By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
It's quite a compelling image: An accomplished -- even glamorous -- working mother, projecting to the world that she can and does have it all: five children, a successful career and a husband who doesn't mind being Mr. Mom. Oh, and she's going to be a grandmother, and her infant has special needs, and she's running for vice president.
The facts of life for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin are fascinating and seem, frankly, exhausting. Her children range in age from 18 years to 4 months. Track, the oldest, recently enlisted in the Army and is headed for Iraq. Daughter Willow, 14, is in high school, and Piper is 7. The baby, Trig, was born in April with Down syndrome. Daughter Bristol, 17, is pregnant and is going to get married, her parents announced yesterday. That news added fuel to an already heated debate on blogs and in the street about the appropriate balance between child-rearing and working -- and whether Palin can balance the extraordinary demands of both without shortchanging either.
Within two hours of The Washington Post reporting news of the pregnancy on its Web site, more than 1,000 people had weighed in, arguing back and forth about whether Palin, 44, is placing her own political ambition above the needs of her family.
"She should not be held to a different standard than the Democratic nominee," said McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt yesterday. "No male candidate would ever be asked that question. . . . I think women in America are likely to be angered by the double standards. This isn't the 1950s."
In Michigan yesterday, Sen. Barack Obama told reporters: "How a family deals with issues and teenage children, that shouldn't be the topic of our politics."
Palin has carefully portrayed herself throughout her career as someone committed to both family and profession -- and tough enough to handle both. She made a show of dismissing the chef at the governor's mansion saying she wanted to do her own cooking, and that the kids were old enough to make their own sandwiches. And no one can recall her ever having a full-time babysitter.
"You walk into her office and Piper is sitting there, the baby is in the crib -- that's just the way it is. This is how she lives her life. Someone who was in a meeting with her recently said she was discreetly nursing Trig," said Palin's biographer Kaylene Johnson.
From interviews with those closest to Palin emerges a description of a hectic lifestyle, but one in which the hominess and rural community of Alaska have enabled her to have her kids around her while she works and have offered a deep bench of family and friends for child-care support. She has shown up to meetings and news conferences carrying Trig in a baby pouch.
She and her husband kept their family house in the small town of Wasilla, where her parents, three siblings and closest friends live. Most of the year, she is able to commute back and forth from Anchorage daily, except when the legislature is in session in Juneau. Todd Palin is currently on leave from his job as an oil field worker, making it possible for him to be a full-time dad, said two friends. Sarah Palin's mother said in an interview Sunday that Palin's two youngest girls, Willow and Piper, attended school in Juneau for the second semester last year when the legislature was in session to be near their mother. The baby was also with Palin.
Even in the story of Trig's birth, Palin paints herself as feisty and fearless. She told the local media that she noticed her amniotic fluid was leaking right before she gave a speech in Texas last April. After her keynote address to the National Governors Association, and obtaining the consent of her doctor, Palin boarded an eight-hour flight to Anchorage. She never told the airline she was in labor. She and her husband drove 45 minutes to her hometown medical center; the baby was born seven hours later.
The McCain campaign said it could not confirm that Palin was still breastfeeding Trig, but the governor said as much in a interview with People magazine on Friday. "What I've had to do . . . is, in the middle of the night, put down the BlackBerrys and pick up the breast pump," she worked into an answer to a question about whether she was a morning person.
Palin kept her pregnancy secret for seven months, stunning even her staff with the announcement. She pointedly said at the time she would not miss work. "I had Piper on a Monday, and I was back to work on a Tuesday. I even brought her to work with me," she said, referring to the birth of her daughter.
And, in fact, after Trig's birth, she was at her desk within a few days, baby in tow and crib in her office.
Johnson said the governor waited to reveal her pregnancy to avoid exactly what is going on now -- judgments from strangers saying, "How can you bring a baby into the world knowing how much energy it takes and still think you can run a state?"
"She's heard that her whole life -- the challenges of being a female and mother in the workforce," Palin's husband, Todd, said in the same interview with People a few days ago. "I remember the first time she ran for mayor one of her fellow council members told her you can't run because you've got three negatives: Track, Bristol and Willow. Those are the three kids we had at the time. So when you tell her that kind of stuff, she just gets fired up."
Although a clear majority of mothers today are in the workforce, studies show that the pendulum has swung back, and most are skeptical about mothers working full time; they see part-time jobs as the ideal. A recent survey by Pew Research reported that only 11 percent of working mothers believe it's good for children when the mother works full time.
Kristi Hamrick, a spokeswoman for the conservative Campaign for Family Values, dismissed as "stupid" any suggestions that Palin's family choices or her daughter's pregnancy would make her unsuitable to conservative voters. "This is an American family out there living out their values and doing the best job they can. Values voters understand that women who are mothers make family a priority but that many of us need to work and want to work," she said.
Trig Paxton Van Palin could end up being the best-traveled infant in America. Campaign sources said that the baby would be with his mother a good part of the time, and that arrangements are being made to have a babysitter travel with them. Confirms grandmother Sally Heath, "I can't imagine she would leave him behind."