Heard on the Hill

Summer Isn’t So Easy for Staffers Who Are Parents

And cuts to August recess have complicated family vacation plans

A basket weaver from the Amazon Wachiperi community of Peru shows children how to roll tree bark into thread at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington in July 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When school’s out for summer, the lives of congressional staffers who are parents get a bit more complicated.

They have to juggle summer camps, vacations, and monitoring their children at home — all while trying to work through their busy Hill schedules and their bosses’ needs.

“It’s certainly challenging, but I have to say it’s not unlike challenges that a lot of working parents face,” said Jerry White, the policy director for the House Republican Conference, who has a 7-year-old son and a 6-month-old daughter.

“The challenge that we’ve experienced with summer camps is that, at least in my personal situation, it’s not like there’s one camp my son goes to all summer long. Drop-offs and the pickups on a daily basis are particularly challenging, especially when you have a newborn or an infant who’s going to daycare,” White said. 

And it’s not as if parenthood doesn’t affect staffers’ work lives the rest of the year. For instance, staffers who started on Capitol Hill before they had children may have had to say goodbye to happy hour drinks.

“I like bath time and I like coming home to see my little boy before bedtime, so you think differently when you look at the clock now. Instead of, ‘Oh, am I going to make it by 7 to Bullfeathers?’ you think, ‘Am I going to make it home for bedtime?’” a House staffer said.

In the summer, that feeling is exacerbated.

“Summer gives the feeling of a little bit more relaxed atmosphere, except … in Washington, D.C.,” a Senate staffer said.

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Ruh-roh

Some Senate staffers, already facing a scrapped August recess, are used to making contingency plans. 

“I try to keep my plans a little bit flexible — making, for instance, road-trip plans instead of flights,” a Senate staffer said.

But sometimes, visiting family isn’t an easy drive away.  One Senate staffer was hoping to take a trip home to see his parents in the Pacific Northwest and attend a family reunion, but the plan unraveled with the announcement that recess would be curtailed.

Some Hill offices allow staff to take vacations even outside of recess. Those are often ones where the lawmaker, and perhaps the chief of staff, is also a parent, staffers noted. 

“They are more sympathetic to the incredibly demanding and acute needs of my family right now,” a Senate staffer said.

Making it work

Jerry White's son, Zachary, will go to seven weeks worth of camp this summer. (Courtesy of White)
Jerry White’s son, Zachary, will go to seven weeks worth of camp this summer. (Courtesy Jerry White)

White’s 7-year-old son, Zachary, will be attending five camps this summer for a total of seven weeks. Just getting him into these camps was a heavy lift.

“The demand is there for these spots, so you have to really be on the ball and do a lot of planning and strategizing,” White said.

But he gives most of the credit to his wife.

“My wife is a superstar when it comes to planning and organizing, making sure Zachary has a set schedule, and [she] and I are on the same page,” he said.

And as other staffers mentioned, having an understanding boss is key. For White, that’s Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chairwoman of the House GOP conference. 

“It’s helpful to work for someone who understands the demands of being a working parent. She has three school-aged children so she’s super familiar,” White said of the Washington Republican, one of only 10 lawmakers to have given birth while serving in Congress. 

White said he feels comfortable going on vacation since the conference team is capable of covering for him.

His vacation time can also be sacred family time in part thanks to the set of values followed by the House Republican Conference, which they call SERVE: Seek Excellence, Everybody Matters, Responsibly Own It, Vigilant Integrity and Embrace Change.

“Part of those values is being present when you’re with someone,” said White, who unplugs and stays off his work phone and email while on vacation with his family. 

And he’s already got a week’s worth of family time to look forward to this August, a vacation he carved out and got approved earlier this year. 

“I’ve had the fortune of working for a number of bosses who are just really good people and really superior bosses. I can’t emphasize that enough, how much that starts at the top,” he said.

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