Sarah Palin and the ‘Mommy War’

In America, where teenage pregnancy is a political issue and working moms subject to moral debate, the choice of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential pick has ignited a Mommy War.

Questions about Palin’s qualifications were raised almost as soon as presidential candidate John McCain shocked the political world by picking the relatively unknown Alaska governor to be his running mate last week.

The emergence of personal details has fueled the debate.

News that Palin, a conservative Christian, is running for the country’s No. 2 office while parenting both an infant son with Down Syndrome and a 17-year-old pregnant daughter has sparked both condemnation and commendation.

Should a 44-year-old mother of five, including a newborn with special needs and a pregnant teenager, take on a job that will keep her away from her home for much of the next two months to eight years?

Nearly two-thirds of American mothers with preschool-aged children were in the labor force in 2003, according to the latest government figures. Women rich and poor, famous or not, grapple with the same issues and public perceptions.

The Republican Party’s conservative base, having worked to co-opt moral issues for their political cause, so far has rallied around Palin and her daughter despite its promotion of abstinence education and traditional families.

The daughter will have the child and marry the father.

"I can’t get past the part of the scripture that says it is the responsibility of the parents to raise the child. But I do believe that some parents can raise their children well and not stay home all the time," said Lindsay Matlock, an anti-abortion volunteer at this week’s Republican convention in Minnesota.

"My only reservation would be that her son has Down Syndrome and … her being away so much," said Matlock, 21.

Dr. Bill Maier, vice president and psychologist in residence for the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, came to the candidate’s defense, saying: "Gov. Palin seems to have been able to maintain a balance between work and family."


The very fact that Americans are debating whether a woman with a new baby should be in a demanding job galls Carol Evans, president and chief executive of Working Mother Media, which publishes Working Mother magazine.

"The fact that the United States is the only developed country without paid maternity leave should be front and center, not whether (Palin) can go back to work with a four-month old," said Evans, noting that the average American working mother returns to work 11 weeks after giving birth.

A question that emerges for Americans of all political stripes is: Would any of this be asked if Palin was a man?

"If we say a woman can’t have a career when her children are babies, we are discriminating based on gender," said Democrat Barbara Matousek, a 41-year-old Wisconsin engineer and working mother of an 8-month-old.

She was concerned, however, about Palin’s other child.

"The thing I have trouble reconciling is how any parent, male or female, could agree to take on this very public position at a time when their child is so fragile," she said. "Being a pregnant, unmarried, 17-year-old high school student would be hard enough without the entire world watching."

Some voters saw authenticity in Palin’s life. They said the fact that Palin had a pregnant teenaged daughter showed the family was normal.

"This is happening all over the United States. I think people will identify with her. People want to vote for people who are like them," said Pat Lynch, 42, a Republican and a commodities trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The teenage birth rate in the United States is among the highest in the developed world. Sex education and the availability of contraception varies state to state.

Kansas Republican Jacqueline McMahon said Palin’s children — newborn or pregnant — should not be an issue.

"If she is qualified to do the job … (the rest) is totally none of our business," said McMahon, a 39-year-old mother of two and business owner. She added: "Barack Obama’s mother … had him when she was 18. I think it is a nonissue."

The birth of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama to a teenaged mother has received little attention, although Obama himself has raised it. Debate about his ability to balance work and parenthood of his two young daughters, aged 7 and 10, has barely been raised.