Our friend is at the end of her last, lumbering trimester. At lunch, toasting the imminent birth of her first child with club soda and lime, we wish her well. In return, she tallies up her vacation time and maternity leave. She will be out of work six months; that should just about do it.
Later, the three of us who are already mothers walk back across town together. One, whose two school-age children have been through a winter of flu and measles, laughs sardonically and says, "You know, I think I could use maternity leave too." Another, whose son has had a tough time launching himself into high school, seconds that motion.
I tell them about my own fantasy. While our pregnant friend was counting up her days, I wondered what it would have been like to have such a fine pool of days to draw from slowly. What a luxury for parents who might use those months of leave, one day at a time, over several years.
Our friend is lucky. Her company is, by many standards, generous with leave. And yet, we already know, it isn't enough.
It occurs to me as we go back to our separate offices how much attention there is on infant leave these days. The world that we all work in is being wrenched into reality. Today half the pregnant working women will be back on the job within a year. There is much talk of birthing and bonding.
A bill in Congress proposes that we grant new parents a minimum of 18 weeks of unpaid leave with job protection. A Yale study recommends child- care leaves of six months with 75 percent pay for half that time.
And yet even those who lobby, even those who fashion these vast improvements, know they won't be enough.
I wonder sometimes whether, in a subtle way, the current emphasis on parental leave creates another special class in the work force. Will the attention focused on those with newborns allow employers and legislators to pretend that the conflicts between work and family are temporary, limited to the earliest months of life? "Six months should just about do it."
Infancy is the time of overwhelming need and helplessness. But if new parents are segregated from the rest of us, then employers may go on dealing with caretaking as an extraordinary "problem" in the life of an otherwise "normal" worker. They may go on thinking of most workers as carefree. And it just isn't so.
My lunchmates with their wistful musing about belated maternity leave give testimony to that. Mothers and fathers alike can list their longings for an extra piece of time to spend on their children whether those children are 15 days or 15 years old.
So can adults involved in caring for their own mothers and fathers. At the Travelers Corp. in Hartford, one-quarter of their workers spend an average of 10.2 hours a week caring for elderly relatives. Caretaking is not an exception, not a temporary blip. As long as birth and death and illness are part of life, it is a norm.
In fairness, many of the plans and programs and studies of family policy go beyond the most intense focus on infant-care leave. Pat Schroeder's bill in Congress would extend parental leave to include those who must take care of a seriously ill child. The high- powered Family Policy Panel, with its mix of academics, business leaders and planners, called this month for part- time work and flexible hours as well as parental leave. But there is a risk that we will deal with the conflicts between work and family in segments rather than a whole, a whole life.
At the moment only 40 percent of the working mothers in this country get even six weeks of post-partum leave with any income or job guarantee. Still fewer parents have the option to take a longer unpaid leae and return to their jobs.
Do the parents of newborns come first in terms of public policy? Absolutely. But I must pass on the message from my lunch companions. Maternity leave, like infancy itself, is just the beginning.