Monday, January 5, 2009

Working Moms, Unite!

by Molly Borowitz

In her recent post "When is it Sexism?" on The Daily Beast, feminist writer Elizabeth Wurtzel highlights the differences between Alaska governor Sarah Palin's campaign for the vice-presidency and American royalty Caroline Kennedy's campaign for a New York Senate seat. In the course of her discussion, Wurtzel points out that the two women have taken a varied stance on the combination of motherhood with career; while Kennedy chose to exempt herself from the political world entirely on the basis of her children—she was already several months pregnant when she graduated from law school—Palin absented herself from the mayor's or governor's office for just days per birth. This striking dichotomy in lifestyle and mother-style leads Wurtzel to the following conclusion:

"It is, simply, impossible to take a timeout to raise kids and still compete in a man's world. Palin, to her credit, understood this. After a couple of days of maternity leave when her special-needs baby was born last year, she was back in Anchorage, running Alaska. Powerful female friends of mine with kids who maintain a high position in a man's world all did the same thing: brief leave and back to the grinder; they didn't want office politics and the forward propulsion of time itself—time the avenger—to put them out to pasture. For all the crap talk of "choice feminism"—whatever the hell that means—we are never going to feminize the world. Women who want to succeed pretty much have to work as long and as hard as men typically do, and that's that. What does Kennedy know of this hellishness? She hasn't held a paid position since her children were born, nor did she have a proper job even before that."

This assertion raises a few questions for me. What happens to "traditional family values" (a term I usually associate with traditional gender roles) when Mom is a full-time working girl on the national stage? Wurtzel mentions that working moms (40 hours a week) spend about 86% of the amount of time with their children that non-working mothers do, and that in two-working-parent households they are often still the primary parents, determining the necessary aspects of child care and then delegating some to their husbands. Hence, according to Wurtzel, many career moms are effectively working two jobs. But what happens when your job is running a state? House and Senate seats don't come with big white houses that you can move your family into; because these men and women spend several months of their year in Washington, their families are either uprooted or left behind. Both Hilary Clinton and Caroline Kennedy know just what politics can do to a family—and they weren't even the ones in office! Governors do get mansions to live in, but they don't get any time off. Congress takes recesses, but governors are always, always on call—which means that any time a crisis occurs (drama over the pipeline or off-shore drilling, discovering that your teenage daughter is pregnant, someone questioning why you fired your brother-in-law), you have to leave your newborn with Down's syndrome at home and spin the stories so you don't lose your job.

I should clarify: I am all for multitasking—my mom works and I have always been proud of it. I also have very serious respect for women who stay at home with their kids because I suspect that it's actually harder in lots of ways—at least my mom got to go to work, focus on herself and her patients, and blow off some steam. (Also, most of her co-workers are also parents, so they get to complain about us to each other.) But, having heard these working moms doubting killer-career-mama Sarah Palin's parenting skills, I have to wonder if perhaps Wurtzel is right. We seem to be stuck in a catch-22 where stay-at-home moms aren't ambitious enough, working moms neglect their children, and super-ambitious women are selfish for choosing not to have any children.

The reason I'm skeptical is that my mom and her co-workers—politically liberal, highly educated, personally ambitious, but also (as pediatric speech, physical, and occupational therapists for inpatients) extremely well-versed in the intricacies and pitfalls of parenting—were, frankly, kinda pissed at Sarah Palin for her apparent underinvestment in her special-needs baby. To be fair, that frustration was kind of personal—after all, they deal with lots of new parents who are disenchanted with their disabled newborns—but, as therapists, they were also acutely aware of how different and difficult it can be to care for a baby with Down's syndrome. But Palin didn't seem to be: she didn't suspend or alter her political plans after giving birth to a handicapped child (she wasn't even home a week with the baby); she didn't supervise her other children with the newborn (how can a seven-year-old possibly know how best to support the head of a four-month old with low tone?); she didn't keep the baby on a regular schedule (because how can you when you're living on a bus, attending endless meetings and rallies and press conferences every day—with your entire family in attendance?); and so on. And all of these facts were thrown into greater relief by the fact that she touted herself as a traditional mother ("If she's really so into traditional family values, shouldn't she be at home with her Down's baby?").

Now, I'm not saying that all these things are true. I never once felt that my mom's career was more important to her than I was, or that I was suffering because she spent a lot of time at work—and I don't see why Sarah Palin's children shouldn't feel the same way. I just want to point out that if working women don't even support each other, how the hell are we gonna get men on board?


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