Opinion

Why we shouldn't be afraid to talk about 'Grandma' Hillary

Much of the discussion has been absurd, even sexist. But let's not forget that family life really does color politicians' time in office.

When Chelsea Clinton announced her pregnancy last week, the attention quickly turned to whether or not this will affect mother Hillary's decision to run for president.

Outlets including The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today speculated as much, as did the usually sedate Sunday news show Meet the Press.

This is, without a doubt, ridiculous and sexist. It is inconceivable that having a grandchild would be the deal breaker for Clinton, and suggesting as much implies that there is an inherent conflict between being a competent mother or grandmother and being a professional. There isn't. Indeed, nobody has ever questioned a man's candidacy based on whether he has children, let alone grandchildren.

But I wonder whether the answer, as some have suggested, is really not to discuss Clinton's family life at all.

On CBS This Morning last week, Charlie Rose asked Bill Clinton, "She can do both of these things, clearly, but today do you think she would rather be president or grandmother?" That question — the "or" in particular — is both absurd and offensive. Now president and grandmother? That is something I would like to hear Bill expound on.

Up until now there have been two models when it comes to talking about politicians and family life. The first is, if the politicians are men, we completely ignore the topic, the assumption being that somewhere out there a woman is minding such things. The second is, if they are women, we obsess about it and endlessly question how ever they will manage both. The grandmother vs. president speculation that Chelsea's pregnancy set off clearly falls into the latter.

But what if we moved to a third way? One that acknowledges that family does have an impact on our lives, without assuming that women automatically bear the brunt of this impact. This would require moving past the idea that a candidate's fitness for the position is contingent on their family life, while still acknowledging that it will color their time in office. And it should.

The good news, at least for those of us in favor of gender equality, is that this conversation has already started with our current president. Obama is an engaged father and proud family man who passes up D.C. schmoozing opportunities in order to be home regularly for 6:30 family dinner and to help his daughters with their homework. If this sounds heartwarming, even quaint, that's because it is. What it isn't is politically benign.

In his most recent profile of the president, The New Yorker's David Remnick points to Obama's lack of socializing, along with a few other traits and habits, as the reason why his presidency hasn't been as successful as many had hoped. While Remnick doesn't draw the connection between his desire to be home with his reluctance to break bread with D.C. players (I suspect he would have if he were writing about a woman), he does quote the president talking about what a big family man he is and how unwilling he has been to sacrifice that role.

The fact is, our families do have an impact on our lives, every aspect of them. Even President Obama's. In order for us to transform ourselves into a country that better accommodates that elusive work/life balance we are all in search of these days, or even just acknowledges the fact that people have both jobs and families, we've got to do a whole lot more talking about it first. May Clinton's presidency and grandchild give us more of an opportunity.

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