Sunday, August 31, 2008

Palin in Comparison: Tearing Down the Working Mom Facade

Yesterday I was listening to a panel on one of those Sunday morning political commentary shows dissect McCain's new VP pick when one of the panelists said,

"Clearly here's a working mom who's figured out the balance thing. I mean she gave a speech while she was in labor!"

Ignoring for a moment the ridiculous notion that being in labor while giving a speech is somehow a good example of balance, the danger of Sarah Palin's VP candidacy slowly began to dawn on me. At first blush, regardless of whether you agree with her politics or not, having a working mom in the highest ranks of our government seems like a potentially great thing. But the words "Clearly here's a working mom who's figured out the balance thing," and the reality of what that perception could mean to working moms everywhere sent shivers down my spine.

Fast-forward to a McCain/Palin administration. Will this administration recognize the impossibilities of trying to balance work and family? Will they fight for desperately-needed policies like paid family leave, flexible work policies and affordable childcare? Really? The mom who gave a speech and then flew home while in labor? The woman who gave birth and was back to work three days later? Clearly here's a working mom who's figured out the balance thing -- she was a city councilwoman, mayor and Governor all while raising a beautiful family of five. If she's figured out how to do it all without all of those costly policies, this administration is sure to argue, then surely you can too!

Of course those of us who do the working mom thing know that if you peeled back the carefully crafted "working mom who's figured it all out" facade, you'd see a very different picture. You'd see the chaos of the Palin household and the extreme stress working motherhood brings. You'd see kids missing their mom when she's out meeting the demands of work. You'd see mom impossibly torn between being there for her kids and being present in her job. You'd see her attempt amazing feats of strength and will, usually at the risk of her own health and well-being (like making a speech while in labor), to do the very best she can to meet the demands of her life. You'd see the strain of a high-demand job on a marriage and partnership to which even the strongest unions are not immune.

I know this because I've constructed my own carefully crafted "I've got it all under control" facade for years. I arrive at work everyday looking stylish and put together, never letting on that it took me hours to get ready because I spent most of that time making sure kids had their homework signed or their Brownie vests safely packed in their backpacks. I pile make-up on over the dark circles under my eyes to cover the fact that I exist on just a few hours sleep each night so that I can administer the children's lives after work before switching back to my work laptop to meet professional deadlines. I live in constant fear that a kid will get sick on a day that I have an important meeting or an important meeting will pop up at the same time I'm supposed to be in my kid's classroom. And while I pretend that I'm rolling with the punches and this is all a breeze, Hubby has seen plenty of major meltdowns to the contrary.

Why do we do that? Why do we pretend that working momdom's a cinch when we're barely holding it together behind the scenes? Is it because we hate to admit defeat or is it all a vicious cycle? We see other mothers doing the same and we think, "Well, if she can do it, I should be able to do it too." And typical of women, we then blame ourselves for our shortcomings -- like it's our fault it's too hard -- we must be doing something wrong.

The only thing we're doing wrong is not letting on how hard it is and how it affects our health and well-being. For a long time I was the only working mom in my department at work, but recently we've had a baby boom among my colleagues. I think about those young moms -- there are ten of them now, seven who work full time -- and worry that I've set an impossibly high standard for them. By not letting on how much I stuggle to make it to work and make it through the day, have I done them a disservice? Do they look at me and say, "She's been able to do it all these years, why can't I? What am I doing wrong?"

In this month's More magazine, actress Felicity Huffman talks about being a working mom,

"People ask me, 'How do you balance being a working mom?' And I go, 'I really don't balance it. It's a constant struggle, and I haven't figured out how to do it with grace and no guilt.'"

I loved that quote -- we need more candor like this not only for our fellow working moms, but for our employers and government to understand the reality of what we face. Palin's facade could be the ultimate disservice to working moms and a good excuse for her not-so-progressive boss to keep us right where we are today.


Anonymous said...

It's like 50 year old movie stars who are still thin and youthful looking. That didn't just happen on its own.

The idea of balance is ridiculous. No one's life is in a perpetual state of good alignment.

Huffman's statement should be the pat answer of all women in the spotlight.

Anissa Mayhew said...

You are so spot on with this one. I know that we are our own worst enemies when it comes to judging each other and setting unachievable expectations. I'm doing an interview soon on this topic and I'm totally going to use that Felicity Huffman quote because I think it encompasses the eternal struggle.

the mama bird diaries said...

This is an EXCELLENT post. Such good points.

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BlondeMomBlog (Jamie) said...

I've been thinking this week that so much that is coming to light for working moms is "Damned if you do, damned if you don't!"

I work 30 hours a week and I'm still trying to find balance! ;)

I'd love to read how she does it. From what I have read about her family it sounds like they are very down to earth and not pretentious at I am assuming no nannies for them, although if she gets in the White House it will be interesting to see how she balances it all.

Any way...great thoughts, great post!

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PleaseRecycle said...

Great, great post!

I thought I could achieve "balance" by working part time only to discover that I wasn't achieving what I wanted to at work or at home.

Oh, if only we could just stop the "career clock" when our babies are little because there is no way to "do it all" and be satisfied with the results. Something has to give.

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PunditMom said...

The McCain campaign will never let us see that picture. But that is the one we all know and hope that others don't see. If we could be more honest with each other about the realities of working motherhood, imagine how great that would be for everyone, including our kids.

MojoMom said...

Amy, great post! Lots of food for thought...I am mulling over Palin now, too.

Sarah said...

Wouldn't it be great if employers and businesses would take the initiative to bring about better working experiences for moms? Wouldn't it be great if we (women) could choose among employers based on the environment they strive to create for working moms? Wouldn't it be great if our employers would recognize how productive we could be if they could help us out with daycare and flexible work schedules?
In my ideal world, I would rather see an employer driven change, than another top-down, government issued change.

Anonymous said...

What a beautifully written post. I think we don't want to admit it's all so hard because that could be the straw that blows the whole thing to bits. I was screaming YES YES where you wrote that giving a speech in labor is NOT actually a good example of balance. Well done!