Cheers for the baby - now get back to work

Few new mothers have endured more media spotlights, both positive and negative, than Jane Swift, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.

During the gubernatorial race two years ago, a very pregnant Ms. Swift became the darling of reporters when she gave birth to her first child just two weeks before the election. But then the reality of infant care set in, and she found herself hotly criticized for using two State House aides to baby-sit her daughter on evenings and weekends. In September, a state ethics commission fined her $1,250.

Now Swift is making news again. Last week she announced that she and her husband are expecting twins in June. That blessed event will make her the first lieutenant governor in Massachusetts to give birth while in office.

Twins! Critics are already wondering how she will manage. Reporters stand ready to turn her pregnancy and later her babies into a permanent photo-op.

Americans have come a long way since the time, 50 years ago, when pregnant women had to quit their jobs when they "started to show."

Today it's common to see a Very Visible Pregnancy at work. Yet in many businesses, it's still not a good idea to have Very Visible Progeny. After the congratulations fade and parental leave ends, most new parents are on their own to work out infant care. They must put on a happy face professionally to mask any private concerns.

Some firms do permit flexible schedules. A handful of innovative companies even allow new parents to bring infants to work for the first six or eight months. It's one way, managers say, to get women back before their maternity leave ends - a dubious achievement, for sure.

Supermom lives. Or does she?

Swift admits her expanded maternal role will be a challenge, even though her husband will continue his current role as full-time, at-home caregiver. But she also proudly points out that she worked until the day before her daughter, Elizabeth, was born and then took just two weeks off.

This post-maternity fast track - call it the Swift track in her case - has its limits. If Swift races back to work again after her twins are born, her Very Public Example risks setting a norm that other new mothers might be expected to follow.

It's time to change the culture. In the same way that laws now forbid the "drive-through deliveries" that once forced women to leave the hospital 24 hours after giving birth, companies need to reconsider "hurry-back" leave policies and uncompromising work schedules.

Already a new study by the Women's Bar Association in Massachusetts finds that women lawyers are leaving law firms in record numbers. The legal profession, these women complain, allows little flexibility for family needs.

Sheila Kamerman, a professor of social work at Columbia University in New York, analyzed policies affecting new parents in 158 countries. The good news: The United States is one of only a few countries that recognize a father's need for parental leave. The not-so-good news: The US is one of three countries on her list - along with Australia and Ethiopia - that grant only unpaid parental leave.

In June, President Clinton authorized states to use unemployment funds to create paid leave for new parents for up to 12 weeks. But opposition to paid leave runs strong.

Today, with babies in the boardroom, babies in the State House, even a baby at 10 Downing Street, the challenge of infant care can no longer stay hidden behind nursery doors. However Swift manages her schedule, her Very Visible Pregnancy serves as a useful reminder that the crucial question - How can we care for babies and help their working parents? - still needs far better answers.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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