Elizabeth Edwards and the Mommy Wars

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I was following Elizabeth Edwards today in New Hampshire, and got a chance to hear her talk about her conscription into the Mommy Wars. So now that I’ve come home, set my suitcase in the hall, helped one Swampkid with his high school Spanish homework, watched a television show with the Fifth Grader who claimed (as he always does) that his own homework is done, nudged them both into bed–and, yes, wondered yet again whether anyone really has this whole family-work thing figured out–I thought I’d share what she had to say.

As you likely have heard by now, the skirmish started, as so many do these days, in the blogosphere. What touched it off was a post by a woman named Rebecca on Silicon Valley Moms Blog. Some months back, Jay ignited a blogswarm here when he wrote of his own discomfort with the Edwards’ choice to continue his presidential campaign after her cancer recurred. But that was nothing compared to this:

Take your kids home. Get off the campaign trail. Your husband is not going to be the candidate, and he is not going to be president. He is not ahead in the polls. He is not going to make it. We need a Democratic in office desperately, and you are harming that chance by going around saying negative things about the TOP candidates and splitting the vote. Worst of all, you are forcing your young children, who should be in school to ride in buses and talk to the press when they obviously don’t want to. This election is NOT ABOUT THEM. They deserve some peace, not time with nannies and campaign-trail daycare providers, since, as the Times article describes, you don’t have time to see them when you are busy campaigning too.

Do I sound callous? Perhaps. I am truly, seriously, sorry that you are sick and that you are dying. But let this be your parting gift to the world: give your children some actual QUALITY time with you, which they are not having on the bus or in senatorial-aide-nannycare. Help give your children a next new Democratic president, who is NOT going to be your husband.

It turns out Elizabeth Edwards follows the blogs quite closely. A lifelong insomniac, she kept a transistor radio under her pillow when she was a girl, she told me. These days, she spends those sleepless hours at her computer. So within hours, Rebecca got an answer from Elizabeth herself:

With all due respect, what you would choose to do is relevant only once: when you choose how to spend your remaining days. I made my choice; because of our lives it was a public choice, but the choice doesn’t belong to the public, it belongs to me. And with all due respect, you have no idea what the quality or amount of the time I spend with my children is. I am reasonably confident your information is wrong because a reporter from the New York Times who was with us for less than one hour is your source. A reporter, by the way, who asked for time with our children and who, because our children are in fact children, saw good behavior and bad and who reported our wonderful advantures together as if the children and I were ships passing in the night, which is simply not true. Just in case you want to know, when we read the story to Jack (which we did while we watched one of the two baseball games we went to with him this past week), his response was actually very adult: that’s not fair, he said, everyone has good days and bad days. And finally, what I said about Hillary’s choices is that I had made the same choices she had made as a parent, and when I changed my choices I was happier. Just like you don’t get to decide what makes me happier, I don’t get to decide what makes Hillary happier.

I want to be entirely clear. You don’t get to say I am a terrible mother because you think you wouldn’t make my choices in my situation. You don’t get to say that my children don’t want to be with us when you don’t know them and when, parenthetically, you know that happy children can be periodically disagreeable. You don’t get to judge me because you think you know exactly what you would do if you had my disease. I want to be really clear: you don’t know. And if the sun always shines on you — and I pray it does — you will never know.

The whole exchange came up at her first event of the day, a house party in Bow, NH, this morning, when a woman in the audience told Elizabeth she had seen a spot about it on Good Morning America. “My hat is off to you,” she told Elizabeth. At that point, Elizabeth explained how she and her husband had decided to pull the children out of school to be home-schooled, how they determined which campaign trips to bring them along on, and when to leave them at home, how her own nomadic upbringing as a military brat taught her that a classroom isn’t the only place to get an education. Her argument began as one of practicalities and logistics. But as she talked, you could see the indignation rising. Again.

“There are people serving in Iraq right now who are not with their children at all,” she said, “The very idea that you have to put your child on a school bus and that you have to have cookies and milk on the table every afternoon in order to be a good parent denigrates all of their parenting and is completely and totally unfair.”

She added: “The choice we had to make was a very public choice, but the choice didn’t belong to the public. The choice belongs to us.” At that point, the crowd–about 60 people, many of whom had told me that they are undecided how to vote in the primary–erupted into applause. “Around the country, every place that I’ve gone, people who have been in the same shoes that I’ve been–sadly–have all made the same choice, to live, to embrace the things they care about.”

“She did, in fact, call me a ‘terrible mother,’ which I thought might have been going a little far,” Elizabeth concluded. “But you put yourself out there in the public light, and you’re going to get that stuff, and you have to let it roll off your back. But it’s a little bit hard when they talk about mothering.”

I checked Rebecca’s post again a few minutes ago. She has added an epilogue:

I made two edits in the post, and people will be mad at me for it. I took out the part about Elizabeth being a terrible mother, because I CHANGED MY MIND (ha! I changed my mind!) and I think that was wrong of me to say. I also took about the point about looking like tools, because that was just lazy verbiage. Not like the writing here is Shakespearean or anything.

After considerable thought, and reading your responses, some of which were thoughtful and some not, I now think that I too maybe would bring my kids on a campaign bus. I honestly don’t know what it would be like to be dying, that is true. And I also don’t know what it is like to have limitless financial resources, which the Edwards family does, and which probably gives them the ability to create a nice experience for their children on the road.

The end of the Mommy Wars? Not a chance. But maybe, for now, a truce.