WHENEVER Congresswoman Pat Schroeder wants to measure the lack of legislative progress on family issues in the United States, she simply uses her own family as a yardstick. Her daughter was two years old and her son was six when Representative Schroeder (D) of Colorado was first elected in 1972.
One year earlier, Congress had passed the nation's first comprehensive child-care bill. But President Richard Nixon vetoed it, and legislators were forced to start over.
Now Schroeder's daughter, Jamie, is a freshman at Princeton and her son, Scott, is a college graduate working for ABC News. But despite the elapsed time and the sustained efforts of Schroeder and other family advocates, no child-care bill has yet become law. Nor has a parental leave bill.
``For 16 years I've been in Congress trying to move these issues on family,'' says Schroeder during an interview, a hint of exasperation in her voice. ``The only thing that's happened is that there's more and more stress on families, and more and more people have had to move into the workplace. But the government hasn't dealt with it at all.''
Families, she explains, have always been ``the last order of business'' in Washington because they are not associated with power. ``Families don't have political-action committees, and toddlers don't give you honorariums for coming by their day-care centers.''
IN addition, most elected officials are men whose own families are very traditional. As a consequence, they don't feel great pressure about child care or parental leave. ``To them, those are nice issues,'' Schroeder says, ``but they're not need issues.''
To make presidential candidates confront the family as a ``need'' issue, Schroeder, briefly a presidential candidate herself, took to the road a year ago with her ``Great American Family Tour.''
Now she is on the airport-and-hotel circuit again, this time to talk about her new book, ``Champion of the Great American Family'' (New York: Random House, $17.95). Subtitled ``A Personal and Political Book,'' it combines a discussion of family policies here and abroad with Schroeder's own experiences as a working parent.
Today Schroeder, who has been re-elected seven times, is the dean of the women serving in Congress. But during her junior years in Washington, as the only congresswoman with small children, she routinely showed up on the House floor with diapers in her handbag. She kept crayons on her office coffee table and hosted preschoolers' birthday parties in the members' dining room.
She and her husband, Jim, a lawyer, also learned first-hand the sobering realities of child care, using half a dozen different arrangements - housekeepers, baby sitters, a child care center - during her first year in office.
``Those were very busy and frustrating years,'' Schroeder recalls. ``One of the problems with being a working mother, whether you're a Congresswoman or a stenographer or whatever, is that everybody feels perfectly free to come and tell you what they think: `I think what you're doing to your children is terrible.' `I think you should be home.' They don't do that to men.''
BUT the criticism and the juggling gave Schroeder a particular sensitivity to the needs of working parents. She not only became an outspoken supporter of family issues, she sponsored bills on child abuse, pregnancy discrimination, economic protection for former spouses, and part-time employment. Her most recent bill, the Family and Medical Leave Act, is scheduled to reach the House floor around Mother's Day (May 14).
Still, earning a reputation as a champion of the family has not been without its hazards.
``One of the things that hurts me,'' Schroeder confesses, ``is that every now and then people will say, `Here comes Pat Schroeder, here comes day care again - that's all she ever talks about.' Then the other side will say, `She hogs the issue all to herself.' I say, `Hey, I want to share this issue.'''
As one way of building a broader base of support, she recently joined with the Child Care Action Campaign to coordinate a national survey on family issues. Results, to be released nationally in early June, will also be sent to the President and Congress. Schroeder hopes that when people ``see the magnitude of the issue,'' they will form parent action groups in each state.
``By organizing a group as the environmentalists did, as seniors did, as [nuclear] freeze people did, I think you'll see Washington respond,'' she says.
THE need for a national family policy becomes apparent, she notes, in statistics showing that the United States ``is No. 1 in divorce, alcohol, drugs, and physical violence.''
Arguing that there is a connection between the lack of government support and the statistics, she adds, ``I get so impatient with people who say, `What you're advocating they do in all the communist countries.' I say, `What I'm advocating they do in all the capitalist countries, except here and South Africa.'''
Despite her ebullience and her everpresent smile, Schroeder - who last year was named one of the six most respected women in America in a Gallup poll - admits to ``a certain feeling of sadness'' as the 20th century draws to a close.
``I believe [the United States] can have a strong role in the 21st century, but I don't believe we can if we don't start addressing these issues.
``We cannot watch our families come unwrapped, and we cannot watch our financial future come unwrapped with all the debt. We've got to have some answers about what our role is going to be in the 21st century, and how we're going to compete educationally and every other way.''
At the same time Schroeder, who was the first woman to serve on the House Armed Services Committee, is encouraged by the number of men who now talk publicly about family policy:
``We've had women talking about it for a long time,'' she says. ``But it's getting people with power to talk about it. That's my message to parents: Get the people with power to talk about it and do it.
``All we really want,'' she adds, making the task sound deceptively simple, ``is for people to have choices and options to enable them to be the best parent possible.''