Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

Meredith O'Brien Says Candidate's Wives Can't Win.

I’m going to ask you to imagine something you don’t want to imagine, but bear with me:


Let’s say that you’re the mother of children ages 7, 9 and 25, and had another child who was killed in a car accident over a decade ago. And one of your worst nightmares has come true: You’ve been told you have a fatal disease for which you can only manage the symptoms. In the meantime, your husband fervently believes that he needs to tackle a huge project, one that will disrupt the entire family for an indefinite amount of time but will also serve a higher, loftier goal. You, knowing loss as intimately as you do, don’t want your illness to get in the way of your husband’s dreams, so you decide that, for the duration of your husband’s must-do dream project, you and your young children will make the best of it, love one another, be together and make memories along the way.


But if you’re a mom who’s in the public eye, your choice makes you a target. Folks in the blogosphere [1] tut-tut that you’re being selfish and shouldn’t be dragging your grade-school-aged children along with you and your husband pursuing his dream. You should just forget about the dream and stay home with your children, the internet tells you, because that’s what other people say they would have done had they been in your position. And because of your public status, the media [2] are only too happy to exploit [3] this difference of opinion.


Elizabeth Edwards -- attorney, mother, social activist, cancer sufferer and outspoken spouse of a Democratic presidential candidate who’s waging an underdog campaign for his party’s nomination – doesn’t deserve to be singled out and rhetorically slapped down for her choices. Elizabeth and John Edwards have decided to go on a family adventure (a long-shot presidential campaign), to take their young children out of school for a while to travel the country and create memories that they hope will last a lifetime in their children’s hearts. So whose business is it how they live their lives as a family for as long as they possibly can? Elizabeth Edwards was clearly stunned by the recent flurry of criticism, which was kicked off by a New York Times [4] story about how the five presidential contenders who have children under the age of 10 parent while on the campaign trail. She responded to the controversy by personally posting a heart-wrenching comment on a web site that criticized her and told her to get off the campaign trail:


“With all due respect, what you would choose to do is relevant only once: when you choose how to spend your remaining days. I made my choice; because of our lives it was a public choice, but the choice doesn’t belong to the public, it belongs to me. And with all due respect, you have no idea what the quality or amount of the time I spend with my children is . . . You don’t get to say I am a terrible mother because you think you wouldn’t make my choice in my situation.”

Michelle Obama [4] – attorney, mother and outspoken spouse of another presidential candidate who ranks second in many polls for the Democratic nomination – was the subject of similar condemnation earlier this year when she announced that she was going to scale back her work in order to help her husband Barack campaign. However the attacks on Michelle Obama weren’t over her maternal judgment, they were over her level of commitment to feminism and whether jettisoning her full-time career to become a “professional wife and hostess,” as one critic said, was a retro, 1950s-ish move that will set back the cause of professional women.


Given the recent attacks on Edwards, I have to stand by the point I made in a column [4] in June: No matter what a presidential candidate’s spouse does in the area of work and family life (let’s leave Hillary Clinton’s husband out of this argument for now), she’s going to get slammed.


No matter what.


The article that started this recent round of criticism was, ironically, headlined, “In 2008 Race, Little Ones Go With Daddy [5].” [Emphasis added.] While it mentioned other candidates’ families, it pit the Edwards and Obama families against one another when it came to how they handle having their young children on the campaign trail. “Emma Claire and Jack Edwards, 9 and 7, were on their umpteenth campaign trip earlier this month, this time through small towns where their father was decrying rural poverty and the power of lobbyists,” the piece began. “The two children barely listened. They scampered away as fast as their parents would allow, to vending machines and arcade games and swimming expeditions . . . and they treated an interviewer the way politicians surely wish they could at times, refusing at first to remove their iPod earphones for a discussion of life on the trail.”


Later in the article – which said “all of the candidates use their children to charm voters” -- the Obama children, ages 9 and 6, were described as being kept from their dad (who they see “one day a week most of the time, twice if they are lucky”) and being hauled around on seven campaign trips during the summer, but the article noted that the girls will go back to Chicago to settle into the school year. “Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama represent the poles of the debate,” the article asserted, “Mr. Edwards has upended his children’s lives for the campaign while Mr. Obama is determined to keep his daughters rooted at home with their routines in tact – while the others fall somewhere in between.”


No doubt it’s unfathomably difficult for a young family when a parent runs for president, but does all of this judgmental nonsense and name-calling change anything? Is it productive in any way? Maybe I’m a bit of a Pollyanna when it comes to this subject, but I long for the day when, instead of ripping apart other parents for sport, we just focused on our own families. And when it comes to people who have the immense challenge of parenting in public -- from Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie [5], to Elizabeth Edwards and Michelle Obama – I wish that people could try to imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes before casting stones in their direction.

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