Admiring Palin (and hating her for it)

Lisa Belkin says the politician made her feel like a good mom -- and then a guilty mom.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published October 6, 2008 9:10PM (EDT)

This morning, I got an e-mail from a co-worker with the tabloid heading: "Belkin is back." Belkin as in Lisa Belkin, the New York Times Magazine writer who coined the phrase "opt-out revolution" with her controversial 2003 cover story; and back as in she's back to the magazine's motherhood beat. Just take a wild guess as to who inspired the comeback.

Yeah. Sarah Palin.

As many already have, Belkin observes that Palin -- and her decision to run for vice president, despite having a 5-month-old special needs child and pregnant 17-year-old daughter -- has sparked a national conversation about motherhood and female ambition. "All around me, women were speaking of things their friends had never known," Belkin writes. "It is not that they hadn't told anyone, but now, like me, they felt it was important (and permissible) to tell everyone." In Belkin's case, she felt Palin gave her permission to talk about how five years ago her husband "was offered a prestigious, challenging plum of a job in another country," but turned it down because the family was struggling at the time. This type of sharing has served to help Belkin and other women "figure out where we stand," she argues.

Originally, Palin caused Belkin to identify herself as a woman who would never put "ambition above the needs of my family" -- the implication being, of course, that Palin is that type of woman. But, gradually, Belkin came to wonder: "Should I have been more like Palin -- strap the baby on your back and forge the raging river?" Palin stirred up all her original guilt ("that my husband had to give up something he would have loved in part because I couldn't handle it") and shame ("that other families could have toughed this out but that ours was too fragile"). "In the end," though, after sifting through this emotional silt, Belkin says she "grudgingly admired [Palin's] fortitude and understood that her way was not mine" and adds that "you often learn who you are by realizing who you are not."

Which, well, kind of feels a lot like her original response -- that she, unlike Palin, would never sacrifice her family for her own ambition -- only with a touch of reluctant respect. It seems there are two phases in what she calls an "endless" female effort to "figure out where we stand." Phase 1: Defend your personal choices by passing judgment on the choices made by other women. Phase 2: Wrestle privately with guilt and shame over your choices, and seethe with jealousy over other women's ability to make the choices that you did not. And then alternate eternally between Phase 1 and Phase 2: Confidently define yourself in opposition to other women's choices, while reluctantly and resentfully defending their distinct path.

I find that ... really effin' depressing. Women are no doubt encouraged to end up in that insecure, circular quest for self-definition and security. There is a culture of co-rumination in which women, in private and public, return again and again to negative feelings -- guilt, shame, resentment and jealousy -- about their choices as mothers.

But maybe, just maybe, there's a light at the end of this tunnel. There is, after all, an unusual range of parenting paths on display in this election -- there is Michelle Obama (she left a high-powered career for her kids), Todd Palin (a stay-at-home dad) and Joe Biden (recently, he beautifully defended his experience as a single father). Here's hoping we're all on a path toward getting over our gendered judgments of each others' parenting choices, already.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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