Ministry, Mothering, Politics

An Intimate Conversation

"Why," my dear husband asked, "are you taking Sarah Palin so personally?"

I think it's because MY youngest child is 13, yet I am still arranging my career to suit her needs.

Looking over my female friends — educated and accomplished — it is
hard to think of one who has not trimmed her career sails to
accommodate family life. Amazingly, I know more women who have opted
out than who work full-steam ahead.
(Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post)

I really appreciated Marcus' opinion piece about juggling family and work, about her assumption that she would go right back to it after having a baby and the various permutations that have evolved since then to make family life possible.

When I finished seminary, a process I delayed to be more available to my three children, I was 41 and already had a limited career window open to me. I undertook my first job search casting a very limited geographical net in hopes that my children would not have to move away from their father. There were five openings in the area, three full-time and two part-time, and happily I had the opportunity to interview for all of them. Two churches turned me down, one dropped the contact ball, and one expressed further interest but had not come to a decision when I received the call from Small Church.

On a hot, hot day in July, I sat around a restaurant table with my three children (16, 11 and 7), my soon-to-be-husband *and* my former husband, and we all discussed the possibilities. Both jobs were full-time, one as an associate in a church that bore a fairly strong resemblance to Large Church, our church home for 15 years. It had programs, and lots of families, and liberal theology and good music. Small Church was, well, smaller, more blue collar, just different. But the job seemed more compatible with our family life, our two-household family life in which I was the primary, day-to-day parent. My part-time education and previous part-time work would give way to a full-time job, but I took the one that was likely to be closer to 40 hours a week than 80, that was a little closer to home, that I had a feeling would allow me to be the mother I wanted to be at the same time I became a pastor.

I chose the mommy track.

Ironically, I made a conservative choice, although I am liberal. This is bothering me today, that a family values choice will likely limit my career potential.

Now I am 47. I have six years of experience. My children are 22, nearly 18 and 13. I am *still* the primary, day-to-day parent. To make a serious career move, I still face the need to move, but now it's not a question of separating the children from their father but from me, since a 13-year-old girl sees herself as being the one to choose and the uproar that insisting on taking her away would cause might make things worse rather than better.

But the truth is still the truth. The right kind of parish job, the job on the mommy track, allows a person to come home after school and check in, limits the number  of evenings out, accepts more presence of the family. It's possible I could continue to give her that for five more years.

And this is where I take Sarah Palin personally. How was she not limited by having so many children? How do you leverage a job as mayor of a town of 6000, which I imagine is comparable to being a small church pastor, into being governor of a state ten times larger? I can promise you, few mothers who are pastors would make the leap from a 100 member church to a 1000 member church as head of staff, and if you know of one, I'd like to hear about it.

I'll never know, probably none of us will, how representative the human interest stories about her governorship really were. Did the baby come to the office all summer? Was Piper in the elevator with her puppy once, or all the time? On those days she worked from home or Anchorage and charged a per diem for staying in her own house, could she really get any work done?

In my experience, the answer would be: "Sometimes yes, and sometimes no."

I'm glad I went to Small Church when I did, glad that when a child was sick I didn't have to answer to a supervising male colleague who had never been the one responsible for caring for little ones. I'm glad I had flexibility and received understanding when I was on my way to visit Cora and got the call from school that the then-Little Princess required a pick-up because her stomach hurt. I'm grateful to Cora who saw me another day, and who I loved, too, and I'm grateful to my children, two out of three who visited Cora on other days, and to Cora who welcomed my visits with Sam and Molly, one at a time.

But despite that gratitude, I reach this crossroads in my life frustrated and perplexed about how to make the next move, trying to weigh all the factors and know what's right and what's best and what may feel useful and satisfying and above all, meaningful, while in the midst of it, grocery shopping and doing the laundry having a marriage and being a mother and writing my own material.

And that's why I'm taking Sarah Palin so personally.

