A new twist in the debate over mothers

When Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska was introduced as a vice-presidential pick, she was presented as a magnet for female voters, the epitome of everymom appeal.

But since then, as mothers across the country supervise the season's final water fights and pack book bags, some have voiced the kind of doubts that few male pundits have dared raise on television. With five children, including an infant with Down syndrome and a pregnant 17-year-old, Palin has set off a fierce argument among women about whether there are enough hours in the day for her to take on the vice presidency.

It's the Mommy Wars: Special Campaign Edition.

“How is this really going to work?” said Karen Shopoff Rooff, an independent voter, personal trainer and mother of two in Austin, Texas. “I don't care whether she's the mother or the father; it's a lot to handle,” she said, adding that Palin's lack of national experience would make her road only more difficult.

“When I first heard about Palin, I was impressed,” said Pamela Moore, a mother of two from Birmingham, Ala. But upon reading that her special-needs child was 3 days old when she went back to work, Moore began questioning the governor's judgment. Moore plans to vote for Sen. Barack Obama.

But Lori Viars, a mother of two and evangelical Christian from Lebanon, Ohio, cheered the candidacy as well as the decision of both Palin women to keep their babies.

“The whole family is pro-life, and they put that into practice even when it's not easy,” Viars said.

Blogs fill with reactions

Palin was selected by Sen. John McCain in part to draw female voters, as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro did before her. But Clinton and Ferraro ran for president and vice president when their children were grown.

Within minutes of last week's announcement that Palin was joining the Republican ticket, women across the country flooded blogs devoted to motherhood issues. Administrators of one Web site, D.C. Urban Moms, said they had received hundreds of postings, more than on any other political issue this year. All throughout the holiday weekend, at scrapbooking sessions, on hikes and at barbecues, women talked over the candidacy.

In interviews, many women, citing their own difficulties with jobs, said it would be impossible for Palin to succeed both at motherhood and in the nation's second-highest elected position at once.

“You can juggle a BlackBerry and a breast pump in a lot of jobs, but not in the vice presidency,” said Christina Henry de Tessan, a mother of two in Portland, Ore., who supports Obama.

Some Republicans expressed concern, including Anne Faircloth, daughter of former Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina. Being a governor is one thing, Faircloth said, and Palin's husband, Todd, seems like a supportive spouse. “But running for the second-highest office in the land is a very different kettle of fish,” she said.

Many women expressed incredulity that Palin would pursue the vice presidency given her younger son's age and condition. Infants with Down syndrome often need special care in the first years of life: extra tests, physical therapy, even surgery.

Sarah Robertson, a mother of four from Kennebunk, Maine, who was one of the few evangelical Christians interviewed to criticize Palin, said: “A mother of a 4-month-old infant with Down syndrome taking up full-time campaigning? Not my value set.”

One detail of Palin's biography jumped out to many mothers. “She went back to work as governor of Alaska three days after giving birth,” a poster named cafemama wrote on another blog,

Some wondered why Palin had not bypassed the offer to spare her pregnant teenage daughter, Bristol, the scrutiny.

Mothers of all ideologies

Palin's defenders include mothers of all ideologies, from McCain voters to Obama voters, from mothers excited to see someone like them in the race to those who questioned whether a male candidate would be subject to similar scrutiny. She received praise from religious conservatives, who voiced near-uniform confidence that her large and growing brood would enhance, not detract from, her performance as vice president.

“It changes your life, and gives you a different perspective on the world,” said Phyllis Schlafly, who helped defeat the equal rights amendment nearly three decades ago.

“People who don't have children or who have only one or two are kind of overwhelmed at the notion of five children,” Schlafly continued, mentioning that she had raised six children and run for Congress. “A hard-working, well-organized CEO type can handle it.”

For decades the anti-abortion movement has brought together a broad alliance of conservatives concerned about both the moral value of a fetus and traditional gender roles. Palin rejects both abortion and stay-at-home motherhood, and most conservatives have praised her choices. The news that she would be a grandmother only enhanced their enthusiasm, with many describing themselves as thrilled to see so prominent a display of pro-life commitment.

At a reception for educators at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., Sandra Ross, a special-needs high school teacher from Orlando, Fla., said, “She's going to be a good role model for the country.” Of Bristol's pregnancy, Ross added, “Everybody makes mistakes.”

In all of Washington, there is perhaps one person whose life most resembles the one that Palin is pursuing: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., the mother of an infant son with Down syndrome. Rodgers cheered Palin's entry into the race, saying it would draw attention to the policy needs of children and families.

But Rodgers acknowledges that on some days, like the one when she had to run to the Capitol for a vote without taking a shower first, she wonders if she is doing the right thing. She feels like many working mothers: caught between her job and “wanting to be the best mom and best wife you can possibly be.”

“You're torn,” she said, sounding a bit wistful.