Is Sarah Palin a terrible mother?
And, yes, that’s a terrible question, but it doesn’t seem to stop people asking it.
Just as the former vice-presidential wannabe burst back into the spotlight by endorsing Donald Trump, news broke that her son Track had been arrested for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend.
Palin being Palin, she responded by suggesting at a campaign rally that Track might have been affected by his military service in Iraq and therefore it was Barack Obama’s fault for failing to help war veterans. Or something. Which prompted the influential American TV host Bill Maher’s withering suggestion that actually maybe the Obamas were “just so much better parents” than she was.
Now watch that meme take off. After all, didn’t Sarah Palin also have a daughter who got pregnant at 17, despite all those God-fearing family values? Didn’t she recently post that photo of her youngest, Trig, being allowed to stand on the poor long-suffering family dog to reach the kitchen worktop? And besides, as one American newspaper columnist put it, “what kind of mother” turns their son’s arrest into a cheap political shot? Some supermom.
Is Sarah Palin a terrible politician? That’s a good question. But whether she was a good, bad or average mother – well, that’s frankly between her and her five children
But right there, in a way, is the reason it all needs to stop. Is Sarah Palin a terrible politician? That’s a good question. But whether she was a good, bad or average mother – well, that’s frankly between her and her five children. It’s not relevant to the pursuit of public office and, if it can be used against Sarah Palin, then every other parent in public life is fair game, too.
For starters, it’s a question often – although not always – deployed against mothers, rather than fathers. When George Bush’s twin daughters were caught using fake ID to buy alcohol underage, he wasn’t berated for being a worse dad than Bill Clinton.
Nor has the thrice-divorced Donald Trump spent a lifetime being asked, as Palin always was, who looked after his five kids while he was building his career.
No, when Trump comes under fire, it’s for the serious stuff, namely his more dubious policy ideas and their implications for the nation. Sarah Palin may not be running for election now, but she’s still influential enough among rightwing voters to make her endorsement useful to Trump. That means it's her political thinking, and its undoubted appeal to some angry blue-collar Americans, that ought to be seriously scrutinised, rather than her mothering skills.
And if “mom-shaming” is unfair on women in public life, then it’s arguably even tougher on their kids, now scrutinised round the clock for any ammunition to use against their parents.
Last year, Malia and Sasha Obama, then aged 16 and 13, were publicly upbraided by a Republican official who wrote that “your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department”.
Their crime? Wearing shortish skirts to the annual White House turkey-pardoning ceremony, and not looking totally riveted. One stifled yawn, and bam: global shaming. Who’d be a teenager under that kind of pressure?
Growing up in the goldfish bowl doesn’t excuse everything. Track Palin deserves no more leeway than any other 26-year-old with a history of drunkenness and alleged low-level offending, even if his mum did become state governor when he was still at school. There are no excuses for domestic violence and even less for female politicians seeking to minimise it, or to politicise the serious issue of post-combat stress disorder for their own ends.
But just because Palin regularly attacks her opponents below the belt doesn’t justify returning the favour. Her children will come to their own conclusions about their mother. Everyone else should do the grown-up thing and judge her on her politics alone.