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Lisa Belkin

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Santorum And The Politics Of Parenting

Posted: 01/31/2012 4:30 pm

Rick Santorum's life blurs the borders between parenting and politics in an unprecedented way.

There are his seven surviving children, yes, and the story of his son Gabriel who died hours after birth, and the fact that the family has chosen to homeschool. But eclipsing all of that is the tale of Bella, the three-year-old girl who was not expected to see her first birthday. Born with a genetic condition that means her life is measured in "days and weeks," Bella fell frighteningly ill with pneumonia this past weekend, causing Santorum's life and work to collide in a way that is jarring even in these times when candidates' families are assumed to be public fodder.

Never has a presidential candidate lived so searing a parenting tale while he campaigns. In that way, the former Pennsylvania Senator's life is both a very singular and personal story, and also a very public window into the kinds of private choices families find themselves making across the country every day.

Whether to induce labor when a pregnancy threatens the health of a mother, as happened to Karen Santorum before her son was delivered at 20 weeks 16 years ago? (Santorum has said that they would have proceeded with what was essentially a termination but which became unnecessary because labor began without intervention.)

Whether to forgo medical intervention for a child like Bella, who was so fragile at birth that doctors advised the Santorums to "let nature take its course"? (The parents chose, instead, to be very aggressive with medical care, and Bella, who is severely cognitively and physically impaired, defied expectations.)

Whether to practice family planning after their fourth child lived for only two hours after being born at 20 weeks in 1996 and their eighth was severely disabled? (The couple have said that, as practicing Catholics, they reject the use of birth control. Bella was born seven years after her next youngest sibling; until then the Santorums had welcomed a new child at a rate of one every year or two.)

And then there is the question of whether Bella's father should be in the race at all. Christiane Amanpour asked him that question last month, saying "As a mother, I just wonder how you can keep going and how you justify this with so much personal tolls at home."

Political types are asking, too. "For me, I'd want my butt off the campaign trail," New Hampshire-based Republican consultant Patrick Griffin told the Washington Post, when he was asked how voters might view Santorum's decision to be away from his family almost full-time under the circumstances. "The value of family that is so important in our party . . . I would not be surprised if some voters did not find some hypocrisy in this."

Like the other questions the Santorums have faced, this one is familiar to millions of families. How to rearrange your life when one child needs you more? How to maintain the structure of your own world -- which must continue to exist in order to support the needy child and maintain your sense of self and sanity?

Nearly all the choices the Santorums have made over the years are not the ones that I would make (or, more specifically, not the ones I think I would make, since I have covered healthcare, and parenting, long enough to know that you can't predict what you would do until you actually stand in a particular pair of shoes covered with hospital booties.)

But I believe I would have more aggressively terminated a pregnancy that was threatening my own life and my chance to be there for the children I already had; I would have seen aggressive treatment as torturing a fragile child, and "nature taking its course" as a blessing; I would religiously use birth control -- and advocate that others have unencumbered access to to it -- after realizing that genetic risks that hide within my particular helix. And I would not leave home for weeks, or even days, if my child was terminally ill.

Each of these would be MY choice, though -- that is, by definition, the nature of choice -- and I can't judge the Santorums for making a different one.

Ellen Seidman, who appears regularly on Huffington Post Parents, is the mother of a son, Max, with his own share of cognitive and physical disabilities. Like me, Ellen says "I don't agree with his politics" (the healthcare plan he opposes, she notes, would help children like Bella and Max "because insurance companies will no longer be able to impose annual or lifetime limits on coverage.")But on her blog, Love That Max she not only defends this family's right to make different choices from hers, but thanks them for bringing attention to the struggles that families like hers face, much less publicly, every single day. Particularly, she says, "Rick Santorum has zoomed the spotlight onto something many of us grapple with: having a work life and caring for a child with special needs."

That push and pull often brings criticism, she wrote, including from her own parents who "were blatantly dubious about my decision" to return to work when Max was three months old. "I think I'll be a better mother if I work," she says she answered, "and left it at that."

And that is where we should leave it, too. Feeling compassion for Bella, thinking we might or might not make different choices -- all while respecting the right of another family to make this choice.