WASHINGTON — When President Obama talks up the family-friendly vibe at the White House — the nightly family dinners, the flexibility to attend school presentations and join impromptu plunges in the pool with his girls — his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, sets him straight. “Family friendly to your family,” Mr. Emanuel counters.
The schedule of Christina D. Romer, the president’s chief economist, is so packed, for example, that her first visit to her son’s school this year came at 10 p.m. on a Friday. “It felt wretched, just wretched,” Ms. Romer said of the evening that her 12-year-old boy pointed out his classroom in the dark.
Peter R. Orszag, the White House budget chief who is a divorced father of two, works so many weekends that he often imports his parents to help care for his 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. “We’re still sort of groping here,” Mr. Orszag said.
As for Mr. Emanuel, he recently squeezed in a swim with his two daughters, 9 and 11, at 5 a.m. “No matter how much the president tries — and he and Michelle try, they do — the White House is brutal on family life,” said Mr. Emanuel, who has struggled to make time for his wife and three children since they moved here from Chicago.
The Obamas have vowed to create an accommodating workplace for their employees. For many advisers, though, the work-family balance that the Obamas enjoy remains elusive.
White House advisers often work 60 to 70 hours a week and bear the scars of missed birthdays and bedtimes, canceled dinners and play dates, strained marriages and disgruntled children, all for prestigious posts that offer a chance to make an impact and unparalleled access to the president. At a time when the nation is in recession and at war, the public expects no less, many argue.
Still, the Obamas, who also have young children, remain committed to making life more manageable for their aides who are parents, officials say.
Those aides include Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, who has a 5-year-old son; Mona Sutphen, the deputy chief of staff, who has a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son; Nancy-Ann DeParle, the chief health adviser, who has two sons, 8 and 9; and Cynthia Hogan, the vice president’s general counsel, who is leading the administration’s efforts to get Judge Sonia Sotomayor confirmed to the Supreme Court, as she raises her 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.
To support working parents, the Obamas distributed laptops to aides with families — before those without children — so they could work from home. They invited the children of some advisers to a White House screening of the film “Madagascar” and a Take Your Kids to Work Day hosted by the first lady. They have created some flexible work schedules and encourage their aides to take their children to work when child care arrangements fall through, as well as to swim in the White House pool or play outside.
“Part of the reason that we built the swing set out there was to say, you know, on weekends or after school, bring the kids here, set them loose, because, you know, we want to make sure that you’re staying in contact with your family,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on “NBC Nightly News.” “That, ultimately, I think, makes people work better.”
Mr. Obama takes that thinking to heart. The president, who often cheers his girls at sporting events, interrupted an economics briefing to call his daughter Sasha, who was celebrating her eighth birthday in London. (Her sister, Malia, turns 11 on Saturday.)
His aides say they are encouraged by his example. Jay Carney, communications director for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., accompanied his 4-year-old daughter on a school trip to Annapolis, Md., even though the trip came shortly before Mr. Biden was to appear on “Meet the Press” on NBC.
Mr. Orszag, who watches his son’s soccer matches, dashed out to see his daughter’s play, which started at 6:45 p.m. And for families, there are giddy encounters with the president, vice president or first lady. “You have so upped our cool factor,” Ms. Romer’s 23-year-old daughter told her.
Romer with her two sons.
Even so, two aides with young children — Ellen Moran, Mr. Obama’s former communications director; and Jackie Norris, the first lady’s former chief of staff — have left the White House for administration jobs kinder to their families.
Those who remain recount stories of scrambles to the pediatrician before meetings, conference calls on the drive to day care, family dinners delayed or discontinued. They rely on extra hours from nannies, help from parents and in-laws and the forbearance of their spouses. They know that many working families face tougher challenges, but that does not ease the ache that settles in around sunset.
“There’s this daily tug in the evening when inevitably, at about a quarter to 8, you ask yourself: ‘Can I get this done? Can I get out of here in time to get home?’ ” said Lisa Brown, the White House staff secretary, who has a 6-year-old son.
Mr. Orszag, who has missed his children’s doctor appointments and school trips, said reconciling the demands of work and fatherhood remained difficult despite the president’s support.
“There are moments when the concept that I can sort of keep everything functioning well and the kids happy and the job working well — it all comes crashing down,” said Mr. Orszag, confessing that he would rather not recall the instances “when the kids are in meltdown and there’s a crisis in the office.”
So family time is savored in increments.
Courtney O’Donnell, communications director for Jill Biden, the vice president’s wife, kisses her 11-month-old son outside the White House gates when her baby sitter strolls by on sunny afternoons.
Ms. Romer has taken to sightseeing with her family around 10 p.m. on Fridays when she can count on free time. “It has been longer and harder than I ever dreamed,” she said.
These days, Ms. Romer’s husband, an economist, does laundry and grocery shopping. Claire Shipman, Mr. Carney’s wife and a correspondent on “Good Morning America” on ABC, often handles bath time and bedtime for their daughter and son, 7.
“The first few months, we all thought, ‘This is so exciting!’ — and it is exciting,” Ms. Shipman said. “But I have to say, starting about a month ago, it really kicked in that I could really use a little more help.”
Mr. Emanuel said he knew the Obama-mania was waning in his household when he told his son recently that they would again be savoring father-son bonding time at the White House on a Saturday.
The 12-year-old did not jump for joy. He set conditions.
“I’ll go,” his son said, “but I don’t want to sit through another Iranian meeting.”