Thursday, October 16, 2008

Mother of the Year

The provenance of the above photograph is unknown. It arrived in my mailbox this morning, shorn of context. (For all I know, Piper Palin's face -- and it is her face, I checked -- was Photoshopped in there. Or maybe the extended finger was. Who knows?)

But this glaring little girl with her middle finger defiantly held aloft does hit a sore point with me -- one I've been meaning to write about since the Palin nomination was first announced, but held off on because in backchannel discussions with several other bloggers (mostly women), my take on this just poured gasoline on some of the most vicious flame wars I've ever been embroiled in.

The argument was over whether or not it's fair to consider Sarah Palin's family in assessing her fitness for office. I think it is. And before you accuse me of rank sexism or focusing on things that don't really matter to her performance on the job, please take a deep breath, step back, and let me explain where I'm coming from on this.

Maybe it's just me, but I've always used a candidate's family life as one important criterion in evaluating them. This applies even with (especially with!) male candidates. I figure that nobody on earth knows more about what you're made of than your own kids do. They know if you're trustworthy. They know if you're a hypocrite. They know -- better than anyone -- if you're responsible and fair in your approach to power and authority. If you're lost in your ambition, out of touch with reality, or just plain psychotic, they know that, too. And they tend to do a very bad job of lying about it -- kids just aren't very good at keeping up pretenses all that long.

On the other hand, a politician who has managed to turn out some fine human beings is, more than likely, a fine human being himself. (After all, those kids have to learn their decency from somewhere.) Chelsea Clinton reflects very well on Bill and Hillary. Joe Biden's kids are a credit to him, too. On the other hand, the Bush twins' lack of discipline or respect for others bespoke ineffective and probably dysfunctional parenting. They were an obvious warning sign about the flaws in W's character that more of us should have heeded.

I'll freely grant that even the most functional families usually end up with one or two black sheep, and that there are intractable limits on what even the most attentive parents can do to control basic teenage stupidity. (I've made the midnight trip to that ER, thanks. So has Al Gore.) But where problem children are concerned, what matters is neither the problem nor the child; but how effectively the parents choose to respond to what they're dealt. And on this front, Sarah Palin teeters right off those four-inch heels and straight onto her butt.

My metaphor for parenthood was, admittedly, absorbed in the trenches of Silicon Valley, where parenthood was another checkboxed task on the lifetime to-do list -- a project to be undertaken with careful planning; overseen with the same professional due diligence one brought to one's work; and completed on time and under budget, with perfect little replicas of Mom and Dad being shipped out to the Ivies on a tight 18-year schedule.

I should say here that I never really liked that metaphor. And I came to deeply loathe it when my son turned up at six with severe dyslexia. In the eyes of the other mothers, I was no longer a key player on the corporate team. Producing such a defective product put me permanently off the fast track. Worse, I suspect some of them were afraid that whatever my kid had was catching, and that hanging around him at the playground would eventually doom their kids' shot at Stanford. We were, in short, treated like a material threat to their business objectives.

Over time, I found myself increasingly isolated (my deepening illness didn't help, either). Many people have lifelong friends they bonded with while raising their children together. I can't name a single one; and I blame this professionalized attitude toward parenthood in no small part for that.

Still, brutal as it is, that's the culture I came out of; and that's the standard I use to judge Todd and Sarah Palin. Specifically: if I were a project manager who had a work project going sideways, I would owe it to my boss, employees, clients, and customers to clear the decks and focus on getting it back on track. I'd cancel all non-essential work and personal commitments, dig up additional resources to throw at the problem, work nights and weekends, hire consultants, and do whatever else it took until the crisis was passed. Because that's what pros do.

And when I look at the Palin clan, I see a lot of things going sideways. Face it: their kids are a mess. They've got one son who, according to the National Enquirer, had to sign up for Iraq or face the rap for dealing cocaine. They've got a pregnant 16-year-old daughter. They've got a special-needs baby who is going to suck down more time, money, and energy than they probably even realize right now. And, apparently, they've got a seven-year-old who could use some immediate hands-on instruction on appropriate behavior in public.

But what I don't see is that kind of professional-level focus and commitment in their response to these problems. If I've got a kid dealing coke, I'm sorry: that's a family crisis of major proportions, and my husband and I need to knuckle down and devote ourselves to mounting the most effective response we can. We may or may not succeed -- addiction is a bitch -- but we owe it to our kid and ourselves to do clear the decks and do everything possible. Likewise, teenage pregnancy is, by definition, a crisis situation. Not to mention a downsy baby. Any one of these would send an average family into overdrive. Three at once is God's way of telling you -- both Mom and Dad -- that no matter what else is going on in your world, you're needed at home. Now.

Any project manager who had this kind of triple-header and responded to it by taking off on a three-month business trip wouldn't be the company's first candidate when it came time for raises, bonuses, or promotions. In fact, that choice would probably put most of us on short list for the next round of layoffs.

I'd have a lot more sympathy for their struggles if I got the sense that they were giving these issues the attention I feel they deserve. And also if this dripping domestic mess wasn't being held up to the country as the living portrait of American Christian Family Values. It's true enough that this is what red-state families too often look like -- but those of us who've worked hard to create functional blue-state families should loudly reject the idea that this should be some kind of desirable cultural norm.

As someone who considers parenthood a serious profession, who has devoted the past two decades to doing it carefully and well, and who has a proven track record of producing excellent human beings, I think I've earned the right to assess other people's achievements in the same field. And whether it's real or not, the photo above of dear little Piper flipping that kid the bird pretty much summarizes my concerns about Sarah Palin's family. It also says plenty (and none of it good) about what kind of authority figure she'd be to the rest of the nation.