Juggle of family, job priorities daunting for White House staff

National security adviser Susan Rice with her spouse,  Ian Cameron, daughter, Maris, and son, Jake.
US Mission to the Un
National security adviser Susan Rice with her spouse, Ian Cameron, daughter, Maris, and son, Jake.

WASHINGTON — Just as she was about to begin a game of pin the tail on the donkey 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 this 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.

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Recently, 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 push family-friendly policies as a top priority, those within 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue continue to wrestle with the fact that their own workplace often falls short of those ideals.

Obama will host a White House Summit on Working Families on June 23, in part to ease ‘‘the burdens’’ faced by parents working outside the home.


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 Rice, and UN ambassador Samantha Power — have children 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 and family 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 he was released after having a small 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 1½-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, though also 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.

One day, press secretary Jay Carney didn’t come in until midmorning — 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 recently spoke about the importance of keeping mothers of young children in the workforce in the White House. She spent half of the next day at home with her sick child before coming to the office.

Correction: Because of an editing error, Susan Rice’s son, Jake, was misidentified in an earlier version of this article.