to see how this job relates to other jobs in your career.
''I look at our children as an opportunity to be in the teaching field,'' she says. ''Let's face it. We send our little ones out into the world, and you want them to be prepared. You are there to be a guide and teach them right from wrong. If you're not there, someone else would be doing that.''
Mary Chemotti of Cedarburg, Wis., is also reluctant to put her children into day care.
''You take pride in certain things you have given your children that no one else could give them,'' she says. ''I don't feel I can turn over the future potential of my child to someone else.''
Despite her dedication to mothering, Mrs. Chemotti misses the intellectual stimulation of the working world. Before having her first child, she worked at the Milwaukee Art Museum for four years and taught art in public schools. She has two daughters, ages 5 and 2, and is expecting a third child in November.
''Before I had children, I never realized how difficult it was to [combine career and family],'' she says. ''It's a long-term investment.''
Mrs. Chemotti, who has a masters degree in art and architectural history, plans to move back into an outside career when her children are older. In the meantime she gives occasional art-history lectures for the public and does volunteer work for a local art museum and community groups in the arts.
''The problem with this job is there is a certain isolation,'' she says, adding that she would like to have her relatives nearby for support.
Some mothers are able to make a natural transition from their previous careers to full-time motherhood.
Elementary school teacher Diane Harriman of Lake Lotawana, Mo., says raising her children is ''like having my own classroom at home.'' She finds her present situation challenging, satisfying, and fun.
''You really do need a lot of patience to be home with your children all day, '' says Mrs. Harriman, who has three children, ages 1, 3, and 6. She devotes a lot of energy to keeping her children involved in constructive projects, teaching them how to do things on their own, and maintaining discipline.
At the same time she enjoys seeing the children's progress, watching them cooperate with each other, and answering their questions. ''It gives me a good feeling to know I'm the one they call when they need help,'' she says.
Pat Decker of Whitefish Bay, Wis., had little time or desire to seek a job outside the home while she raised seven boys: ''I was an only child myself, and I loved almost every minute of it,'' she says. ''Children grow up so fast. Even being at home, you miss an awful lot.''