It's the sort of move we have come to associate with the Commander in Chief of Incrementalism. President Clinton doesn't stride into policymaking -- he minces. He takes one teeny step at a time, extending a bit of health coverage for kids here, a touch of child care there.

In return, the Democratic Party has been rewarded -- overrewarded -- with the terminal gratitude of women and a reputation as the party that cares about working families.

Now the president is at it again. He's trying to come through on a laudable promise to help parents who work take care of their newborn children. He's trying to change the rules to allow states to pay unemployment compensation for maternity and paternity leave.

Paid parental leave -- can we drop the gender-neutral language for a moment and call it what it is, maternity leave? -- is one of those ideas whose time has come to virtually every advanced economy. But not to our own.

It took Congress an entire eight years just to get family and medical leave. That gave half the workers in the country the right to 90 days of unpaid leave to care for newborns, for critically ill family members and even themselves, without losing their jobs. Every time supporters try to extend this measly coverage, a Republican majority in Congress starts foaming at the Capitol Dome.

Today some 650,000 parents a year -- nearly all of them moms -- take parental leave. But the reason most go back to work before their leave is up is obvious: They can't afford it.

In a way, the Family and Medical Leave Act describes the Family and Medical Limbo of new mothers; the women who use it are neither exactly employed nor exactly unemployed. If these women were still on the job, they'd still get paychecks. If, on the other hand, these women lost their jobs, they'd be eligible for unemployment compensation.

What the Clinton plan would do is allow states to treat them as if they were laid off from the very jobs they will go back to.

I confess that I'm in favor of getting paid leave any way we can. I cringe when Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, describes new parents as "voluntarily stepping out of the work force." Having children is cast as a personal, if quirky, choice, sort of like leaving work for a while to learn the Japanese tea ceremony.

But I am uncomfortable with the end run around this issue. Treating the care of newborns as unemployment, treating maternity leave as a layoff, not only stretches the meaning of the unemployment trust fund; it allows us to play let's pretend. We can once again avoid looking at the reality of family caregiving as an essential, continuing part of every life. It doesn't begin or end with the layette. We turn away from "seeing" the whole picture: the collapse of the caretaking system.

As Mona Harrington writes in "Care and Equality": "We don't see a collapsing care system because we don't see care as a system to begin with. We see individuals making private decisions about who takes care of the children or helps an arthritis-plagued elderly parent."

Until the last 30 years, the "system" depended on the unseen, unpaid labor of women. It was supported by a family wage and an ideology. Now women are in the workplace, and we haven't figured out a replacement.

"The problem, the enormous problem for Americans in the 1990s," writes Harrington, "is that we have not devised any equality-respected system to replace the full-time caretaking labor force of women at home. . . .

"The other piece of the story is that women's remaining caretaking responsibilities undermine their equal opportunity in the work force."

We look at all the problems of family in a kind of piecemeal way: child care, elder care, disabled care. We look at women's problems as private, the act of a generation torn between the expectations as mother and employee.

Labeling parental leave as "unemployment" is a nice little sleight of hand or mouth. Using the workers' compensation fund to pay for family caregiving is a clever temporary strategy.

But it makes caretaking seem like one of those knee scrapes that requires a Band-Aid for a week. In fact, it requires life support.

The Commander in Chief of Incrementalism thinks we can take one small step at time. He calls that progress. But all those small steps leave us standing in the same place.

(C) 1999, The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.