Just as she was about to begin a “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” game at her 6-year-old daughter’s birthday party last October, White House budget chief Sylvia Mathews Burwell received a call that she couldn’t ignore about the ongoing government shutdown. She handed off the tails to her best friend from college and ducked out.
“Then I was back, and I ran the piñata line,” the Office of Management and Budget director recalled in an interview, adding that the budget impasse coincided with her 4-year-old son’s birthday as well.
For Nancy-Ann DeParle, the moment came when her oldest son asked her not to serve as White House deputy chief of staff after she had spent nearly two years overseeing health-care policy. After mentioning it to President Obama aboard the Marine One helicopter, the nation’s chief executive invited the 12-year-old into the Oval Office to explain why Obama needed his mom for a little while longer.
And last Tuesday, a senior economist on the Council of Economic Advisers was briefing his boss, Jason Furman, and others on college costs when the meeting ran past 5:15 p.m., the time the economist was supposed to head to his daughter’s day care. An assistant passed Furman a note. “You have to leave,” Furman, who has two young children himself, told the economist. “I got what I need. We can always follow up tomorrow.”
Even as Democrats tout family-friendly policies as a top priority, those within 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. continue to wrestle with the fact that their own workplace often falls short of those ideals. Obama announced last week that he would host a White House Summit on Working Families on June 23, in part to ease “the burdens” working women face.
More than five years into the administration, the White House has taken several steps to make one of the most demanding offices in America more manageable for working parents. It has expanded paid parental leave, installed more nursing rooms within the complex and provides a low-cost, emergency day-care service. A few of its highest-ranking women — including Burwell, national security adviser Susan E. Rice and U.N. ambassador Samantha Power — have kids at home.
Aides acknowledge that the benefits offered to the well-paid, white-collar employees at the White House are far better than those available to most low- and middle-income Americans, who often have little time with their children because they are working long hours. But White House officials say they still struggle to reconcile their professional duties with familial duties.
The majority of top White House aides have grown children, no children or a stay-at-home spouse. That last category includes Burwell and Rice, whose husbands have taken breaks from full-time jobs as a lawyer and journalist, respectively. Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer has publicly vowed to seek a better work-life balance after he ended up in the hospital twice last year, returning to work the day after being released after treatment for a mini-stroke.
“It’s just inherently not a family-friendly place,” DeParle said. “There’s just no way that life in the West Wing can be, when you’re leaving your house at 6:30 or 6:45 in the morning every single day and being in meetings going from 7:30 in the morning to 8:30 at night.”
Sixteen current and former White House officials said in interviews that they knew what they were getting into when they accepted their jobs, and they said that high-powered positions in law and business are similarly time-consuming. Both Mona Sutphen and her husband, Clyde Williams, had served in the Clinton White House when she agreed to be Obama’s deputy chief of staff for policy in 2009. At the time, they had a nearly 4-year-old daughter and a 1 ½-year-old son.
“We kind of knew this would sort of be a disaster on the home front,” said Sutphen, who served in the post for two years while Williams worked as political director of the Democratic National Committee. “I would not have been comfortable doing it for longer.”
Some White House aides deferred having children until they left. Camille Johnston, Michelle Obama’s former communications director, is a single mother who adopted her daughter after joining Siemens in 2010. She said at a recent event sponsored by Politico that leaving the White House allowed her “to start the adoption process, because I knew that I needed both more financial resources and, most likely, time.”
Senior White House officials earn anywhere from $80,000 to $172,200 a year, according to federal disclosure reports. That is higher than the average American’s salary although below what many top professionals earn in Washington’s private sector.
The work culture within the White House has begun to shift somewhat, driven by a president and his wife with two teenage daughters and a generation of men and women who are uncomfortable with the idea of putting their family responsibilities on hold.
On Friday, press secretary Jay Carney didn’t come in until mid-morning — missing five meetings, by his own count — so he could attend a school play involving his 8-year-old daughter, who helped narrate the tale of Pocahontas and John Smith.
Council of Economic Advisers member Betsey Stevenson spoke about the importance of keeping mothers of young children in the workforce in the White House briefing room Wednesday. She spent half of the next day at home with her sick child before going to the office.
Stevenson — who has a 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son — negotiated over how to maintain her nursing schedule after the White House asked her to come on board.
“What I would really like to convey to businesses and to the world, and what I think the White House has internalized, is that if you only choose to have the people who can be there 24-7, you’re going to miss a perspective,” she said in an interview. “You can’t staff the White House with only people have no kids, or who have grown kids, because you will miss a perspective, the range of voices you need to formulate policy that works for all people.”
Outside the White House, an increasing number of women with school-age children are serving in Congress or seeking office. There are at least three senators and eight House members in this category, six of whom are Republicans and five of whom are Democrats. Democrats have seven women with young children, including Michelle Nunn of Georgia, running for the House and the Senate.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was pregnant with her third child when she first ran for Congress and also chairs the Democratic National Committee, said she’s her party’s “chief mom recruiter, because we don’t have that many of us doing that.” At times, she has introduced candidates’ spouses to her husband so they can discuss what it’s like to manage at home during the congressional workweek.
At the White House, making some concessions to family life has become more acceptable in part because influential men within the administration want it as well. The president has repeatedly told staffers that he endorses time away from the office, aides say. Carney, who also has a 12-year-old son, said he apologized to Obama two years ago for missing a presidential trip to attend his son’s play. “He just e-mailed back and said, ‘You made the right call,’ ” Carney said.
Gene B. Sperling, who just stepped down as director of the National Economic Council, was notorious for working until midnight each day during the Clinton administration. But he now has a 7-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old stepson. When his staffer Brian Deese took five weeks of paternity leave during the 2012 fiscal cliff negotiations, he gave his aides strict instructions not to e-mail or call Deese under any circumstances.
The attitude of supervisors “makes all the difference” said Deese, who is now OMB’s deputy director.
The Obama administration has advocated a series of proposals aimed at promoting workplace flexibility. Obama also signed the Telework Enhancement Act in 2010, making it easier for federal employees to work from home, and has pushed for measures including paid sick leave as well as a more generous child-care tax credit.
Liz Watson, director of workplace justice for women at the National Women’s Law Center, said it would be great if the White House could pilot “the right to request flexible workplace schedules,” which is the law in countries including Britain and the Netherlands.
But even those with young children said there were limits to such policies at the White House, which Sperling described as “the ultimate on-call job.”
Many current officials said they were lucky to have the support of family, friends and paid child-care providers who have pitched in while they were stuck at work. And they said that technological advances have made it much easier to work remotely.
The daughter of Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, was in sixth grade and her son was in college when she started in 2009; Tchen moved her nanny from Chicago to Washington.
“She’s still with us,” Tchen said. “That’s the way I’ve been able to do that, because I’ve had resources.”
And in addition to the events to which the Obamas invite staffers’ families — a Halloween party in the complex, basketball games, a fireworks viewing on the Fourth of July — there are the substantive ones that provide perspective. DeParle’s husband and two sons were with her in the House gallery the day the Affordable Care Act passed, a concrete reminder of why she had put in such late nights.
Still, Sperling — a consummate workaholic who left his White House job March 6 — said he marveled at his first Sunday night back home in Santa Monica, Calif. When his daughter woke up in the middle of the night and she fell back to sleep with her head on his shoulder, he said, he didn’t have to leave the way he usually did.
“It is the greatest feeling in the world,” he said, adding: “It just hit me that for the first time in years, nothing terrible would fall through the cracks if I just stayed with her. It was the feeling of being 100 percent there.”