White House Workers Who Are Parents Experience the Struggle of Also Getting the Job Done at Home

President Obama greets Karen Dunn, former special assistant and associate counsel to the president, and her son in the Oval Office. (Credit: Pete Souza/The White House)
President Obama greets Karen Dunn, former special assistant and associate counsel to the president, and her son in the Oval Office. (Credit: Pete Souza/The White House)


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 more than 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.

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The Washington Post

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