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A Dad's View of the Mommy Wars and Sarah Palin

Today's post is from Jeremy Adam Smith, senior editor of Greater Good magazine and author of The Daddy Shift , forthcoming from Beacon Press in Spring 2009. He blogs about the politics of parenting at Daddy Dialectic.

When the Republican Party nominated Sarah Palin for Vice-President of the United States, they (inadvertently?) reignited the mommy wars, that alleged antagonism between working mothers and stay-at-home moms. But this round of the war is Vietnam, not World War II, for there is no front line and no one can tell friend from foe.

Indeed, Palin is catching flak from both sides of the mommy wars.

"She is the mother of five children, one of them a four-month-old with Down Syndrome," writes Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn, a feminist and working mother. "Her first priority has to be her children. When the phone rings at three in the morning and one of her children is really sick what choice will she make?" Stay-at-home mommy bloggers agree: It's "hard to believe that this country needs Sarah Palin more than her own children," says the blog Suburban Turmoil.

The not-so-covert assumption in these criticisms is that Todd Palin, who is now a stay-at-home dad, could not possibly serve as primary caregiver to his five children. It has to be the mom.

But whenever I read criticisms of Palin for abandoning her family, I think of the Hoffman family (not their real names), whom I profile in my forthcoming Beacon Press book about reverse-traditional families.

The mother, Misun, works in a high-level position for the Securities and Exchange Commission. The father, Kent, is a stay-at-home dad.

Their son Clinton was born with multiple, life-threatening disabilities in 1999, at just the moment when Misun's career was taking off. In the year after Clinton was born, Misun was working 70 hour weeks and traveling 2-3 times a month. "It was very hard," Misun told me. "I remember for several weeks I would cry when I got on the plane."

But she still got on the plane.

She knew her husband Kent was at home taking care of Clinton, doing what had to be done. And she was doing what she had to do, providing for the family.

She never doubted her choice, and neither did Kent. The burdens he carried were terrible--Clinton demanded intense 24-hour care--but he took them on willingly. To Misun, making money was a part of mothering; to Kent, caring for his child was a part of fathering.

"Her career got a major boost as a result of me staying at home," said Kent. "When she goes away, she doesn't have to worry about the kids or juggling anything. She's been able to do what it takes and focus on her job."

It's a waste of time to judge Misun as a bad mother for not being the one to take care of Clinton or to judge Kent as a bad father for not serving as the breadwinner, because they don't care what you think. Here's the only thing that matters: When I interviewed them, Clinton was starting Kindergarten, and he was a happy, healthy little kid.

The Hoffmans aren't alone. Since the 1950s, the number of working mothers has increased by a factor of eight. Since 1965, according to several time-use studies, the number of hours men spend on childcare has tripled. Since 1995, it has nearly doubled, and so has the Census count of stay-at-home dads.

Working mothers are now a part of the landscape, but caregiving dads like Todd Palin and Kent Hoffman are something new under the sun.

And, as the debate over Palin's candidacy reveals, many people, male and female, still question whether men like them can take care of children and homes. But after twenty years of research and growing male participation at home, we are now beginning to understand that the answer is yes, they can. Numerous studies find that children raised by stay-at-home dads are just as happy and healthy as everyone else's kids.

As a father, Todd Palin can take care of his kids, including a baby with special needs; there's nothing in his biological sex or even his socially constructed gender that will prevent him from serving as a caregiver. As the example of the Hoffman family reveals, the mother doesn't have to be the one to do it.

The irony of the situation is not kind to the Republicans: For decades, the Republican Party has positioned itself as the defender of what they call "the traditional family" meaning, most of the time, one with a married breadwinning father and stay-at-home mother.

And so it makes a certain perverse sense that the Republican Party might reflect, better than the Democrats, how far America has advanced when it comes to gender roles: we can best measure our progress as a society by what's happening in its most reactionary corners.

McCain may very well triumph in November; if he does, it will be a real-world disaster for women and America's working families. At the same time, however, a victory of the Republican Party will represent yet another lost battle in the culture war that they have waged for decades against nontraditional families like the Palins.