02 October 2008

Lisa Belkin explores the Palin work/family paradox in this Sunday's NYT Magazine

The conversation about work and family, and about working mothers, and about "family values," and about the realities of raising a special needs child, and about parental judgement, and about what makes a "good mother," has never been more interesting. Why? Because of Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy.

I got an early look at Lisa Belkin's essay "Palin Talk" which will appear in the 10/5 issue of the New York Times Magazine. In it, she explores the surprising reactions she's heard from other mothers:

Looking back at the early response to Palin, I am struck by how many of the sentences that were written, spoken and shouted by people, began with ‘‘I.’’ As in: ‘‘I have a special-needs baby, and I wouldn’t dream of running for the hardest job in the world while he is an infant.’’ Or ‘‘I have a special-needs baby, and Palin’s my hero for showing you can raise a child and work.’’...Even more interesting was how often these views came from the mouths of women who I would have predicted would be saying something else.

Fascinating reading. Parent Hacks isn't a political blog and I have no desire to fuel the partisan fires. But, on the eve of the vice presidential candidates' debate, I can't help but think about how Sarah Palin has caused me to reflect on my own work/parenting choices.

FYI, Belkin (of "The Opt-Out Revolution" fame) has also started a new NYT blog about parenting called The Motherlode.

Note: I would ask that any conversation we have about this post remains focused on the topic I've brought up, and that it stays respectful and reasonable. I'm not looking for political debate, but for intelligent talk about the real-world parenting choices we all make. Thanks. -- Asha

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Since becoming a mother, I've become skeptical of those who claim to be able to Do It All. Or more specifically, to Do It All and All At Once.

I do a whole lot...and I certainly know that something has to give. My kids eat a lot of crappy dinners.

So politics aside, when I hear the superwoman myth being propogated, I cringe a little. Those kinds of statements in a public forum set us all up for disappointment.

What's interesting to me is that, as Mom-101 says, something has to give when you have kids, but it's always something different in different homes. My kids, for example, don't eat crappy dinners. No matter how much work I've got or how crazy the day is, nothing can keep me out of the kitchen after work. Even when I REALLY should be anywhere other than the kitchen.

But oh, the things that "give" in the rest of our lives! Nary a weed has been pulled in our yard all year. We haven't managed to sign the kids up for any of the classes I know they'd like to take. Nobody's done more than a desperate cursory cleaning in months. It's always something different.

I think that supermom is a myth, as does the previous commenter, but I disagree that it is being further propagated by Sarah Palin's situation.

Palin isn't a supermom and she isn't Doing It All or Doing It All at Once. She is married to a man who is a devoted father and husband. They share the load for caring for their family. Sometimes, as is also the case in a marriage without children, one partner carries more of the burden than the other partner. I think THAT is what causes so many women to feel discouraged and to cast doubts about Palin's ability to do everything she has set out to do. So many women carry an unequal share of the burden for their families, not temporarily, but all of the time.

It appears to me that Mr. Palin carries more of the burden in caring for their family than does Gov. Palin. She carries more of the burden of providing for their family. Regardless of who carries what share, they act together as a marital unit to make their family work. I think the most successful families are the ones that have two parents who are flexible about how much of the burden they are willing to shoulder AND which roles they are willing to play (caregiver, provider).

There is also the fact that some women can just do more than other women. Some women are super-productive overachievers. If those women are overachievers in the career area, that doesn't necessarily mean it is at the detriment of other areas of their lives. I am not judging women who aren't overachievers - they just have different personalities - and neither should they judge women who are overachievers.

I have no doubt that Sarah Palin can serve as VP and still raise successful, happy children because she has a husband who is willing to do what it takes to support both his wife and his children in whatever ways he needs to.

I have a much less extreme case than Palin's, but my family works in much the same way. I commute up to 3 hrs a day to a job that pays much more than my husband's job pays. I am also working on an MBA. We only have one child now but we will be taking steps to add to our family within a year, likely through adoption. We will eventually have 4-6 kids. I don't expect that I will always be the main breadwinner because I haven't always been. I don't expect that anything about how my husband and I divide the labor of our family right now will remain the same in the future. We are both flexible in the roles we are willing to play and the share of the burden we are willing to carry.

I really suspect that Bristol Palin has been doing a lot of the work of taking care of the family for the past few years, certainly while her mother has been governor. She was what, 14 or 15 when her mom became governor? Certainly old enough to babysit the younger ones, cook dinner, etc.

