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Time for Changing 'Nappies'

By Marjorie Williams
Friday, March 31, 2000; Page A29

If life were fair, as Roseanne has pointed out, men whose wives were in labor would have to lie nearby undergoing painful bikini waxes. Life is never going to be that fair. But Cherie Blair, wife of the British prime minister, has gone a sweet step in the direction of male discomfiture with her recent declaration that she wants her husband to take a paternity leave upon the birth of their fourth child.

This is, to say the least, an unprecedented suggestion. For one thing, Tony and Cherie Blair's baby, due in May, will be the first newborn at 10 Downing Street in a century and a half. For another, it wasn't until three months ago that Britain joined the rest of the European Union in establishing the right of fathers to take as many as 13 weeks of unpaid parental leave during the first five years of a child's life.

But this is exactly why Mrs. Blair, who will also keep her day job as a high-powered barrister known as Cherie Booth, took the opportunity of a recent speech to fellow lawyers to put her husband firmly on the spot, making it clear that she expects him to take the symbolic step of requesting some kind of formal leave from his duties for at least a week or two. Cherie's remarks sent the British press into a frenzy of broad jokes about whether the PM is up to changing "nappies." (There will always be an England.)

In some ways, this is a phony story. As a practical matter, Tony Blair already seems to be a fairly involved father, by the undemanding standards of upper-middle class professionals. (You know, the kind of father over whom everyone on the job clucks proudly if he misses a meeting to watch a cricket match, while frowning strenuously at the chronically frazzled mother in the next office.) And of course, the Blairs have all the domestic help they could want, and the kind of set-up--they live over the store--that would allow him to duck in and out of work easily and informally during the post-partum weeks.

Normally, I hate family symbolism in politics, because these symbols are advanced only in service of candidates' careers. They tend to polarize and confuse the issues they are said to represent, as when Hillary Clinton entered the infamous bog of cookie-baking. The quadrennial feature articles here about the first-lady "candidates," which pit wives against each other as cultural stereotypes, always leave out the complicating fact that political marriages unfold under a terrible pressure from which the rest of us are blessedly exempt, and that these marriages are therefore useless as models for the conduct of our own.

But the Blairs' stagy dilemma is one of those rare events that might genuinely illuminate the stuff of our lives. In asking the prime minister to do what she hopes the mass of British men might do, Cherie Blair is actually subverting an even larger idea than the precept of mom-as-sole-nurturer. She is questioning the very assumption that running a country is a bigger deal than raising a child.

Her challenge is not really about the fairness of women shouldering all the work at home. Though this is a real battle, it is a limiting one, in which all the contenders often end up sounding as though intimate life is nothing but drudgery that everyone wants to duck. It's about asserting the dignity and importance of care as an element of life. Now, feminists would tell you that this problem--the question of what functions get assigned the status and the laurels--is indivisible from the gender struggle: Men do have a way of seeing clearly the nobility and importance of whichever functions happen to be most the province of men. But that's exactly why it's worth prodding to expand our definition of what falls into that magic circle of male notice.

We see all around us, in Washington, the costs of conducting life as if personal relations were a pale and sissified backwater compared to the important work of the manly men who raise armies and fight budget battles and wield the federal purse. In years of writing about political figures, I have heard the friends and associates of a really striking number of men offer, as proof of the great men's warmth and cuddliness, that when their children call during work hours, they actually take the calls.

Politics and government form one of the last great bastions of traditional, he-man achievement. And this is one of the reasons why the large majority of Americans increasingly tune out this realm, watching it from afar as a distant, faintly antiquated culture. For it is one of the great shifts of our lifetime that the old models of significance are more and more seen for the incomplete constructs they are.

This isn't to say that the affairs of state don't matter; obviously they matter greatly. If I were a British taxpayer, I might even doubt whether a highly symbolic paternity leave was the best use of my prime minister's time. We will never eliminate the conflict between work and family, and heads of state will always be men (and women) who yield up some of the personal sphere to the demands of ambition and service. But it would be progress if men at least came to think of this as a sacrifice, instead of as nature's law. Cherie Blair is just evening the score a little, by underlining the dimension of life that is usually belittled or swept from notice in the marble halls her husband inhabits.


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