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When Palin talks, women talk

Like it or not, VP candidate Sarah Palin wears her badge of motherhood on her sleeve. Here,  The New York Times Magazine contributor Lisa Belkin looks at how Palin's public discussion of personal issues has got us all talking — about ourselves.
/ Source: The New York Times

More often than not, when someone poses the simple question, "How are you," we answer with an equally simple, "Fine." Why do we do this, when in fact, we frequently are not "fine"? While this is not exactly lying, this behavior can stop us from discussing issues that should not remain buried. Here, Lisa Belkin, contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, looks at how VP candidate Sarah Palin's public discussion of personal issues has got us all talking — about ourselves.

Nearly five years ago, my husband was offered a prestigious, challenging plum of a job in another country. At the time, my father was dying, and my older son, suffering from debilitating migraines, was struggling in school. Sometimes parents decide that what is tempting, even perfect, for them is just not right for their family. My husband turned down the job.

I didn't talk much about the decision at the time. I felt guilty that my husband had to give up something he would have loved in part because I couldn't handle it, and I carried a vague shame that other families could have toughed this out but that ours was too fragile. It's hard to talk about what you are not proud of. None of this fit with my view of who I thought I should be — an unflappable, charge-ahead type, able to roll with whatever life delivered.

I've been thinking again about that choice since Sarah Palin, whose teenage daughter is pregnant and whose 5-month-old son has an as-yet-undetermined set of medical needs, decided to run for national office.

Looking back at the early response to Palin, I am struck by how many of the sentences that were written, spoken and shouted by people, began with ''I.'' As in: ''I have a special-needs baby, and I wouldn't dream of running for the hardest job in the world while he is an infant.'' Or ''I have a special-needs baby, and Palin's my hero for showing you can raise a child and work.'' Or ''I would never drag my pregnant teen through the national spotlight.'' Or ''I wouldn't judge her as a parent because her daughter is pregnant, the same way I wouldn't have wanted to be judged.''

Even more interesting was how often these views came from the mouths of women who I would have predicted would be saying something else. I saw it in my own circle of mostly working moms, women who could have embraced Palin as one of them but instead dismissed her for ''being back at work three days after giving birth, when I could barely find time to shower.''

And the paradox was highlighted by the polls. Not long before Palin was chosen by John McCain, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that Republicans were far less likely to support a female candidate who is the mother of young children than were Democrats. That was consistent with results from a year earlier, which showed that 53 percent of Republicans, compared with 38 percent of Democrats, believe it is ''bad for society'' when mothers of young children work outside the home. And yet within hours of her introduction, Sarah Palin, the antithesis of the stay-at-home mom, was being praised by home-schooling moms everywhere, as surely as Michelle Obama, who left her six-figure job to spend more time with her children, had been slammed.

This could all be dismissed as merely politics, and it certainly started out as politics, but there was a hunger and a fury in the conversation about Palin that hints at something deeper. Because what we are looking at while dissecting the parenting cred of our politicians (O.K., O.K., of our politicians who are mommies — we pay very little attention to the parenting of men) has little to do with them, and everything to do with us.

Our talking is part of an endless dance in which we move about in order to figure out where we stand. For what else is gossip but a roundabout way to explore social norms? And what landscape is more complicated to navigate than that of modern parenthood, where we often hold many contradictory opinions at once? Want to work but also want to stay home. Hate pacifiers and use them anyway. Swear off junk food and commercial TV, except when necessary. Abhor helicopter parenting unless my child needs me.

In his choice of Palin, McCain inadvertently hit upon a truth. He assumed that appointing a woman would ''speak'' to other women, that nominating a mother would get mothers talking. It did. But while we started out talking about Palin — while we thought we were actually talking about Palin — it seems what we were mostly talking about was ourselves.

''As a parent I would never. .?.?.'' All around me, women were speaking of things their friends had never known. Of the pregnancy terminated because of a harrowing genetic test. Of the mother who took her 16-year-old to get an abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade. It is not that they hadn't told anyone, but now, like me, they felt it was important (and permissible) to tell everyone.

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Sarah Palin

View images of her rise from governor of Alaska to a potential presidential contender.

Their confessions, coming as part of a national conversation, felt less personal, less vulnerable, more purposeful. We have seen it before when the subject was marriage — the Clintons and Spitzers and Edwardses come to mind — when dissecting the life of someone very public gave license to talk about things that are deeply private. But short of Zoë Baird's nanny, this was the first chance we have had for a public dissection of the decisions around being a parent.

For me it was the chance to talk about my husband's dream-job-that-never-happened. I started out with a point to make: ''As a parent I would never put ambition above the needs of my family.'' But the talking quickly became my way of facing my own choice. Should I have been more like Palin — strap the baby on your back and forge the raging river? Was it weakness or strength that kept us from moving away? In the end, I grudgingly admired her fortitude and understood that her way was not mine. You often learn who you are by realizing who you are not.

Lisa Belkin writes the Motherlode blog for the New York Times Magazine. Her piece "Palin Talk" will appear in the Oct. 5 issue of .