It took the pregnancy of a 17-year-old from Alaska to finally thrust the American family onto the central political stage. Until now, you could be forgiven for believing that America's only problems could be solved with cash: high gas prices, a mortgage meltdown, unaffordable health care. You would have been shocked to discover that, in reality, America is a country with not a material, but a spiritual crisis: rampant divorce, uninspired teens, and lonely men and women. A land where, for the first time in history, single women outnumber married women and where three quarters of all divorces are initiated by wives who are giving up on their husbands. A land where parents raise their children with the superficial surrogates of TVs and iPods.
Last week, an appearance of mine on Oprah's TV show brought in its wake hundreds of desperate people writing about their devastated personal lives. There was the woman who left her husband who drinks himself into nightly stupor. There was the divorced man whose ex-wife has turned the children against him and who will not even return his phone calls. And there was the desperate teenager writing that her family has become so dysfunctional -- parents at each other's throats, an older sister who lets her boyfriend feel her up in front of the younger siblings -- that she is thinking of running away.
Meet the new American poor. They have food on their plates, but little peace in their lives. They have a roof over their head, but the walls are barren of love. They have some financial security, but little emotional stability.
Barack Obama's life was changed forever when his father abandoned his family, leaving his mother to raise him alone. John McCain's first marriage failed after he returned home from five brutal years as a POW in Vietnam. And now we have the challenges facing the Palin family with a young daughter forced to skip essential stages of childhood and quickly become a mother.
Forty years ago, in a campaign lasting only 82 days, Bobby Kennedy moved the nation by highlighting its destitute children. History will not soon forget his visit to the Lakota Sioux Indian reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where one third of the teenagers were committing suicide out of despair, nor the tears that rolled down his cheeks as he discussed his visit to the Mississippi delta and found a two-year-old black girl whose face was filled with rat bites.
Which candidate will today highlight America's new poor? Who will make it their issue to reduce America's divorce rate by half over the next four years? Who will heal the pandemic of teen sexuality which is so harmful not only because of the possibility of contracting an STD or having an unexpected pregnancy, but because teenagers are simply not equipped to work through the deep emotions which sex conjures up? Sex is the most potent human impulse. It is as overpowering as it is pleasurable. Did we really think that those in a rickety boat should be exposed to its storm? A study by the Heritage Foundation, based on The National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, links teen depression and even suicide to teen sexuality. About 25 percent of sexually active girls say they are depressed all, most, or a lot of the time, while only eight percent of girls who are not sexually active feel the same. And do teenagers really need the drama that comes from sex at a time when they are still in their formative years and need to focus their minds on study?
Imagine the example for the rest of the nation our presidential candidates would set if they demonstrated, amid the biggest contest of their lives, that their families are still the priority. Senator Obama and Governor Palin, both of whom have young children, should emulate the example set by Joseph Lieberman in the 2000 race when he refused to campaign on the Sabbath and instead stayed home with his family. Parenting is not a responsibility that can be put on hold for months at a time. Our candidates can show the nation that families matter at least as much as the White House.
The vast majority of teenage girls who lose their virginity do so out of pressure from boyfriends. But when daughters are close to their parents -- especially their fathers -- they are lent a significant immunity to these pressures. They are not desperate for a boy's affection and can say 'no' because they have the validation of a man who is already in their life. In this sense, Bristol Palin's pregnancy is something that should cause her parents to reflect on how they can better balance professional and parenting obligations, even as they live a life in the public eye.
But this does not mean that Sarah Palin should drop her professional aspirations in order to be a mother, and it has been particularly unhelpful to see so many vicious attacks against Alaska's first female governor for accepting the vice-presidential nod having just had a baby. What would we prefer? Women who postpone having children in order to nurse their careers? Women who make the mistake that men have made for thousands of years, believing that real fulfillment is found in money, power, and fame rather than family, commitment, and children?
Our daughters need more women like Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton, and Katie Couric - who balance being mothers and succeeding in their careers -- to negate the toxic stereotypes promulgated by the likes of Paris Hilton that success in life comes from developing one's body rather than one's mind. Sarah Palin has a crib in the governor's office and often breastfeeds her special-needs baby discretely while doing government work. What a powerful challenge to the many misguided men who are heroes to everyone except the most important constituency of all -- their own children.