March 21, 2002 10:25 AM

Cyndi Lauper, as the world well knows, is a girl who just wants to have fun. So when, a few years back, the Grammy-award-winning singer got the chance to open for Cher on her sold-out Believe tour, Lauper didn’t think twice: Pop’s punk princess packed up her guitar, her purple minidress and, oh yes, her 18-month-old son Declyn. The only thing she forgot, it turns out, was her better judgment. “It was terrible,” says Lauper, 48, of her three-month stint playing rock-star mom. “I was on the bus trying to pump and nurse and the kid is being knocked around. Every time the bus moves a little, you move a lot. I thought I could drag him all over with me,” she says, “but it wasn’t working out.”

And so, Lauper came to the realization that sooner or later hits every working mother who has passed up a plum job to be with her child: You can’t have it all (or, at least, not all at the same time). In a world where performers target the glow of stardom with the determination of heat-seeking missiles, an increasingly long list of the biggest names in showbiz — including Celine Dion, Demi Moore, Annette Bening and Jodie Foster — no longer want to. In the enviable financial position to be able to Just Say No, some celebs, such as former MTV whiz kid Tabitha Soren, give up working altogether. Others, including Sissy Spacek — who took a break from life on her Virginia farm to film her Oscar-nominated turn in In the Bedroom — just slow down. Whatever the logistics, though, the logic is the same.

“At the end of the day it’s about women wanting balance,” says producer Lynda Obst, who got Bening to star in 1998’s The Siege with offers of on-set daycare and a special play trailer for her kids. “What it feels like is, ‘I’m not going on 100 percent psycho-drive just to get work, work, work. I’m only going to do the stuff that has value because I love my family and I’m just as happy staying home as working.’ ”

Happier, even. Single mom and Panic Room star Foster, 39, recently closed down Egg Pictures, her 12-year-old production company, and tries to limit herself to acting in one film every two years. As she told Premiere in March of her desire to spend time with sons Charles, 3, and Kit, 6 months, “Raising them is so much more interesting than anything else I do.”

That may be easy for Foster to say, having acted in almost three dozen movies, directed two others (Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays) and won two Best Actress Oscars (for 1988’s The Accused and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs). Indeed, what Foster craves most now is an ordinary life. Some actors pay someone to “walk their dog and pick up the kids from school,” she said. “But that’s your life. So you’re paying someone else to live your life so you can work more? I’d rather pay somebody to work for me.” For her, motherhood is “the great equalizer,” says her former producing partner and fellow parent Julie Bergman Sender. “We’re all at the park in our T-shirts that have a million food stains on them, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a working mother, a stay-at-home mom or an Academy Award-winning actress. Everybody is in there making sure her kid isn’t eating sand — and that includes Jodie.”

Of course, Foster’s $15 million-a-picture paychecks give her the freedom to choose, a luxury only a relative few can afford. “I never had the option of saying, ‘I think I’ll stop and do carpool and knit,’ ” says Lynda Obst, whose son is now 23. Still, as mothers on both ends of the salary scale know, working is often not entirely about payday; it is also about identity — a mind-set that is generally age-related, says producer Peter Guber. “Actresses in their 20s live to work,” he says. “Those over 30 work to live. The vagaries of the business become so prominent that family takes on greater importance.” Especially established stars, he says, “realize, ‘Been there, did it.’ ”

Timing certainly was an issue for Demi Moore, 39. Over the course of two years starting in 1996, the actress with more than $1 billion in box office sales to her name saw her life turned upside down. After receiving a then-record $12.5 million to star in Striptease, she withstood withering criticism when it tanked. The following year’s G.I. Jane proved another disappointment. Then, in June of 1998, her 10-year marriage to Bruce Willis collapsed — and a month later she watched as her long-estranged mother, Virginia Guynes, died of a brain tumor and cancer at age 54. Moore holed up in her mountain hamlet of Hailey, Idaho, to play full-time mom to daughters Rumer, now 13, Scout, 10, and Tallulah, 8. “I just needed to stop and take a break,” she told IN STYLE. “The gains outweigh any losses.” Today her greatest pleasure seems to be sitting in the audience, as she did a few months ago at nearby Ketchum’s St. Thomas Episcopal Church — alongside her ex as well as her beau of three years, martial arts instructor Oliver Whitcomb, 31 — watching Rumer sing solo with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony.

