Sarah Palin's Parenting Choices Under Fire

McCain's choice for vice president turns Mommy Wars debate on its head.


Sept. 3, 2008 — -- Sarah Palin, who has morphed into America's new conservative feminist, has turned the question of women's right on its head, complicating the already contentious Mommy Wars.

Christian conservatives are now touting what some say are "un-family" values, and longtime liberals are finding themselves critical of a woman's choice to raise children and earn a living, calling it "bad parenting."

With five children, including a 5-month-old infant with Down syndrome, the Republican vice presidential nominee faces enormous challenges as the ultimate working mother. And with her unmarried daughter now pregnant, she will have the additional task of being a grandparent.

Many working mothers say their own experience juggling motherhood and a career convinces them that Palin's children will bear the brunt of her choice. Already, 17-year-old Bristol has been dragged into the 24-hour news cycle.

But other women across the political spectrum have asked why men should not also be held to the same standards of parenting.

"Having young children didn't prevent JFK, whom I hear is America's most beloved president, from being president," said Ann Coulter, the acerbic right-wing commentator.

"If Palin can't do that, then you're saying that no woman with children can ever be equal to a man in politics and can certainly never be a president or vice president," she told

But, she and others concede, Palin will require help. "As there are no fisheries and no oil rigs in D.C., Mr. Palin ought to be able to spend more time on child rearing," said Coulter.

New York City Democrat and "Mama Bird Diaries" blogger Kelcey Kintner agrees it's Palin's decision, but says, "I know I couldn't do it."

"Damn, I almost had a breakdown in the car today when both my kids were crying and whining at full crescendo as we hit loads of traffic," said the 38-year-old mother. "I'm definitely not cut out for the veep spot. But maybe she is."

If John McCain is elected, Palin will be the most visible working mother in America, representing 61 percent of all mothers, according to an ABC News poll. Of those, 45 percent work full time, 16 percent part time and 37 percent said they're "on a career track."

But a mother's dirty secret is that 85 percent of them hold down the primary child-care responsibilities, according to the same poll. Just 13 percent said their spouse or partner had main (2 percent) or equally shared (11 percent) responsibilities raising the kids.

Balancing Work and Family

No one understands juggling a political career and motherhood better than Jane Swift, who had a 3-year-old and gave birth to twins while serving as acting governor in Massachusetts in 2001.

Swift dropped out of the race in 2002, giving the press "one throwaway line," that she couldn't handle the combined stress of parenting and politics, according to Swift. In fact, she said she couldn't compete with the wealth of her opponent -- Mitt Romney.

Romney -- who went on to run for president in this election -- has five children, but "no one focused on that," said Swift, who now works as an educational consultant and teaches a course at nearby Williams College. Her husband is the primary caregiver.

"We have different standards for mothers in the workplace," Swift told "Sen. [Barack] Obama has two children, but we don't ask a lot of questions of his wife on how she raises them. It's a double standard."

The former Republican governor supports the McCain ticket, though she disagrees on its opposition to abortion. "She's a strong public leader for my daughters to look up to," Swift said about Palin.

In April, when Palin delivered her son, Trig, Swift, whose three daughters are now 7 and 9, wrote the governor a note, reassuring her, "My kids are fine and hers will be, too."

"Research shows that whether they are conservative or liberal, women with small children who have a seat at the table in government have a unique perspective on policy debate," she said.

But many working mothers are incredulous that a mother of five can handle the demands of parenting while in office.

"Sarah Palin cannot be a good mother, even on the campaign trail," said Jessica Gottlieb, a stay-at-home mother of two from California, who contributes to the "It's ludicrous to assume she could be. It's not a job you can outsource."

"When you make the decision to have children you are duty bound to them," she told "The children of all four candidates are about to lose their parents for a few years."

Is Sarah Palin a Good Mother?

Jackie Fields, who is raising four children -- ages 6 to 18 -- and working full time for the Brown Shoe Co. in St. Louis, Mo., agreed.

"I don't mean to be sexist, but I have often struggled with trying to achieve that perfect work-life balance, which any working mother can tell you is next to impossible to do," she said. "In my experience something has to give."

Fields was especially surprised to learn that Palin had a developmentally challenged baby.

Elizabeth Goodwin, founder of the National Down Syndrome Society of New York, agreed that raising a baby with Down syndrome is "very, very time-consuming" for a parent.

Children with Down syndrome are dependent longer and about half of them have heart defects and muscle-tone problems that require medical intervention.

Goodwin raised a daughter with Down syndrome, who is now 29, and two sons. "I won't pretend it's easy," she told "The school years are hard to make sure your child's education and development is focused."

But, she said, families like the Palins, with lots of siblings, tend to fare better. "With a bunch of kids you've got a built-in intervention program with all the stimulation around the house."

"More power to her," she said of Palin. "Some women are superwomen."

Palin's candidacy has "energized" social conservatives, according to Charles W. Dunn, an expert in politics and religion at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

McCain's choice has produced a "Palin-induced high" for evangelicals and Catholics, Dunn told "I've been following politics since the 1940s as a little boy, and I've never seen anything like it."

But even Dunn's enthusiasm for her is tempered: "She is going to have to set her priorities and it's a tricky balancing act. She'll have all sorts of pressures both feminism and biblical-based. But she appears to have what it takes."

Janine Turner, who played Maggie O'Connell on television's "Northern Exposure," which was set in Palin's home state of Alaska, is a Republican and Christian and working single mother, now on "Friday Night Lights."

She wonders if Palin's example may help her five children.

"You should be a good mother and honor your God-given purpose as a woman at the same time," she told "This could potentially enrich these children's lives in ways. What do they want us to do, go back to the kitchen? What about corporate leaders?"

Plight of Working Mothers

In a 2005 ABC News poll, three-quarters of all Americans -- and 72 percent of all working mothers -- agreed with the statement, "It may be necessary for mothers to be working because the family needs money, but it would be better if she could stay home and take care of the house and children."

Rick Schatz, CEO of the National Coalition for Protection of Children and Families, said most Christians hold that value dear and had this caveat for Palin: "There is no replacement for a mother, and even with significant support, she will still need to take the lead responsibility with those children."

Still, others were outraged that any woman would be called to task for choosing to work -- no matter how big the job. And where are the fathers in this debate?

"The question of whether or not [Palin] is a proper choice for vice president due to her being a mother makes me ill," said Tracey Becker, an Illinois mother of three and contributor to the Chicago Moms Blog.

"Is it really so much harder to be a mother than to be a father?" asked Becker. "Is it really such a stretch to imagine a husband being able to take on the more emotional and traditionally feminine side of the parenting team?"

"Surely, the children will suffer if their mother is a vice president," she said. "Just as if the tables were turned and it was their father."

For many feminists the very public discussion of Palin's leadership was offensive.

"Why should a woman's ability to hold a high-power job and raise a family be an issue?" asked Sarah Caron, a Newtown, Conn., mother and editor of a food blog. "It's shocking that in 2008 women are still fielding questions about their priorities when it comes to holding positions of power."