Sean King

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Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Palin's Problem with Mothers

Over the last couple of days I've come to the conclusion that, despite her popularity, many mothers have a problem with Palin. And I'm not just talking about radical, lefty, political mothers, but sane, well-meaning and open-minded ones.

I've come to this conclusion because at least a couple of mothers who I trust and respect have expressed skepticism as to whether Palin can be both a good politician and a good mother. Actually, to say that my friends were simply skeptical on this point is an understatement: Truth be told, they both insisted that it is impossible to be a good mother to five children, one of whom is a special needs child, while also being a responsible Governor or VP.

One even went so far as to suggest that she probably couldn't vote for Palin because doing so either insures that we'll have a distracted VP or else enables her poor parenting.

Many of Palin's defenders insist that such sentiments are sexist, and perhaps they are. But these questions concerning Palin's abilities are being raised primarily by women, not men, and women are much less fearful of the "sexist" label than men are. So, I'm not sure that the Republicans' strategy of calling her critics names will succeed. And, simply labeling such ideas as sexist doesn't change one bit how women feel.

Given Palin's 80% approval rating, there can be little doubt that she's been an excellent Governor of Alaska, and I think it's also clear at this point that she is up to the challenge of being VP. So, if my friends are correct that she can't be both a good mother and a good politician, then she must be a bad mother. I doubt that good mothers will vote for a bad one.

So, the million dollar question is: Are my friends correct?

Well, because I'm a male, and I only have 3 children, I can't offer any personal insights that are likely to persuade women either way on this subject. But, I can ask questions, and it seems to me that there are many that need asked.

For instance, do those who say that Palin can't both govern and mother mean to suggest that no "good" mother would ever run for high political office? I certainly hope not, because our country could benefit greatly from the life experiences of current mothers, and it would truly be a shame to deny our nation the direct benefit of that motherly insight.

And, if we are not prepared to say that no good mother should ever run for high political office, then what makes Palin's situation different? Is it the sheer number of her children? If so then where do we draw the line? At one? Two? Three? Is it really reasonable to suggest, for instance, that a mother of two could be both a good nurturer and a competent political leader, while mothers of three or more children simply can't be both?

Perhaps so. But if so, then aren't we implying, at least indirectly, that fewer children make for superior mothers--that is, that a mother can more effectively care for one child than she can to three or four? If so, what does this say about Angelina Jolie, or any mother who opts for multiple children? Under such circumstances, why would any mother of one child, who has that one child's best interest at heart, ever elect to have more?

If we are going to argue that fewer children make for better moms, then we must acknowledge that this thinking represents a major shift from that of most previous generations, all of whom generally had large families. Most American families began limiting themselves to one or two children only in the last 50 years or so, and I for one am not so sure that we are better off for it. It seems to me that having fewer children has made each one more dear to his or her parents, and this has led to an epidemic of child-centered parenting that may very well do more harm to children than good.

There was a time when each child was a small part of a very big team (the family), and each child was expected to do their part to benefit the family as a whole. This family-centerd view gave each child a sense of identity, purpose and place in life. Today, however, it seems that far too many parents and children have turned this successful family-centered paradigm on its head by accepting the opposite premise--that the family unit exists to benefit the child. The result of such child-centered parenting is that the child's wants are given precedence over family needs, and many children therefore develop an inflated sense of self, no sense of duty or responsibility, and no real feel for their place in the world.

In my experience, parents of singletons are particularly susceptible to the temptation of child-centered parenting, but paradoxically, the susceptibility lessens with each additional child. Parents of large families usually don't have the time or resources to dote on any one child like parents of smaller families do.

My point? Well, perhaps the Palin children are better off as part of a large family than they would be otherwise. Perhaps children benefit more from being an essential part of an organized, loving pack than from the one-on-one, doting attention of their parents. And, perhaps the sacrifices and contributions that the Palin children will each be expected to make for the benefit of the family (such as by supporting their mother's political career, or by helping out with their younger siblings, especially the disabled one) will give each of them a sense of identity, duty, purpose, and place that is seldom found in today's youth. In short, perhaps the Palin children will be better off for the experience. And if so, isn't that exactly what any "good mother" would want for their child?

Regardless, it occurs to me that maybe my friends' were more concerned with the ages of the Palin children than their number. For instance, no one seems concerned that Nancy Pelosi's five children may be neglected as a result of her high pressure job as Speaker of the House. Is this simply because Pelosi's children are all grown?

If so, then to be fair we must acknowledge that two of Palin's children are also grown, or soon will be. Her oldest son is full-time military and will be shipping out to Iraq in just a few days. Her eldest daughter, soon to be 18, will be getting married soon and will presumably be moving out to start living on her own. And, even if she wasn't pregnant and getting married, she'd likely be heading off to college in a year anyway.

Don't get me wrong: I understand that today's 18 and 19-year-olds still need nurturing and guidance. Hell, I'm 38 and I still look to my parents for coaching on occasion. But, let's face it, children in their late teens don't require anywhere near as much attention as younger ones do. In fact, many parents of older children hardly ever see them--not because they neglect to spend time with them, but because most such children are biologically programmed to break away from their parents and begin making their own way in the world at that age. 18-year-olds want to spend time with friends, not family. Sure, they may return to Mom and Dad for guidance and support on occasion, but lets face it, by the age of 18 most of the real parenting is done.

So, this actually leaves Palin with only 3 real "children" at home. Is that too many to be both a good VP and a good mom? If so, by how many? Before answering, consider that Obama has two young children of his own. Consider further that Michelle Obama has always worked outside the home, she has taken a very active role in Obama's campaign (traveling almost constantly for the last several months), and by all accounts she would play a very active role in any Obama White House. Even so, no one seems to wonder who is raising the Obama kids. No one seems to think that Michele can't be both a good hospital administrator (or First Lady, a job that is arguably more demanding than that of VP) and mother. So, what's the difference? Is it because the Obamas have only two children at home while Palin has three?

For what it's worth, I think that the judgment as to whether Palin can be both a good mother and politician is one that only she and her family are positioned to make. Could my family handle it if my wife ran for high office and won? Well, given where my children are in life, my personal limitations as a substitute nurturing figure, and the requirements of my job, probably not. But I'm not willing to make that call for the Palins. Perhaps their children are more confident or less needing of parental support at this point (after all, I know some who are). Or, perhaps Mr. Palin is willing and able to quit his job and is a more capable substitute mother figure than I would be. Or perhaps they have family who could help. Or perhaps Sarah is just a particularly well organized and gifted person who can do far more than the wife and I ever could.

The fact is, I just don't know. I admit it. And, I'm not so sure that my skeptical friends know either, despite the fact that they are mothers.

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