The Last Page
The Last Page
To be or not to be? That was Tony Blair’s question this past spring when the British prime minister debated whether or not to take paternity leave after the birth of his fourth child, Leo. The fascinating thing about this question was the number of column inches it inspired in the Western press. One wonders how much the spin managers may have anticipated this and engineered mainly friendly attention for him at a time when his domestic popularity is under threat. Loss of industrial jobs, problems in transport policies, the troubles in the National Health Service and our beleaguered schools, Northern Irish anxieties, and the increasingly daft saga of the Dome exhibition—all were delightfully eclipsed by the quasi-royal treatment of the Blair baby’s arrival.
Suspicions about news management are hard to sort out from other thoughts about these events. There is no doubt that such a high profile preoccupation with paternity leave is a step toward its becoming a more frequent reality. Recent improvements in the legal framework, though inadequate compared to more generous standards of paternity and maternity leave in continental Europe, have nonetheless been a move in the right direction. This generation of parents is in a different mood from previous ones. Most women work outside the home for most of their lives. The expectation that men may want to be at home more now links with the greater similarity of life trajectory between men and women. Companionate partnership and men’s greater involvement in the upbringing of their children are related phenomena.
What of the disjunction between Blair’s position before Leo’s arrival—“This is not the sort of job one can take leave from”—and his subsequent decision to stand aside from public duties for a couple of weeks? Is this more spin, in which superman is repackaged to show a suitably tender concern for wife and baby? Certainly the carefully chosen photographs of Leo and his parents suggest this. But maybe that is over-cynical, and what we are witnessing is the emotional impact of birth being felt and acknowledged in a way that Blair had not expected. Because Mrs. Blair was widely known to want him to take time off, for once the values of family intimacy may have displaced those of the public world. It is striking to note that in the same week a woman Member of Parliament with small children attacked the House of Commons, when announcing her resignation, for being effectively an Old Boys’ Club, where the realities of women’s lives are excluded from consideration. She pointed out that there is a shooting gallery in the House, but no day care center.
The feminist aspect of all this has a sharp edge. It has been widely noted that unpaid parental leave means little for the poorer sections of the population. Mrs. Blair could go on working (she is a successful lawyer) until the week of the birth and plan a return to work in the knowledge that there is plenty of money ...
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