Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Sarah Palin’s Kids, Our Kids


On the third night of the Republican National Convention, Sarah Palin finally spoke up. The next morning I woke up to a front-page article in The Boston Globe, announcing that Sarah Palin has reignited the mommy wars.

No kidding. Birth plans, breastfeeding, working moms, teenagers and sex: it's like the national conversation has become one big mommy kaffeklatsch. Or one big mommy driveby, as women across the country wonder how Palin does it--when they're not condemning her for doing it.

"How," asks one of my friends, a mother of three who is out of the house by 6:45 every morning to get to her full-time job, "is a woman with five kids, including a baby with Down syndrome and a pregnant teenager, going to find time to be vice president?"

"Why," asks another, "did she get on that plane and fly home to Alaska once her water broke in Texas? Didn't she know she was putting her baby in danger?"

Those are the gentle ones. Palin has been attacked on everything from her hair clips and how awkwardly she holds her baby, to who actually gave birth to her fifth child and whether she's exploiting her teenage daughter's pregnancy for political gain.

This time around, though, everything is all mixed up. A right-wing Christian fundamentalist from Alaska is being hailed as the rightful heir to a liberal Senator from New York. We've got conservative Republicans defending working moms, and feminist commentators worrying that Palin is setting standards that are too high for other women.

And then Palin took the stage.

In a speech clearly written by an experienced speechwriter, she began, predictably, by introducing her family. A mom move? Sure, but these days, what politician doesn't talk family? Biden did it; Obama did it; McCain did it the night after Palin did it. Whether we like it or not, spouses and kids have become a political staple, regardless of gender.

Really, though, what Palin's speech revealed was not the mom, but the politician.

Lighting into Barack Obama with a smug sarcasm that made my skin crawl, aggressively separating out her version of the good Americans from the bad, repeating John McCain's name so many times you wondered if she thought we were stupid, and claiming victory in a war that I can't imagine how anyone will win (remind you of any other Iraq victory statements?), Palin showed herself as what she is: a bedrock-conservative culture warrior hellbent on bringing back a low-tax, small-town, gun-owning, bootstraps-pulling Christian America that never really was, not even in Alaska.

So what does this have to do with mothers? Everything.

I feel deeply uncomfortable with--and have frequently been horrified by--the criticism of Sarah Palin as a mother. I may not agree with Palin's choices about how to raise her kids, but they're her kids. So long as they're not abused or neglected, her kids are her business, and it's her right to raise them as she chooses (just as it will be their right to rebel against her, if they choose).

But when it comes to my kids, it's a different story. As a mother, Palin shapes the lives of her children, but as a politician, she could shape the lives of all our children, and, so far, I'm not liking the shape I see.

I want my daughters to be able to read whatever they want, marry whomever they want, and make their own choices if they face unplanned pregnancies. I want them to benefit from stem cell research, and live on a planet that is recovering from global warming, not still denying it. I don't want them to fight wars on behalf of God, and I'm fine with them paying taxes--after all, for those of us who don't have oil company payments, taxes are pretty essential. And, you know, I'd prefer that my children live in a country where people accept and appreciate regional, cultural, and religious differences, rather than exploiting them for political gain.

None of us really knows what happens in other people's families. Maybe Bristol Palin cares more about her mother being elected vice president than her own privacy. Perhaps Sarah and Todd Palin have negotiated an effective arrangement for sharing childcare. Or maybe not. We don't know.

But we do know what happens in our country, and that's what really matters right now. Moms should be talking about Palin, with each other, and with everyone else. But for the sake of our children, let's focus on policies, not parenting.

Rebecca Steinitz has written for The New Republic, The Utne Reader, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Hip Mama, Inside Higher Ed, Publisher’s Weekly, BookPage, and The Women’s Review of Books, among other places. She is a contributor to the anthologies It’s a Girl and Mama PhD and her book Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. In her previous life as an English professor, she taught nineteenth-century British literature, feminist theory, and writing. She now works as a writing coach in the Boston Public Schools. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters.

