Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Sarah Myth


I never voted for Sarah Palin. Politically, we don't get along. She wants drilling where I'd like to leave tundra. She doesn't want kids to hear about condoms, I don't mind them having accurate information about their own health. She wants one big cathedral ceiling covering schools and churches, while I prefer Christianity to stay in its log cabin, smoke peacefully rising from the stack, reminding me I can warm myself if and when I want to.

But I did like her. I've never liked any politician so unlike myself so much. Many of my liberal pro-choice mom friends liked her too. She was an Alaskan after all--a mom like me, bundling babies in snowsuits and dragging them around in sleds. She nursed and governed. She seemed real, someone who, despite our differences, I could talk to. Like everyone else in this giant, small state, I was on a first name basis with her. "Sarah," I'd say if I ever ran into her at the airport, "Hello."

Then McCain flew her to Ohio. When she read off the teleprompter, "It was rightly noted in Denver this week that Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But it turns out the women of America aren't finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all," I decided I was finished with Sarah. That she could, with a straight face co-opt the words of a woman she considered "whiny" shocked me. Suddenly, Sarah wasn't as real as she seemed the past twenty months. She wasn't the Sarah I thought I knew. With her speech accepting McCain's offer, she re-mythologized herself.

Alaskans know about myth, how it works. If we drive Outside with Alaska plates, people roll down their windows at red lights to talk to us. Alaska has mystique. It's big. It's dark. It's cold. It's tough. It's the Last Frontier. Our state even brands itself to tourists as the place to go "before you die." Myth is the reason white-haired tourists flock here each summer, and McCain would fit right in on the Princess Tours bus. Conveniently, for the McCain campaign, Alaska is also too far away for most people to know anything about it.

For Outsiders, our self-proclaimed Hockey Mom is exotic. When she chose to take on mother with a capital M, Sarah stopped being human for me. The symbolism eclipsed her humanity. Sarah. Hockey Mom. The Mother. The Alaskan Mother.

Looking back I realize that she's always traded in myth. I just never paid attention. I was so busy liking her. Without me noticing, she traded on her religion to get elected mayor. She emphasized her outsider status to get elected governor (which was easy as a large contingent of the Republican Party in Alaska is under indictment, awaiting sentencing, or in prison).

Now, she's added motherhood to the myths she's willing to play. She's the handbag and red lipstick the McCain campaign slapped on in their cynical attempt at drag. At first I felt sorry for her. It must be frustrating to be toted around on the right's ideological elbow. It must be painful to be rifled through and x-rayed all over the news.

But I reminded myself, while choice may not be the hallmark of the right, individual responsibility is. Sarah chose to read from the teleprompter. She chose to participate, to step up on stage, to become a cardboard cut out for Mother, Family, Life. She chose to step into that spotlight.

Her children didn't. According to Fox news's celebratory play-by-play of the secret flight from Alaska to Ohio, none of the Palin children knew what was going on. Only after they arrived at a hotel on Thursday night, "Palin's children, who had been told they were going to Ohio to celebrate their parents' wedding anniversary, also on Friday, were told for the first time that their mother would be a nominee for the vice presidency."

Again, I try to be sympathetic. She was just trying to do the best she could in a high-stakes situation. Perhaps her children would have texted someone and spilled McCain's secret beans. It seems surprises are a family tradition. For whatever reason, Sarah chose to keep it a secret from her kids.

But I think of Bristol, her daughter, up on the platform next to her mother, and I know some of those 18 million shards falling from the glass are going to hit her. In the glare of the spotlight, her pregnancy is a symbol too. Bristol's privacy wasn't sacrificed by liberal bloggers. Her mother, who aimed the spotlight squarely in her daughter's eyes, sacrificed it.

Sarah chose. Bristol didn't.

I don't like Sarah Palin anymore. Sarah's willingness to brand our state and herself in service to McCain is disturbing enough. That she's willing to do it at the expense of her family's privacy and then simultaneously decry the invasion of her family's privacy is a testament to her poor judgment.

To this Alaskan mom, Sarah's not a person anymore. She's a hammer in the wrong hands pounding on the right ceiling. She's a stiletto heel on a 72-year-old man's foot. She's the "Alaska Girls Kick Ass" bumper sticker slapped on the GOP's Hummer. I'm going to have to let go of calling her Sarah. She's Ms. Palin to me now.

