NEARLY 48 percent of mothers of infants under 2 years of age are in the work force in the United States. But unlike 75 other countries, including Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and West Germany, the US has no statutory maternity leave policy, guaranteeing job security and some income while a parent stays home to care for a newborn baby.
Maternal leave, or parental leave, remains a controversial subject, opposed by those who believe either that mothers of young children should not work or that women should receive no separate employment benefits. But the case for some form of infant care leave becomes persuasive in light of continuing debate about the effects of day care on very young children.
The Congressional Women's Caucus is expected to propose legislation to provide for parental leave next spring. Earlier this month the Yale Bush Center Advisory Committee on Infant Care Leave, funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Bush Foundation of St. Paul, Minn., met for the first time to study current practices - how American mothers make do, what other countries are underwriting - and to evaluate the need for a national policy on infant care leave.
''We're not so naive as to think that we're going to meet two or three times, do an analysis, and change the face of our society,'' says Edward Zigler, director of the Yale Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy.
But the panel members already agree on one point: The problem of infant care has become too urgent to neglect, because of effects both on parents and children.
''Mothers are hurting all over this country, and they're hurting a lot about having to give up their babies too soon and having to go back to work,'' says T. Berry Brazelton, a pediatrician and author of numerous books on child care. Even if, after the usual six weeks of maternity leave, a mother can find - and afford - scarce and expensive infant care, Dr. Zigler warns of risks to the child: ''New analysis indicates that there may well be some negative impact of out-of-home care on infants. Children who come from very stressed homes seem to be more vulnerable to negative effects than children who come from very stable homes. And the negative impact of out-of-home care for infants may be more deleterious for boys than for girls.''
Urie Bronfenbrenner, a panel member from Cornell University, sums up the problem from both a parent's and a child's point of view: ''Families are strong things. You don't kill them easily. But one of the things that gets through and discombobulates even good families is stress in the workplace when both parents are working. If there's stress in the family, the most vulnerable members of the family are the most affected. And the most vulnerable members are the smallest children.''
The committee is more certain of the problem than the solutions.
''Families are different, and what works for one family may work differently for another,'' says Dr. Bronfenbrenner. ''Families are wise. If they have the options to choose from, they are more likely to pick what works for them than some bureaucrat can.''
Nobody believes it's possible to effect solutions merely by legislative fiat, though a number of the dozen panel members believe the law outlined by the Congressional Women's Caucus would be a forward step.
''It's not a thorough cure,'' says Wendy Williams, an associate professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center and member of the panel. ''There's no pay behind it at this point, but at least it would give entitlement to parents of either sex to take time off for a newly born or newly adopted child.''
For the moment, the committee is satisfied to emphasize the magnitude of the problem and the modesty of the committee's goal - in Dr. Zigler's words, ''to elevate the level of the dialogue about the nature of children and families in the US today - what some possible solutions to the problems of families might be.''
A national policy may or may not prove to be the best solution - or even a feasible possibility, given the lack of philosophical consensus. Certainly the private sector, meaning employers, must develop new personnel policies to help their employees - male and female - cope with the dual demands of jobs and families.
In the meantime, the Yale Bush Center Advisory Committee is giving the issue the moral dimension it deserves. As Dr. Brazelton eloquently says, ''A new baby presents an opportunity for cementing ties within the family. In the face of a very serious breakdown in the family situation in the United States - more serious than in any other part of the world that I know of - it's time we began to think about opportunities for cementing families and cementing ties. A new baby gives us a chance to do that. But if we don't take it seriously, we're losing that kind of opportunity.''
Marilyn Gardner is the Monitor's Home & Family editor.