Palin may also benefit from having other family living near her. And she also made the job adapt to her needs (by doing a lot of state business while home in Wasilla, which I think is appropriate, by the way, especially in this age of telecommuting).

So many women today don't have large families and/or family social networks to depend on.

I don't get the impression that Palin is "doing it all" at all! LOL She's got a hubby that's able to stay home with the baby off season from two seasonal jobs! And, she's got a supportive extended family watching over all her kids.

I've come to the conclusion in the last few years that some of us are gifted to be able to do large, demanding jobs while being a mom. Meanwhile, others of us are just gifted in other areas.

Right now in the season I'm in with the person I am, I'm working my behind off budgeting, cutting back, etc. so I can stay home full time. And, to be honest, it would break my heart to have to go back to work right now while the Vikings are little.

In addition, I would never in a million years consider running for office while raising little ones.

But, wasn't the point of the women's movement that we all have THE CHOICE to do what we feel we need to/can do, what we're gifted and/or led to do at various points in our lives?

I've learned since being a parent that there is no one "right" way to parent for all and most are doing the absolute best they can. I'm a lot less judgmental now that I'm actually a parent! LOL

Thus, I respect her choices and those of others and I just ask that they respect mine to give up 15 years of working life to raise these little raiders to the best of my ability according to my beliefs.

I'm a new (and working) mother. Personally, I find it to be overwhelming. I know I could be a better mother if I could focus on it fulltime; and I know I could be more effective in my career (as I have been in the past) if I could focus on that fulltime. As it is, I feel like I'm short-changing everyone. Palin must be more able in many ways than I am, but it still seems like a puzzling choice to make at this early stage in her child's life...only because the VP (or P) job seems like it would be far more demanding than being Governor. Honestly, I'd have the same concern about Biden/Obama/McCain if they had a special needs infant. Or even just an infant. But if she is elected, I'm sure she'll work it out; and who knows if she'll come to regret it later in life or not.

My friend K- was raised by a single, working mother in the deep South when working mothers were indeed uncommon.

K-'s mother wasn't accepted into their community. Her mother developed a strange reactionary elitism where she would judge other women on their appearances and attention to etiquette and tradition (wearing white gloves, etc.).

It seems like the media-labeled Mommy Wars are people fighting over the single standard by which all women should be judged.

It's hard to discuss Palin without getting into politics. For most of Americans, she isn't someone we met at the PTA. Instead (like all the other candidates) she is being sold to us like a household product ("now with motherhood!").

It's the spin that is creating the controversy more than the individual. Is the marketing for this product representative of the product? Does this marketing underestimate its target audience?

Motherhood is up for discussion a lot because I think we have a hard time defining it (and thus judging the product presented).

Here, moms are stratified partially by their work status: working educated professional, working, stay at home educated professional, and stay at home. All four of those categories can be further split into political (liberal & conservative) and religious strata (non-religious, non-Christian religious, and then a variety of Christian groupings- Evangelical, progressive, etc.).

It's not uncommon to hear moms from one group discussing an outsider mom as if her life decisions are a criticism of their own choices. One very smart friend who never finished college always feels uneducated after being around moms who have/had professional careers. I always feel inept when I see her beautiful gardens and watch her manage a house full of kids (3) and foster kids (often 2-3) while I struggle to keep up with one child.

The internal conflict we all feel seems to just pour out whenever the media rediscovers motherhood. Maybe it's because larger society is finally willing to talk about the issues and definitions that we're all already thinking about.

I should also have added that, like Palin, I also have a large extended family nearby. I can't imagine how hard it would be to manage my family without them. That is one more reason why I think managing her family while managing her career has been achievable for Palin.

I would give up working in a millisecond to stay home with our only son, but in order to allow my husband to try his hand at his own business - I work for the healthcare (and I wonder how common this is??) Balancing work and home is basically impossible for me. The house is a mess, I am behind on my work...UGH.

While I do not agree with a single thing Palin says politically, I would never question her motives or choices when it comes to raising her children. It's her family and she decides what is best. She did bring her son to work with her (a luxury that wouldn't fly where I teach high school!!) when she returned to work, and that must have been overwhelming. I don't think I could ever have been strong enough to endure the media speculation, or to have the conversations with the kids about the media speculation, but she seems like she is a lot tougher than I.

