Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

It's Supermom! Or is it?

Women are divided: Is Sarah Palin's image something to emulate or avoid?

Photo illustration by Sterling Chen /  Staff Artist
Photo illustration by Sterling Chen / Staff ArtistRead more

Sarah Palin burst on the national political stage with an Alaska-size list of roles.

Governor. Hockey mom of five - and that includes a baby with Down syndrome and a pregnant 17-year-old. Veep candidate. Former beauty queen and basketball standout. Tough talker. Even moose hunter (and eater) who found time to jog up to nine miles a day.

Politics aside, she epitomizes the superwoman.

Ever since her debut, Palin has fueled a highly charged debate, especially among younger boomers and Gen Xers, over whether the rest of working mothers should do it all, too, just like her. And the often uncomfortable corollary: If women do any less than all, have they somehow failed?

Those who have struggled to juggle children and work have closely watched the 44-year-old Republican's trajectory. In board rooms and at bus stops, they are debating the wisdom of Palin's - and by extension, Everywoman's - choices.

"The concept of 'doing it all' gracefully and effectively is unrealistic," Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein of Elkins Park said this month over Cosi coffee with a group of like-minded girlfriends, all Barack Obama supporters.

Ezekiel-Fishbein is no slouch. At 43, the PR consultant and freelance writer is a mother of three, including a son with Tourette's syndrome, and a community organizer who co-founded the Special Needs Advocacy Group in her school district.

"We all make choices," she said.

Women around the country have "mixed feelings about the whole supermom image," said Jen Singer, author of a new book with the mouthful title You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either): The 14 Secrets to Finding Happiness Between Super Mom and Slacker Mom.

"We hope women can pull off all the things that Sarah Palin does," said the Kinnelon, N.J., mother of two and blogger. "Deep down, we think we can't. . . . If she attempts to be supermom and succeeds, we'll all feel like miserable failures."

Of course, many women with children have no choice but to work. For those who do, reaction to the Big S as defined by Palin often comes down to personal politics and values. Either Palin, the superwoman, is an impossible act to follow (liberals) or a role model to admire and copy (conservatives).

Pundits, as well as a Pew Research Center survey from the summer, have noted current thinking is a flip-flop of conventional views on the mommy wars. In the past, liberals heaped you-go-girl accolades on women with children and high-powered careers, and conservatives tsked-tsked those who didn't stay home to nurture little ones.

"I look up to her immensely," said Kristen Kirk Mayock, 39, of Paoli, a mother of three and a lawyer by training. "How does she do it all? It makes me look in the mirror and say, 'If she can do it, I can do it.' It inspires me to do more."

But is supermom Palin an impossible ideal?

"Her accomplishments," Mayock wrote in a late-night e-mail, "don't make me feel any more inadequate as a mom than Venus Williams' tennis abilities make me feel like a lousy tennis player."

Mayock worked full time as a litigator for Pennsylvania's Attorney General Office until she had her first child and left that post for part-time employment at a small firm. After her second child, she stayed home for a year and then served as deputy press secretary for Sam Katz's mayoral campaign in 2003.

Now, with her youngest, 3-year-old Kennedy, in preschool, Mayock would like to practice law full time.

"A lot of moms are doing a million things," she said.

Ezekiel-Fishbein, however, rejects the do-it-all notion.

"I, too, have tried to be the supermom," she said. Before children, she worked at a top Philly ad agency, with designs on a vice presidency. After her first child 13 years ago, she realigned her priorities to achieve more flexibility while pursuing her own business, Making Headlines.

But once her second child, Adam, was found to have Tourette's, she pulled back, a decision necessary to care and advocate for him even though it cost her half her income and slowed her career.

Palin's decision to chase the vice presidency even as she gave birth to a son with Down syndrome seems naive to Ezekiel-Fishbein. "I'm not sure she knows the emotional, financial and physical toll," she said. "No one can do it all. That's what got us in trouble in the '70s and '80s."

Those decades were marked by women who pursued both motherhood and the boardroom with unflappable energy, or at least tried to. Popular culture gave us the "24-hour woman" of the '70s Enjoli perfume ad, who could "bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. And never, never, never let you forget you're a man."

Sarah Palin's full plate led blogger Carlos Miller ( to spoof: "Sarah Palin gets my vote because she is a true modern woman in that she can shoot a moose, fry it up in a pan, and never let me forget that she is a woman."

And last month, Doonesbury weighed in with the Sarah Palin Action Doll, accessorized with "pageant-wear, hunting togs, and a complete stay-at-work mom ensemble!"

While the left-leaners poke fun, Debra Deasy, 38, of Paoli, completely relates. She's the mother of three school-age girls and chief financial officer for Mercantile Management, which manages private equity funds.

"She's a Type A personality," Deasy said of Palin. "I'm a Type A personality." Supermom, she said, "is not easy. But it can be done."

How? For women like her, it comes down to a support team: nannies and cleaning ladies and spouses who share the load.

That's part of the Palin puzzle: She doesn't seem to have much help. After all, she gave up the chauffeur and domestic staff - choices that only add to her supermom image.

Barbara Caffrey, 42, of Wayne, a clinical psychologist who has an 8-year-old step-daughter, worries that the model Palin projects - "100 percent mom, 100 percent career woman" - sets up young girls for ultimate failure.

"I don't see that she's doing it all," Caffrey said. "Why do we have to pretend she is? Why do we need to make this woman some iconic figure? . . .. She's had help like everybody else in the world."

Palin's rise as a vice presidential candidate comes at a time when many well-educated, high-powered professional women who are starting families have decided to pull back or out of the workforce. For them, the mantra is "I can do it all, but not at the same time," said Gwyneth Williams, a professor of political science at Webster University in St. Louis.

These are the daughters of feminists who fought for equality in the workforce but came to the realization that they still had to tend the fires on the homefront's second shift, she said.

Ellen Toplin is of that generation. At 55, the marketing and PR executive who lives in Dresher and has a grown daughter and stepdaughter, said so many women have worked to get a seat at the table while balancing the "albatross of an entire life on their backs. Nobody paid any attention to them."

In the end, the do-it-all supermom might come down to a woman's definition of all. "We each have to be able to define our all," said Julie Cohen of Elkins Park, a career coach with a 6-year-old son.

"I know my personal all," said Cohen, 41, who's working on a book about work-life balance. "It's mine, and it's never perfect."