Meredith O'Brien: Political moms and double standards

Meredith O'Brien

As Yogi Berra would say, “It’s déjà vu, all over again.”

We’ve seen yet another high-profile, political working mother with small children publicly savaged for her work-life choices.

This time around it was Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate and a married mother of five.

You see, she had a baby in April. Then she returned to the governor’s office days after giving birth. Before giving birth, Palin reportedly got on an airplane while her amniotic fluid was leaking, after consulting with her doctor.

Because she went back to work, because she boarded that plane and because she’s got a baby and is running for vice president, people have been all over her case. They’ve called her a bad mom. They’ve questioned her competency, particularly because her 5-month-old has Down syndrome.

Let’s leave Palin’s policy positions and qualifications aside. And while some of you might be asking, “Why’d she leave out the fact that Palin’s teenaged daughter is pregnant?” I, frankly, think that’s a topic for another column.

Days after Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Palin as his running mate, The New York Times ran a page one story about Palin’s career choices in what the paper coyly dubbed as, “The Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition:”

“This time the battle lines are drawn inside out, with social conservatives, usually staunch advocates for stay-at-home motherhood, mostly defending [Palin], while some others, including plenty of working mothers, worry that she is taking on too much.”

The article continued:

“In interviews, many women, citing their own difficulties with less demanding jobs, said it would be impossible for Ms. Palin to succeed both at motherhood and in the nation’s second-highest elected position at once … Many women expressed incredulity — some of it polite, some angry — that Ms. Palin would pursue the vice presidency given her younger son’s age and condition.”

On the Times’ Web site, readers posted all manner of Palin-oriented insults:

“I am appalled at Gov. Palin’s unbridled ambitions,” wrote one woman, admonishing Palin not to leave “a special needs infant of four months” in child care.

“Sara (sic) Palin is an egotistical and self-centered woman,” another chimed in.

“I think she sacrificed her [infant] son to her political ambition,” said a commenter.

“Sounds to me Mrs. Palin needs to spend more time at home raising some children and less time jockeying into the position of leader of the Free World.”

Can you imagine this level of discourse being tossed in the face of a male candidate, a “Steve” Palin rather than a “Sarah” Palin?

However, such attacks aren’t confined to the political gals who return to full-time work when they have small children at home. Within this election cycle, we’ve seen another high-profile political woman -- a Democrat -- on the receiving end of brutal criticism as she was labeled an anti-feminist for scaling back her career so she could campaign for her husband and care for their two young daughters.

In calling Michelle Obama a bad example for today’s girls, a writer said: “Damn it all, Michelle Obama has quit her $215,000 dream job and demoted herself to queen.”

Saying that Obama’s decision sent her into a “feminist fury,” the writer continued, saying, “She traded in her solid gold resume, high-octane talent and role as vice president of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals to be a professional wife and hostess.”

Following a New Republic piece titled, “Wife Lessons,” about Obama’s personal life, there were comments to be found tsking her decisions, such as: “Personally, I find it troubling that any educated, talented woman is still willing to put her personal ambitions in the back seat to her husband’s. No wonder women continue to rank among America’s poorest citizens.”

Then there was this one: “It’s sad, and a giant waste of talent.”

So Palin was a bad, evil mother because she went back to work after having a baby and for acting as though she CAN have it all. And Michelle Obama was a bad, evil mother for setting a bad example because she took a hiatus from her work so she could care for her kids and help her husband campaign for the presidency, acting as though she CAN’T have it all.

The image that pops into my mind, as these diametrically opposed critiques roll around in my head: A circular firing squad. Think about it.

If everyone’s firing and taking out all the political working moms with small children – no matter what their work/life choices may be -- what happens? Everyone winds up dead or wounded. Then who’s going to be left to try to break that glass ceiling? The political men with small children who rarely if ever face such criticism about who’s going to take care of their young children and their babies while they’re off campaigning or governing?

When this presidential election began in earnest last year, no less than five male presidential candidates had children younger than 10. And I don’t recall people – from coast to coast -- calling those men bad fathers.

In a cruel twist of irony, it was attorney and health care advocate Elizabeth Edwards, herself diagnosed with incurable cancer, who was notably assailed as a “terrible mother” when she and her Democratic presidential candidate husband took their young children out on the campaign trail and their then 7-year-old boy didn’t want to talk to a New York Times reporter.

“Elizabeth, I don’t like the choices you’ve made,” complained a mommy blogger. “Take your kids home. Get off the freaking campaign trail.”

But, fear not my friends, I’ve got a solution to this circular firing squad mess. How about you make your own, personal and career decisions. I’ll make mine. Palin, Obama and Edwards will make theirs. And we’ll just agree that we don’t all see eye-to-eye on work and parenthood and that we all stand alone in our own shoes.

If the mothers who are so quick to attack one another’s choices would instead channel their energies into something other than insulting one another, think of all the time that’d be left to do something more constructive.

Meredith O’Brien is the author of “A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum” and can be found blogging about parenthood at the Picket Fence Post ( and writing about pop culture.