What I find interesting is that this discussion, not just here, but nationally, only ever centers on women's choices. In fact, the questioning of Palin's choices has been labeled sexist and unfair by people on both sides of the political spectrum. But we seem to take as a given that women must make a choice. And that men do not.

I would love it if the deep scrutiny of Palin as public figure and working mother could expand our conversation. It's not that we shouldn't question whether a woman can excel at motherhood and politics simultaneously. It is fair to ask these questions and it is fair to judge Sarah Palin on their conclusions. But what we should be doing is also asking these same questions of men.

Can you be a great father and a great president at the same time? No one seems to think that's important. But if we value the work that fathers do, why should it be any less of a consideration?

In answer to the question of what makes a "good mother"...perhaps it is someone who seeks to find a good balance for herself and her family. Some moms work a lot and hard to provide for their family financially or for personal satisfaction. Some moms value staying at home and are willing to sacrifice lifestyle choices to manage the loss of income. Other women, like myself, work part-time and find that it affords them a compromise they can feel good about. It's not easy to find the balance that works for us as moms. But, I think a good mom will keep trying, and be willing to adjust as the needs of the family change. And, a good father would do the same.

Thank you Asha for bringing this article to our attention! I commented on the NYT site and will say basically the same here. I think the most crucial point of all of this hubbub surrounding Sarah is that women should STOP judging each other. We all make choices and we all do the best we can or know how to ... or we try to at least. And that "best" differs for every single person on the planet ~ as it should. So if women started respecting each other and our choices, perhaps the media would not be able to so shamelessly exploit motherhood. (I wrote about this also at http://www.mothersmovement.org/opinion/06/levine_0611.html)

I agree that you can't do it all at the same time and though I really don't know enough about Palin's family she has a husband too and extended family like others mentioned. I know that there are some things that we expect the mom to do but that isn't to say that the dad can't and doesn't do them. Before I was staying home full time my husband cooked the majority of the meals and not from boxes, he is a great cook. I find myself constantly falling into the double standards when I think about Palin's little baby. Because if it was Palin's husband running I, myself probably would not have even questioned whether or not running was even a good idea.

Thank you, PHers! I can always count on you for thoughtful discussion.

To quote Vivian: "I find myself constantly falling into the double standards when I think about Palin's little baby. Because if it was Palin's husband running I, myself probably would not have even questioned whether or not running was even a good idea."

I had the same knee-jerk reaction. It's not that I judge Sarah Palin's choices -- it's that I can't help but think of my own struggles with balance while working and raising kids. DESPITE my hardworking, domestically-talented husband, DESPITE grandparental help for the last few years, and DESPITE an extremely flexible "job."

Yet again, the realities of parenting collide with my political and philosophical leanings.

I think it's fascinating that Palin happens to be running against a man, more than other politicians I can recall, whose core identity is that of a devoted father. During the debate, Biden pointed out that Palin isn't the only one who has managed the family/politics juggle. And for the first time, that rang true for me. That may be just as revolutionary as Sarah Palin's place on the Republican ticket.

I'm a single mom of a 2 yr old who was born prematurely. I HAD to go back to work when her adjusted age was 2 weeks because I couldn't afford to stay home with her. Despite working, living away from an extended network and having to deal with lots of new issues related to parenting, she is doing well.

Because my daughter was premature, I was ill during my pregnancy and I didn't have an extended network of support, I missed a lot of work. This impacted my reviews and ultimately my job stability.

My daughter's father has a criminal history, which further complicates things. When I discovered I was pregnant, my decision to keep the pregnancy was not well received by most people I know.

Palin scares me because she represents an extremely right wing agenda that has no room for people like me and my child. I'm very happy to have made my pro-life choice, but the supports for people to make that choice safely (mostly for the child) simply don't exist.

I came into my intellectual adolescence during a time when "the personal is political" was a very important tenant of feminism. I still think it's true and I think that Palin will have a lot of influence on domestic policy that affects the every day lives of families. If it isn't given to her, she'll take it (reference to her comments regarding powers of VP in the Senate).

I tend to think that all this talk about "can she do it all" is extremely sexist. It offends me deeply that, in the year 2008, this is even an argument.

We have never questioned a man's ability to run for office and care for his family. Don't men share the same amount of responsibility for the well-being of their children?

