Wendy Davis Isn’t Running for Mother of the Year

She’s running for public office. Can we stop “investigating” the gubernatorial candidate’s parenting skills now?

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I confess that I didn’t know Texas state senator Wendy Davis until she stood last summer for 11 hours at the podium of the Capitol, pink-sneakered and resolute, refusing to back away from fighting restrictions legislators were trying to place on a woman’s access to a late-term abortion. I liked the shoes. (I’m a runner and wearing neon-colored sneaks are a great way to mitigate the punishing regularity of that sport.) I liked her chutzpah even more. I told friends to expect her to aim for higher office someday, and now she’s running for governor.

Another thing I expected: the scrutiny she’s received as a mother, which the New York Times Magazine examines in its new feature on the senator. That she’s a Democrat trying to win governorship of a heavily Republican state explains the parsing of her every word and move, yes. It’s a rite of passage, after all, for any aspiring elected official to be inspected. I’d venture to say it’s required. It’s even fair game to have said aspirant’s timeline be analyzed for inconsistencies—was she 19 or 21 when she was first divorced? Did she enter politics as a Republican or Democrat?—because we need to be able to understand the story she’s telling us, or at least determine if she’s an imprecise communicator, if only to better process what she means. (Was it willful obfuscation or sloppiness? I honestly don’t know what to think.) But as theTimes Magazine article points out, the microscopic analysis of her past “also calls into question whether Sheryl Sandberg’s exhortations for women to ‘lean in’ to their careers are transferable to the more hidebound and judgmental world of political campaigning.”

The comb-through of Davis’s parenting skills began in earnest in a Dallas Morning News story published three weeks ago. In it, one anonymous source calls Davis “tremendously ambitious,” adding that “she’s not going to let family or raising children or anything else get in her way.” Talk about a backhanded compliment. This is how the narrative builds: Davis is ambitious. She wants to be governor. She’s been working toward this goal for years. See how hard she worked? She worked so hard she wasn’t around as much. She worked so hard she didn’t let family stand in the way. She worked so hard she abandoned them!

I wish we didn’t have to state the obvious, which is that if she were a man, this “investigation” wouldn’t even be happening. Did anyone look into whether Mitt Romney changed his babies’ diapers? (Or relied on nannies and his wife to do so?) Or thought to ask if Al Gore showed up for all of his children’s PTA meetings? George Bush seems like an amazing father—he talks about his family with much affection, and they appear to feel the same way, plus he seems like the type to deploy a fair share of dad jokes, like Bill DeBlasio—but that’s not why he deserved (or not) to be president. A recent New York Times article examining the brouhaha mentions how Rahm Emanuel left his kids with his wife back in Washington, D.C., to start campaigning for the mayoral seat in Chicago. Yet, as far as I can tell, he wasn’t raked over the coals for that.

After the Dallas Morning News story unleashed a barrage of not-so-veiled attacks on Davis’ abilities as a mother—the dependably hyperbolic Rush Limbaugh called her “a genuine head case”—her Republican colleague, congresswoman Becky Haskins lamented the “sad” turn of events, sharing that “every time I ran, somebody said I needed to be home with my kids. Nobody ever talks about men being responsible parents.”

I’m no fan of Sarah Palin, whose daughter, Bristol, chose to piggy-back onto criticisms of Davis by writing, “Gosh, children are sooo inconvenient, huh? I’m glad my mother didn’t put motherhood on the shelf when she was elected to City Council, then became our mayor, then governor.” But I also defended Palin against detractors who accused her of using her son Trig as a “stage prop” while running for office. (Don’t all politicians bring their families onstage at some point during their campaigns?)

In defense of their mother, Amber and Dru Davis posted an open letter, excoriating critics and declaring the accusations of bad motherhood as beyond the pale. “Sadly I feel the need to be crystal clear on the malicious and false charge of abandonment as nothing could be further from the truth,” Dru writes. They detail an admirable catalog of motherly love: Their mom was a Brownie troop leader; she also volunteered with Dru’s field hockey team and dropped her off at college, making sure her room was decorated exactly as she needed. She was there at every field hockey tryout. Amber speaks lovingly of her mom, too, sharing that she can confide in her mother “without judgment.” In short, haters don’t know what they’re talking about.

And they don’t. Which is why I almost wish her daughters hadn’t written that letter, though it’s understandable why they did. It’s a beautiful tribute—I can only hope that my kids would feel just as proud of me someday as Dru and Amber do of Davis. But their list detailing how she has been an amazing mom to them inadvertently fortifies the idea that motherhood can be defined and distilled into specific norms. Norms that only serve to limit our understanding of what a good mother is: She shows up at every school function; she volunteers to help whenever she’s needed. She is always reachable, no matter what is happening in her life. She juggles platefuls of responsibilities and challenges with grace. She listens perfectly, knows just what to say and how to say it, not to mention when, and is a beacon of patience, hope and unconditional love. She is perfect.

Feeling inadequate? Join the club. I’m guilty of it too, perpetuating the tropes. When I skipped my youngest child’s recent cello performance at school—and I had been to EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. prior to that—so I could instead work on an article with a crippling deadline, I felt like I had failed him. Am I now no longer as good a mother as I thought I was because I broke my streak and let work take precedence over my son? I’ve also thrown out my children’s preschool drawings, have never made anything for a bake sale from scratch and, when I was working for a dot-com prepping for a project launch, missed dinner with my daughter for an entire week. (I was pregnant with my second at the time, too.) I yell sometimes. No one need cast the first stone; I’ve heaved a boulder onto myself already.

We all know that a parent, mother or father, who’s present in their child’s life is important. But there are many ways to be there for your kids. And it’s often the mother who’s questioned about her presence (or perceived lack of). What of the woman who’s shy and can’t fathom making small talk with others while volunteering at the Halloween party? How about the mom juggling two jobs, or a single, demanding one she can’t afford to lose, and can’t cheer on the sidelines during her daughter’s games? Or the one with two others to raise back home and can’t travel cross-country to help her son settle in at his dorm? Besides, simply being around doesn’t equate with compassionate parenting. (See: stage moms.)

In the Times Magazine article, Davis explains her decision to leave her kids back In Texas with her husband and her mom while she pursued a law degree at Harvard University—a choice critics offer as proof of Davis’s deficient mothering. She and her ex-husband differ on the details about whether she came home every 10 days or once a month, but she says “the point is that I was going to school and coming home and being with my girls as much as possible to make that work, and that as their mother I made the choice that was best for them—and it was best for them—to be back at home with my mom instead of all day at day care.”

It makes sense, but should we care about how often she came home? The only people Davis ought to answer to about how she is as a mother are her kids. It’s their concern and no one else’s. (And I don’t mean instances where a candidate’s abusive to her family, which is a whole other serving of mishegoss.) It’s certainly not the business of her opponent, who clearly benefits from someone else throwing Davis shade. Nor the voters, who have to study her congressional track record and whether she best represents their cause amid the noise and the haze of modern-day electioneering. Sounds harder than giving her hell for being a good or bad mother, doesn’t it?

Motherhood is a tough gig, and for many of us, politicians or not, negotiating its demands depends on cobbling a system that works with metaphorical spit and glue and lots of help and, hopefully, a modicum of mercy for our shortcomings. So leave the parenting judgment out of the voting booth. Wendy Davis isn’t running for mother of the year. She’s running for public office.


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