The Palin Effect

October 2, 2008 at 5:24 pm (Uncategorized)

The vice presidential debate tonight promises to be a blockbuster.  For a position that Founding Father John Adams called “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” folks certainly are in a tizzy about the vice presidency this election.  Even as the American economy threatens to tank and President Bush pushes Congress to pass legislation that would effectively nationalize the banking sector, much of the political chatter has to do not with matters economic but with Palin-tology.  Ever since John McCain chose Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, both sides of the political spectrum have become obsessed with the politics and personality of Palin.   Whether you love her or loathe her, Palin has become a cultural flashpoint—a sort of screen against which people can project their own experiences and anxieties.

Much of Palin’s appeal, to those who find her appealing, is her “every day-ness.”  A self-described “hockey Mom,” this mother of five has won the devotion of working women, particularly those of a conservative bent.  “She’s just like me,” a caller said on NPR’s Talk of the Nation.  To this woman, Palin was a far-North neighbor next door, just another working Mom, balancing the demands of children and career.  Of course Palin is the chief executive of the state with the largest gas and oil reserves, and her five children include a pregnant teen and an infant with Down’s syndrome.  She’s run marathons and can kill and field-dress a moose, yet also holds staff meetings while nursing and rocking her five-month old.  And to top it off, Palin, in her stilettos, fitted suits, trademark “up do” and trendy glasses, is gorgeous but in a wholly unpretentious way.  No Nancy Reagan-esque china doll designer duds for this rifle toting, all-American gal.  “She’s proof that women can have it all,” the pro-Palin Talk of the Nation caller concluded.

It makes me want to puke.  (Though so many things do these chemo days.)  Not because I think women shouldn’t try to have it all, not because I believe a woman with children shouldn’t have the second-highest (or the highest) office in the land.  Not because Palin is a proven liar who keeps repeating the same tired untruths at every campaign stop. No.  My reaction was less philosophical than it was purely petty.  She makes me jealous.  She makes me feel insecure.  She reminds me of the kind of mother I wanted to be and planned to be (albeit without the dead moose and the Pentecostal religious fervor.)

After all, I am a daughter of the feminist movement.  I came of age when women donned their power suits with padded shoulders, dropped the kiddos off at daycare, and left for the office.  When I became pregnant with Andrew, my one (and probably only) child, I didn’t spend much time thinking about a work-family balance.  I just assumed that I would work and that I would raise a splendid son.  Of course, I would also have a clean house, a toned body, and a well-read mind to go along with my work and my kid.  In my infrequent imaginings about real life with a child, I added a soundtrack, always classical music, tinkling in the background of my well-organized life.  I expected that we would travel and have dinner parties, and, when the time was right, Jay and I would have a second child—probably a girl to complement the splendid son.  We would go on family bike trips and back-packing trips.   I pictured us pedaling through Italy, Jay and I each toting a youngster on a tag-along bike.  Of course I would “have it all,” just like the NPR caller and just like Sarah Palin.

There were hints that my expectations were totally out of whack.  I mean, I didn’t live entirely in my overly-vivid imagination.  I had read articles about working women putting in forty hours at the office and then coming home to clean the toilets and make dinner.  In many American households, women did indeed get it all—all the housework, all the laundry, all the kid-related chores, on top of full-time work.  Moreover, I had witnessed family members opting to quit working because the cost of quality childcare almost exceeded their take-home pay.  Still, I’m never one to let a few facts fly in the face of my fantasies.

As I’ve written before, I never got a chance to test my blurry ideas of motherhood.   Andrew was only three months old when I was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, and my health has steadily declined since then.  I’ve never had the opportunity to balance work and family, because– with the exception of a couple of small writing projects–I haven’t been able to work.  My sole balancing act has been a literal one.  Ever since the disease entered my nervous system, I’ve struggled to stay upright during spells of intense vertigo.  Not working doesn’t upset me too much.  I do hate feeling financially dependent on Jay, as well as on a coalition of family members on both sides whose monthly contributions have made it possible for us to afford childcare.  For the most part, though, I haven’t defined myself through my jobs.