Nicole Stellon O’Donnell is a poet and essayist who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of Steam Laundry, a novel-in-poems that tells the story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, who in 1903 decided to start her life over in Fairbanks (Boreal Books, 2012). Steam Laundry was written with the support of an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. Her poetry has appeared in various literary magazines, including Ice Floe, The Women’s Review of Books, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Prairie Schooner. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Anchorage Daily News and as commentaries for the Alaska Public Radio Network. Her website is

More from

Excellent essay -- and I agree!!!
I wish every Mom in America could read this essay!
Beautifully written, and I couldn't agree more. Thanks for speaking out at a time when it seems "UnAlaskan" to not be jogging alongside the Palin bandwagon.
I'm not a mama, but I am a lifelong Alaskan, and I couldn't agree more.
Thank you for putting my feelings so eloquently into words. I am sending the link to all my friends. Have a great semester at Lathrop and give everyone my best. I think of you often and with fondness, Christine
Oh Nicole! You wrote the words I have been trying to formulate in my head for days now! I couldn’t agree more with you… That was simply phenomenal! Thank you… Thank you for being you, a mom, an Alaskan, an educator, and an outspoken woman who can tell us her viewpoint so beautifully.
These are the words so many moms are thinking, but afraid to say for fear of being judged. I am all for women being in powerful jobs, not just the second most powerful job in the world. No human being can commit to the pressures of the job AND mothering 5 children and a grandchild on the way. One has to sacrifice, and I am not willing to have it be MY family. If she is up at 3:00 am, it needs to be because she is taking care of our country, not a baby.
I feel like you've been chanelling my thoughts in this wonderfully-written piece. To me, a mother who "uses" her status as a mother to buy votes is not a real mother at all--she's just another politician. And I can't help but wonder, how does she find time to spend with that adorable baby of hers?
Excellent article. As a strong feminist from the 70's (decade not my age yet), I have struggled with the conflicting feelings I have about a mother with young children potentially being President. I just can't jump on board. If she is as brilliant, clever, experienced and charismatic as the Republicans are making her out to be, she has plenty of time to have all of her political dreams come true. Sometimes we just have to assess the family's needs and make some tough decisions. In this case, with a 17 year old pregnant daughter and a 4 month old baby with special needs, the family is clearly in crisis. We fought in the 70s to create a world where families would be honored and valued, where both women and men could slow down following the birth of a child. It is still outrageous to me that we do not have longer family leave in this country. We never wanted to create a world where it would be acceptable to drop a baby one day and keep on truckin'. That type of behavior honors no one.
Wonderful. Thank you for this informative essay. I am sending it to everyone I know.
I certainly respect your opinion until it turns into a judgment. I believe each mother can speak for herself about how she mothers and no mother can speak for another. I, like you, would not choose to give up a great deal of my time to a political career at the expense of MY time with kids and friends. But I will not judge any mother for her choices with respect to how to manage family and career. Presumably, Gov Palin's husband or other family members or people hired to do the job or some combination thereof are able to do the childcare. How much time do you think Barack Obama is spending with his very young daughters right now? And how much less time if he is elected President of the US? For that matter, Michelle Obama's time is and will be compromised as well - spouse of the candidate or First Lady being no small task. I know that in the case of the Obamas, they are comforted that Michelle's mother will be doing a great deal of childcare. I don't see why that's ok and Palin's arrangements are not. Joe Biden ran for the US Senate when his kids were still in the hospital after a tragic accident in which their mother and sister were killed. Is that ok? Or should people who want to be in politics not have children at all? Mostly I'm saying that I do see a double standard here with respect to women, men and parenting. And I also see judgment of a woman's childbearing and childrearing choices. I just don't think that works for women overall.
From the Foreign Press: A column in London's Daily Telegraph says, "Like Margaret Thatcher before her, Mrs. Palin is coming in for both barrels of left-wing contempt: misogyny and snobbery." A column in the Sydney Morning Herald says that what Palin has faced "just goes to show that establishment feminists are only champions of women who subscribe to a narrow set of left-wing positions." An editorial in The Australian newspaper took aim at the reporting of Bristol Palin's pregnancy, saying, "Newspapers forgot their progressive embrace of different lifestyles and resorted to reactionary intolerance." Of course she will be scripted for awhile. Hillary was scripted for her entire run as President and I did not see these kinds of comments. Obama is scripted and when he is not, there are a lot of "um" "um" "um" in his talk. I am still withholding judgement on Sarah Palin but so far, because I am not a one issue voter (abortion on the left is most womens' one issue), I will give her more time to find her groove.
