The Gender Politics of Motherhood

I haven’t written anything in a few days because Sarah Palin put me in a funk on many levels – as a Christian, as a wife, as a mother, as a woman I do not understand the conservative love-fest over Palin.

Today I’m scratching my head over the working mom debate Palin’s candidacy has sparked. The conversation crosses the liberal-conservative spectrum because folks on the extremes and every where in the middle are asking what was never asked of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and countless other men with young children who have run for public office: “Can you be a parent and be the (fill-in-the-blank-with-said-public-office)? Does your family or ambition come first? Do you think you can be the best parent you can be and still be the best (fill-in-the-blank-with-said-public-office)?”

I am a “working mom” (that is, working a paid job outside of the home). I always thought I would be, and then I gave myself permission to always ask if the decisions Peter and I were both making about our careers were best for our family (which included ourselves as well).

I was a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee when I was pregnant with Bethany 13 years ago. I remember doing phone interviews and filing a few stories from home lying on my side because of sciatica during the final weeks of my pregnancy, running out to the cop shop at 5 a.m. so that I could file police briefs and get back home before Peter left for the office so that I could stay home with Bethany when she was sick, or rushing back to get Bethany from daycare only to find that she was the last one to be picked up. 

Newspaper deadlines were then replaced with campus ministry, and we found college students who would babysit Bethany, Corban and then Elias while I met with other students for discipleship or planning meetings (thank God for Patrick, Christine, Tina and Joy as well as Jess, Hannah and the other amazing sisters at Delta Zeta!). Other times I would simply wait for Peter to come home, and I would schedule all my meetings according to College Time – 9 pm-2 am. We’ve had other campus staff come stay in our home so that I could travel to meetings, and friends and family who have provided our patchwork of childcare until all three reached school-age.

It has never been easy, so I take offense at comments questioning Palin or any other working mother’s commitment to her family. Working in ministry has made me a better parent and wife, and being a parent and wife has made me a better campus minister. I know many stay-at-home moms who love being home every morning and every afternoon for their kids; some long for a little more adult interaction, a little more in the bank each month, etc. I know many working moms who love their jobs and are a blessing to their employers and colleagues; some long for the hugs and kisses after the school bus arrives, the financial ability to stay at home, etc. The grass is always greener on the other side, but it isn’t fair to pick up the fence and start stabbing it into the neighbor’s yard.

So why is it OK to ask if Palin can be a mom, wife and VP but no one asked the same questions of Biden? Is it really because his children are older? Do we not ask the same type of questions of Obama because he’s running for the top office?

I find it rather vexing that conservatives like Dr. James Dobson think Palin is an “outstanding choice” for VP. How so? The fact that Palin is a working mother cannot have been overlooked by the Republicans. I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor. She is governor of Alaska. But there is no doubt that gender and the ability to both field dress a moose and breastfeed her infant son crossed someone’s mind as a helpful narrative. In many ways, her ability balance roles is what women across the political spectrum want. But for conservatives the feminist movement is “hurtful to women” because it encourages them to give up their natural roles as mothers, homemakers and nurturers, according to a top staff member with Focus on the Family. So why the love-fest? Does it really just come down to abortion? Please tell me it doesn’t. Explain to me how conservatives who for so long have promoted family values in seemingly narrow terms see this mother of five, soon-to-be-grandmother the best choice as the VP when in many church contexts she could not lead or hold authority over adult men? Does it really make sense to say she can lead the country but not lead in a church?


  1. Pradeep September 8, 2008

    I think such questions are asked to women rather than men since from time immemorial men has been out working and women have been indoors. Indeed we all know that that has changed, and changed since a long time. The questions only indicate how our stereotyped our attitudes still are.

    For the successful life of a mother as well as a father the cooperation of both are necessary, actually crossing the gender divide. My wife and I are both newspaper journalists and we know how difficult it is to balance career and home — not just for her but for me as well. Just as the world has changed, our attitudes too have to change, we can’t afford to be stuck in the past.

  2. My 2 Cents September 8, 2008

    OH DEAR, you’d better read Karen’s column about Cindy McCain:


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