Balancing act tilts to family for Hughes

As Bush chum bows out, others talk of challenges facing this working mom

April 24, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As Karen Hughes, counselor to President Bush and the most senior female official in any modern White House, announced her plans yesterday to step down and move her family back to Texas, many of her colleagues fielded phone calls from journalists looking for reaction.

One of them, Mary Matalin, counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, chatted on the phone as her 4-year-old daughter Emma scampered around her spacious, high-ceilinged office munching M&M's.

The struggle to balance the demands of work and family are notoriously difficult for everyone in senior levels at the White House. "A year here is like 10," says Matalin.

But even in a White House that has touted itself as championing family-friendly values - and even as employers all over have made great strides in accommodating working mothers - women in high-ranking positions, such as Hughes, still find the balancing act especially challenging.

"You can do it," Hughes said in a CNN interview yesterday, asked if her decision suggested that women really can't have it all. "That doesn't mean it's always easy."

In her announcement yesterday, Hughes, 45, said that she and her husband and their 15-year-old son, Robert, were "homesick" for Texas, and that she felt it was important to return there as her son was preparing to enter high school.

While a handful of men have stepped down from high-ranking political jobs citing family reasons - such as former White House domestic policy adviser William Galston, of the Clinton administration - rarely has anyone at Hughes' level made such a move and sacrificed such a position of power.

"It's the age-old issue of family and balance and figuring out what's right for you," says former Reagan aide Sheila Tate. "Sometimes we do feel like a lot of the short straws come our way."

She recalled that her colleague Elaine Crispen, who had come with the Reagans from California to the White House, sent her daughter back home to live with another family to finish school because the teen-ager had hated it so in Washington.

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of a new book on juggling work and family, says the Hughes announcement underscores the fact that the "clash and collision" between career and family continues for decades, not only while one's children are young.

"If this gutsy, strong woman can't do it, it's really sobering for the rest of us," says Hewlett. She says that in her book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, she tells young women that they can make smarter choices about their lives. "Certain careers are particularly hostile to families - and maybe politics is one of them," she says.

In fact, Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, says she saw Hughes' struggle to serve in a high-ranking position while tending to her family a reality that few want to confront.

"I think this is the 800-pound gorilla sitting on the executive suite table," she says. "I don't want to call it a problem, but it's a reality with a set of grinding conflicts."

Mandel, former director of the Center for Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute, said she worked on a study of state cabinet officials many years ago and found that male cabinet members were far more likely to have young families, while female members were more likely to be single.

"Have the times brought significant change for women? Yes, there are many more opportunities and options and doors that have been opened," she says. "But there's still a set of very complex challenges if women want to take advantage of those opportunities and options and simultaneously be deeply involved in their families.

"I don't think it does any of us any good to deny that reality."

Karen Skelton, a former deputy director of political affairs in the Clinton administration, left the White House soon after having her first child. She said there were no women at her level or higher in her department with small children and nearly all of the men with young children had stay-at-home wives.

"It's very, very unequal in the way women with family aspirations can pursue a career if you're crazy enough to pursue a career at the White House," said Skelton, now working part-time as a partner in a California law firm.

Thomas "Mack" McLarty, a longtime Clinton friend who came to Washington to serve as his chief of staff, says the demands and burdens on White House officials - male and female - are often heavier for those coming from outside Washington. "It's an issue - whether you're coming to work for the president or as part of a company. It is a great privilege to serve in the White House. It also has a heavier side to it."

Dee Dee Myers, former Clinton press secretary, says she couldn't imagine having had a family when she worked for the administration, although some of her Bush administration friends, such as Matalin and Pentagon spokesman Victoria Clarke, manage to do it.

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