19 thoughts on “An Intimate Conversation”

  1. I get it. When I think about moving to another place, a place that would be “up” the ladder, I get sick to my stomach. Not because of the challenge of a new job, but because of the upheaval it would cause my family. And you’re right: men don’t (typically) pause to think about these things.

  2. It is pretty amazing that Sarah Palin was able to do that, but the ambition of politicians is in a whole other universe from normal ambition. Not only could I not imagine doing it, but I can’t imagine wanting to do it. She probably has a financial security that allowed her a lot of flexibility. Someone was watching the baby while she attended meetings. And she may look all family values, but the way you get ahead in politics is by making it your priority. You know she didn’t have a 40 hour work week. And I’m not saying that Alaska is some unsophisticated backwater, but I imagine that going from small-town mayor to governor is much easier there than in New York or California.

  3. As someone who changed schools (and homes) 6 times from 1st through 8th grade and then twice more during high school (the last time midway through senior year)– it was military, so neither I nor my parents really had any say in the matter except for one move in 8th grade to better housing and a better school system — I can’t work up lots of sympathy for the Princess here. Yes, I am a mean old grouch. I survived and thrived (throve?) I’m not saying you should make decisions on the basis of me-me-me, but recognize that your call does have validity and maybe should have first priority, absent special needs on the child’s part. That said, I know you will be making decisions based on what’s best for the whole family, and kids’ idea of what’s best for them isn’t always the whole story. Good luck!

  4. Just a few thoughts from a man who’s bold enough to venture into these waters… I may not be typical, but even as a man trying to put myself in Palin’s situation, I can’t imagine making the choices she has made. If I were the father of a five-month-old with Down’s Syndrome, a 17-year-old expecting a baby, and three other children at home, I’m fairly certain I would not accept a nomination for Vice-President of the United States. (To be fair, I don’t think I’d make the choices Barack Obama has made either.)
    As a clergy couple, my wife and I were serving two fairly prestigious, large (by New England standards) churches when we intentionally and prayerfully made career choices that appear to others as downward mobility and that have required significant financial sacrifice, because we refuse to let babysitters raise our children so that we can climb the ladder. I do not regret those decisions, and I hope I won’t when we’re old and retired and our pension is smaller because of it either. I don’t mean to suggest that these choices are simple ones, but I do think they are choices with which both women and men must wrestle if they make parenting a priority.

  5. I’ve read some pieces that said members of Alaska legislature wore yellow buttons that said “Where’s Sarah?” because she was absent from state business so often.
    So not all the concessions were on her children, some were on her job.
    Neither Bert or I would make the choices that politicians, including Palin, make about being unavailable to their children. We have 4 children. I work about 35 hours a week and Bert just started on his completely inflexible 40 hour job. We figured out last night that’s it’s likely he will never attend a parent/teacher conference, school assembly, or see his daughter cheerlead for this entire year. These are huge sacrifices for us, but we have to make them. I can’t imagine the sacrifices that are made when you hold national office.

  6. There is no easy answer, is there? I remember thinking, fresh out of college at age 21, that I’d marry, have children, have a wonderful full-time career, and have no conflicts at all in juggling everything.
    More than 25 years later, I can say that I’ve always been pulled as hard by the desire to be there for my children as by the desire to get somewhere in my career. I’m very fortunate that I can practice my profession full time as a self-employed person. That has meant, a lot of times, working in the wee hours of the morning because I had to stop working to attend a parent-teacher conference or to care for a sick child. And you bet that there were times when I resented my husband’s 40-hour workweeks and 1-hour-each-way commute. But now that he’s self-employed too, we’re learning to juggle who serves as the on-duty parent and when.
    And Allen, I liked very much reading your story. Thank you for telling it. I also like very much that your surname is hyphenated, as my husband’s is. 🙂

  7. That does seem ironic, doesn’t it. I consider myself very liberal (moreso in some areas than others) and I have made choices to be with my family that have significantly circumscribed my professional advancement. Then there’s this hyper-conservative woman who appears to have made a very different set of choices, and has no doubt benefited from the advocacy of my women’s lib sisters from back in the day, women she’d likely have some snarky words for. It seems all backwards, somehow. Still, I do believe every woman should be free to make her own choices, and though it scares me to imagine Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from leadership of the free world, I otherwise have to say that I’m all for her.

