Stop the Fight Over Palin's Family

The first time I noticed a picture of Sarah Palin was just about a year ago, in NEWSWEEK magazine. It illustrated a story about how women leaders like Palin and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano had gained power at the state level. Palin, Blackberry in one hand, Red Bull in the other, checked her messages as she crossed the street, seemingly oblivious to her youngest daughter, Piper, who trailed along behind her, jumping rope in the crosswalk.

It seems quaint now, given the photos circulating of the rifle-toting Palin. But as a working mother, the Blackberry image stayed with me. Even though her politics could not be further from mine, it made me like her. So I was especially irritated when a male colleague described Palin's up-do as "whoreish," within an hour of the announcement that John McCain had chosen her as his running mate. I was irked when another male colleague said she "just didn't look like a vice president." But as a battle-scarred observer of Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign, I took the ambient sexism in stride—even when I learned you can already buy buttons with Palin's picture that say YOU GO, GILF! (For those of you who can't extrapolate from MILF, that's "Governors I'd Like to F---.")

I have been surprised, however, by the reactions of many women—not to Palin's pro-life views or to the fact that she had asked members of her onetime church to pray for the completion of a $30 billion natural-gas pipeline project—but rather to the fact that she would consider such a high-powered job when she has five kids, including an infant with Down syndrome, and a pregnant teenage daughter. Palin's candidacy has kicked off a firestorm of criticism from both conservative and liberal women about whether she can handle the veep job given her family responsibilities.

The New York Times called it "The Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition." Reuters noted that "In America, where teenage pregnancy is a political issue and working moms are subject to moral debate, the choice of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential pick has ignited a Mommy War." Added one of our esteemed commenters on "She is a Monster-Mom … Can not handle family, what the hell should we expect on National Stage?" Women I know and respect condemned her neglect of her infant and scoffed at the idea that a woman in her situation could handle the vice presidency.

I would like to believe that the Mommy Wars is a media construct, a male-manufactured skirmish. But that doesn't appear to be the case. The pressures of balancing work and family are real. And as both a news producer and consumer, I get why we are more interested in teen sex and family drama then, say, health policy. I am all for a rocking debate over Palin's legislative record on family issues and the views she's expressed about them. And I also know that in politics, the private becomes public. But I often hear the same kind of scornful disapproval among women in my family, in my office, at my daughter's school and online. This is what I don't understand: why are we so defensive about our own parenting choices and so judgmental about the choices of others?

Let's be clear: I would not do what Sarah Palin did. I would not hide a pregnancy and I would not go back to work three days after giving birth to any child, especially one with special needs. I took a six-month maternity leave, and I have advised women who work for me to take as much time as they'd like. The issue of guaranteed paid maternity leave for all women is a real one. I would not run for national office if I had a pregnant teenage daughter. But nor would I presume to tell a competent adult how she should go about parenting. Every family is unique, as is every woman's ability to cope with chaos and stress. So until Sarah Palin tries to cap maternity leave for all women to 72 hours or make abortion illegal (now there's an issue worth debating), I don't care how she runs her family.

My objection to the debate about whether a mother of five can handle the demands of the White House isn't merely the horrible double standard it represents. I cannot recall the parenting decisions of a male candidate ever coming under scrutiny, with the possible exception of John Edwards. But rather I believe the emotional tone of the mommy wars makes women seem a little loony to men. It reinforces the idea that many men have that women take everything too personally. In my two-plus decades in the workforce, I have never heard a man criticize the childcare arrangements of another man's family and I doubt I ever will. Working mothers face challenges that working fathers don't. Right or wrong, women overall still shoulder an unfair burden when it comes to childcare and household duties. But how each family strikes that balance is hard enough without a shrill chorus questioning every move.