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Amen. As feverently as I am against most, if not all, of the things in which she does and believes, I am putting that aside. The discussion and dissection of the details of her life are clouding the issues, and our country is drowning in issues. I don't want to know how she gets the dishes done (or who in her home does the dishes); I want to know what she and her boss think will support healthcare, the economy and the environment.
Excellent commentary. I want to know why we're not talking more about her alleged attempts to rid her local library of "undesirable" books; why we're not talking more about Bristol as an obvious example of the failures of abstinence-only sex education - we'd have to assume that this was the parents' approach to their daughter's sexual education, do we not? And why are we not talking more about the anti-Semitic rants of her minister just as we rightly spoke about the espoused values of Obama's chosen church? Good work!
This was a great article. How well you captured my sentiments better than I could ever have articulated them. I am forwarding this to several friends. -Carla
I think she's a big smokescreen from the very thing you describe: the issues. I'm calling this election for what it is--"The Truman Show" come alive. Thanks for a great column.
YES! YES! Brilliant. Beautiful. This has been my rant, my mantra for the past week! Thank you for putting pen to paper and making other mothers' voices heard! <3, Riley Bean's Obama Mama
Wonderfully-written, insightful, inspiring. When you talked about how her ideas could shape the future for our children, it brought a lump to my throat--because I care about the future for all of our children. Why can't we hear more of this kind of inspiring writing in political speeches?
It is my understanding that Ms. Palin has a supportive extended family, with sisters who have picked up the slack when Palin was working. A good friend of mine adores Palin, and she confided in me years ago that the sisters frequently questioned Sarah's priorities. Still, they did what supportive families do and stepped up to help. I don't recall ever hearing Sarah acknowledge that or express her gratitude. Todd Palin worked a North Slope job much of the time, so he wasn't around to fix dinner and oversee nightly homework. That's a two-week on, two-week off schedule. Some people even live in AZ and do that kind of job. We have friends who do it, and we know they are truly absent during the two weeks on schedule. Bristol Palin has not lived with her parents in Juneau over the last year. She has instead lived with one of her Aunts, Sarah's sister, and attended high school in Wasilla and Anchorage. No doubt, Sarah has flown from Juneau to southcentral AK frequently, but the relationship has been challenged by physical distance. My son attended the same Anchorage high school, and he and his friends knew about the pregnancy some time ago. It came as no surprise to us. The hockey dad of the baby has a reputation as sexually experienced, though that is probably more stereotype than anything. We know how high school males can brag. I appreciated this sensitive article. As much as I want to move past the kids to foreign policy, I also recognize how much this mythology can impact family policies. I care about my country because I care about my kids. The two are inseparable, and my allegiance, I admit, is at home. Still, we are all part of an interconnected web, so I want my children to live in a community that respects others and wants to promote the well-being of neighbor also.
This would be nice; however, it is Palin, and moreover, the shrewd and cynical packagers in her party, who have made politics of parenting. In her social and educational stances, her views on gun control and lack of environmental stewardship, attacks on freedom of speech, and finally in her own showmanship of her family for political gain. This is not a case of a candidate whose politics allow for privacy in parenting choices, or many other of the freedoms we take for granted.
Dear Rebecca, Thanks for your wonderful and eloquent message. Your mother forwarded it to me and I am happy for that. Keep up th good work! Jody
I frankly want to know how she "does it all," because her policy is to make childcare the responsibility of individual families, without state supports. What exactly will she advocate as a special-needs mom? So far, she has refused to answer this question, so I'm guessing that the answer is "none." What services, if any, does she rely on now? Who exactly is taking care of her special-needs child and other kids, and who is paying for it? All of these questions were asked about Zoe Baird; I'm amazed that a politician who doesn't support the right to privacy is getting such an easy ride from the press. We all need a village, and we don't all have sisters who can take up the slack.
Well done. The thing is, and I think Rebecca made this point very well, I would _like_ to make politics of parenting--but not the fake politics that are being trotted around right now (along with pregnant daughters and infant sons). Gun control, environmental stewardship, and freedom of speech, among other things, all affect my job as a parent, the decisions I make as a parent, my opportunities as a parent-- and what I want my child to have, learn, and do. How can we work to shift the conversation back to the _real_ politics of parenting?
My only comment is that I disagree that it's across the board "hands off" on the topic of Palin's family or management of it. Palin's decisions and attempts to "do it all" look like a disaster, and it has only begun, if elected, as she attempts to serve as a VP and care for her special needs child. These decisions illustrate a very flawed judegement in my estimation. She has a judgement so flawed that I do not think her capable of filling the post of VP. That IS my business as a taxpayer and citizen.
Thanks for this thoughtful article - I completely agree with you.
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