  8. I take Mrs. Palin as seriously as you for similar reasons. In addition to finding the very image of her as presented to be a huge lie that we are supposed to respectfully swallow and ask “may we have some more please”, because if we do not swallow it we are called sexist.
    I am up at 5 in the morning, on my feet or working all day, with small breaks (I write very fast so I can blog 20 minutes a day) and then collapse at 9:30 at night. With just the one child, mind you. Maybe it’s that I feel she makes me look bad. Or that I feel like such a failure in not being able to accomplish my dreams because I have so many damned chores and obligations. Till I realize, the woman’s lying in my face by expecting us to believe her image has the substance behind it that it does not. On top of the killing helpless animals from a helicopter, thinking global warming is just a fluke of nature and her other dangerous views.
    *sigh*, gotta go find my goat now.

  9. Much food for thought here. I’m the mother of an almost-one-year-old, who admittedly has been a little higher maintenance than a “normal” baby, but not what I would qualify as “special needs.” I’m also working a half time call at a church relatively nearby. And this is truly all I can handle! I feel like the church has gotten short shrift in more than one way, on more than one occasion, and likewise for our daughter. My husband has already made one hard decision to turn down a call at a much larger/better/more prestigious church (he’s also clergy) in order for us to take care of her the way we would like to.
    As for Sarah Palin, I simply don’t know, if the image is reality, how it’s possible. I don’t know that I’m resentful or jealous, just highly suspicious and skeptical.
    Thanks for raising the issue and writing such thought-provoking reflections. Thanks to all the commenters, as well.

  10. Thanks to all of you for this thoughtful conversation. I just returned from a meeting of Interim Ministers, all much older than I (ranging from early 60’s to mid-70’s), and they reinforced my feelings of earlier today, that they are much better able to make career decisions ruthlessly than I have been or am likely to be.
    Let’s keep talking.

  11. You’re not alone. I get all of this and think that the lack of room for supporting choices of all sorts is what’s so tragically fraught with irony for me.

  12. If I were capable of linking I would like to Willsmama’s post about choices.
    I never think I am doing enough as a wife, mother, doctor, person etc etc.
    And then, someone I don’t know well will ask me in amazement “How do you do it ALL?”
    Palin bothers me not because of what choices she has made for her own life and that of her family, not because I am jealous, not because I don’t believe her outsides are truly in sync with her insides but because she
    1. doesn’t believe women are smart enough to make their own choices about their bodies
    2. wants religious stories about creation taught in science classes in public schools
    3. has no foreign policy experience or even significant knowledge
    4. is the Veep candidate for a Pres. candidate who is old and has significant possible life threatening health problems
    5. I would never vote for her for president
    6. does not have enough experience to take on the job as chief executive of the U.S.
    7. thinks lipstick wearing pit bulls are something to be admired
    8. supports drilling for oil in an environmentally sensitive area (we already do that in the Gulf of Mexico….that tore up the wetlands….led to worse effects from hurricanes….when will they ever learn)
    9. doesn’t think critically about scientific issues like global warming or stem cell research
    10. scares the crap out of Songbird

  13. I have to say that I thik it depends on your family situation whether this sort of job can work or not. I have a daughter who works as a teacher, and it is possible to miss school, but really frowned upon. She does a multiple group of things after school in tutoring, enabling, working on a higher degree,etc. Yet she is married to a man who is a rancher (with superb overseers out there) and a part time law practice and a few other businesses. Succinctly, he is pretty much flexible and has proved a marvelous Mr. Mom. This family has been able to function just because he is able to take care of many of the things that are traditionally the domain of mom. Not that Mr. Palin can fill in for Sarah, but if he is able to be a real support at home, maybe this is how she works it. Just a thought.

