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Weighing need for family leave

Last of four parts

Mary Wendy Roberts, Oregon's labor commissioner, set out in 1988 to guarantee most of the state's work force _ 47 percent of which is women _ the right to 12 weeks' unpaid leave when they give birth, adopt a child or need to care for a sick relative. Her strategy: show lawmakers that their own families had a stake.

"We'd say: "You've got grandkids. Was your daughter able to take time off?' " Roberts recalled. "The work force has changed so dramatically that people making decisions can't close themselves off from it. Someone, either in their family or among people they knew, would be coming to them and saying, "Hey, I need that.' "

In Oregon, the politics of the personal worked. In other states, such as Florida, with its high proportion of elderly residents or Utah, despite having one of the highest proportions of working mothers in the nation, mandated family leave has been a non-starter.

The fate of this issue, debated for a decade from county office buildings to the White House, reflects Americans' deep ambivalence as they grapple with new patterns of motherhood.

As the ranks of working mothers grow, personal doubts about how best to raise small children have multiplied. This uncertainty has its parallel in the often hesitant responses of government to what many working mothers or single parents say are pressing needs.

In the presidential campaign, image-makers for Democrats and Republicans have stumbled while trying to figure out which maternal symbol _ often, which dimension of which political wife _ best fits the national fancy.

Meanwhile, around the country, a more fundamental debate is going on: whether the new realities of mothers and work, which reflect deep economic and social trends, warrant revising the social contract between government, businesses and families.

"We've never had the federal or state support that's necessary to make the new American family work properly," said Edward F. Zigler, professor of psychology at Yale University and a leading authority on child development. Zigler and many other students of the changing family favor generous leave policies, national efforts to make higher-quality child care more widely accessible and encouragement of more flexible working arrangements for parents. But conservative opponents say measures like these are often best left to the marketplace.

Early in the presidential campaign, Republicans presented themselves as champions of traditional family values. At the convention, speakers went out of their way to praise mothers who stayed home with the children.

When it came to the practical question of family leave, though, President Bush vetoed a comparatively mild bill that, in principle, would have helped some mothers do just that. The bill required only companies with 50 or more employees to give new mothers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. It was his second veto of such a measure.

Bush, who says he supports the concept of leave, said he thought it was wrong to impose another government mandate on business and proposed an alternative plan built on tax credits for cooperative employers.

Proposals like the most recent legislation have had mixed success, embraced by some counties and states and shunned by others despite the vast increase of working mothers. Nearly 60 percent of mothers with children under age 6 worked in 1990, according to the 1990 census, as did 75 percent of mothers with children ages 6 to 17.

In insecure economic times, Bush may not pay much of a political price for vetoing a generally popular measure such as the Family and Medical Care Leave Act. In a New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this week, 57 percent of those queried said Bush should have signed the bill. Another 36 percent said he did the right thing by vetoing it.

"Part of the background for this has always been that family issues are outside of the government domain," said Barbara Willer, public affairs director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "As a family member, it's your responsibility to work that out on your own. That's made it more difficult in terms of mobilizing action around this issue."

As working women drift toward a new status as an interest group, they are struggling to define where their interests lie _ when they have time to look beyond the next item on the "to do" list. Researchers say that, while many would cherish the right to 12 weeks of leave, some could not afford to go that long without a paycheck anyway. But proposals to require paid maternity leave, common in many other industrial countries with different social and economic traditions, got nowhere.

And not all mothers agree with the proposition that government ought to mandate family leave. "Family accommodation is crucial," said Merrie Spaeth, a free-market conservative and former President Reagan aide who now has a public-relations business in Dallas. "But mandated family leave is a catastrophe to small business. It hurts women and minority-owned businesses most."

Many of those who could benefit most from the law have the least time to push for it. "The very people who are desperate for a national policy to deal with their struggles in juggling family and work responsibilities are the least able to become major advocates," said Judith Lichtman, executive director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "They're struggling to keep their heads above water."

Women themselves are not all marching shoulder to shoulder with family leave banners waving. When Dade County, the only jurisdiction in Florida with a family leave ordinance, approved the measure _ requiring businesses with 50 or more employees to offer 12 weeks' unpaid leave, but exempting higher-paid and executive employees _ the one woman on the nine-member board cast the only "nay" vote.

In the few months since the Dade County ordinance took effect, only three complaints have been filed, officials said.

To some extent, lobbyists for women's groups have taken up family issues like these.

Lichtman said: "Women understand that this affects them and that they deserve family leave. But we now have to translate that into the feeling that yes, we not only need it and deserve it _ but we can get it, if we hold politicians accountable."

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