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Real Family Values

PARENTAL LEAVE:

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You have a career. You have a marriage. You have a child. Which is most important?

This is neither a simple nor a hypothetical question. Within 10 years, you will have to set priorities between work and home life. How much time will you spend with your children? How often will you stay late hours at the firm to get ahead?

Perhaps you will go the sequential route, plunging ahead in your career and waiting to have children...and waiting.

Or perhaps you will be like the millions of American families who struggle desperately to balance job, family, marriage and sanity. In most of these families, overworked women bear the brunt of the misery. But according to extensive research by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, the strain of the two-career family hurts men and children as well. It breaks up marriages, undermines careers and, perhaps most tragically, makes children feel unwanted.

It is a grim picture, but it can change. It only will change if policy makers and business leaders have the courage and foresight to adapt the American economy to the reality of the two-career family. Last week, the House of Representatives approved legislation that would guarantee 12 weeks of paternity or maternity leave each year to workers in firms with 50 or more employees. Because the leave would be unpaid--with only health insurance benefits continued--the legislation would cost just $5.30 a year per employee, according to a Congressional study.

The benefits, measured in terms of productivity and psychological health, would be immeasurably greater. The bill is an important and symbolic first step toward allowing men and women to protect their families without falling off the career ladder.

Yet President Bush has pledged to veto the legislation. In doing so, Mr. Pro-Family himself will veto the happiness and stability of thousands of American families--our families.

Bush claims that mandatory parental leave would unduly burden private industry. Given the small cost involved, this is a ridiculous charge. Bush's opposition more likely reflects an unwillingness to acknowledge that child-rearing is not the sole responsibility of women. Parental leave, by embracing the "daddy track" as well as the "mommy track," implies that men and women have similar obligations for child-rearing. More significantly, it implicitly endorses the notion that women should have the same opportunities as men to work outside the home--a concept still anathema to many Republican leaders.

U.S. Rep. Bill Dickinson (R-Ala.) unwittingly revealed how the legislation undermines the conservative dream of the father-led family. "This [bill] is ludicrous in the extreme," he said. "I don't need 18 weeks off if my wife has a baby."

Imposing this oppressive vision on American families--more than half of which include two careers--will only increase marital dissolution, gender inequality and unhappiness among children. The United State is the only industrialized nation besides South Africa that doesn't guarantee family leave. President Bush's "kinder and gentler," "pro-family" agenda seems to consist of keeping America in that shameful company.

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