The Washington Post

A more family-friendly White House?

Both the president and first lady spoke Monday about the importance of work-life balance (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) Both the president and first lady spoke Monday about the importance of work-life balance (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Monday's White House Summit on Working Families did not offer major policy pronouncements, but it may signal a shift in one of the nation's least family-friendly workplaces: the White House itself.

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough sent an e-mail to his staff Monday telling them that as President Obama urged both federal agencies and the private sector to provide flexibility for its employees, the West Wing needs to adjust its workplace practices.

"Just as we are asking businesses to recognize the value of offering workplace flexibilities and work-life programs to their staffs, so too must we lead by example," McDonough wrote, noting Obama "signed a memorandum directing government agencies to expand the availability of flexible work arrangements, to increase training on their beneficial use, to lift up our successes, and to hold ourselves accountable for our results."

While the memorandum does not establish any new policies, it emphasizes that federal employees have -- in McDonough's words -- "the right to request flexible work schedules through thoughtful conversations with our managers."

"These steps aren’t a silver bullet, but they are designed to move us in the right direction," he wrote. "You’ll be hearing more from us on these efforts in the coming months. I know how hard each of you works to support the President and the nation.  Please know that we’ll be looking for ways to better support you as well."

What does this mean for public servants who are expected to be on call if not 24 hours a day, 18 hours a day? When President Obama remarked Monday afternoon at the conference that he was lucky enough to have dinner each night with his family because he lives "upstairs from the store," it prompted a quick reply on Twitter from New America Foundation President Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as the State Department's director of policy planning during Obama's first term.

"It's great that makes time to have dinner w/ his family most nights; why can't nat sec council staff do same?" tweeted Slaughter, who stirred an intense public debate two years ago when she published an essay in The Atlantic titled, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."

McDonough's e-mail did not spell out exactly how the White House would change its operations, but Michelle Obama specifically referenced the missive during her session at the conference Monday.

"You’re going to see in this administration, they’re going to do everything in their power administratively to make changes and to lead by example," she told ABC's Robin Roberts, who was interviewing her onstage. " I think one of my young staffers said that she just got an e-mail from the chief of staff who said because of this Summit this administration is going to start asking a set of different questions and so on.  So the first thing that the president can do is make sure that his administration is leading by example."

And while President Obama made a point of saying twice in the last week that his wife showed up at her job interview at the University of Chicago Medical Center more than a decade ago with her infant daughter Sasha in tow to make a political statement about the importance of work-life balance, the first lady explained to the audience it reflected her child-care situation as much as her ideological beliefs.

"And who I was at the time was a breast-feeding mother of a four-month old," she said as the crowd applauded, "and I didn’t have a babysitter, so I promptly took Sasha to the interview with me.  And I thought, look, this is who I am.  I've got a husband who’s away.  I've got two little babies.  They are my priority.  If you want me to do the job, you’ve got to pay me to do the job and you’ve got to give me flexibility."

In other words, you might be seeing more baby carriers in the White House complex over the next couple of years. But a job-share program might be a little more practical.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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