What really eats away at me is my diminished capacity as a mother.  I’ve given up on my visions of Italian cycling trips and a clean house, and I’m mostly sanguine with the absence of classical music on our CD player. (Andrew’s current favorite musician is, God help me, Elvis Presley).  My torment has been that my disease has eroded my chance to be a mother.  As my sarcoidosis has moved from organ to organ, I’ve needed more and more “help” with Drew.  When he was a toddler, I could manage with a few hours of babysitting from a college student.  Now, I truly can’t care for him on my own.  We’re lucky to have two of the finest women in town to help.  But it grates on me that I can’t drive, that I need to spend so much time in bed, that I can hear other people teaching my son to read while I have to bury my head underneath a pillow to fend off an incoming headache that feels like a warhead crashing into my skull.  Now that I’ve started getting chemo every other week, I have even less stamina and less energy.  On my “chemo weekends,” I sleep for fifteen hours and still feel exhausted.  I emerge from my haze of nausea and fatigue to wave at Andrew and Jay as they head off for a bike ride or a hike, or on their way to a birthday party, the Farmer’s Market, or the library.

I’ve been crying a lot about this lately.  Sometimes I’ll catch a glimpse of Andrew’s profile, and he looks so grown up that my gut clenches.  He’ll be five on New Year’s Eve, and then he’ll be starting school and moving farther and farther away from me.  I have missed so much of his life.  I started bawling about this to a friend today, and tried to explain my all-consuming disappointment and guilt that I’ve been a shadow mother for much of Andrew’s existence.  She said, quite reasonably, that it was really no different than if I were a “working” mother who dropped him off at daycare or preschool.  In fact, she pointed out, I’m probably more present in his life than I would be if I was at a job full-time.  Even though I have to spend inordinate amounts of time in bed, I am, after all, home with him.  I can hear him, and he can chat with me when I emerge from my room.  My friend is right.  But she missed the key to my grief: I have had no choice in this matter.  Unlike Sarah Palin, I haven’t been able to decide whether or not to work, whether or not to seek help raising my son.  My disease has done all the deciding for me.

But self-pity parties only go so far.  What mother has been able to enact her pre-child imaginings once she’s brought her squawking newborn home?  Yes, a small (and lucky) minority of women in America do have the luxury of agonizing over whether or not to work, of how much time with their children is enough.  But most women have to work to ensure that the power stays on, that the rent is paid, that there is food on the table.  And for these women, childcare isn’t the one-on-one situation that my immune-compromised state has necessitated (and that Jay’s and my families have enabled); it is whatever facility is cheapest or closest to home.  It’s true that I have relinquished much control to my sarcoidosis, but I have plenty of friends who have lost just as much control.  One woman’s husband walked out, leaving her to face a pile of bills she hadn’t accrued; another woman’s husband lost his job; yet another fine woman’s employer decided to stop covering health insurance.

I can’t unwind the twin threads of motherhood and illness that define much of who I now am.  I never really got a chance to be Andrew’s mom before I got really sick.  But I have an inkling that even without illness, being a mother means relinquishing control.  Having a child necessitates letting go of those silly ideals we thought we would live when our babies were just bumps in our bellies.  Italy?  Clean house?  Dinner parties?  Even without sarcoidosis, I was just short of pure delusion in my pregnant imaginings.  I’m trying to remember this when I want to weep about life gone awry or when I want to mentally flagellate myself with guilt over all that is not how I supposed it would be.

As to Sarah Palin and her cohort of fans who “have it all,” I’ll admit that I’m jealous.  Hats off to any woman (or man) who can raise five kids and run a state.  I wish I could.  But I can’t.  So, during this season of elections and debates and choices, I’m going to try to choose to spend less time brooding about what hasn’t turned out the way I dreamed and more time appreciating all that I do have to worry about.  It sounds terribly trite, but it’s the hardest task I’ve ever set out for myself.  Maybe it’s even as challenging as skinning a moose.

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