Paul Begala: A Conservative Tells the Truth About the Mommy Wars

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It used to be a cliché in politics: “Congress is so gridlocked, it couldn’t pass a resolution honoring Mother’s Day.” But now that hyperbole has all but come to pass. In this hyperpartisan political year, even motherhood is ammo for the howitzers.

Bay Buchanan has waded into the Mommy Wars with characteristic fearlessness, and her take might surprise you. From her time as treasurer of the United States under Ronald Reagan to her work advising GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Buchanan’s conservative credentials are gold-plated. Yet in her emotionally powerful new book, Bay and Her Boys, Buchanan rejects an ideological approach to the family. “We can talk about the importance of marriage and fathers all we want,” she writes. “But we can’t forget the 18 million kids whose fathers no longer live in their homes.” The stat should hit you hard: the United States has more children growing up without a father than Germany has children.

Buchanan has written an unvarnished, at times heartbreaking, account of a young mother whose husband left her with boys who were 4 and 2—and with a third boy on the way. She doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges. Her advice? If you lack job skills, get ’em; never trash the absent father to the kids; be the children’s parent, not their friend; and, most important, put the kids first—in terms of your time, attention, and priorities. Buchanan recalls when she was at home fielding an important political call. Her young son wanted her attention and, like every parent trying to juggle work from home, she gave her young boy the universal sign for “one more minute”—an upraised index finger. Little Tommy’s response? Toddling up on top of Bay’s briefcase and peeing all over it. Message received.

When Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” it was a 10-megaton explosion in the Mommy Wars. What you might not know is that, like Bay Buchanan, Hilary Rosen is a single mom. Four days a week she has custody of her two teenagers, juggling work and family on the high wire of politics.

“I don’t know of a woman,” Rosen says, “myself included, who doesn’t feel some pang of guilt or regret at the choices they make—even if they have no choice.” Of the career versus child-rearing dichotomy, she says, “Most of us are torn, wishing we could have more time at one or the other. My personal theory is that this is not discussed enough. And so people grabbed at the opportunity to ‘debate’ it. When there is really no debate. We all do what we have to do to get by.”

It may shock you, but the ultraliberal Rosen says she admires the über-conservative Buchanan. “I can’t begin to imagine the stress, the loneliness, the fear, and the grit that go into being a full-time single mom,” she says. “And I admire them all, including and especially Bay.”

Sadly, Rosen’s nuance was lost in the excitement of an ill-advised phrase. Instead of having a serious conversation about day care and equal pay for mothers in the workplace, we started screaming at each other across the red-blue divide. That’s a shame, because every mother who works outside the home loves her children, and every mother who works full-time raising kids contributes to the economy.

Twenty years ago, when Bill Clinton (raised in part by a widowed mom) signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, corporate interests said it would be too great a burden. Today we have seen that honoring employees as parents is good for business and for families. When President Obama (raised by a single mom) signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, business lobbyists at the Chamber of Commerce said it would “literally lead to an explosion of litigation.” Three years later that explosion hasn’t happened. Perhaps there’s just a long fuse—or maybe the chamber was being hysterical.

The harsh truth is that an economic downturn can put enormous strain on a marriage—and when marriages crumble, mothers are almost always left with the kids. Buchanan is living proof that sometimes the so-called traditional, two-parent family is not always a realistic option, even for those with the strongest values and best intentions. “Conservatives need to recognize, respect, and have a positive message for single moms,” she told me. “And, as I make clear in the book, I don’t care how they became single moms. We don’t need to be dividing moms—single or married; at home or working. It is tough enough being a mom—we need to spend our energy supporting and strengthening one another.”

Surely we can agree on that much, even in an election year.