In my title, I am quoting Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, in her reply to Rebecca Eisenberg's harsh criticism (now edited to reveal a change of mind/heart) of taking their kids on the campaign trail. (You can find some of the original invective quoted on Time Swampland writer Karen Tumulty's blog.)
This all came from a New York Times article that described---to my way of thinking and personal experience---what sounds pretty normal, for most parents and kids, but particularly ones in extraordinary circumstances like a parent running for President of the United States. The "logistics" included things such as
* A two year old who strips off her diaper (Senator Christopher Dodd's daughter, Christina).
* A seven year old who says, "I don' wanna..." (John Edwards' son, Jack)
* A nine month old with an ear infection (Fred Thomson's son, Samuel)
These things can happen, whether a child is at home in a regular routine or on the campaign trail with parents.
Jodi Kantor (the Times reporter who wrote the story) strings along these facts and presents candidates on both ends of the spectrum: Barack Obama wants his children to stay in their routine and Edwards takes his children everywhere, while the rest of the candidates fall somewhere in between.
The current candidates and their family situation is unique, as Kantor writes
No fewer than five presidential contenders — Mr. Edwards, Senators Christopher J. Dodd, Sam Brownback and Barack Obama, and the almost-candidate Fred D. Thompson — have children under 10, a circumstance historians say has no recent precedent.
It is a case of campaign demographics colliding with larger ones: some contenders are running for president at relatively young ages, while others — like many voters — are having children later in life.
That leaves politicians agonizing over how often to leave their children, who should care for them and how much to shield them from the spotlight. Each candidate calls family a top priority, but that can mean different things.
All of the parents have mitigating reasons for their different choices, and I think that ought to be respected, which is something Eisenberg opted not to do in the case of Edwards family.
She opted for snark and invective, which, as even she admits, is a snazzy way of grabbing attention.
Worst of all, you are forcing your young children, who should be in school to ride in buses and talk to the press when they obviously don't want to. This election is NOT ABOUT THEM. They deserve some peace, not time with nannies and campaign-trail daycare providers, since, as the Times article describes, you don't have time to see them when you are busy campaigning too.
However, even Kantor couldn't keep judgment out of the article
The two children barely listened. They scampered away from speeches as fast as their parents would allow, to vending machines and arcade games and swimming expeditions, a campaign bus stocked with Oreos and DVDs, and for a glorious half hour, a trampoline next door to a speaking event.
And they treated an interviewer the way politicians surely wish they could at times, refusing at first to remove their iPod earphones for a discussion of life on the trail.
Shocking. Children who prefer candy vending machines, trampolines and iPods to a grownup asking loads of loaded questions. I can't imagine.
Mom and Dad in flooring store trying to take advantage of Labor Day weekend sale. Children flipping through wood samples, and constantly running to candy vending machines.
Yes, that was us, yesterday. And we are not even running for office! Our children act that way anyway sometimes!
During the week, my children attend school and preschool so I can get my work done. I count this as time and money well-spent for us. They love school, and get a lot out of the challenges, learning and socialization. I get a lot out of doing my own thing for a few hours three times a week, at least.
So my kids "endure" caregivers other than me with regularity and frequency. And I'm not even running for office!
That's why this piece of criticism from Eisenberg surprised me
I am truly, seriously, sorry that you are sick and that you are dying. But let this be your parting gift to the world: give your children some actual QUALITY time with you, which they are not having on the bus or in senatorial-aide-nannycare. Help give your children a next new Democratic president, who is NOT going to be your husband.
OH NO! Are we railing on the mom who doesn't need to but chooses to work and puts her kids in childcare, again?
Even more surprising and confusing about this point of view is that Eisenberg's own biography at Silicon Valley Moms blog says she is a practicing lawyer and start-up executive. That must take a few hours here and there, at least.
I believe, despite our separation during the week while I do my thing and the kids go to their schools, that my kids and I have a lot of quality time. Sometimes it's what I call "creative quality time" or "making the most of what we've got" such as using car time for talking, or starting bed time a little earlier so we can chat and read books. Quality time isn't limited to Hallmark commercial-like moments. They don't have to happen inside your house, or some particular location. You learn to take your moments when you can, where you can, how you can. And they are sandwiched between a lot of distractions and challenges.
Playing the dying card is callous. Although I don't have breast cancer, I am dealing with a serious health issue. But when whymommy asked if we would do anything different if we knew we might not be here next week, next month, or next year, I answered no. Because I'm just carrying on as normally as I can, doing my best. I can't live "every day as if it might be my last." I'd burn out pretty quickly in that case. How intense that is, to live each day as if it might be your last. It's just not for me. I'm sure people think they know what they'd do in my shoes, but you know? You never know until you get here.
I will concede that all of this does make me view things a little differently, a little more "outside the box," and so I understand the Edwardses choices. I have, in fact, chosen to take my kids with me on a trip, so we can experience it together. This means pulling them out of school for a bit. But I believe it is worth it.
I find it very telling that the criticism is leveled at the parent who chose to take the family out of the home and routine. I find it very telling that not one piece of criticism was leveled at the family that decided to part, with one parent at home and another out for of the time (or on the road). Is it because that model resonates a little closer to home for many of us? We are more easily able to understand that Dads need to travel sometimes for work? And Moms ought to stay home and keep the fires burning or something like that?
Isn't the point of this modern age of equality that we have choices we get to make now?
