BOZEMAN, Mont. -- Amber Byrnes tucks her daughter into the highchair at the coffee shop where the smiling and elfin 8-month-old promptly begins her favorite activity -- decorating the rug with cracker crumbs.
The 20-year-old mother, eating breakfast with one vigilant eye on the little girl, describes how life has changed since she was a teen-ager who wanted only to be a dancer: "It's not about me anymore. It's all about her. I have a reason. I'm this little baby's mother."
This is a feeling that resonates with all new mothers.
Suddenly a small person is born and priorities shift.
Suddenly a young woman knows what politicians can only attest to glibly when they laud motherhood as the hardest job in the world.
The difference is that motherhood really is Amber's job.
Call the idea conservative. Call it radical. Or maybe just call it, as one supporter did, "subversive." Amber is among 40-odd women in Montana who get paid by the state for taking care of their own babies.
The idea began with a grass-roots poverty group called Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, or WEEL. Mary Caferro, an organizer in Helena, remembers when the members said, "We want caregiving to count as work."
Eventually, Montana became the second state -- after Minnesota -- to have at-home infant care.
The pilot program pays the same child care worker's wages -- $17 a day in Montana -- to a low-income mother caring for children under 2 years old.
To show you how this turns history on its head -- or makes history -- remember that Aid to Families with Dependent Children began in 1935 as a program that would allow widowed mothers to stay at home with kids. By the 1990s, with so many mothers in the work force, the cry was to end AFDC.
Welfare reform was based on an idea so radical that we didn't even publicly acknowledge it. The idea was that a (poor) mother's place was in the work force.
The problem is that we never answered one huge question: Who will take care of the children? For many families, especially for those with infants, wages were so low and child care so expensive that the math didn't work.
Across the country, there are only enough licensed infant child care slots for 18 percent of the need. In rural states such as Montana, the average cost of infant care is still about $4,500 a year.
Nevertheless, under welfare reform, a Montana mother is expected to fulfill her work requirement at any job -- except caring for her child. State money is used to subsidize child care -- as long as it doesn't go to the mother of the child.
You want to make an at-home mother bristle? Tell her that taking care of a baby isn't a job.
Now at least for a few women, "caregiving counts as work."
What has it meant to Amber? For eight months, it allowed her to be "this baby's mother."
The program enrolls two-parent families, not just single mothers, and the extra dollars got Amber, her fiancM-i Lance and their baby out of low-income housing.
"We moved into a trailer and have a dog and all that good stuff," says this lively young mother, who is also finishing the last four credits toward a high school diploma.
These days, Lance works at Shopco from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Amber is just starting a part-time $6-an-hour job at Target. They pass the baby between them in the parking lot. All told, they still live on less than $1,400 a month.
Does at-home infant care sound like welfare under another name?
The bean counters like this program because it saves the state money.
Religious conservatives like it because it supports mothers at home with infants.
But the truly "subversive" part is that it may break the common-sense logjam, offering a government program that helps young families.
As Amber picked up her daughter to leave, out in California, Gov. Gray Davis signed a landmark bill giving workers paid family and medical leave for up to six weeks capped at $728 a week. That means six weeks of paid leave for a newborn, too.
Meanwhile, at-home infant care is part of the Senate version of the postponed welfare reform bill. If that passes, there will be funds for similar programs in 10 more states.
Amber is where the mommy wars meet for a peace conference. She's where the expression "Every mother is a working mother" gets taken out for a public-policy test drive.
Ms. Caferro says that this is "a place where the right and left can meet." But it's also the place where there isn't a right or a left. Just parents and kids.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.