The XX Factor

Politics and Parenting

Actually, Jess , Michelle Obama shouldered the bulk of the parenting beginning as early as 2002, when Barack Obama-already holding an Illinois Senate seat that required regular out-of-town trips-cast his eye on what would soon be an open seat for U.S. Senate. It only got harder for her from there, as he entered a years-long stretch of incessant campaigning. Both Obamas have acknowledged that his political absences created a problem for their marriage. Michelle Obama has said that eventually she realized she didn’t want to be an angry wife forever, so she set about building a network of friends (and her own mom) who could help with what was, for all intents and purposes, single parenting. Happily, for them, life in the White House has provided much more family togetherness, even as their staffers are scrambling to preserve time with their own children and spouses.

Just as you say, Obama was never seriously criticized for running-hard-for public office, often while holding down yet another public office, while his girls were little. People assume this is what male politicians do. And precisely because his wife did such a good job making sure the girls felt secure and loved, Obama was able to offer up the tableau of his family at the 2008 Democratic national convention and elsewhere, something that helped normalize a candidate with an unusual name and an exotic background in the eyes of some skeptical or confused voters. So he got to have his cake and eat it too, in the sense that he got to spend a great deal of time pursuing his political career, away from his children, and still present an image of domestic unity. Of course, the cost for him was high: He hated being away from his kids, and when he won his U.S. Senate seat, Michelle decided to keep the household in Chicago where her support network was.

So there is clearly a double standard if Sarah Palin is to be called out for outsourcing some parenting responsibility even as she assembles her kids on stage. I don’t think there is any question that female politicians are judged more harshly for letting their careers create “distance” between them and their children. Conversely, that Todd Palin’s hands-on caregiving could be seen as negative would be like criticizing Michelle Obama for picking up the parenting slack. And Todd has pitched in without benefit of the sort of state-sponsored paternity leave that those lucky men, and their lucky female partners, can count on in Sweden! Canned-goods fight or no canned-goods fight, I am fascinated by Todd Palin and his role in the household as well as his wife’s career. The part of the Vanity Fair piece that struck me was this: “Todd hands Sarah her speech and walks her to the stage. He pokes the air with one finger. She mimes the gesture, whips around, strides on four-inch heels to stage center, and turns it on.” What was that finger-poking thing? Does he support her or control her? Is it sexist to ask that? Probably. Either way, his level of paternal involvement is what any female politician of young children is going to need, to get ahead.

Even so, just as Hanna says : If Palin is going to build an entire feminist “Mama Grizzly” theory based on the argument that fierce maternal instincts qualify a woman to protect the interests of voters, then her mothering style will naturally invite scrutiny. What does she expect-to be able to have her cake and eat it, too?

While we are on the topic of political children : Caroline Giuliani, 21, appeared in court this week after being arrested for allegedly shoplifting makeup from a Manhattan Sephora store. You have to feel sorry for her, on some level: Her status as daughter of the former mayor and prosecutor and presidential hopeful is the only reason her case drew headlines. It was agreed that the charges will be dismissed if she does community service and stays out of trouble. There is no suggestion that she got preferential treatment. According to the Times , the DA’s office “said it handled Ms. Giuliani’s case no differently than most involving first-time offenders accused of low-level crimes.”

It’s hard to ignore the irony here, though. As mayor, Rudolph Giuliani was an adherent of the ” broken windows ” theory of crime-the view that small offenses can lead to social mayhem, and that zero tolerance should be shown to petty lawbreakers. Yesterday’s story notes that her father was not seen to be accompanying her as she left the courthouse. Probably a good thing, since today’s New York prosecutors seem a tad more merciful than Giuliani, scourge of squeegee-men and turnstile jumpers, typically was when dealing with the perpetrators of, yes, low-level crimes.