Stay-at-home dad fight finally emerges

Posted: Tuesday, April 04, 2000

Now comes the paternity test. And we are not talking DNA here.

Cherie Booth Blair, the pregnant barrister and primary breadwinner at 10 Downing Street has thrown a mischievous and public challenge to her husband and prime minister.

Great Britain's most high-profile working mother let it be known that she hopes her husband will take paternity leave when their fourth child is born in late May. Citing the prime minister of Finland who just took a postpartum week off, Cherie said, ``I for one am promoting the widespread adoption of his fine example.''

This left the normally decisive Labor leader in a prepartum dither: ``I honestly don't know what to do.'' Much as he might want to stay home with the baby, he has - excuses! excuses! - ``to make sure the country is properly run.'' The embarrassed father-to-be then hid under his favorite political slogan, ``I will have to find a third way through it.''

Well, this time Blair's much vaunted ``third way'' is between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, supporters of his family friendly Labor Party are urging him to be a role model of new fatherhood. ``Show New Dads the Way, Tony'' declared The Mirror.

On the other hand, curmudgeonly business leaders are urging him to be a role model of the new economy. ``He should set an example and return to work the next day,'' harrumphed one.

I for one want to tip my hat to Cherie. The 45-year-old mother of 3.7 children has pulled off a coup. She's turned the spotlight off working motherhood - when and should Cherie go back to work? - and onto working fatherhood - when and shouldn't Tony stay home?

This is not only the first child in the Blair family in 11 years. It's the first child born to a sitting prime minister in 150 years. It's taken that long to get fatherhood on the agenda. For this feat alone, I offer Cherie a Colonial cheer: You Go Girl.

In fairness, Blair fancies himself a new kind of father. He once said that he saw his own lawyer father on television more than in person. Tony is a ``hands-on'' dad. In fact, as one friend said, ``he's always been rather good at nappy changing and that sort of thing.''

He even has a passing familiarity with housework. Or, as Cherie once said, ``I wouldn't say he was intimate with our washing machine, but he does know where it is.''

Nevertheless Blair's floundering in the face of the pop paternity quiz is understandable. On both sides of the Atlantic people are still pretty ambivalent about men taking leave. The higher up the man, the greater the ambivalence.

Last December, Blair's own Labor government instituted the right to 13 weeks of unpaid paternity leave to match maternity leave in Great Britain. Now they are considering paid leave.

In public opinion polls some 72 percent of British voters agree that men should have that right. But 57 percent think Blair shouldn't use it. The voters are like bosses who approve of the idea of children, but not in their office.

In America, those two little words ``paternity leave'' are enough to switch a man onto the daddy track. The men who do take time off generally take it as sick leave or vacation.

Suzanne Braun Levine, in her new book ``Father Courage,'' writes about the unabated pressure on a man to ``behave as if he had no other life.'' She says about Blair: ``For a man to stand up and say I'm taking paternity leave and I'm proud of it is an important statement.''

But Blair doesn't have a lot of job security. And in one of those work-family crunches that women know so well, the baby's due date is May 24. That's two days after the due date for IRA disarmament.

There's a delicious irony in this story. After years of ruing the conflicts of motherhood and leadership, it's a man who hits the work/family wall. What's a pater and prime minister to do? Or in the popular vernacular, ``Can men have it all?''

The ``third way'' for a politician as facile as Blair is to save face and marriage. He can get to know the baby, declare solidarity with his Finn brother and demystify paternity leave for his people. At the same time he can remain on call at home ``over the shop'' with a beeper and baby monitor. And if the ``troubles'' brew, the P.M. can take a leave from his leave.

Trust me, the empire won't fall. It already fell.

Oh, one last point. For the sake of national security, maybe Blair shouldn't take more than one week at home with four kids. As Edwina Currie, a former government minister said, ``Any more than that and he'll be exhausted.''

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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