"I still think you're ready to start dating again," Alison was telling me for the fourth time in our 15-minute conversation.

"I am not officially not dating, I am just not dating," I replied.

"Oh, that clears everything up..."

"Look, I'm just not in a rush."

"Maybe not, but I do think you're ready," she said, her smile evident over the phone.

Alison was confident in her convictions because I'd taken the big step of -- finally -- putting away photos of Rick. I'd also deleted his e-mails from my hard drive and erased two voice mails I'd saved.

"C'mooon," Alison crooned, "if Ellen can keep trying after her latest debacle..."

I laughed.

Our friend Ellen had met someone a few weeks before. The friend had given him her phone number. He'd called. They'd had a couple of nice chats on the phone and she agreed to meet him for dinner.

A bit cynical about men, Ellen had been uncharacteristically excited. She thought there was serious potential. The guy was an assistant district attorney, sweet, has lots of hobbies and activities, good looking, and comes from a big family (which is perfect for Ellen since she fantasizes about having lots of kids).

Dinner goes very well and Ellen is already planning their next date in her head, but just as dinner is ending, he says he has to "share something" with her.

"I have had some prior problems with women because of an old relationship," he tells her.

As Alison and I laughed together, reliving Ellen's animated recounting of the tale, Vicki (my show's segment editor) poked her head into my office. She looked uncomfortable, and said she needed to talk, so I got off the phone immediately.

"Jessica, I want to thank you for how flexible you've been with everything with Caitlin," she said, obviously beginning something.

Vicki had been worried the last few weeks about one of her two kids, who'd been home repeatedly with some sort of flu. It hadn't seemed a big deal to me, particularly since Vicki's husband worked for Motorola. In a remarkably "family-friendly" policy, Motorola will send a nurse to take care of sick kids so that the parents don't have to miss work.

Our mother company offered a similar program in the New York office, but I hadn't inquired whether we could offer it in Phoenix. It hadn't seemed necessary. In my whopping year and a half as boss, I'd never minded if people took time off or came in late or left early for family or personal reasons. And since most of the small staff was single anyway, it just hadn't been much of an issue.

I feel like I fit in mothering around my work schedule.

Whatever time Vicki had taken off seemed negligible to me. I had noticed that she'd seemed distracted while Caitlin was home from pre-school being fed chicken soup by the nurse, but had figured that she would get better and Vicki would mellow out.

Apparently not, though. She was quitting.

"Is Caitlin that sick?" I asked stupidly.

Vicki laughed.

"No, no... it's not because of that specifically. Her being sick last week was just sort of the proverbial straw. I've been uncomfortable for a long time because I feel like I fit in mothering around my work schedule."

I felt a little stung. Hadn't I been flexible enough? Didn't we offer pretty much all of the "family-friendly" options that we could? I wanted the office I ran to be as progressive as possible -- like the brightly colored place of work Lily Tomlin created after she, Jane and Dolly imprisoned the egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot in "9 to 5." And since we were part of a corporate behemoth, we could afford to do it.

The office was the opposite of the one managed by ‘9 to 5's egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.

Vicki assured me that it wasn't that. "I've worked really hard to get to where I am professionally, but now that I'm here, I keep feeling like I'm giving Caitlin and Tyler short-shrift," she reflected. "My work just isn't my priority. I never thought I would feel this way."

Selfishly, I was relieved that she agreed to stay to train a replacement, and to continue some sort of part-time or freelance relationship with the show.

I stayed late that night. As I was sorting through a pile of press kits, my mind wandered to Vicki and back to Ellen and her dreams of finding the right guy and having a brood of kids. Vicki was leaving her job -- not because she couldn't "have it all," but because now that she had it, she found out she didn't want it.

It struck me that there were images of women doing things in almost all the press materials and photo campaigns and advertisements I had just gone through. But almost none of the images were of women as mothers.

Now that I was getting to an age where I knew women who were having kids and juggling family and career, I realized that it's far more complex than I was socialized to think it is. It's not so simple that women are either the all-nurturing givers of conservative lore, or that they're able to put away mothering while at work. People's lives are too complex to be compartmentalized like that.

Now that she had it all, she found out she didn't want it.

But I think society is dishonest about what really is central to most people. We're inundated with the notion that you are what you do, and that smart people have careers that provide them with fulfillment and self-definition. We're incredibly reluctant to acknowledge that mothering is the central aspect of many fulfilled women's lives.

Vicki was leaving not because she didn't have someone to take care of her kids when they were sick -- she did! But Vicki didn't want someone else staying with her sick kid. She wanted to do it herself, even if she and her husband had to cut corners to make it on one salary.

I pondered: We measure women's "progress" by how possible it is for us to be fully engaged in the workplace. But are we perhaps denying that, given the option, a lot of women would prefer to be home? When Ellen fantasizes about having a large litter, does she think through what that means?

My instinctive, perhaps learned response is that for men, fathering is also central. But why does it seem less of a burden for them to be both? The feminist in me wants to say that men should be providing more of the child care. Motorola's policy, impressively, covers both parents -- yet it's Vicki who feels the guilt of leaving her child with a perfectly capable nurse.

"But for all the dewy-eyed veneration of motherhood you hear from some quarters," Rina replied when I called her to babble out my day's musings. "I don't know that society really values what mothers do. Vicki is probably going to struggle with feeling judged because she's ‘just a mom.'"

Jessica Schaeffer, childcare provider, lacks the panache of Jessica Schaeffer, TV producer.

"Yeah," I said. "If I'm honest, I think I probably would feel very unmoored without having some sort of title to go with my name. Jessica Shaeffer, childcare provider, just doesn't sound as intelligent and savvy as Jessica Shaeffer, television producer."

Rina laughed. "I try to think of it this way. My job is building human character, developing self-awareness, self-respect and self-esteem, and instilling a hunger for learning," she said. "If I was a consultant to a company, I'd be paid big bucks for that."

"I have to work hard at defining myself from within," she continued, "not accepting some external label to define what I should be."

I don't know if I have the patience for what Rina does. I simply can't imagine being home all day with kids. I think I'd go nuts without the creative outlet I get from work.

"I think there are a lot of women who need that," she said. "Part of the problem is people pursuing careers because that's what they think they're supposed to do, and then they find themselves bereft at age 45 because they never had a family. But I would also hate to think that someone would force herself to stay home and have kids if she really needed other kinds of stimulation in her life."

I added my own dose of skepticism. "I wonder if people go into child-rearing fully conscious of how much self-sacrifice is involved. Your life just isn't your own."

Just then, as if to make my point, little Sara started screaming and Rina had to get off the phone.

Before she hung up, Rina added quickly, "Jessica, don't get off the phone with me and start moping about not being married and not having kids and therefore-you-don't-have-the-luxury-of-making-these-decisions. Every stage of life has its pluses and minuses. Take advantage of where you are now and don't try to fit yourself into a timetable that someone else came up with."

I turned back to the pile of press kits and decided to check my e-mail. I furrowed my brow at an address I didn't recognize. It took me a second to realize what it was. It read: "Marc7123 has sent you a message."

Huh?

Omigosh! The dating website. I forgot that I signed up!