Bonding Time For the Family

IT is a common scene in Africa: A woman in the late stages of pregnancy toils in the field under a blazing sun, hoeing her crops. Only when her baby's birth is imminent will she leave the field - and then only briefly. A day or two later - as soon as she is physically able - she will be back, knowing her family's food supply will be threatened if she interrupts her work for too long. No such primitive scenarios exist in the United States. But in subtle ways, both cultures subordinate the needs of the pregnant woman to the needs of the economy. Like their third-world counterparts, American women often work until the very end of their pregnancy. Many also must return to work when their baby is only a few weeks old, either out of economic necessity or because their employer will not grant them more time at home.

A parental-leave bill passed by the Senate last week would ease some of those strains by requiring employers to give workers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave at the birth or adoption of a baby. Yet President Bush promised to veto the bill even before the vote. Parental leave, he argues, should not be a matter of legislation but of negotiation between employers and employees.

This may sound like fair play. But consider the variables involved in negotiating. Some employees are more skillful at friendly persuasion than others. Some employers are more open to change. Under these random and variable circumstances, negotiating could produce random and variable results.

Even when leave policies exist, women often face subtle pressures to return early. I have interviewed professional women who say, only half jokingly, that their definition of a sympathetic manager is one who waits until they are home from the hospital before calling to ask plaintively, ``When are you coming back?'' I have interviewed others who headed reluctantly back to work weeks before they felt ready.

Pregnant women have also reported that even women managers - who might be expected to be most sympathetic to the needs of new parents - have said, ``I managed without parental leave, so can you.''

If the bill becomes law, small businesses worry that they will face hardships while workers are on leave. Yet only companies with 50 or more workers would be required to provide unpaid leave. By contrast, the disability-rights bill passed by Congress last month will apply initially to companies with 25 employees, and eventually to firms with only 15 workers.

Unlike the $1.2 billion child-care bill that the Senate passed late last year - which the president has also said he will veto - the parental-leave bill involves no federal money. The General Accounting Office estimates that it will cost businesses $200 million a year, largely the cost of continuing health insurance while employees are on leave.

In practice, the bill's value may be mostly symbolic, since many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave. But the symbolism is powerful. It sends a message that business must do its part to help strengthen family bonds during the first exhilarating but often exhausting weeks after a new baby's arrival.

Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton - the country's most famous baby doctors - are urging parents to become more active in pressuring the Bush administration to support family issues. But the bill needs a broader base of support.

What parental-leave legislation does is recognize the new economic reality of dual working parents, while respecting the old emotional reality of parents nurturing babies - and babies nurturing parents.

The dilemma of the working parent needs official acknowledgment from those who take it upon themselves to lead the community. In European countries this has largely happened already through appropriate legislation.

During his 1988 campaign, President Bush endorsed the concept of family and medical leave, telling one women's group, ``We also need to assure that women don't have to worry about getting their jobs back after having a child or caring for a child during a serious illness. This is what I meant when I talked about a gentler nation.''

Was this just campaign baby talk? If banks can get bailed out on a grand scale, cannot a modest protection be guaranteed to our truly saving institution, the family?

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