A couple of Fridays ago, I woke up, staggered into the kitchen for my morning Diet Coke, and found myself to the right of Sarah Palin.
It was unfamiliar territory, to say the least.
Just because a candidate is a woman doesn't mean she's a woman's candidate. New Times columnist Sarah Fenske and Amy Silverman, her editor, were at each other's throats over Hillary Clinton but that was nothing compared to the vitriol they've exchanged since John McCain picked Sarah Palin. Finally, Amy and Sarah agreed to disagree and to share their two very different perspectives with readers.
Read Sarah's column here.
"Guess who McCain picked?" my husband asked.
I guessed Lieberman, then Hutchison, then I stopped in my tracks.
"No way. He did not pick her."
Neither of us was sure how to pronounce her name, and we didn't know much about her politics, but both my husband and I knew exactly who Sarah Palin was. We paid attention in April, when she had her fifth baby, Trig.
We pay attention to things like that. Our 5-year-old daughter has Down syndrome.
I immediately started shrieking, and didn't stop for a week.
"I knew it I knew it I knew it I knew it I knew it I knew it! I KNEW John McCain couldn't resist putting a baby with Down syndrome up there on the national stage — that opportunist!!"
I paced the kitchen with my husband at my heels, admonishing me to keep my voice down so I didn't wake the kids. I gave him a dirty look and paused to take a breath. And then it happened. I said it.
"And what the fuck does this woman think she's doing; does she have any idea what it takes to raise a kid with Down syndrome? She thinks she can be vice president and take care of that baby?"
I stopped, startling myself, and clapped my hand over my own mouth. Where had that come from?
How Sarah Palin parents her kids is absolutely none of my business. I know that. At least, the rational me knows that. I mean, it's not like I want to hear what Palin thinks of my life.
I have two daughters — Sophie, my 5-year-old, and Annabelle, who is 7 — and I have a full-time job.
My own balancing act is inelegant. Forget leading the free world; I can't even balance my hair on the top of my head as well as Sarah Palin does. I don't wear high heels. My glasses were on clearance at LensCrafters. And my milk never did come in, so I never got to leave a meeting to breastfeed. I sneak out of bed at 4 a.m. to get some work done before it's time to make lunches, so I can sneak out of work at 2:30 to take my kid to her Brownie meeting. My eye twitches all the time from fatigue, and there are currently three overflowing baskets of laundry in my living room. My office is even worse.
I know how hard it is, being a working mom. And how important.
But I stopped yelling only for a moment. Then I started again. I had taken up a pitchfork and joined the Mommy Wars — and on a side I never would have expected.
"Oooooh, no judgments. We don't judge each other," a friend (another working mom) said, almost under her breath, when I called her that morning after dropping the kids at school, and continued my rant.
"I know!" I screamed. "I don't know where this is coming from!"
Actually, I did. As a staff writer at New Times for many years, I wrote a lot about John McCain — on other topics, too, but a lot about McCain. When Annabelle was born, that continued. It wasn't until Sophie came along that I felt compelled to take a different job at the paper, as an editor. It's just as tough, but not as all-consuming as writing those long cover stories we publish each week.
So, basically, I stopped writing about McCain so I could spend more time with my baby with Down syndrome (I was also, frankly, banking on the notion that he'd never make a run for president in 2008) and now here he is, poised to be the next leader of the free world, and his running mate is a woman with a baby with Down syndrome.
People say otherwise, but politics is at its best when it's personal, when it cuts so close to the vest it nicks your heart. That is when people make it out to the polls. It's when change happens.
But really, this is ridiculous.
Tell me you wouldn't run around your kitchen shrieking, too.
I'm pretty much done shrieking. Now I'm just scared.
And mad that I wasted so much time being pissed at myself for being distracted by Sarah Palin's personal life. Her personal life is not a distraction; it's her selling point, and to that end, it deserves the scrutiny it's gotten, and more. When she put her four kids center stage — literally — and talked about the fifth fighting in Iraq, she made perfectly clear what she brings to this campaign: her experience as a hockey mom.
And how sad that she was willing to put her oldest daughter through the humiliation of having her unplanned pregnancy outed to everyone in the world with access to a television set.
Palin is shamelessly using her personal life to sell her candidacy in a way that's reminiscent of just one other politician I can think of — and that's John McCain. But at least in McCain's case, he's his own pawn, vis-à-vis his POW story. Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, and Trig are their mother's pawns.
