Faced with a chronic shortage of child-care centers, Norway plans to pay parents to stay home with their own kids - a proposal that has pitted feminists against traditionalists in this staunchly egalitarian country."We are afraid that women will be the ones that end up staying home. We're worried that it will be a move back to more traditional roles and back to the kitchen for women," said Kristin Mile, Norway's deputy equality ombudswoman.

Under the proposal, parents of small children would get $400 a month, in addition to other welfare benefits, on the condition that they don't use a public day-care center.

About 70 percent of mothers of young children in Norway work outside the home. But only 40 percent of children under the age of 3 have a spot in a subsidized child care centers - a spot that costs the government about $400 per child per month.

Supporters of the plan argue that cash gives parents the option of staying home with very young children rather than having to work.

"The key goal is a greater freedom of choice for families," the minister of families and children, Valgerd Svarstad Haugland, told parliament.

Critics say the plan would undo years of efforts to promote equal rights for women.

"Cash support will increase the differences between men and women, and as a result have a negative impact on sexual equal-ity," said Mile.

Norway, the world's second-largest oil exporter, is a wealthy country - and a very expensive one. That's one reason moms and dads usually both work.

Other critics worry that the plan will increase Norway's income gap. High-income par-ents might use the cash to pay for private child care while both keep working, while lower-income parents would fall further behind in the job market if one parent decides to stay home.

Norway's Christian Democratic-led coalition government expects the package to be passed by parliament this spring. The program is due to start in August with 1- to 2-year-olds and expand to include 3-year-olds next year. It will cost between $346 million to $400 million a year.

The cash, combined with other benefits, would mean that some families could even come out ahead financially - creating another dilemma.

With the economy booming on oil wealth and a shortage of workers in female-dominated health care and service jobs, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 women quitting at once could wreak havoc on the job market.

"We have said the whole time that cash support would be a threat to our staffing," said Tove Stanges, leader of the Norwegian Health and Social Care Federation.

A worker shortage could also force up wages and fan inflation, but Elisabeth Rusdal, leader of the Norwegian Women and Families Association, said those concerns were exaggerated.

"Every woman in Norway isn't going to get pregnant at the same time just because of the cash payments," she said.