9/8/08

The Duties of Parents

Amid all the clamor for and against Sarah Palin, a few doubts have been expressed, sotto voce, about her as a mother. Her five children are supposed to be a plus, but what’s she doing trying to run Alaska and campaign for national office when she has a new infant with Down syndrome and four other kids, including a 6-year-old, a 14-year-old, a pregnant 17-year-old, and a son on his way to Iraq? The McCain-Palin crowd are quick to assert that such a question would never be asked about a male candidate. But is that so obvious?

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.

8 comments:

amos said...

I doubt that Sarah changes the diapers. In any case, the ideal would be not only that both parents share the childcare, but also that society provide nursery care. As a working mother, Sarah should be fighting for free childcare centers for children, but I doubt that that is on her political platform. So, it's all a cynical show in which she pretends to be a dedicated mother, when in reality she leaves the childcare to the hired help, which of course most people don't have the money to hire. Society should also provide paid maternal leave to new mothers or to new fathers, another issue which I doubt that Sarah will fight for. 6 month paid maternal leave would allow mothers to nurse their children and to establish the necessary bond.

Jean Kazez said...

I think anybody with huge ambition of one sort or another is going to shortchange little kids to some degree, but if they don't totally destroy their homelife (as in John Edwards) or get killed on Everest, there can be benefits to kids of having a high-powered mom or dad later on. It's a pleasure watching Chelsea Clinton talk about her mother as "her hero."

amos said...

Actually, relations between parents and children are as varied and as impossible to calculate as any other type of human relationship. There are parents who are around too much, who suffocate; there are parents who are physically present, but never "there" for their children; there are parents who are absent, but become beloved and admired positive roles models; there are parents who should be seen as positive role models, but who are rejected by their children, etc.

amos said...

By the way, Jean, what, in your opinion, are the duties of parents, besides the obvious ones, feed them, take them to the doctor and dentist, buy them shoes, etc.?

Jean Kazez said...

To put kids on track to live a good life, which means parents may have to do a little philosophy--they need to have a conception of what the good life is.

amos said...

Hard to disagree with what you say, although it is a bit general. By the way, wouldn't putting others on track to live a good life, insofar as one can, be a duty one has towards everyone one runs into in this world, not just one's children? By that, I'm not referring to sermons (which have never changed anyone), but by setting an example.

Jean Kazez said...

I know...very general. My book about the good life is full of gory details. It seems like there are particular roles that involve good-life engineering more than others--parent, teacher, legislator, for example. I suppose everyone's always modeling some notion of the good life to others, but I have pretty close to a "to each his own" attitude in my daily life.

amos said...

Do you extend your "to each his own" attitude towards your children or do you take another ethical posture with them? I find that the more time I spend with people, independent of the degree of kinship involved, the more I take on the role of ethical
teacher (which involves dialogue and learning from the other too) or questioner of values. Since one of my sons is a friend who I see every month or so (and whom I converse with as I would any other friend) and I have absolutely no contact with the other, with the first there is an ethical debate/dialogue and with the second I have a "to each his own attitude". In any case, closeness and being open to dialogue, not kinship, are the factors involved.