My conservative friends are right. If I agreed with Sarah Palin's politics, I'd probably think that was all just fine (see Sarah Fenske's column in this issue).
But I don't share Palin's politics. And I've got my own daughters to think about.
Yes, I'd love for them to have role models, to see women aspiring to the highest office, the best job, to do it all in heels and backwards and better than any man.
But I can't indulge in symbolism — not this week, anyway. I don't have time. The world's going to shit. The air here in Phoenix is so thick with pollution it hurts to breathe. The other day I took a sip of tap water that tasted so bad I spit it out. Later this week, I have to go to Sophie's public school to try to convince everyone from the principal on down that my kindergartner's safety is in jeopardy. She keeps escaping from the playground at recess. They say there's no money for a part-time aide. I get that. This year, budget cuts cost the school its full-time librarian.
And you expect me to rely on Sarah Palin, a woman who wants to ban books and teach creationism, and John McCain, a man who wants to ban government spending on almost everything but war, to help me take care of my kids?
I often joke that I'm closer to being a socialist than a social conservative, but actually, it's true. I do believe that government has a role in our lives, and more than ever since I had kids, particularly Sophie. I never had to navigate a government agency 'til Sophie was born, and let me tell you, there's room for improvement. There's never enough funding — that's a given — but worse, the whole system is so poorly managed you practically need a Ph.D. in public policy (or another parent who's already been though this, or a lawyer, or all three) to help you get services for your kid.
Just last month, I met a mother with a 6-year-old son with Down syndrome. He's pretty much never had any therapy at all; he's not speaking, he isn't potty trained. The mom gave up after someone told her there was a waiting list for services (not true) and several of her calls went unreturned. All you need to do is drive to the center of any large city in America and watch homeless schizophrenics push shopping carts to see the effects another social conservative — Ronald Reagan — had on another disenfranchised group, the country's mentally ill.
Maybe Sarah Palin means what she says, and she really will devote more resources to helping people with developmental disabilities. Right now, there's a heated debate on the Internet over whether she's cut funding in Alaska. Frankly, I don't see it as a good sign that there's any question at all.
Sophie's one of the smartest kids with Down syndrome her teachers have ever seen, but the reality is that she'll never be completely independent. And if something were to happen to me and my friends and family, Sophie would have to rely on the kindness of strangers — namely, the government. I don't know if Sarah Palin would create a safety net strong enough to catch Sophie, but I do know one area of my daughter's life (both my daughters' lives) that interests her greatly.
It's the elephant in the middle of the room. I know, I know, if I were against abortion, like Sarah Palin, the woman would be my role model. I'd think she was one badass chick, and I'd want to go out drinking with her.
But I'm pro-choice. When the obstetrician told me I had a significantly higher chance of having a baby with Down syndrome (not just because I was 36, but because of what a blood test indicated) I called my husband and said, "What should we do? Should I have an amniocentesis?"
"Why would you do that?" he replied. "It's not like you'd get an abortion."
As soon as he said it, I knew it was true. That was my choice — our choice — to make. Now Sarah Palin wants to make it for me, and more important, she wants to make it for my daughters.
We won't be teaching abstinence-only at home (though my husband will surely tell both girls they can't date 'til they're 40!), so I don't expect Annabelle to get pregnant at 17. But if she does, the choice of what to do needs be our family's choice, not our government's.
When it comes to this topic, to be honest, I can barely bring myself to think of Sophie.
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You should meet Sophie. She is one of the most engaging human beings I've ever encountered. I know everyone always says that about people with Down syndrome. But with this kid, it's true. Then again, I'm not so sure I want you to meet her. Not 'til you've had an FBI background check.
Just yesterday in Costco, she introduced herself to the woman in line behind us. "I'm Sophie!" she announced, eager to make a new friend. The grandmotherly woman smiled and nodded. Now, I know she's only 5, and believe me, we're trying to teach Sophie about Stranger Danger, but if you've ever been around a person with Down syndrome (or, at least, my little person with Down syndrome), you know there is a very real threat here.
What if — and I can hardly type the words — someday Sophie meets a bad man? Sarah Palin does not believe in abortion under any circumstance, including in the case of rape.
I am clearly not done shrieking.