04/12/2012 01:06 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

The Politics of Parenting: Debating What Works for Working Moms

My toddler just came in to "help" me blog and destroyed the politics of parenting post I was writing for an hour, giving a fresh reminder to the joys and challenges of working as a stay-at-home mom (and the benefits of having a backup document). No one needs to tell me that stay-at-home moms are working moms. While I recreate the posting I reflect on the recent comments about the Santorums and the Romneys and what they say about our stereotypes in these supposedly modern times.

Last week some Republicans said Rick Santorum should stay home with his sick child. And last night a Democrat, Hilary Rosen, said stay-at-home mom Ann Romney "hadn't worked a day in her life." From where I sit, both were wrong: parents of sick children go to work every day, and all moms are working moms.

I don't think you ascribe the Santorum comments to Republicans at large or the Romney comments to Democrats at large. We have been through this before with questions regarding the parenting choices of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and will likely go through it again for time immemorial. Voters will roll their eyes at both comments -- then press for answers to the larger questions that affect everyday people -- not the Santorums or the Romneys -- especially parents who lack the wealth, healthcare and childcare resources to facilitate their choices. But the fact that we are so eager to pounce on both sets of comments tells us something about our hair-trigger reactions and our deeper sentiments.

As to the hair-trigger reactions, it is obvious by now that any comment, however intentional, can explode with a vengeance across the twitterverse. In the new media era we are all public ambassadors whether our campaign roles are official or not. Ironically the Hilary Rosen-Ann Romney flap was exploding on CNN while I was on Jennifer Granholm's Current TV show The War Room talking with Independent Conservative Arthur Bruzzone about what he called "surrogates gone wild" and I called the need for folks to be "ambassadors for their causes." We were soon to learn that lesson was being relearned across the twitterverse at that moment. Every person speaking out on an issue in a public forum is a public figure whose comments will reflect on the larger cause. If you go on Facebootk or Twitter or Current or CNN or email you will be presumed a public figure and your comments will be attributed to your cause. Sometimes it's fair and sometimes it isn't, but it is always true. Hit a nerve like parenting and you can expect a vigorous reaction replete with all the hypocrisies hyperpartisanship has to offer. I was especially amused at the attacks on my own Democratic mother of 5, Nancy Pelosi, by some conservatives defending the Republican mother of 5 -- but that goes with the territory.

Our deeper sentiments about the politics of parenting are more complex and tied to the role of parenthood in society -- particularly of motherhood -- and the gender stereotypes that persist in these "modern" times. I write about this in my book Campaign Boot Camp 2.0 in a section on aspiring women leaders:

Women find it harder to make the leap into campaigns because we remain the primary caregivers for our children and our parents, so family time is harder to let go. And public attitudes remain stereotypical, even among close supporters. I remember receiving an award at the pre-Columbus Day luncheon of the Irish-Israeli-Italian Society of San Francisco during my days as a deputy prosecutor. There I was, my speech all lined up about the caring traditions of Trócaire, Tikkun Olam, and Caritas when a family friend approached my table announcing loudly "I'm praying for your husband." My response, thinking she mistook me for one of my married sisters: "It's Christine; I don't have a husband." "I know," she replied, "that's why I am praying for him!" My colleagues roared with laughter. One who has since gone on to elected office herself said, "When people ask me where my husband is I say, 'I don't know, but if you find him tell him I'm looking for him.'"

It's not just pressure to have a family -- it is pressure from a family member. More recently, two female candidates dealt with family pressure. One was starting her campaign when her mother asked her "Who'll take care of your children?" (Translation: "Not Grandma") The other got a call from home that her daughter's response to mom contemplating a primary was to dye her hair "one of the primary colors." (Translation: "Mom, stay home.") These are quite legitimate issues -- and ones we encounter every day. Primary caregivers of small children find that before we can accept any opportunity, our first question is about childcare. I traveled to over twenty states with my infant daughter, and each boot camp from halfway across my hometown to halfway around the world began with: "How will I care for Isabella?" One person asked me "why don't you bring your nanny?" "I am the nanny," I replied. Every mom, every primary caregiver, has to answer that childcare question, so candidates must remember this is not a trick question, just a very public one. (pp29-30)

Tackling those questions with respect for diverse answers is vital to the public debate and the world we want to create for our children to reach their fullest potential. Going forward, let's stipulate that parenting is paramount, all moms are working moms, and no one person is a stand-in for all others -- then get to the tough policy choices that will affect our lives. Voters want to know about the role of government to empower parents to reach our full potential inside and outside the home. Job prospects, health care, child care, fair pay, workers' voices, equality and nondiscrimination all affect whether parents can make the choice to stay at home or thrive on the job. It would be a shame to let our hair-trigger responses to these culture wars distract us from the larger struggle we have as parents and caregivers to hold political leaders accountable for the policy choices they would make regarding our ability to parent our children. We will do ourselves and our kids a great service if we transcend -- don't ask "what makes a working mom" but "what works for working moms?"