Thursday, September 4, 2008

Judging Sarah, Judging Moms

Since very soon after the news broke that McCain had chosen Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, we got bits and bobs of information about her in relation to how she juggled work and family. I've tried not to be judgmental in my responses -- but I have no doubt that my thoughts are informed by my own work-life challenges.

When I heard she had an infant with Down syndrome, I thought "it would be difficult to have a job as responsible as hers and actually much time left to do the day-to-day grunt work associated with an infant, especially a special needs child."

Then I saw a comment -- apparently intended to be positive-- to the effect that, "she doesn't spend much time at the office/with the legislature." The implication seemed to be that she was therefore "above politics." My analysis was, "of course she doesn't spend a lot of time at the office. She's a woman with five kids. Every mother with a job in which she has sufficient control to her time to be out of the office takes it. One's paid work can often be done while the kids are at school or after they're asleep. It's not necessarily a reflection on her attitude toward her role as governor or politics or the legislature."

One of the first stories about Palin after her selection closed with the line, "Three days after giving birth, Ms. Palin was back at work." Well, I thought, she is governor after all. With a job featuring so much flexibility, that's not a big deal. I was "back at work" answering email within three days of giving birth.

Next, in a story about the Palins' finances, a journalist noted that Mr. Palin hasn't worked as much on Alaska's north slope since his wife became governor. "He's been in charge of child care," the story said. Quite appropriate, I thought. There's a lot to do with so many kids. I'm glad to know he's adapted his work life to support hers.

Now, in the wake of Monday's disclosure that Palin's 17-year-old daughter is pregnant, the mother judges are out in full force. A story in the NYT a few days ago featured a number of telling quotes -- quotes that suggest mothers are "damned if they do, damned if they don't" with regard to how they juggle work and family. The story was headlined, "In Palin, a New Twist in the Debate on Mothers," and it was co-authored by two of my favorite NYT journalists, Jodi Kantor and Rachel Swarns. (If I recall correctly, the former recently gave birth to twins). Here is an excerpt:

It’s the Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition. But this time the battle lines are drawn inside out, with social conservatives, usually staunch advocates for stay-at-home motherhood, mostly defending her, while some others, including plenty of working mothers, worry that she is taking on too much.

You really must read Kantor and Swarns' entire story. There's this incredibly unhelpful quote from Jane Swift, former acting governor of Massachusetts who gave birth to twins when in that office: “I know now that it was virtually impossible for me to take advice and make decisions when I was responding emotionally as a mother, not thinking rationally as a public official.” Plus there's a zinger from Phyllis Schlafly, who helped defeat the E.R.A. amendment back in the 1970s, implying that mothers of just one or two kids are being too judgmental of Palin because they can't imagine a brood of 5.

Perhaps how Palin fares, as candidate and/or ultimately as vice president, might have some impact on attitudes toward moms who work outside the home. But I really wish for now we could get back to the issues and away from the focus on "Palin as Mom." More on the issues (and the media handling of Palin) in my next post . . .

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