WASHINGTON – Jen Psaki thought the offer to be President Barack Obama’s communications director wouldn’t last long.
She figured White House chief of staff Denis McDonough hadn’t heard she’s expecting a baby girl in July. “My immediate instinct in my head was to tell him I’m pregnant and this will be the end of this. He’ll tell me good luck and be very kind about it and I’ll be on my merry way,” said Psaki, who was serving as chief spokeswoman at the State Department.
Instead McDonough — and later Obama himself — assured Psaki they would accommodate her needs as a new mom amid the West Wing’s nonstop demands. She started in the post Wednesday and is one of two pregnant women serving as assistant to the president — a first for such a top level adviser in Obama’s presidency and practically unheard of under previous presidents.
Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff and now Chicago mayor, once remarked that every White House says they’ll be family-friendly, but it’s never really a good workplace for any family except the president’s.
Yet Obama has pushed family-friendly policies like childcare, flexibility and paid leave, including instituting 12 weeks paid maternity leave for his own staff. But until now, he hasn’t put it into practice in a very prominent way with few mothers of young children on his own senior team.
“All workplaces are adapting and that includes the White House,” said Obama legislative director Katie Beirne Fallon. She is scheduled to give birth to identical twin boys in May, just as her husband, Brian, plans to start as press secretary for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s impending presidential campaign in New York.
Fallon said she made it clear when she took her job that they were trying to start a family. She said everyone has been accommodating — from cooks at the mess hall where her lunch orders have included a baked potato topped with tuna fish and frozen yogurt with Raisin Bran, all the way up to the president.
“He’s constantly checking in on me,” she said, urging her not to miss doctor’s appointments and to put her health first. “Don’t let us get in the way of that,” she said he’s told her. Fallon and Psaki both say they envision working more flexible hours so they can put their babies to bed.
Press secretary Josh Earnest — one of several new fathers in the West Wing — says he tries to get home once a week before his baby is asleep. Obama tries to make it to dinner every night with his wife and daughters.
“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to be home at 6:30 every night in the way that he is,” Earnest said at a Center for American Progress forum. But he said Obama’s actions signal to staff they can make family a priority.
Times have changed. Joan Baggett Calambokidis, President Bill Clinton’s political director, is one of the only other assistants to the president that former White House aides can remember having a baby on the job. She spent her delivery taking calls from the West Wing to discuss the choice of a new party chair. “The doctor said, ‘I see the baby’s head, you have to get off the phone,'” she said.
After Calambokidis returned from maternity leave, a newspaper reported her doctor advised her to resign for health reasons because the job was too stressful — a rumour she said was fabricated to push her out. “You can take off four months but you aren’t able to be in there to do the turf battles that you need to do,” she said.
Rhonda Keenum was a mother of 1-year-old triplets when she started as President George W. Bush’s director of public liaison — a deputy assistant to the president. She was shocked to get pregnant again at 44 — and she wasn’t the only one. Keenum said Bush pointed at her aboard Air Force One and said, “I want to know how that happened,” as the first lady kicked him under the table.
“I said, ‘Sir, I got knocked up.’ It was the only time I ever was irreverent with him.” Keenum said she took just two weeks maternity leave — the White House a welcome getaway from four in diapers at home. “I knew the White House opportunity was short-term and motherhood was not.”
Psaki said as she discussed whether to take the job with her husband, Greg Mecher, chief of staff to Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy, Obama called and personally pledged to support her needs. She said he told her, “My wife would be mad if I didn’t convey that having a baby is a wonderful experience and the best thing I’ll ever do, but it’s also hard. And we’ll make it work.”
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