Saturday, September 6, 2008

Palin's nom reignites Mommy Wars

Sarah Palin's sudden ascension to the Republican Party ticket this week didn't just send political figures into a lather, soccer moms raced to the Internet to render judgment.

Online discussion boards have been roiling since John McCain announced his running mate for the White House was Alaska's governor, a self-described hockey mom with five children, including a special needs baby and pregnant teenager.

"From the inside," Palin told the cheering crowds at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday evening, "no family ever seems typical and that's how it is with us. We have the same ups and downs as any other, the same challenges and joys."

But in the political context, Palin's family is unlike anything anyone has seen before and working mothers and stay-at-home moms are squirming at what, for many, are very conflicted emotions, as if the so-called Mommy Wars had somehow turned upside down.

Some stay-at-home moms find themselves rooting her on. Some working mothers, cognizant of the compromises they've made in their own lives, find themselves saying Palin shouldn't bite off more than she can chew. And many preface their remarks with variations on, "I never thought I'd say this but "..."

Barrie Thorne, a UC Berkeley sociologist and women's studies specialist, found herself second guessing long-held beliefs and questioning, uncomfortably, "Don't you owe it to the (special needs) child, not to mention your other Advertisementfour?"

Locally, several stay-at-home mothers contacted for this story were reluctant to comment. But a Colorado blogger echoed other women's voices heard on radio and TV coverage from the convention this week when she made this posting this on her A Crocus & A Chrysanthemum page on

"I know what many of you are thinking ... 'She should be home with her children, especially this new special needs baby!' I, too, had some of those same thoughts. After all, I am a very committed, stay-at-home-mom who home-schools. Shouldn't everyone? Isn't that what's best? I would say yes the majority of time. But every now and then there is an exception to rule. I have searched my heart and prayed for guidance, and I firmly believe that Sarah Palin is the exception."

It all taps into deeply held beliefs about motherhood and caretaking. No wonder, the response has been so visceral, said Thorne, who found herself thinking this week about the illusion that you can do it all and the reality that maybe you can't.

"I'm going to be honest," said Kim Tarantino, an East Bay native and communications director for Gap Inc. and Old Navy. "My first inclination as a woman and a mother was, you go, girl, right on. I don't support you and your party, but you go. But in reality, because I'm a mom, this is a little bit of a different case. You really could end up being a president. We're talking about having someone run the world. Five kids. Some need more help than others. Washington, D.C., is different from Alaska. Sister, what are you doing?"

Others fret about family decisions Palin has already made.

"This nomination evoked a reaction that surprised me," read one posting on MommyTrack'd, a popular Mill Valley-based Web site for working mothers. "This woman went back to work two days after her baby was born. She is the kind of working mom that keeps the U.S. in the same category as Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Lesotho."

Palin is "an easy target," says Neil Gilbert, a UC Berkeley social welfare professor and author of "A Mother's Work: How Feminism, the Market and Policy Shape Family Life."

"The latte crowd at Starbucks can sit around and shred her up," he said. "But some of the things that have been said, if it was a man would never happen. You'd think some of the hard-core feminists would come out and say, 'Give me a break.'"

It's a question also being asked by Meredith O'Brien, a Mommy Track'd columnist and former journalism adjunct faculty member at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. No one asks those questions of male candidates, but females are all fair game. Elizabeth Edwards was slammed for taking her children on the campaign trail, notes O'Brien, and then, in "circular firing squad" style, Michelle Obama caught heat for taking a break from her high profile career to help her husband's campaign.

"It's jarring to see that mindset still exists," said O'Brien.

Amy Keroes, the founder of Mommy Track'd, agrees. The Mill Valley mom watched Palin's speech late Wednesday on TiVo — it was back to school night at her daughters' school. Palin "ain't no Hillary Clinton," she said, adding that even a loyal Democrat can't help but be fascinated by the emergence of a powerful, articulate woman on the Republican stage.

"I think we should be talking about her lack of preparedness and her extremely conservative social agenda — not whether she is the right kind of mother," said Keroes. "Whether or not she can handle being a vice president and mother of five is simply not a call for us to make for her. There is no one-size-fits-all way to juggle work and home."

But the Palin debate — the personal one, not the political discussion — may have struck so deeply and in such unexpected quarters, said Berkeley's Thorne, because it symbolizes a societal issue. Society places the primary child care burden on mothers, said Thorne, but economics forces the majority of mothers into the workplace, and there are too few social care systems in place to support that. The result is a nation of exhausted and overextended women, operating without a net.

"We've told people they're on their own. People simply can't do that," said Thorne. "There's an incredible amount of exhaustion and anger."

And underneath it all, says Thorne, there's this nagging worry that after this, every woman will be expected to juggle challenges of epic proportions, when they're struggling just to survive.

"I can see that," said O'Brien. "I can see people looking at her and going, 'My god, are people going to expect me to do that?'"

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