Gov. Sarah Palin’s Baby News Strikes a Chord

When Anchorage investment broker Marietta Hall got to the pool early Thursday morning, her female friends were all talking about Sarah Palin’s baby news.

She’s seven months along? Unbelievable. They guessed why she waited to tell the public: There’s only two months left for people to make “it’s just her hormones” jokes to undercut her decisions.

“Thank goodness she waited this long,” said Hall, who had her first son six months ago. “That would have been annoying.”

Palin’s announcement has sparked conversations among women across the state about sexism, economics, ambition and the age-old conflict between family and work.

It made Hall reflect on own life. She knows Palin’s situation isn’t as easy as it sounds. Hall waited to establish her career before having her son, Aidan, at 38. She’s self-employed and is used to working long hours. She thought she could handle the whole working mother thing, and was surprised at how conflicted she felt.

“When I’m home, I feel guilty that I’m not at work, when I’m at work I feel guilty that I’m not at home. It’s like I’m doing everything halfway.”

Hall’s husband, like Todd Palin, helps out with her son, making it possible for her to work. That might not have happened a generation ago, she said. The issue doesn’t just have to do with women. It touches men, too. Just as mothers are breaking barriers by holding jobs at the highest levels, fathers are claiming their role at home, she said. Even Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens recently told an interviewer that he wished he’d spent more time attending his own kids’ games.

Oddly, it’s kind of hard not to be the one who’s making all the domestic decisions.

“When Aidan cries, sometimes he reaches for daddy,” she said. “It’s a huge amount of power and control, and you give it up.”

BALANCING WORK, FAMILY

Yolanda Wray, 41, runs a branch of First National Bank. Like Palin, she’s expecting a baby in May. She plans to work right up until the day she delivers.

“Gosh she looks good,” Wray said of Palin. “I feel like a hippopotamus and I look like one too.”

Wray can understand why Palin waited to tell the public she was pregnant. She considered the exact same issues.

“Shall I tell them early, shall I tell them later?” she said. “I didn’t want them to think that I couldn’t do my job and be pregnant too.”

She respects the governor’s decision to go right back to work. But personally, she’s on the fence about whether to return.

Sondra Tompkins is staying at home with two little boys, one of whom has special needs. She doesn’t like what she sees as a subtext in all the Palin talk this week — that somehow a woman with a job works harder.

“I think there needs to be some way to quantify what is hard,” she said.

Tompkins has been a nurse, a soldier, and a pharmaceutical sales representative. She’d love to go back to work, but there’d be a heavy cost. Her husband is a physician, and her children would never see a parent, she said.

“Sometimes the choices aren’t really yours.”

Often, it’s a matter of support, she said.

“Sarah Palin snaps her fingers and she’ll get what she wants,” she said. “You go to Elmendorf, and you see a woman with children that’s about to deploy, she doesn’t get to do that.”

Shara Hardman, 22, is a waitress at Village Inn. She’s six months pregnant and she wears a special brace for her belly to keep her from getting cramps when she carries those Sunday morning trays loaded with waffle plates and breakfast skillets.

She doesn’t really have the option of staying home for too long after she gives birth, and she’s still trying to work out the logistics of breast-feeding for a year. Palin is an inspiration, she said.

“Being pregnant, it’s hard on me, but I think families are really nice,” she said. ” I don’t care what job you have, you should be able to do both.”

PARENTING ISSUES LINGER

In Haines, Sara Chapell, a mother of three, read the governor’s announcement and felt both excited for her and a little annoyed. Palin told reporters she’d had her last child, when she was Wasilla mayor, on a Monday and was been back at work on Tuesday.

“What she was trying to do was to defend herself, but we need female role models who are going to be a strong model for parenting. That includes taking time off from work,” she said.

“It’s so hard to take time for our kids, it makes it feel like it’s an easy thing to do, to balance work with parenting, when really it couldn’t be more tricky.”

Chapell quit working because she couldn’t find someone she felt comfortable leaving her infants with. Plus, when you have three children, the cost of child care can be more than a salary.

She couldn’t help but wonder if Palin might advocate for things that make life easier for women to work, like paid family leave or affordable child care. And, like a lot of mothers who read Palin’s news, she wanted to see pictures of the governor when she wasn’t hiding her belly behind a podium.

UAA chancellor and former lieutenant governor Fran Ulmer had her children in the 1970s when she was working in a high-level position for Gov. Jay Hammond.

Certainly people are more comfortable with working mothers today than they were then, but the issue of being torn won’t go away because the day hasn’t gotten any longer, she said.

After her daughter was born, Ulmer went back to work and brought her infant to a Growth Policy Council meeting, where she led a discussion about the future of the state after the pipeline-era boom. Her daughter began to fuss.

“I took a blanket and covered myself and breast-fed the baby. The meeting kept going on and I kept on interacting,” she said. “There were a number of guys on that council that were pretty uncomfortable.”

Would it be different today?

“I don’t know,” she said.

KIDS CAN SHARPEN FOCUS

Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift was the first governor to give birth in office. She had twins in 2001. She faced criticism for missteps involving her children, including asking aides to baby-sit.

Her twins were just four months old when two planes took off from a Boston airport and slammed into the World Trade Center. It was a tough time to be both mother and governor, she said. But she doesn’t regret it.

In a way, being a mother of newborns made her better at her job, she said.

“When you are a working mother in a demanding job you realize that every moment you are away from your child and can’t give your child your undivided attention, you need to maximize the work you’re doing,” she said. “I didn’t want to be away from my babies to be engaged in nonsense.”

It didn’t seem to be a problem for her children.

“I can send (Palin) pictures of my very well-adjusted first-grade daughters,” she said. “There’s, as far as I can tell, no lasting damage from having these debates swirl around you while your children are in utero.”

As for Palin, she spent the past few days receiving good wishes.

Everyone wanted to know: how did she keep the pregnancy under wraps for seven months? Jackets and scarves, she said.

“My kids, they were pretty honest with me, they said ‘Yeah mom, you were getting pretty chunky,’ “she said.

She’s not worried about the logistics of having an infant and working. She has a big extended family and a husband who helps out. Plus, she’s done it four times already.

“What takes me aback a little bit is people saying it nicely, ‘How are you going to do it with kids in office,” she said. “I say the same way every other governor has done it with kids in office, given they were men, but they had children in office.”

Julia O’Malley
Anchorage Daily News

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