Before I reveal the dark depths of my judgmental soul, a few general points. I think we do have special duties to our children. I think of it this way—there are bits of the world to which people have special connections of various kinds. The connections make some bits of the world more “my responsibility” than others. The connection in this case, of course, is that parents create their kids. That generates special duties.
Before I get around to examples, I also want to stress that parents needn’t sacrifice themselves to their children. My life counts no less than my two children’s. Furthermore, it’s absurd to “go nuclear” and think of oneself as living inside a family bubble. Yes, I have special responsibilities to my kids, but there are another seven billion people out there who aren’t less worthy, objectively speaking. Finally, when I doubt someone as a parent, that’s just one judgment among many, not necessarily the final verdict “all things considered.”
All that being said, I do find it odd that Sarah Palin wants to turn over such a huge chunk of her time to politics, leaving (presumably) so little time for her newborn and the rest of her kids. But I don’t reserve my skepticism for mothers. Before Sarah Palin burst onto the national stage, I had thought the same thing about Barack Obama. His little daughters cannot have seen a whole lot of their father in the last two years, and if he wins the presidency, they’ll see even less of him.
So yes, I do make these kinds of judgments about fathers as much as mothers. It’s not just political parents who have duties to their kids, of course. An avid reader of books about mountaineering, I wonder about all the parents who venture up Everest, knowing they have a pretty high chance of not coming back down (something like 10%, I think). Rob Hall was one of the climbers who lost his life in the ill-fated climb Jon Krakauer recounts in his book Into Thin Air. He went up the mountain with a wife very pregnant, creating a considerable risk of having fathered a fatherless child. Closer to home, I wonder about academics who drag their children from city to city as they climb the ladder a few rungs at a time to greater prestige and success. I’m not at all convinced they’re doing the right thing by their children.
Would it be dreadful if I worried just a tad more about ambitious mothers? It seems unfair, but maybe it’s simply realistic. If Barack Obama is a semi-absent father, it’s pretty safe to assume his wife makes up for it. That’s what women do. Even in two-career families, 85% of mothers take primary responsibility for children. Is it equally safe to think Sarah Palin’s kids will have a devoted father who fills in for her? It’s possible, but no, it’s not as safe an assumption.
I don’t think doubts about Sarah Palin as a mother are unfair, outrageous, or sexist. Do they loom large though? Should they determine your vote? These things fall very low on my list of criteria by which the candidates ought to be judged. The parenting issue, then, is very small potatoes. Still, not quite nothing. Apparently The New York Times agrees. There’s an article about Sarah Palin as a mother on the front page today. A strong, gutsy, unconventional woman, if you believe the article, but if it’s proper to look into her role as a mother, we can’t be required to think exclusively positive thoughts.