Thanks, Nicole, for being so articulate about what so many of us want to say. I'm sending this off to my new and old friends. If only everyone could get the message.
Most excellent! Well written & so true. Thanks Nicole - you've done all Alaska women proud!
She sacrificed her daughter's right to privacy, and her special needs babies special needs for her own political ambition. What else is there to say, man or woman? This is judgment? If she were extraordinarily qualified it might be considered a justified sacrifice at this point of our nation's history. But she isn't. And it isn't.
I live in France and my views from outside America is that McCain seems to have scoured every ''State'' in America to come up with another ''hard'' woman with which to go to chase the dream of getting into the Whitehouse To an outsider - Sarah Palin may seem as hard as Hillary but wait until she has to go ''head-to-head'' with Hillary Ms. Clinton will make paté with Ms. Palin! Christina Pippard
Well said. You write beautifully. Thank you. Now how can we open the eyes of those that think she's "a breath of fresh air" as one non Alaskan republican put it?
So poetically stated. Thank you for sharing an Alaskan woman/mom's perspective. It makes the rest of us women/moms who have a gut check about Ms. Palin feel like they aren't crazy.
How sad that one is not allowed to be closer to the rest of us than to Washington and ambitious at the same time. It is unfortunate that campaigns are run the way they are (teleprompters, pontificating, negative campaigning etc.) but that is what the American public has made necessary of a candidate who seeks victory. It doesn't make the candidate less of who they were--it simply means they are sharp enough to realize that you can't change things if you're not elected. I am tired of the partisanship of both democrats and republicans--submitting bill after bill, only to be shot down by the opposite side, all the while collecting fantastic pay and benefits (do you get a 5-week recess?) while accomplishing nothing, and at the end of the day the masses of American sheep on each side defend their party against the other side instead of demanding more from all of them! For any politician to behave so despicably and be rewarded by 40-50% of the population (their base) fighting tooth and nail "for" them and "against" the other side?? it's just unbelievable. You can get hung up on one or two issues all you want (people always do) instead rooting for someone who will compromise with the other side and actually get something done... Why is it so hard for Americans, who compromise within family all the time (pity the marriage with no compromise) to compromise with their fellow citizens? Okay, you don't get everything your way, but things will actually get accomplished and yes, you will get some things your way. McCain has reached across the aisle many times (to the distaste of his own party and the far right) BEFORE he was running for president. Palin fought corruption in her own party. (It's easy to fight the other party--much more difficult, your own.) Yes, I am sure some of the rhetoric is hyped, but they do lean toward change, at the very least, and may be inclined to go further (live up to the hype) given the excited reaction of the reform-starved public. After all, McCain has proven that he is willing to listen--he changed his approach to illegal immigrants saying, essentially, "the people have spoken and I do hear them". The issues will still be here four years from now if not 40, whether the politicians accomplish anything or not. It may be a long time before we again have the chance, in this very partisan atmosphere, to vote for someone who is willing to compromise with the other side in order to get things done. Let's all be Americans first, for a change, and democrats or republicans second. Finally, any time you hear something negative about one of the candidates, please do not pass it along until you check it out. The Internet is a fantastic tool--we have never been so empowered to learn the truth. Google negative claims or check out, and other sites and get some well-rounded feedback as to the authenticity of such claims. Many claims are neither completely true nor false, but are much more complicated than that. Remember, it's not about your "team" winning by any means--it's about what will help our country most. Disinformation by it's very nature will hurt, not help our country.
Hmmm... I posted a comment last week and all indications were that it would be reviewed and posted within 24 hours. Is it possible that all the glowing comments above are really not all the comments that have been submitted??
Lovely. I am so over it, McSara Burger Royale, the whole deal. Glad to see you are too. You, however, are much better at articulating your thoughts!~
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with those of us living outside of Alaska. I agree with everything you say. I have been perplexed by the Sarah Palin choice. I believe it was purely political and insulting to the American people. Ms. Palin may have been good at reading and memorizing her talking points last night during the debate, but she has POLITICIAN written all over her. Joe Biden won last night...hands down.
Comments are now closed for this piece.