  14. You verbalize so well thoughts that swirl incoherently in my brain. Thank you for kicking of this thoughtful discussion.
    As a single mom of 3, I know that I must always make career decisions with my family’s needs in mind. I’ve seen some exciting, enticing opportunities pass me by because of my family situation. It’s not nearly as easy to take when committees make the decision for you.
    The irony called Palin – conservative to the bone yet off-the-charts opposite in her decision to accept this nomination – blows my mind.

  15. I agree with you. I applaud you for choosing the Mommy track. That’s what I did, too, and now I’m stuck not knowing what to do. But my four kids are good. I’m glad.
    And I think the mothering business is what starts me on the critical path about Palin. . . .

  16. You’ve hit the nail right on the head Songbird. Those are the issues, right there, for me too. Because I’ve been where she is. I lived being told my son had an “incurable developmental disability” and I spent the first year after that in grief work. Yes, grieving the loss, the sadness, the unfairness, the unknown for my life. And, here this superwoman went into labor, got on a plane, spit that baby out, and then went back to work three days later. What does that say about me? Or rather, what does it tell me about her? Can you say DENIAL? And, like you, I find myself recoiling from the words coming out of my mouth when I think about how this all will impact her family. I even said to my sister, “So, even if she’s married to a Mr. Mom model man, she’s STILL THE MOMMY!” What is she thinking??? ACK!

  17. wow, excellent, thought-provoking discussion here!!
    I’ve always struggled with trying to do just the ‘right’ (at least in my mind) balance between my practice and raising my children.

  18. Songbird, this will be rolling around in my brain all day. Wonderful, honest, thought-provoking post.
    I’m a single mom of five. I do ministry full-time at my church. My life is very small, it seems, but very full. There is cheating all around – the church, my kids, my friends, my parents – and yet…
    All of this experience has kept me incredibly humble. Perhaps I have not been able to achieve my fullest career potential, but that simply reminds me that I am not God. Mistakes I have made as a parent help me to communicate clearly with my kids that everybody – even mom and dad – makes mistakes, and that humility and honest brokenness are necessary to navigate an authentic life. If I don’t show up to a meeting – whether it’s the PTO or a church thing – life goes on anyway. Stuff gets done anyway. I am not necessary, as much as I wish I was, for the continuing process of life itself.
    And in my view, that’s what keeps me sane. It keeps me from becoming like men – and women – who chase a calling or a vision or an office or the dollar, and in doing so, lose their sense of self. The restrictions I face because I choose balance, because I stay put in one community for the sake of my kids’, because I don’t advance up the career chain – these things keep me full of grace, I think. They keep me sane and aware of my humanity.
    Like Jayne, my discomfort with Sarah Palin is that I can’t help but think there’s a sort of denial going on. Whether it’s hers or the news/media culture that we respond to, I can’t tell. But there’s a definite discomfort there…

  19. Hi Songbird, I just took a minute to read this post after posting over at Allen’s blog on the issue of balance. First, thank you for this post. I am rather “new” to the whole pastoring thing, having graduated from seminary in 2003 at the age of 37. I started seminary in 1997 at the age of 31. In between I had two daughters. After graduating I had one more. My husband has a more than full time job that requires a TON of travel. So I have chosen to back off and not be ordained in the UMC in the fear that I would be sent to a church far from his work and we couldn’t make our one car, kids and dad walk to work/school, community helps with everything lifestyle work. It bothers me a lot that despite my degree and experience, I am *not* ordained and won’t be for a while, until I feel like we all could deal with a move. Thanks for validating the “mommy track” and for voicing what I wonder about Palin, too. The only way I can see it work is if her husband’s job takes second place ALOT. Like, all the time. Third place, actually. Blessings to you and your ministry

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