Karen Tumulty was right when she called this a re-enactment of the mommy wars.
We've all stated fatigue with the mommy wars. It's been argued (fought) and truces declared and yet...battles still break out. I think this is because we just can't help ourselves: we are judgmental.
We seem to think that our personal experience and situation is somehow applicable to another person.
We do this for the good (sympathy and empathy) and the bad (judgment) and sometimes, in either case, it's an insulting miss.
The bottom line is that we can never know what is behind another person's situation, in a broad view or situational one-off view.
And the excuses that we use for our judgment in cases of differences of opinion of how one ought to go about this incredibly complex job of parenting, and juggling parenting with other life situations (e.g., "you're harming your kids" or "that's just bad parenting because you're letting those kids run wild" and "well geez, I never had any trouble like that with my kids") won't hold water. If you judge, just admit it: I'm judging. There is no rationale for it, no excuse...although there is often a reason.
In addition to the discussions at PunditMom, Peggy As She Is, One Plus Two and the other sites I already linked to about the "kids on the campaign trail" issue specifically, a recent post at Motherhood Uncensored got me thinking about how I feel about the frequent judgment I feel leveled my way as a parent, in a more general way.
Kristin's (possibly unintentionally) timely question was, "Is your children's behavior outside of your home a clear and accurate indication of your parenting skills and/or how they act in your home?"
My answer, like Kristin's and many others, was, "not so much."
We have no idea why the child is behaving in a particular way or why the parent is doing (or not doing) a certain thing.
Even if a mom appears to be just sitting there...we still don't know. We don't know that two minutes ago she said, "If you keep this up? No (whatever) as a logical consequence," and is now hands-off. We don't know that she's sick to death of dealing with it, ineffectually, and has possibly retreated in the hopes of (a) being struck by inspiration of What To Do Next or (b) that the oft-bandied idea of "ignore it and it will go away" is true. We don't know that maybe she herself is sick and/or tired and is afraid that anything she says and does will be so shrill that she'll be judged for that, and worse.
That's the deal, isn't it? We seem to be frequently evaluating how other children behave and how their parents respond, and everyone has different ideas.
I've been smack in the middle of the "try to not reinforce it by giving it attention" method of dealing with some naughtiness by my kids when another adult walked up and said something like, "You shouldn't let your kid do that!"
Conversely, I've been smack in the middle actively dealing with it and had another adult come up and say something like, "You should just ignore it. Works like a charm for me every time!"
I've been standing (or GASP! sitting, or worse sitting and chatting with friends...oh the horrors!) at a park while my kids played, when an adult walked up to me and said, "Did you know your baby is climbing the rope wall? Isn't that dangerous?"
No, it's not dangerous for my child. If it was, I'd do something. Yes, I know where my kids are at all times. It's the MommyRadar. It snapped on at birth and I can't seem to turn it off, ever. Trust me, I've tried. I know what my kids are doing, what they are capable of and when to intervene. Just because your kid might fall off the ropes doesn't mean mine will. My kids are part monkey. I can't seem to turn it off. Trust me, I've tried.
Or worse, that nervous parent might rush over and snatch my child off of the ropes, assuming. Now I have a tantrumming child and a tantrumming adult to deal with.
It happens everywhere: restaurants, stores, parks, museums. Adults feel compelled, and sometimes older children too, to step in and point out the obvious then give unasked for advice about how to parent.
Just the other day, a woman approached me at a water park and said, "Your little girl is running through the water in her sandals." Why yes, she is, they are called Crocs and are waterproof and she wanted to, I had no problem with it (endorsed the idea, actually) and it's all fine.
I used to wonder why people automatically assumed that other people didn't know how to best parent their own children. I don't any longer. It's because we have selected our own beliefs about Best Parenting Practices and feel free to liberally apply them not just to our own families, but to others, as well.
Rebecca Eisenberg would never take her children on the campaign trail; she'd choose as Michelle Obama has (to stay home with the kids). She'd prefer her husband to parent by phone, as Sam Brownback does. You know what? I imagine that's the best decision they can make for their families. I imagine, like me, they consider and weigh all the relevant factors and make the best decision they can, understanding that nothing is perfect or ideal and everything carries a pro and a con.
I know myself, my family, our beliefs, and our kids, and I'd more likely follow the same path as the Edwardses.
You don't have to be on the campaign trail or in the news to feel the judgment, although I'm sure it's more frequent and intense inside the media fishbowl. All of us who parent are subject to scrutiny and a million little judgments. Even if many well-intentioned, and even if in and of themselves they don't seem very big or very bad, they add up. Some days, you can feel a little stinged and slinged by one too many arrows.
But those arrows are amiss.
In the awesome words of Elizabeth Edwards herself
I want to be entirely clear. You don't get to say I am a terrible mother because you think you wouldn't make my choices in my situation. You don't get to say that my children don't want to be with us when you don't know them and when, parenthetically, you know that happy children can be periodically disagreeable. You don't get to judge me because you think you know exactly what you would do if you had my disease. I want to be really clear: you don't know. And if the sun always shines on you -- and I pray it does -- you will never know.
Eisenberg did come back to edit her original post and express a change of opinion after the spirited discussion and broad media review of the idea. Good for her.
I hope more of us can understand that, honestly, even if think we would do differently in the same position, it doesn't make us right and them wrong, nor does it open up the judgment door. And truthfully, until you walk a mile in those shoes, you just don't know.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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