We live out in the sticks. Our local post office, gas station and town center are a good 30 minutes away if one drives uncomfortably fast on curvy mountain roads. Patient drivers take 45. As dedicated conservationists, we minimize our driving (and still feel guilty). Any appointment in town automatically takes in library, fuel and grocery, and is apt to include the lumber yard, laundromat, auto or tractor parts shop and recycling station.

We recognize the logical inconsistency of the would-be preservationist commuting daily from wooded countryside to urban job, pumping tons of hydrocarbons from the tailpipe of a Suburban Assault Vehicle. We usually drive the four-banger toy truck or a tiny car. If we wanted city jobs we would live in the city.

Enter the video cassette; temptation in a box. Our public library system stocks a modest collection of videos available on a two-day check-out cycle (no renewals, high fines) -- three days if you drop them into the bin before opening time, when the librarian tabulates returns. If another town trip is due in three days, it seems entirely conscionable to check out videos. We would never drive all the way to town simply to return a movie, would we?

There lurks a strong temptation to assume that another town trip will be warranted three days hence. Though we work at home, we are not independent homesteaders -- errands happen. It is obvious that library videos could readily begin to warp our schedule into a three-day cycle. Other things which will eventually need doing can be trimmed to fit and we could easily fool ourselves into thinking it isn't just the videos.

Feedback is subtle. It can quietly segue attractive ideas into assumptions which guide our lives. Take two-income households as a broader example. In mid-century America the Norman Rockwell family included a working dad, a full-time mom and their children. Mom's work was a vital part of the home economy. She did the cooking and child-rearing, her gardening and canning filled the cupboards, her sewing and mending clothed the clan, and cleaning and home maintenance were part of the job, with elder care and volunteerism to boot.

Then, mobility, the sexual revolution, education, a rethinking of equality and democracy, easy divorce and other new threads appeared in our social fabric. "Women's work" was undervalued, making the pay-scale and stature of "real" jobs appealing. Expectations shifted.

What about those expectations? Though highway-linked suburbia had already suggested a second auto, the two-commuter household demanded it. Even entry-level work imposed wardrobe demands -- more so for women in a culture that rewards attractiveness. The home economy of food production and storage gave way to fast food and supermarkets. (Not surprisingly, as the supply of workers swelled, real wages fell, although the two together were still higher than the average income had been before.)

Gradually, two wage earners became necessary to support new consumption patterns. Two dependable incomes led to a larger house with the second TV, the VCR and video rentals, the computer (and the next), the new furniture, the riding (!) mower...vacations, remodelling, golf clubs and aerobics classes...

The day care.

Oops. One professional caregiver, however talented, cannot possibly provide a half-dozen or more kids -- who come and go over months and years -- the same focus, depth, consistency and security that a father or mother delivers one-on-one. The inescapable subtext for the child is that her parents have something better to do with their time. People who have something better to do with their time have no business making babies. At a minimum, a decision to parent demands an explicit agreement that at least one partner will be present and accountable during off-school hours for 16 to 18 years.

"Affordable" day-care is oxymoronic unless a child's value is measured in dollars. Parenting is a hands-on job, and an attentive parent inevitably tempers creation of devalued, disaffected offspring. To say nothing of bombs in the garage.

It is easy to pretend that we can do it all, but we can't. Something as simple as a library video schedule can undermine our best intentions. Something as complicated as a two-career household changes everything.

C.L. Bothwell III hails from the other Carolina. Subscribe to the Soupletter and put his essays on your weekly menu by sending e-mail to: Ducksoup96@aol.com.b