I'm actually a Palin supporter, BUT hasn't Joe Biden been a single dad? I realize he doesn't have a special-needs child, but consider how he lost his wife and daughter- do you not think his family had a time when they had special needs? No one seems to question his ability to take care of his family properly AND have a high-powered job.


It's a difficult problem. There is no reason for me to believe that dad could take over some of the mommy roles while Palin is at work. Especially since many moms do the same things for dads. Now whether dad can do a good job as a mommy would is a different thing.

I believe the question should be: is it good for a family if one parents is not often available (no matter if it is mom or dad)?

The thing that personally bothers me the most is when you see the very little one being there at the late night ralleys. Like yesterday after the debate. Just 6-7 months old and constantly carried around and on TV late at night while my own little one (7 months) is sleeping peacefully in her own bed. That's to me something that does bother me since now these kids are used as an campaign object and not protected as they should be.

I would like to echo Yolanda and Dallas in pointing out the not-so-subtle sexism in this "debate".
While I do not agree politically with Palin, I wonder why this is a question that women must answer but not men?

If we feel that it is an important question (How will you balance the job of President/Vice President with your family life?), then it is equally important for any of the contenders.

(Oops, I accidentally deleted the second half of my comment.)

The apparent answer to why men have never had this question put to them is the basic assumption that, of course, the wife will handle everything else. In the case with Palin, people are still assuming that "the wife" (ie Sarah Palin herself) will not only have the job, but also be the one handling everything else.

Everyone who points out that we wouldn't be having this debate if Palin were a man is absolutely correct. And that's very sad. It's sad that MEN have not adjusted as women have taken on more. Maybe a ton of men have, but society's perceptions of men and what they *should* be has not changed one whit. I think that may be the saddest thing of all.

My husband works from home as a writer. He cooks every meal. He walks the dog and gets the kids up for school, picks them up, takes them to after-school stuff. I make more than he does -- for now -- and I work nights, commuting 3 hours round-trip -- mainly for the benefits. I'm home during the day, when he can work and I can take over kid duty.

It works out for us, in that our kids always have a parent home. But our house is cluttered and dirty most of the time. The laundry piles up. And I haven't slept eight hours in years.

The choices Palin made are fine especially since her husband is doing kind of what my husband does, and since she has the extended family. Why isn't anyone lauding Todd Palin as much or more than they're applauding her?

"The apparent answer to why men have never had this question put to them is the basic assumption that, of course, the wife will handle everything else. In the case with Palin, people are still assuming that "the wife" (ie Sarah Palin herself) will not only have the job, but also be the one handling everything else." This totally rang true with me, but I can't help but think that acknowledging this also forces us to acknowledge that Gov. Palin would NOT be managing a household as VP. As VP she would be expected to do as the VPs before here: hand over the reins of the home to her spouse, and take up the reins of the Vice Presidency. In the same way that any male VP would NOT be attending baseball games and ballet recitals, picking the kids up from school, packing lunches, and listening to pediatricians, neither would Palin. The fact of the matter is, that the position simply would not allow for it. Period. To assume that just because she is a woman would change the nature of that position is, in fact, just as selfish as assuming that she couldn't do it. Of course a woman can be Vice President. And of course, at the end of four or eight years she'll still be mom. But for that term or two, dance class WILL NOT BE HAPPENING. She would NOT be "doing it all". She would be helping to run the country. Disagree? Well, it's a long trip home from Iraq to make it in time for supper. No matter how well she might multi-task, some things are NOT possible. Would that make her a bad mother? Not any worse than any father who's ever run. But it doesn't make her super mom, either.

If people assume that the woman will be able to singlehandedly manage the family/household while the man is in office, but not the other way around, isn't that actually giving more credit to women?

Like a few other commenters, I would have the same reservations if if were Mr. Palin running for VP. Anyone that chooses career ahead of family is exhibiting a character trait which I find unelectable. Unlike most people, I vote more for the person than for their positions.

Despite my agreement with most of Palin's positions, I simply cannot vote for the kind of woman (or person) who would choose to pursue running a nation (or other entity) ahead of tending to her own family--those up close and person--whose lives she actually touches, and who have great needs, from her youngest child with DS, to her oldest who is expecting her first child (and possibly entering marriage) and needs her mother now more than ever--both for support and as a grandma.

That Palin would make the choice to live thousands of miles away and also not be available to her daughter because of job responsibilities, makes it impossible for me to vote for her ticket.

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