During a recent speech on his plans to get paid work leave for all new parents, President Obama veered off-script. “There have been a lot of babies in the White House lately,” he said. “See, we have another one coming right here, right in the front row.”
He was referring to director of the White House Office of Public Engagement Paulette Aniskoff, who is due in July. The others were not far out of sight. Director of Communications Jen Psaki is also due this summer, and Legislative Affairs Director Katie Fallon had twins in April and is currently on three months of maternity leave. Press Secretary Josh Earnest’s son was born several weeks before he took the helm in the White House briefing room in 2014, and at least three other senior officials, including Senior Advisor Brian Deese, have babies under age three at home.
It is a turnabout for a building better known as the wrecker of marriages and maker of absentee parents. Of the many perks of a job in the White House, a family-friendly workplace has never been one of them. The work day begins before dawn, and rarely ends until long after toddlers have gone to bed. The stress is relentless, the urgent emails come at all hours and childcare is not provided on premises. “No matter how much the president tries,” warned Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, “the White House is brutal on family life.”
But in recent months, Obama, who likes to joke with pregnant women by offering the services of his ever-present doctor, has made helping parents in the workplace a major policy focus, talking about the “gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.” He has called for a new federal standard that mandates up to a week of paid sick leave for employees of businesses with more than 15 employees, and offers unpaid of paid sick leave at smaller businesses. He also has pushed for state programs that would help compensate employees who take unpaid medical leave and expanded paid leave programs for federal employees.
Now as his once-youthful staff and their partners age to upper bounds of their childbearing years, the President and his team have been faced in real time with the question of whether they can offer their employees more than the painful choice of either doing their job or seeing their newborn children. For Earnest, whose predecessor Robert Gibbs left the White House saying he wanted to spend more time with his son, it is all about scheduling. Earnest tries to set aside one weeknight when he can get home to put to sleep his 8-month-old boy. “I’m spending time at night working on my BlackBerry while my wife is cooking dinner,” Earnest says. “Walker has gone a couple of times now to get shots. Both times I’ve taken an hour and a half off in the afternoon to go to the appointment.”
Other small allowances have been made. The White House campus has nursing rooms, and the Navy mess hall has learned to be responsive to the new demands of pregnancy. “I’ve been really wanting cinnamon toast all the time lately, which isn’t on the menu, but they make it every morning,” explains Aniskoff, who is due in July. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough moved Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings meetings to earlier in the day to give senior staffers more flexibility in their schedules.
The West Wing has also embraced the task of covering for their colleagues after birth. Just like Fallon, both Psaki and Aniskoff will get to take 12 weeks of paid leave after their births. When she was offered her new job earlier this year, Psaki warned the chief of staff that she had recently become pregnant, and worried that fact could hurt her chances. “He didn’t skip a beat,” Psaki recalls. “He said, ‘this is a family friendly White House.”
That’s a far cry from the environment Valerie Jarrett, one of the president’s closest advisers, remembers in the 1980s, when she gave birth to her daughter while working at a law firm. “I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant until I was showing and then I tried to not ever talk about the fact I was pregnant,” Jarrett recalls. “Where as the women who are [in the White House] now, we talk about it all the time.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the timing of Earnest’s son’s birth. He was born several weeks after his father took the job as press secretary.