Karen Shopoff Rooff with her family in Austin, Tex. “It’s a lot to handle,” she said of Sarah Palin’s would-be dual roles.
September 2, 2008
When Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska was introduced as a vice-presidential pick, she was presented as a magnet for female voters, the epitome of everymom appeal.
But since then, as mothers across the country supervise the season’s final water fights and pack book bags, some have voiced the kind of doubts that few male pundits have dared raise on television. With five children, including an infant with Down syndrome and, as the country learned Monday, a pregnant 17-year-old, Ms. Palin has set off a fierce argument among women about whether there are enough hours in the day for her to take on the vice presidency, and whether she is right to try.
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.
“How is this really going to work?” said Karen Shopoff Rooff, an independent voter, personal trainer and mother of two in Austin, Tex. “I don’t care whether she’s the mother or the father; it’s a lot to handle,” she said, adding that Ms. Palin’s lack of national experience would only make her road more difficult.
“When I first heard about Palin, I was impressed,” said Pamela Moore, a mother of two from Birmingham, Ala. But upon reading that Ms. Palin’s special-needs child was three days old when she went back to work, Ms. Moore began questioning the governor’s judgment. Partly as a result, she plans to vote for Senator Barack Obama.
But Lori Viars, a mother of two and evangelical Christian from Lebanon, Ohio, cheered the candidacy as well as the decision of both Palin women to keep their babies. “The whole family is pro-life, and they put that into practice even when it’s not easy,” Ms. Viars said.
Ms. Palin was selected by Senator John McCain in part to draw female voters, as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro did before her. But Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Ferraro ran for president and vice president when their children were grown, meaning they were survivors of — not combatants in — the bitter debates over whether and how to combine work with motherhood.
Mrs. Clinton’s recent candidacy was a moment of reckoning for women of her generation, who treated her run as a mirror in which to examine their own lives. With Ms. Palin’s entry into the field, a younger generation of women have picked up that mirror, using her candidacy to address the question of just how demanding a job a mother with such intense family obligations should tackle.
Within minutes of Friday’s announcement that Ms. Palin was joining the Republican ticket, women across the country started flooding blogs devoted to motherhood issues. Administrators of one Web site, D.C. Urban Moms, said they had received hundreds of postings, more than on any other political issue this year. All throughout the holiday weekend, at scrapbooking sessions, on hikes and at barbecues, women talked over the candidacy and the issues it raised.
In interviews, many women, citing their own difficulties with less demanding jobs, said it would be impossible for Ms. Palin to succeed both at motherhood and in the nation’s second-highest elected position at once.
“You can juggle a BlackBerry and a breast pump in a lot of jobs, but not in the vice presidency,” said Christina Henry de Tessan, a mother of two in Portland, Ore., who supports Mr. Obama.
Her thoughts were echoed by some Republicans, including Anne Faircloth, daughter of former Senator Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina. Being a governor is one thing, Ms. Faircloth said, and Ms. Palin’s husband, Todd, seems like a supportive spouse. “But running for the second-highest office in the land is a very different kettle of fish,” she said.
Many women expressed incredulity — some of it polite, some angry — that Ms. Palin would pursue the vice presidency given her younger son’s age and condition. Infants with Down syndrome often need special care in the first years of life: extra tests, physical therapy, even surgery.
Sarah Robertson, a mother of four from Kennebunk, Me., who was one of the few evangelical Christians interviewed to criticize Ms. Palin, said: “A mother of a 4-month-old infant with Down syndrome taking up full-time campaigning? Not my value set.”
One detail of Ms. Palin’s biography jumped out to many mothers, becoming a subject of instant fixation. “She went back to work as governor of Alaska three days after giving birth,” a poster named cafemama marveled on another blog, urbanmamas.com.
And upon hearing Monday that Ms. Palin had known of the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, before accepting the vice-presidential slot, some wondered why she had not bypassed the offer in order to spare her daughter the scrutiny.
Many of the worriers talked about the effect of Ms. Palin’s candidacy not only on her children and the country but also on their own careers. Since she is relatively inexperienced, they feared campaign stumbles that could hold consequences for other working mothers.
“There’s nervousness among working moms of both parties that how she does in this race will reflect on the overall ability of working moms,” said Cindi Leive, the editor of Glamour magazine and a mother of two, who said she was trading phone calls with friends on the topic.
Ms. Leive cited the cautionary tale of Jane Swift, a Republican who gave birth to twin girls in 2001 while acting governor of Massachusetts and then, her popularity ratings low in part because of her prior use of aides as baby sitters, dropped out of the 2002 primary race for election in her own right. Later she attributed her struggles to the difficulties of balancing work and family.
“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,” she wrote in an essay in Boston magazine.
Ms. Palin’s defenders included mothers of all ideological shapes and sizes, from McCain voters to Obama voters, from mothers excited to see someone like them in the race to those who questioned whether a male candidate would be subject to similar scrutiny. But she received particular praise from religious conservatives, who voiced near-uniform confidence that her large and growing brood would enhance, not detract from, her performance as vice president.
“It changes your life and gives you a different perspective on the world,” said Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative organizer who helped defeat the equal rights amendment nearly three decades ago.
“People who don’t have children or who have only one or two are kind of overwhelmed at the notion of five children,” Ms. Schlafly continued, mentioning that she had raised six children and run for Congress as well. “I think a hard-working, well-organized C.E.O. type can handle it very well.”
For decades the anti-abortion movement has brought together a broad alliance of conservatives concerned about both the moral value of a fetus and traditional gender roles. Ms. Palin rejects both abortion and stay-at-home motherhood, and most conservatives have praised her choices. The news that she would be a grandmother only enhanced their enthusiasm, with many describing themselves as thrilled to see so prominent a display of pro-life commitment.
At a reception for educators at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Sandra Ross, a special-needs high school teacher from Orlando, Fla, said, “She’s going to be a good role model for the country.” Of Bristol’s pregnancy, Ms. Ross added, “Everybody makes mistakes.”
In all of Washington, there is perhaps one person whose life most resembles the one that Ms. Palin is pursuing: Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican of Washington and mother of an infant son with Down syndrome. Ms. Rodgers cheered Ms. Palin’s entry into the race, saying it would draw attention to the policy needs of children and families.
But Ms. Rodgers acknowledges that on some days, like the one when she had to run to the Capitol for a vote without taking a shower first, she wonders if she is doing the right thing. She feels then like many working mothers: caught between her job and “wanting to be the best mom and best wife you can possibly be.”
“You’re torn,” she said, sounding perfectly matter-of-fact.
David D. Kirkpatrick and Christina Capecchi contributed reporting from St. Paul.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company