Is Sarah Palin Working Mother of the Year?

10/06/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Joan Williams Founding director, Center for WorkLife Law; Distinguished professor of law, University of California, Hastings; Author

She may be. But, as someone who just sent my youngest off to college, and who has dedicated decades of hard work to making the world safer for working mothers -- boy, does this set us up for a bruising.

Is Palin showing family values? Think about it. Here you are, a politician who has made a Big Deal in public about abstinence-only as the approach to teenage birth control, who knows that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant.

You know if you accept the offer of the vice presidency, it all will come out. That your daughter's picture and story will be on everyone's lips, that her boyfriend-yesterday, fiance-today will be hounded, too. A lot of pressure on a young woman who is already, let us say, in a bit of a pickle.

Palin said no problem, but there was another choice. She could have said to John McCain, "You know, I'd love to be VP. But right now I have some family matters that need to work themselves out. Let's talk in 2012." Risky? Obviously: the opportunity never might arise again. Work/family conflicts are like that, sometimes.

But don't we wish that men as well as women thought that way? Don't we wish that men as well as women really put family first? Apply the 80-year-old-looks-in-the-mirror-test. If you got to be VP but your kids spiraled seriously off track, would you consider that a life well lived?

Consider the other choice. If you turned down the Big Chance to get family matters on track, and then had to find another political opening later -- same question. If the Big Break doesn't return, other opportunities will. As Sarah Palin might say, God never serves up a zinger without sending another opportunity.

What if Palin had waited, say, four years? By then her daughter would have been 21. With luck, she will still be happily married. The fact that she had rushed wedding at 17 would be no news -- one line on page 48. Or else Bristol will be yet another young woman with a young child and a divorce. No news there either.

What would you do?

Advocates, like myself, who feel that women should be able to have what men have -- healthy careers and healthy families, too -- are not saying that women should be able to do what men traditionally have done: conduct their careers without regard to their children's pressing need for time, presence, care. Men have been able to do that because they knew that their wives would fulfill that role.

Someone has to. Which means that our goal is NOT that women will be able to act as men do, but that -- amazing thought -- all parents would have to balance their career and family commitments as a feedback system, so that when their families need time and attention, someone is there to devote the time. Joe Biden understood this when he took the train home to Delaware every night.

So I'm watching. Who will that person be in the Palin family, which has a pregnant teenager, a Down Syndrome infant, and three other kids? Only after I find out will I cast my vote for Working Parent of the Year.