Palin and Working Moms

In this Associated Press article from October 1, 2008, working mothers were asked how Sarah Palin has impacted or will impact their lives. I thought this was interesting because even though I think Palin’s politics are a disaster, I actually think that her example has heartened working mothers. To have achieved as much as she has politically while being a woman, wife and mother, is an inspiration to us all. Having said that, I need to qualify my praise; she is not your typical working mother.

For one thing, she appears to have the full support of her husband. How much actual hands-on child rearing he does is not clear, but it is common in large families for the older children to be pressed into service as well. Not only that, but from all accounts, the Palins are not your typical middle-class family either. They have resources that millions of middle-class families do not have. That is not a bad thing, nor something that we should begrudge them, but it does put them in a whole other segment of the middle class than a family that is trying to make it on $50,000 a year. Being able to afford child care is probably not an issue for the Palins.

Palin herself gives off the impression of being a highly enthusiastic, energetic person. Not all of us are so blessed. Her reputation as “Sarah Barracuda” has served her well in her chosen career. But she does show what a woman can do if she is determined enough–and has the support of her political mentors. Because we all know that Palin didn’t make it in politics by her efforts–and money–alone. She has been groomed for the job just as every other politician is, including John McCain and Barack Obama. A supportive political party and campaign can work wonders for a woman’s career. It’s just getting there in the first place. Most of us do not have those sort of contacts.

Another lucky break has been the fact that Palin has been a big fish in a small pond. It might sound strange to call Alaska a “small pond,” but population-wise it is. And she started her career on the small stage of Wasilla, Alaska. That town is so small, even being a city councillor would carry more influence than say, being a mayor of a larger city. But then she went on to become the mayor as well. A high percentage of working mothers in this country are small cogs in huge machines, clustered as they are in the serving and helping professions and under-represented in management positions and boardrooms.

By virtue of the kind of job she has had, Palin has been able to work while having and caring for children pretty handily. Generous provisions for maternity leave, flexibility in her work day, and the ability to pass off some of her expenses and chores to to the government has made her situation totally atypical. Again, I’m not begrudging her these perks, only pointing out that the average working mother’s situation is not so advantageous.

Palin reminds me of another super-mom, Angelina Jolie. When we wonder at Jolie’s ability to be the mother of even more children than Palin (six) and a movie star and all-round celebrity, we have to remind ourselves that money and power do make a difference. So cheer all you want for Sarah Palin–or Angelina Jolie–but don’t expect to be able to reproduce the same results in your own life.

When Palin says that she is for the average American, I hope that includes the average working mother (and not just mothers of special needs babies, either). If she is not for the same things that MomsRising is for, then she is no friend of American motherhood. (See my post, “What About Mothers?” from May 8, 2008.) MomsRising is for Maternity and Paternity Leave, Open Flexible Work, TV and After School, Health Care For All Kids, Excellent Child Care and Realistic and Fair Wages.

If these seem like modest goals, then think again: they are rarely adequately addressed in any woman’s life. Most women get no or very little maternity leave and it is often unpaid; fathers almost never get paternity leave, paid or not; businesses refuse to make concessions to mothers’ needs, even when they would actually benefit from them; latchkey programs are in short supply across the nation, as is affordable, quality child care; health care is a luxury even for America’s children, and realistic and fair wages–well, how fair can they be when women make 67-85% of what a man makes for the same or an equitable job?

Where does Palin stand on these issues? Just because her own life illustrates the presence of all these “perks” doesn’t mean that the average mom’s does. Palin needs to put her political power where her mouth is. She’s either for the average “Jill” or she is not.