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Parenting Double Standards in Presidential Elections

Image via ricksantorum.com

What’s the difference between being a political mom and a political dad?  Ask Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum.

When Sarah Palin ran for vice president in 2008, she drew fire for more than just her views on the economy and reproductive rights.  At the time John McCain chose her to be his running mate, her son Trig, who was born with Down Syndrome, was only a few months old.  She faced severe criticism from all sides about whether she was being a neglectful mother by taking on the 24/7 commitments of a national campaign, which included the possibility of becoming the first woman vice president of the United States.

Mommy Wars 2.0 went political in a big way.

I’ve never been a fan of Palin’s politics.  But when people started suggesting that mothers of young children, especially those with special needs, had no business being in a job as demanding or as a high profile as the vice presidency, it ticked me off because those questions are really just part of the age old stereotype that the job of care-giving belongs only to women.

Fast forward a few years to the current campaign season where one GOP presidential contender also has a young special needs child.  This time that candidate is a dad.  The public response to Rick Santorum, the father of a special needs daughter, and his decision to run for president has been a whole heck of a lot different from the one Palin received.

Santorum speaks often about his youngest daughter Isabella, who is three-and-a-half years old and has a genetic disorder called Trisomy 18.  Half of all children born with Trisomy 18 die at birth and few live much longer than a year, so his daughter’s story is an exceptional one.  In Santorum’s own words, Bella, as her family calls her, is a special girl who “needs a lot of care.”

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, no one is suggesting that Santorum is being a bad father for choosing the rigors of a presidential campaign over the demands of taking part in the daily care of a special needs child.  No one is questioning whether he ought to be in the race at all nor is anyone suggesting that he’s a neglectful parent, as people did with Palin.  In fact, much of the media coverage of his daughter has focused on how Santorum says Bella’s condition has been a motivating factor for him to pursue the presidency.

The little bit of push back he’s gotten has been from those crying “foul” over featuring Bella so prominently in a campaign ad, wondering whether he’s exploiting her condition for political gain.

Am I crazy or is the double standard here pretty clear?  I have no doubt that if it was Mrs. Santorum out there on the campaign trail, she’d be attacked more than Palin ever was for not focusing on her motherly duties to the exclusion of her political ambition.  When it comes to moms, people feel it’s fair game to question the choices we make after we become parents in a way that few dads experience, especially not the fathers who’ve run for the White House.

So what do you think?  Should Santorum be in the race for the White House or does he owe it to his daughter and his family to step off the stage and focus on the medical and health care needs of his child?

Joanne Bamberger writes the blog PunditMom, and is the author of Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America (on sale now at Amazon!), a bipartisan look at how women online will be a force to be reckoned with in the 2012 election!

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