Thursday, April 23, 2009

Leaving the White House - for the Kids

Ellen Moran, the White House Communications Director, is leaving to become chief of staff to the Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. The Commerce job is no easy sinecure, but is not the life-eating total institution that the White House is.

Why is she leaving this dream job?

"She met with Locke twice in recent weeks, and said she decided that the role was a better fit for her professionally and personally in the long run. She and her husband have a daughter and a son both under age 4."

I think it speaks well of her priorities that she can make this decision. Not everyone would make the same call, nor should they. But if everyone, even those at the very top, can keep their family's needs in an appropriately high place on their priority list, the world would be a better place.

Ellen Moran is still having it all. Just a little bit less of it right now.


Joe Gorley said...

In this case, Ellen Moran is leaving a higher position for a lesser role. I wonder if the decision to stay in a lesser position for the same reasons is more difficult for those offered a chance to move in the opposite direction?

Anonymous said...

I am an engineer with B.S. and M.S. degrees. I was raised in a world that said women can have it all - careers, families, everything and I bought it, hook, line and sinker - until I became pregnant. Shortly after I discovered I was pregnant, I was offered a managerial position and I turned it down. Once I had children, I realized full time work was not an option. That was 11 years and two girls ago and I have never returned to full-time, only part-time (two days per week). I know this will raise the ire of some but the "you can have it all" pitch was a scam - you can't be a full time employee and a full time mother and do either very well. I never said those words out loud because I knew the uproar it would cause. Then one day, I met the mother of a child in my daughter's dance class. She mentioned she worked part-time (one day per week) and I discovered she was a pediatrician. I finally got the nerve to ask her one day, "Do you feel like we were lied to when we were growing up about how we could be everything?" And she admitted that she felt exactly the same way, but could never say it out loud.

-AL said...

I actually find the implied causality in the article very problematic. Moran never explicitly states that her career shift is to better balance work and her two small children. There is just the automatic assumptions that a woman's primary concerns are with her two children at home. In fact there are a ton of reasons why Moran may have switched positions, and continuing to analyze women's careers only through a lens of family obligation/work reduction diminishes women as strong and influential agents in the work force.

-AL said...

Also to Anonymous, not to tit for tat anecdotal evidence but my mother has a story very similar to your own. She is also an engineer, with two masters and two daughters. For a variety of reasons (primarily immigration), she never took time off from work and is both an incredible mother and prominent in her field. Obviously every families experiences and needs are different - I am glad that you found a happy balance between work and family. However, I think "debunking" the "you can have it all pitch" is problematic because it accepts a status quo which places the primary burden of child rearing on women, and forces mothers to make a moralistically loaded choice between work and family. Much more constructive to say is it is difficult to balance work and a family. Mothers AND fathers need to consider how to do so effectively. More importantly, the business world needs to better accommodate the needs of families. Because engineering is such a male dominated field, my mother often discussed how her engineering company has excellent support for families (on-sight day care, family leaver, flexible scheduling) to retain women (and men) in the workforce.
"Having it all" is possible, but the pressure to balance and sacrifice must be distributed between mothers, fathers and institutions.
Not to knit pick, but the fact that you needed to justify your staying at home with two children, by first citing your advanced degrees points to how society still considers stay-at-home mothers to be either unintelligent or underachieving and disregards motherhood as an important and legitimate choice for women.

Gruntled said...

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post talked to insiders about Moran's departure. The grueling pace and load of White House communications director was one of the three reasons she left. "Moran has two young children and balancing her family life and her professional life proved impossible."

Mac said...

How sad that -Al has to denigrate Anonymous for her honesty. AL seems to say that if she decides to place work over family, that is a mature and educated decision, but if Anon and the pediatrician chose to place their families first, they are being dishonest and immature.

People make choices, usually the most appropriate choices for their particular situations. To say that one set of choices (I can have it all) is automatically good and the opposite is by default "bad" MAKES -AL sound very defensive.

Anonymous said...

Mac - thanks for the defense.

-AL - I merely cited my credentials because the article about Ellen Moran was written precisely because of what she had achieved professionally. If she were a cashier at McDonald's and left to care for her children, the story would not have been written. Society only reacts with surprise and shock when women who are highly successful in their professional lives choose to step back and place their family first.

My point was that as girls, we were raised in a very supportive, encouraging atmosphere. You are smart, you can do anything you want to and we went out and did it. I love my job, it's fulfilling and interesting and satisfying. But then these babies come along and they so desperately need you and you have to make the tough choices. I suspect you may not yet be a mother and if that is the case, you will be surprised at how hard they are to make. My company has all the family-friendly advantages but they are a poor substitute - on site daycare is fine but it is not the same as you holding and nurturing that baby yourself. I have lots of friends who work full time and I've seen them break down and cry the first day back when they had to turn a 6-week-old over to daycare. I've seen the anguish in choosing to give a presentation over attending your child's field trip.

I agree that fathers have to carry part of the load and my husband does that but I understand that since the majority of the financial support comes from him, more of the child rearing has to come from me. There are differences between men and women and instead of embracing them and taking advantage of them, society wants us to eliminate them.

As far as how society views stay-at-home mothers, that becomes very secondary to those of us who choose this path. For me personally, it is more important how God views my path on my judgment day.

One last story and I'll leave it at that - I heard the best story from Dr. Laura. She asked which statement would you rather describe yourself when you meet God - "I was a great engineer who happened to be a mother" or "I was a great mother who happened to be an engineer."

Finally, I am not here to judge anyone. I can't walk in their shoes and understand their circumstances. This story came up and I saw it as an opportunity to say that not all women believe that "you can have it all."

Susan Weston said...

Does anyone believe fathers of small children "have it all"? I don't. I think most of them pass up a great deal of parenting in order to be wage earners and build careers.

Only, there's never been a big ideological push to convince them that they could do great career building and great intensive parenting at the same time.

It would have been neat if that ideological assumption had proven true.

It wasn't true.

Since it wasn't true, the next best option is telling the truth and talking about it enough that young adults can make decisions based on good information.

Nancy Pelogi said...

Good thing this isn't the last administration. If it were there would be an immediate call for an investigation into the REAL reason she was leaving. MSNBC would be all over her.

Black Sea said...

Life is, to a large extent, a series of trade-offs, as becomes increasingly apparent over time. The notion that anyone has -- or can have -- it all, is inherently childish. The experience of limitation is a fundamental human reality.

Having said that, women (in my experience) are more predisposed to concern themselves with their children's welfare and incremental progress, men to focus on their work and to assume that "the kids will turn out OK." Children benefit from the balance between these two approaches to parenting, which is just one of the many ways in which children benefit from being raised by both parents.