“I think there’s a natural cycle in a woman’s life that is somewhat in tune with her body,” says three-time Oscar nominee Debra Winger, 48, who captivated audiences in such ’80s megahits as An Officer and a Gentleman and Terms of Endearment before bolting from the spotlight six years ago to raise three boys: Babe, 4, her son with actor-director husband Arliss Howard, 47; Noah, 14 (with ex-husband actor Timothy Hutton); and stepson Sam, also 14. “You look at your life and say, ‘Do I want to do the same thing for the second half that I did for the first? I feel different. Maybe I should be different.’ ”

For some the revelation is swift and painless. After spending 13 years as a favorite of American audiences on such TV shows as General Hospital and Dynasty, Emma Samms, 41, fell in love with psychiatrist and fellow Brit John Holloway, now 43, and promptly relocated to a home in the British countryside, where she cares for their son Cameron, 5, and daughter Bea, 4. Of her sudden desire to take only occasional parts that don’t require long absences from home, she says, “There was no agonizing. If I was going to have children, I was going to raise them myself. It’s just a matter of priorities.” For Bening, 43, however, the initial stirrings of motherhood were more complex. “The first time I lost my desire to work I was scared,” the wife of Warren Beatty, who turns 65 on March 30, and mother to Kathlyn, 10, Ben, 7, Isabel, 4, and Ella, 1, told Good Housekeeping in 2000. “I thought, ‘Is this going to go away and not come back?’ Now I realize there’s an ebb and flow.”

And fortunately for her — as well as her fellow A-listers — an industry that’s willing to go with the flow. “These stars have tenacious agents who are able to carve out for them a set that is user-friendly, whether it’s extra security or air transportation for the nanny and kids,” says Guber. “There is no perk today that is beyond the imaginations of the agents. The only one you can’t do is put the baby back in.” That was never an issue for Bening. Indeed, what allowed her to pull off her Oscar-nominated portrayal of an ambition-crazed mother in 1999’s American Beauty was her ability to be just the opposite offscreen.

“Once while we were setting up an exterior scene she was over on the grass under a tree with all of her kids,” recalls Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball. “She took off her high heels, put on her tennis shoes and played tag with them. She was having so much fun, she was completely unaware of this movie company 200 feet away. I thought, ‘Gee, I wish my mom had done this.’ ”

Still, as Tabitha Soren has discovered, motherhood is not always splendor in the grass. A Manhattan-based reporter for MTV, she made her name interviewing Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat before she turned 30. But after marrying Michael Lewis, now 41, author of the bestselling Next: The Future Just Happened, and giving birth to daughter Quinn in 1999, she decided to abandon the glam life and relocate to “family-friendly Berkeley,” says Soren, now 34 and eight months pregnant with baby No. 2. But even there, the couple have been taken aback by what Lewis calls the “status collapse” caused by Soren’s decision to be a full-time parent. “At dinner parties people are a lot less interested in what she is doing now,” says Lewis. “I’m surprised it hasn’t dealt Tabitha more of a blow.”

Maybe that’s because part of her understands the desire to flee at the first mention of sing-alongs — which is why Soren takes time off every Saturday to go to photography class. “I can only play with Legos for so long,” she says. “Our society gives a lot of lip service to the idea of motherhood being so good,” she adds. “But at the end of the day, people still say to me, ‘Besides taking care of Quinn, what else do you do?’ America is much more about money, ambition and status. I have been all those things. I am just not those things right now.”

Reported by: ROBYN FLANS, JULIE JORDAN and VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles, KC BAKER and CAROLINE HOWARD in New York City, BEVERLY KEEL in Nashville, LINDA MARX and DON SIDER in West Palm Beach, LAURA MORICE in Charlotte, KEITH RAETHER in Hailey and ELLIN STEIN in London

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