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So-called help may hurt moms

The first thought of most new mothers is not, "How quickly can I put this thing into day care?!" More often it's the anxious, heartbreaking query, "How long will I be able to take off from work?" And even, "Do I have to go back to work at all?"

Most women do not have fun, glamorous careers. They work at steady, unglamorous jobs to pay the rent, support their children and save money for retirement. And they don't like it: A growing majority of working mothers tell pollsters that they'd prefer to be home if they could. They feel, simply, that they have no choice but to work full time _ just as another generation of women felt they had no choice but to be housewives.

Unlike their grandmothers, they can't expect their marriages to last _ or to be married at all. And even in households where there are two parents, full-time motherhood has been so devalued that a wife often feels embarrassed if she is not contributing to the household income.

It's odd, then, to hear the supposed champions of women's interests pressing for new policies whose ultimate effect will be to make it financially harder for mothers to raise their own children.

President Clinton recently endorsed a proposal to permit new parents to draw upon state unemployment insurance funds for up to six months of paid leave. The Federal Family and Medical Leave Act now guarantees only six weeks of unpaid leave.

On the surface, the plan seems humane. Are not six months of paid leave better than six weeks of unpaid leave? As the press release from a group lobbying for the plan, the National Partnership for Women and Families, said, "We insure our most valuable possessions _ our cars and homes _ why shouldn't we insure the welfare of our families?"

But as parents quickly discover, having a child is not the same as owning a new Chevy or condo. Nor is it like suffering some one-time catastrophic incident _ like injuring yourself on the job or undergoing emergency surgery _ for which you need insurance. A child changes your life and priorities forever.

Indeed, by paying mothers to care for their children for six months _ but only six months _ the government would be setting a new norm: Children are entitled to only as much of their mother's time as the state is willing to pay for. After six months, the job of child care belongs not to the family but to a day-care provider.

And since a growing proportion of the day-care tab is paid for by state and local governments, the effect will be that the taxpayer will end up subsidizing day care for all but the small minority of women who can afford full-time care out of their own wages.

The same message is sent by other seemingly helpful programs. Lobbyists for the day-care industry have persuaded many corporations to offer lavish on-site care. Some companies go further still and are experimenting with permitting employees to bring their newborns right into the workplace.

But what sort of message does this send to a new mother? "Don't even think about taking five minutes off for your new baby! You can tote it along with your briefcase!"

Perversely, the plan to pay for six-month maternity leaves would add to the tax burden on everyone and raise insurance premiums. This and other "pro-family" schemes make it harder for families to get by on one income, even for the few short years before a child starts school.

Such plans ought to be opposed not only by those alarmed by the increase in taxes, but also by anyone who genuinely wants to ensure that children get what they most need and nowadays so seldom get: their mother's time and attention.

Danielle Crittenden is the author of What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman.

New York Times News Service