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'Family-Friendly,' White House-Style

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I'm writing a Mother's Day column early this year -- not exactly the one I intended.

The column I was planning began: Why is this Mother's Day different from all other Mother's Days? Answer: Because this Mother's Day, there are many more mothers in the White House -- and mothers of young children -- than ever before.

That remains true. The deputy chief of staff, Mona Sutphen, has a 4 1/2 -year-old and an almost 2-year-old. Marne Levine, chief of staff for National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, has a 3 1/2 -year-old and a 7-month-old. The health-care czar, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle, has two boys, 9 and 8.

The staff secretary, Lisa Brown, has a 6-year-old. Jackie Norris, chief of staff for Michelle Obama, has 5-year-old twins and a 3-year-old. Vice President Biden's domestic policy adviser, Terrell McSweeny, has a 14-month-old; Biden's counsel, Cynthia Hogan, back in the workforce after a dozen years away, has a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old.

This is a huge change from previous White Houses, Republican and Democratic. Two theories that may explain it:

First, when it comes to the mothers with young children, a generational shift. Thirtysomething husbands may be more willing to make accommodations or perhaps even take a lap or two around the Daddy Track than their 40- or 50-something counterparts. Thirtysomething moms have more experience growing up with working mothers than women of earlier generations; they may be freer of the "I don't know how she does it" compulsion to bake from scratch.

Second, the workplace -- even the White House workplace, to the extent it can -- is becoming more flexible. Dads -- even White House dads -- are more involved than they used to be, and more familiar, thanks to their own working wives, with the juggling that that entails.

When Sutphen was offered the deputy chief of staff job, she told me, "My first reaction was, 'What is this going to do to the family?' " Her husband is political director of the Democratic National Committee, not exactly a low-stress job. His response was, "You absolutely have to take the job. We'll figure it out. I'll make adjustments."

When the president and first lady discovered that there weren't enough White House laptops to go around, they ordered up more, so staffers wouldn't be chained to their desks. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has been known to end senior staff meetings early to review homework with his kids (ages 12, 10 and 8) before they go off to school. Press secretary Robert Gibbs has spoken from the lectern about making peanut-butter sandwiches for his son, who is nearly 6.

Hogan, Biden's counsel, works 80 percent -- an odd concept, given White House hours, but one that allows her to leave in the late afternoon, have a family dinner, and then work, most nights, from home.

"That means sometimes he picks up the phone and wants to talk to me and I'm not here, and he's okay with that and tracks me down on the cell," Hogan says of the vice president, who knows the pressures on a working parent.

What put a glitch in my plans for an entirely rosy column -- and prompted it now -- was the announcement last week that White House communications director Ellen Moran was leaving to become chief of staff for Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Not exactly a part-time gig, but less intense than the around-the-clock craziness of the West Wing.

Moran, whose mother had moved to Washington to help with her two children, almost 4 and 2, said she was leaving for a job that was "a perfect fit for me, professionally and personally."

Translation: Having not worked on the Obama campaign, she was having a tough time fitting in with the close-knit boys club of the West Wing, which made it that much harder to go days at a time without seeing her children.

Moran's departure underscores the immutable fact that a family-friendly White House, no matter how well-intentioned, is the ultimate oxymoron. As Emanuel has said, "The only family we're going to be good for is the first family."

Gibbs, explaining Moran's departure, lamented that "I saw my son last night when he got up at 11:30 p.m. looking for more milk. So that was the only time I saw him yesterday."

But the truth remains that these strains tend to weigh harder on women than men -- and that the proliferation of mothers in this White House is still an experiment of uncertain outcome.

"We're early enough that it's unclear how long we're going to last doing this," Brown, the staff secretary, told me. The Obamas "want it to work. We want it to work. But it's hard."

We talked after 9 p.m., once she had put her son to bed, and before sitting down, finally, to dinner.

marcusr@washpost.com

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