Parenting is Political
Ever since our first pre-natal visit, when the midwife determined our son’s due-date, my wife and I have joked that our baby better come before election day so we can make it to the polls. As of this writing, the election is exactly two weeks away, my wife’s due date is one day away, and I have an absentee ballot filled out just in case.
For me, this election and the birth of my first child has been inexorably linked (for better or worse). Indeed, over the past month I have been getting as many emails from baby related websites as I have from political campaigns. I find myself alternating between baby books and election blogs, packing the hospital bag and checking poll numbers.
This intersection of parenting and politics has changed the way I have looked at this election and made me more attentive to issues that I have never considered in past elections. I have always been concerned with issues related to the future of our country and our children’s future such as education and the environment, but this year I find my imminent parenthood serving as a litmus test for a wide range of policies. How would this economic policy impact my families like mine? How would that healthcare policy change the health and care of children? What would that foreign policy mean for parents who are in the military?
I wrote in an earlier blog post about images of fatherhood being portrayed at the Democratic National Convention. In a recent post on the New York Times website, Lisa Belkin points out a new report from the non-partisan Families and Work Institute, which researches the role of work in family life. In her post Belkin quotes the organization’s director Ellen Galinsky who looks even more broadly at the images of parenthood that the campaigns have carefully constructed:
“We are left with images of Barack Obama talking to his daughters by Web cam at night, of John McCain asking his wife where the child she brought home from Bangladesh was going to live, of Joe Biden taking the train home to Wilmington after his days in the Senate, and of Sarah Palin with her children in her office.”
The problem is, these images of parenthood tell us little or nothing about the policies these candidates might support and the impact of those policies on real families. Belkin details how organizations like the Families and Work Institute and Momsrising.org are trying to mobilize the “parent vote” as an important voting bloc. The Family and Work Institute went so far as to get the candidates on the phone and on the record on a series of key issues related to parenting and work.
Belkin summarized the two conversations as such: “Obama supports an expansion of the rights of working parents and the role of the Federal government in securing those rights and McCain supports making the case to business that such changes are in their interest.” You can find transcripts of both conversations at the Families and Work Institute website. (For those who like to point out that there is more than two candidates and more than two parties, it is also worth reading Madeline Holler’s interesting interview with Ralph Nader, “the seventy-three-year-old childless attorney [who published] a book about parenting”).
Save for the Families and Work Institute conversations with the candidates, most of the discussions about parenting, families and the election has consisted of pundits and bloggers picking apart the candidates various positions and extrapolating to the impact those stances would have on families. For examples, over on the Strollerby blog, Hannah Tennant-Moore points our a First Focus report that calls McCain’s healthcare plan “dangerous” for children. It’s good to see these authors turning a critical eye towards these issues. However should we expect more?
In Belkin’s post she wondered about the power of the “parent vote.” Can we imagine a campaign getting past the narrow focus (and gender bias) of “soccer/hockey moms” as a target demographic and really talk about the future of families in America? I wonder if this sort of framework could help get us beyond devise social issues and false “family values” that the right has used so successfully for so long to drive a wedge between people and get people voting against their best interest.
Back in 2000 the Center for Work/Life Policy did a series of reports on the “Parent Vote” and found that “Fifty percent of fathers and 54% of mothers – 52% of all parents – say that being a parent is one of the top two factors they consider when they vote, compared to only 13% who said gender and 6% who said race.” They found that “Issues that could galvanize parents include easing work-family time pressures, stemming the violence threatening their kids, and improving public education.”
It’s an interesting suggestion that at least some parents in the UK have taken to heart. The Equal Parenting Alliance is a UK political party that promotes “a system of family justice in the UK that puts the needs and interests of children first.” Here in the states New York has a Working Families Party which “fights to hold politicians accountable on the issues working- and middle-class families care about, like good jobs, fair taxes, good schools, reliable public transportation, affordable housing, and universal healthcare.” A number of labor unions have also created projects and initiatives around the working family and include election year news and information.
Looking out at the intersection of parenting and politics you see a lot of people on the sidelines, doing important work, and trying to be heard. However, for all the candidate’s talk about “main street” we rarely get beyond predicable pandering to hypothetical parents to real discussions about the complex issues facing families, parents, and the politics of raising children in America. People don’t yet see parenting as a political act.
Immediately after John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate a rumor swirled around the internet that her youngest daughter was actually her daughter’s daughter. It turned out that while Sarah Palin’s 17 year old daughter was indeed pregnant, the baby of the family was indeed Sarah’s. When this rumor began to get traction in the press, Barack Obama swiftly stepped in and clearly stated that “families are off limits.” Unfortunately, too often the same seems to hold true when it comes to policy discussions.