Boston. -- The marketing geniuses were sitting around their huge oval table. They were taking a meeting, of course, but not just any meeting. This was the Mother's Day Meeting. Mega-dollars were at stake on the 36th floor.
Spread out in front of these moguls were images of Motherhood that had inspired their predecessors to scale the heights of marketing success. They were of mothers and children, reproduced from famous museum walls. Mothers glowing with postpartum calm and children sleeping peacefully in their arms.
These classical models made the marketing geniuses feel nostalgic for sales-years past. Such motherliness had helped them sell a million bottles of perfume. Helped sell enough long-stemmed red roses to fill this entire skyscraper.
One year, the butterfat content of the whole nation had risen because of a single candy ad these folk had created. Another year, they had launched ten thousand white silk nightgowns off the racks and into the closets of nursing mothers. Mothers who were too sensible to wear them and too kind to return them.
The second Sunday in May had always provided what you might call the mother's milk of their industry. But somehow or other the old reliable soft images weren't working. The evocative portraits evoked . . . silence. A vacuum of ideas.
Finally, one woman slipped into the meeting some 35 minutes late. She had just left her daughter at day care and her son at
school, and stopped to fix the run in her pantyhose with nail polish. Now, grimacing at the pictures of mother and child posing together like a classical vase with flowers, she said in an unmistakable voice, ''Motherhood is no longer a still life!''
If they wanted proper inspiration for marketing motherhood in the '90s, she suggested, they should try a videotape of one young mother's life from home to work to market to housework, mothering along the way. Put the VCR on fast forward and label it ''Hurry.''
The chairman of the meeting threw up his hands. With all the exasperation of Sigmund Freud -- only a Sigmund Freud with shareholders to please -- he asked the assembled brainstormers the ultimate question: ''Well, what do mothers want?''
As if on cue, the four mothers scattered around the table gave the same response. This is what they wanted for Mother's Day: Time.
None of them had enough of it. All of them wanted more of it.
No, not a watch. Not an alarm clock. They were already keeping time down to the last waterproof, shatter-resistant, quartz-movement split second, thank you very much.
And no, dear gawd, not another technological device to ''save'' time. They didn't need anything that would help them do what they had never done before, only do it faster. Hold the bread-making machine and the home budget software.
What they were talking about was generic time -- time to have and time to spend and time to share and, rarest of all, time to savor. Even to savor their children.
The moms among the marketing moguls began to warm to their concept. A gift-box of an extra hour would be nice. So would a day off, placed carefully, of course, at the edge of the bed tray, next to the burnt pancakes and the hand-made card.
How about a coupon for the second shift at home? A gift certificate for the carpool or the laundry? Time for sleep or for that relic from pre-motherhood -- solitude?
The beauty of time is that nobody ever returns it, said one marketing mom. The beauty is that time comes in one size that truly fits all and nobody cares if they get the same present again and again, said a second. It's multipurpose, said a third.
Suddenly, in the midst of this brainstorming, the chair interrupted. Looking across the expensive rosewood table, out of the 36th-story window, he said darkly, ''There is a problem. There is no profit.''
He stormed out to the anteroom with his inner circle and re-emerged hours later. Now, he was glowing with the sort of pride in creativity that makes the work of marketing so rewarding. Yes, he told the group, he had found what every mother wanted.
Get the Home Shopping Network! Start the Infomercials! Line up the 800-number! The perfect gift for the '90s Mom? For only $14.95, THE MOTHER'S DAY HOME STRESS TEST!
The meeting ended in a rousing cheer. Back-slapping all around. Yet, at the curve of the oval table, one mother sat and watched the rip descend down to the ankle of her pantyhose. This is what she sighed: Time. Out.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.