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The 'Having It All' Lie

By Marjorie Williams
Wednesday, February 21, 2001; Page A23

"White House Distaff Staff Make Family a Priority," proclaimed a headline in last Thursday's Post, over a story showing that the Bush administration plans to encourage one of the capital's sunniest self-delusions.

This administration has a "more than symbolic" commitment to ensuring that high-ranking aides and officials make time for their families, according to the story. How do we know? Well, there's Karen Hughes -- one of Bush's very closest advisers -- who leaves the office by 7 p.m. to get home to her family in Arlington. One day a week, she actually leaves at 5:30.

There's Juleanna Glover Weiss, Vice President Cheney's press secretary, who leaves by 6:30 or 7, "telling reporters to reach her on her cell phone after that." Weiss is sympathetically described as having her sick 2-year-old daughter sit in on three vice presidential interviews, waiting until Weiss could take her to the doctor for her ear infection and fever. There's strategist Mary Matalin, who makes certain to get home by 7:30 "most nights" in order to "go through the entire nighttime cartoon lineup" with her two kids.

There's even senior adviser Karl Rove, who is awarded points because he "traveled home to Texas the weekend before last to see his wife and son," who have not yet moved to Washington -- proving once again that a man can pocket the Nobel Prize for paying the most cursory attention to his child.

They only work 12 or 13 hours a day! Lynne Cheney's chief of staff actually takes her daughter to school in the morning! Even the men are encouraged to see their children often enough to obviate the need for the kids to study flash cards of their faces! One male staffer, communications specialist Tucker Eskew, states the lofty paternal resolve that his son will "more than recognize me" on the day Daddy exits his White House job.

I hesitate to throw stones at the men and women who work in the Bush White House. As a working mother, I live in a glass house. I trust that most parents are doing the best they can, and if the Bush administration is prepared to cut a little slack for a parent who leaves early for a school conference, well, that's better than not.

But it does behoove us not to lie to ourselves about the essence of the conflict between children and career, which is that it can't be wished away. It is the nature of important jobs that the people who hold them commit more of their time and energy to the office than do people in jobs on which less rides. For this reason, official Washington is implacably, impartially hostile to family life. You can tinker with this truth only at the margins, and to pretend otherwise is just to write one more chapter in the big book of lies titled "Having It All."

Of course, the fine print in the article tells the true story: of Legislative Director and father-of-three Nicholas Calio, who says, "I haven't had dinner with my family on a weeknight since we started, to be honest." Of Eskew, who arrives at the office at 7:15 and often stays past 9 p.m., and who speaks, without thinking twice, about how impressed he is at Hughes's "keeping her son involved in her life." (Hello? Is this something about which parents are supposed to have a choice?)

Or consider the story's list of the influential women who staff the Bush administration. (In stories like these, the mere presence of women is reflexively assumed to be a Force for Family Friendliness.) It cites Margaret LaMontagne, the domestic policy adviser, whose children live, for the moment, with their father in Texas; Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, who is single and has no children; and strategist Margaret Tutwiler, who is also single and childless. It might have gone on to wonder why it is that none of the administration's three female Cabinet secretaries has children.

Bluntly, the long climb to the top is still most easily accomplished by women who have no children, or by men whose wives have no other jobs. At one extreme of the spectrum, liberals believe this is a social conspiracy that should be redressed; at the other, traditionalists see it as evidence that mothers belong at home. But most working parents, muddling along in the middle, live in the uneasy conviction that it is just life. Child-rearing, done right, is a hugely consuming job. Anyone who has a demanding career has made a choice for which his or her family will pay something, and it's insulting to everyone who agonizes about such choices to pretend that the cost can be paid with good intentions.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company