Patricia Schroeder never had to choose between career and family when her children -- Scott, 21, and Jamie, 17 -- were young. She quit her job as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board when Scott was born. Because her husband was an attorney, she didn't feel an economic need to rush back to work.

It was when Jamie was 2 and she was elected to Congress that she learned what it meant to be a working mother.

If Pat Schroeder decides to run for President, she will no doubt spend much of her campaign talking about one of her pet projects in Congress: the design of a federal policy of parental leave.

"I really think Pat's candidacy will help this issue enormously," says Betty Dooley, executive director of the Women's Research and Education Institute, a research arm of Congress. "It will give her a pulpit, with much greater visibility, from which to talk about parental leave. And when she talks about it, that will encourage the men in the race to take a more careful look at it, too."

The Colorado Democrat is expected to reach a decision this week on whether to seek her party's nomination for the presidency. A Schroeder candidacy may for the first time bring many family issues, such as parental leave, to the forefront of the national political agenda. Up to now, matters affecting the family -- such as birth control, abortion, eduction and day care -- have been trivialized as "women's issues" or "feminist issues." But if a serious presidential candidate is talking about these matters, they become recast as human issues that demand federal attention.

"That's one of the reasons it's being called parental leave instead of maternity leave," says Susan Carroll, senior research associate of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics. "It emphasizes the fact that it's not just a woman's issue, it's everyone's."

All European countries have national policies far broader than the one being proposed in the Family and Medical Leave Act that Schroeder introduced in Congress last year. (The bill is expected to be brought to the full House before the fall recess.) In Europe, maternity leave and parental leave are two different things -- and every country in Europe, according to a Research and Education Institute study offers both.

During maternity leave, Dooley says, a woman is given four to eight weeks of partially paid leave to recuperate from childbirth. During parental leave, either parent may take additional unpaid leave -- from six months to two years, depending on the country.

Many of these programs, including the one proposed in Schroeder's bill, extend assurances of job security beyond those who take leave to care for newborns. Individuals who must take time from work to attend to other family needs -- to care for a child with a prolonged illness, for instance, or for an aged parent are also assured that their old job, or a comparable job, will be available when they return. "Compared to what they do for families in Europe," Dooley says, "the bill we're talking about wouldn't even be a pinpoint on a graph."

But will Schroeder turn into a "woman's candidate" if she plays up too strongly her interest in legislation to bolster the family? No, says Carroll, because Schroeder has a track record, too, in dealing with macho matters. She has served on the House Armed Services Committee, which Carroll says gives her standing among experts in military, defense and international fields.

"In a way, Schroeder can speak more effectively about parental leave because of her background in defense," Carroll says. "That makes her free to discuss this issue," and she should, Carroll adds: "Clearly, it is one of the central issues facing this country."

In a videotape shown at Schroeder's "Run Pat Run" parties around the country, the potential candidate stressed the need for a "rendezvous with reality." The first reality she addressed was that of the American family: "It is no longer a Norman Rockwell painting," Shroeder said.

After mentioning parental leave, better day care and more liberal flex-time arrangements, Schroeder touched on a theme she can be expected to return to often if she runs for President. "No nation that turns its back on its children," she said, "can lay a claim to greatness." Robin Marantz Henig is a Washington writer.