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Cradle Versus Career

MEREDITH VIEIRA, a former correspondent for "60 Minutes" in New York, has never met Diane McCourtney, a former account clerk for a computer company in Minnetonka, Minn. But if the two women were to get together with their young sons, they could find common ground in a shared experience: Both lost their jobs because they are mothers. Ms. Vieira's dismissal came when she told the executive producer, Don Hewitt, that she is pregnant with her second child. She also asked for part-time work - a pattern she has followed for the past two seasons to allow time with her son. Mr. Hewitt refused, explaining that the program needs a full-time reporter. He dropped her from the show, although she remains under contract at CBS.

Ms. McCourtney's firing resulted from her frequent absences early last year when her baby had a series of illnesses. Although she had been a reliable worker for the firm for 11 years before her son's birth, the state claimed she was not entitled to unemployment benefits because she violated the company's attendance standards. McCourtney took her case to court.

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Two weeks ago an appeals court in Minnesota ruled that she was entitled to unemployment benefits because her absences were due to "circumstances beyond her control." The court added: "McCourtney's actions were motivated by a willful regard for her child's interests and not a wanton disregard of her employer's interest or lack of concern for her job."

Bosses versus babies. Careers versus children. What's a conscientious worker, a conscientious parent to do?

Exactly two years ago, an article in the Harvard Business Review set off an angry debate across the country by suggesting that there should be two career paths for women. One would be the proverbial fast track, a workplace superhighway giving women opportunities for advancement. The other would be the "mommy track," a corporate country lane filled with detours and potholes, reserved for women with family responsibilities. The author of the article, Felice Schwartz, was routinely castigated on talk shows , in op-ed columns, and around water coolers. Angry women wondered: Why isn't there a "daddy track" as well?

Today "mommy track" has a dated ring - yesterday's catch phrase, yesterday's issue. But as experiences like Vieira's and McCourtney's show, not all jobs, not all employers will accommodate the needs of workers with children. These two cases also raise an unsettling question: Could Schwartz have had a more valid point than her critics granted at the time?

Since Schwartz's article first appeared, Congress has passed a child-care bill - one step forward for working families. But President Bush has also vetoed a parental leave bill - one step back. That bill has been reintroduced in Congress, although it is shadowed by the threat of another presidential veto.

Had this kind of law been in effect during McCourtney's period of repeated absences, she could have taken up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave to care for her baby. In the long run, the firm could have kept a valued employee. A study released last week by the Small Business Administration shows that giving unpaid family leave may be less costly for employers than losing employees and hiring replacements.

Still, legislation, corporate policies, and expanded child-care options cannot solve all problems working parents face. Vieira, for instance, simply wanted more time with her children - a request CBS executives deemed incompatible with her demanding, high-profile job. And even if McCourtney, whose husband and relatives were unable to help, had been successful in her search for emergency child care, how many days can a parent leave a sick baby with strangers? As McCourtney herself has said, "When they're crying and miserable, that's when they most need someone who loves them."

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Perhaps someday, whence comes the domestic revolution, that "someone" who stays home will increasingly be a father. For now, the most visible full-time father remains the comic-strip anti-hero Adam. As a couch potato and unrepentant slob, he is hardly a role model to inspire men to spring for a tour of duty on the daddy track.

Family needs do not disappear in the face of arguments over job responsibilities. Whether it's father or mother, someone had better show "a willful regard for [a] child's interests," as the Minnesota court so neatly put it.

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