Anyone who thought the heated debate over working mothers had worked itself out over the past couple of decades was, as it turns out, profoundly mistaken. Sarah Palin, a double shot of espresso down the hatch of the Republican ticket, has become a lightning rod for both censure and praise of ambitious mothers. Whether it's the volume of Palin's children (five), or the fact that her youngest has Down syndrome, or even that her oldest daughter is pregnant at 17—a chorus of questions have been raised about the appropriateness of Palin's priorities and political ambition.
It's a reminder of the obstacles that any woman who puts a high priority on professional success will encounter. But Palin's vice presidential run also shines a light on the challenges facing many of the nation's working women, who may be unable to relate to her incredible work-life balance.
Here are four issues raised in relation to Palin's run and a look at how they relate to the questions confronting the rest of the country's working women:
The job will get shortchanged: Working women are expected to be good mothers but then often must cope with concerns that decent mothering limits the energy, time, and focus necessary for decent professional work. Palin, who hid her most recent pregnancy from the public until the third trimester, said in an interview with People magazine: "I didn't want Alaskans to fear I would not be able to fulfill my duties."
She's not alone in her concern. Palin's candidacy is bringing out the pressures and criticisms working mothers encounter "all the time," says Anne Ladky, executive director of the advocacy organization Women Employed. "All the time, they experience that question: Oh, if you have children, you must not be fully dedicated here."
Maria Bailey, founder of BlueSuitMom.com, says a recent survey on her website found 74 percent of women feel they can relate to Palin. "They're telling me that they don't think what she's doing is any harder than what they have to do," Bailey says.
The kids will get shortchanged: It may seem odd for parenting skills to affect professional reputation. But consider the criticism lobbed at Palin, as people evaluate whether it's appropriate for her to set such high professional goals when she has five children, including one with special needs. One woman told the Colorado Springs Gazette: "There's lots of women out there saying, 'Are you serious? You have five children! How can you possibly be the vice president and take care of your family?' "
This criticism, that "you must be willfully neglecting your children," is one that working mothers in high-powered or time-consuming jobs also hear all the time, Ladky says. The problem with the debate about Palin and her ambition is that so many working women don't have a choice between working and staying home. The matter of Palin's run is "sort of a pointless question" in the larger context of working women, she says.
Babies in the office: Palin famously returned to work three days after giving birth in April. To do it, she kept her son in her office and discreetly fed him during meetings. More companies are breaking down the barriers between parenting and working, according to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, which lists more than 100 organizations that allow mothers to bring babies to the office until they reach 6 or 8 months, or until they are able to crawl.
In reality, this trend is largely anecdotal, Ladky says. Palin's ability to blend child rearing and work is, by far, the exception, she says: "This is so rare that it's hardly worth mentioning." Companies generally try to find ways to accommodate mothers when they are at the executive level, but the vast majority of women are expected to manage the balance on their own.
Lipstick on a pit bull: Republicans and Democrats have been consistent on one aspect of Palin's package: She's a looker. The former beauty queen, who trumpets her role as a "hockey mom," has a political history of fierce fiscal conservatism and a reputation for being tough. Palin's balance of ambition, seriousness, and attractiveness is striking a chord with working women. "They like her because finally it's OK to be a strong woman and be attractive and soft at the same time," Bailey says. "What's been perceived as 'bitchy,' as a strong woman, is now OK."