Time was when politicians loved to praise motherhood - who could object? - but these days the praise depends upon whether the mother works or not, and if not, just what her income is.

Welcome to the mommy battles, offshoots of a larger culture war over whether Americans should be free to live pretty much as they wish or should be made to live as they ought to."Ought to" includes, for women, staying home to rear their children rather than working and relying in any degree on day care, part of a backlash that bears the attitude, if it shuns the language, of the song "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed."

It has become an article of religious faith with many fundamentalists that mothers shouldn't work, so of course it has become an article of political faith in the Republican Party, beholden to the religious right, that it would, at least, be best if they didn't.

A White House conference on day care last year excited conservative suspicions that a plot was afoot to force children into federal day care so they could be indoctrinated in - well, something awful. It was never clear just what.

Inevitably, then, President Clinton's proposal in his State of the Union Address to make day care a bit more accessible to families with modest means has roused the troops of reaction. Clinton suggested grants to states to cover child care for the poor and tax credits to help middle income families.

Congressional Republicans jumped the proposal. One railed that Clinton favors "paternalistic government, nanny government and discrimination against families." (A nice point, that last one. Where mothers work, apparently there is no family!)

Democrats, unwilling to be cast as the enemies of stay-at-home moms, have gone along with a quickie GOP House resolution declaring any day-care initiative must not discriminate against mothers who don't work.

The resolution is not only non-binding, but its unanimous adoption is a sure sign it is meaningless as well. Expect much more tumult and many more dodges for one-upmanship. Still, it's likely any day-care help will carry some offset.

If so, what passes for national policy will have been advanced to almost perfect incoherence.

Welfare that let poor mothers stay home with their children will have been taken away so as to force the mothers to work, and the money will have been shifted to subsidies mainly for mothers who do not work because they can afford not to. Go figure.

Meanwhile, there's virtually no political hope for policies that would recognize the value of women's work while also making it possible for mothers and babies to stay together in the important months just after birth.

A recent International Labor Organization study found - no surprise - that maternity benefits in the United States are among the stingiest in the industrial world. U.S. law guarantees only 12 weeks unpaid leave. A third of the 152 nations surveyed guarantee paid leave, typically between 14 and 24 weeks.

Business lobbies so far have successfully barred that here, usually with support, and without even a moment's hesitation to savor the irony, from the most noisily "pro-family" politicians.