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Posted at 10:38 AM ET, 01/31/2012

Santorum and the bulletproof glass ceiling: Would we be as understanding of a mom?

Rick Santorum was back on the campaign trail after taking a day and a half off to attend to Bella, his 3-year-old daughter whose ongoing struggle with Trisomy 18 sent her to the ICU. Nearly fatal pneumonia, he said, had put his little girl on a ventilator.

Santorum canceled his appearances Sunday and part of Monday and asked his oldest daughter, Elizabeth, to fill in for him instead. At a rally in Florida, Elizabeth explained to the crowd that her father “wishes he could be with all of you today,” but he is “exercising his most
Elizabeth Santorum, eldest daughter of Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, campaigns for her father in a hanger at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport in Sarasota, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012. Santorum was with his 3-year-old hospitalized daughter Isabella. (Paul Sancya - AP)
important role, which is being a dad.”

As Santorum stepped away briefly from the campaign, messages of support and prayers flooded in for him and his family. In a message on her Facebook page, Sarah Palin (herself the mother of a son with Down syndrome) thanked Santorum and his wife, Karen, for “living the Christ-like example of sacrifice and right priorities” and called Bella “a perfect child in an imperfect world.”

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Obama adviser David Axelrod, whose daughter suffers from epilepsy, spoke out to support the former senator, who had been scheduled to be on the show before Bella became ill. “Let me also add my prayers and thoughts for Senator Santorum and his child. I have gone through problems with a child and my heart goes out to him and his family.”

The warmth and support is only right, of course.

But it also begs the question of whether, say, Michele Bachmann, or any other mother in politics, would be similarly praised for her devotion to her ailing child, as Santorum has been, or whether she would instead be criticized for campaigning while others saw to the needs of her child.

We know the answer, actually. Sarah Palin found out for herself three years ago, after proudly bringing her son Trig onto the stage at the Republican National Convention, only to have her “priorities” eviscerated, mostly by other women, for splitting her attentions between a high-profile run for office and her disabled son.

The most notable of all of Palin critics was The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, herself the mother of a special-needs child, who wrote a column called “Palin’s Pregnancy Problem” during the Republican National Convention, shortly after John McCain unveiled Palin as his running mate.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin visits the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Aug. 12, 2011. (Charles Dharapak)

Quinn wrote of Palin, “She is the mother of five children, one of them a four-month-old with Down syndrome. Her first priority has to be her children. When the phone rings at three in the morning and one of her children is really sick, what choice will she make?”

In a follow-up column, Quinn said there’s no question that women should be able to work outside the home, but of Palin in particular, she said, “I would like to hear what women think of her priorities.”

While a debate raged over Palin’s fitness as a mother for her five children, no such conversation has ignited over Santorum and his seven.

Supporters at the Santorum campaign events I attended in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina typically singled him out first and foremost as “a family man,” not in spite of Bella’s condition but because of it. They see in Santorum a man fighting for a purpose higher than politics, even in trying personal times.

And Santorum believes the same himself. In a video he shot for his campaign after Bella became ill in October, he said he feels “called” to run for president. “I’m trying to walk in the path that God is leading me in, and a big part of that is the responsibility you have as a husband and a father,” he said, describing Bella as “a very special girl in need of a lot of care.”

In an interview with The Post’s Melinda Henneberger, he admitted that doing both has led to a series of “gut-wrenching” choices, like missing a surgery for Bella to participate in a Republican debate, or deciding whether he should leave his hotel in Iowa to host a town hall meeting or stay in the room to care for Bella while she was sick. (He went to the town hall, but stayed up all night with her before and after.)

While his love for Bella and the rest of his family is never in doubt, the uncomfortable, and largely unspoken, push-and-pull embedded in Santorum’s family values candidacy is whether he is really putting them first by choosing a path that so often keeps him away from home, often when his family might need him most. That is only for Santorum and his family to decide.

But the question we have to ask ourselves is whether the praise for Santorum, compared to the derision for Palin, simply reflects our different views about the roles of mothers and fathers, or whether a woman running for the presidency, and even the vice presidency, must only apply with grown, happy and healthy children campaigning by her side. That prerequisite would make the glass ceiling downright bulletproof.

Patricia Murphy is the Atlanta-based editor of Citizen Jane Politics and a contributor to the Daily Beast. Previously, she covered Congress for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter at @1PatriciaMurphy

By  |  10:38 AM ET, 01/31/2012

Tags:  Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Bella Santorum, family values, Sarah Palin, Sally Quinn, GOP primary, Trisomy 18, Down syndrome, motherhood

 
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