You have to feel a spark of sympathy for British first lady Cherie Blair. Never having sought the spotlight herself, she was in it anyway, as the wife of the prime minister — although she managed to avoid the worst of the glare by focusing on her legal career and her three children. But the wattage was turned up with last fall’s announcement of her surprise fourth pregnancy at the age of 45. (The Blairs’ youngest child is 12; to her and her teenage brothers, their parents doubtless seem far too old for such goings-on. Prime Minister Tony Blair himself admitted being “shell-shocked” at the news of the pregnancy.) When the child is born in May, if all goes well, the spotlight will be blinding. It is hard to imagine anyone — especially such a doggedly private and sensible person as Mrs. Blair seems to be — enjoying such publicity at such a personal time.
You have to hand it to her, though. Not only has she borne the attention — both the gush and the cynicism — with aplomb, she is now using it to advance one of her favorite social causes: parental childbirth leave. Specifically, she is reported to have urged Mr. Blair to set an example for British fathers and take at least some of the paternity leave to which, as of three months ago, Britons are legally entitled. (The letter of the new law does not extend to elected officials, but its spirit surely does.) As a lawyer, Mrs. Blair was at the forefront of the push to expand leave rights for both parents; as a mother-to-be, she clearly sees that she and her husband are in an unrivaled position to show people the need to take advantage of them.
Especially men. It is one thing to have a legal right, but it is quite another thing to act on it. In Britain, new fathers can now take up to 13 weeks unpaid leave any time until the child turns 5, and keep their jobs or the equivalent. Here in Japan, both men and women are entitled to up to a year’s unpaid parental leave under a law enacted in 1991. Yet in both countries, as elsewhere, paternity leave is very far from being a social norm. The Finnish prime minister took a week off after his wife gave birth earlier this month, as Mrs. Blair has been quick to point out. But that’s Scandinavia, always going out on a societal limb. Even the famously enlightened Mr. Blair appeared disconcerted by his wife’s public plea last week to take some time off in May. “I honestly don’t know what to do,” he told the BBC.
If such a step seems cutting-edge in Britain, it is doubly so in Japan, where it would take a brave man indeed to exercise his right to paternity leave. The betting is that Mr. Blair will do the right thing and stay home for a while with his new baby: Neither his wife nor his country will think much of him if he doesn’t, now that the gauntlet has been thrown down. But the betting is equally good that most men — above all, most Japanese men — will have sympathized with Mr. Blair’s reflexive twinge of discomfort at the prospect of actually doing something he had previously thought was a good idea for other chaps. Why do I really need to be home? men think. What will I do anyway? And how will the office get on without me? That last thought certainly seems to have occurred to Mr. Blair, who waffled to an interviewer that of course he would like to take leave, “but I have got to make sure the country is properly run, too, so, anyway .. . .”
This is a red herring, of course. It’s not as if the country wasn’t being properly run when Mr. Blair was on vacation last summer (and participating in the baby’s conception) or when he has been ill or on an official trip somewhere. It’s not as if Mrs. Blair is not taking time off from her own pressing duties as a judge to actually have the baby. It is a truth universally acknowledged by everyone but the individual concerned that no one is indispensable at the office, even prime ministers. But that is precisely why Mr. Blair’s enforced holiday will be so influential; if a social mind-set is going to be changed — and we are talking about nothing less — the process will be greatly helped if public figures lead the way.
As for the question of whether men really need to be home at such an important time in their lives, it merely shows how far they have to go if they are still asking it. Two people conceive a child; two people, ideally, raise it. Where child raising is concerned, there is no such thing as “women’s turf.” And there is no better time for a father to start getting to know his child than the minute it is born.
By all accounts, Mr. Blair has always been an exemplary husband and father. Let us hope that in setting this further example, his influence will be felt even as far away as tradition-bound Japan.
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