When President Joe Biden first announced in November that he would have an all-women White House communications team, to many, it felt like progress. When it became common knowledge that six of the seven lead positions were held by moms of young children all under the age of 6, it felt like moral imperative. With millions of women exiting the workforce amid the COVID pandemic (women workforce participation has dropped to 57 percent, the lowest level since 1988), seeing so many working mothers with seats at perhaps the most powerful table in the world is an essential step forward. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, is one of those women, and she doesn’t take her ability to perform her dual roles — as both a sound piece for the administration and as a mother to a 5-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son — for granted.
“One of the biggest contributions we can all make is showing other women who may be at the stage where they haven’t yet had kids, or they’re contemplating it, that this is possible.”
“On our team, we all feel like we not only have a seat at the table, but we can integrate our own personal experience on the policy discussions that’s hugely valuable,” she told POPSUGAR. “But I would say one of the biggest contributions we can all make is showing other women who may be at the stage where they haven’t yet had kids, or they’re contemplating it, that this is possible. That it is not because you’re talking about it every day — although that is certainly part of the conversation — but because we are making it feel like you don’t have to choose. Yes, you have to choose between some things. I acknowledge I’m choosing, or I am understanding, that I’m going to see my kids less now, for the next year, than I did prior during the week. So there are sacrifices. Like, the whole notion of ‘having it all’? I’m not even sure what that means, exactly.”
However, Psaki is thankful that it feels like less of a Sophie’s choice scenario than it did in years past. She previously served as the White House communications director for the last two years of President Barack Obama’s administration, and she was six months pregnant on her first day.
“It was a little obscene at the time,” she admitted. “And I’m sure there were many women who had done something similar before me, but I didn’t really know who they were. I didn’t know who to call. I didn’t really know who to ask, ‘Is this possible? Is this crazy?’ And now, I think there are just so many examples of people, of women who are in these jobs . . . There’s members of the communications team, of course. But the woman who oversees Cabinet Affairs has two kids under the age of 3. The White House Counsel has a 1-year-old. There are just countless examples across the administration. And that’s just part of the fabric of who we all are.”
When the pandemic began amid the Trump administration, Psaki wasn’t in her current high-profile role, behind a podium with cameras broadcasting her face across the globe. She had been at a think tank for a few years and, because she “wanted a little bit more flexibility” for her family, she had switched to consulting at the beginning of March 2020. Like countless other Americans, the uncertainty of those first few weeks of lockdown was “a really scary period of time as a parent.”
Her oldest child was in preschool. The school closed for a few weeks, then for the rest of the year. She was afraid to take her toddler to playgrounds. They stopped seeing extended family.
“There was so much we didn’t know,” she said. “When the pandemic started, I was like, ‘How am I going to do this and work from home with my kids?'”
Her husband was also able to work from home, so they did their best sharing the load. When fall rolled around, they made the difficult decision to not enroll their daughter in kindergarten.
“We talk about a range of policy issues, but we also talk about how our kids are digesting our jobs. It’s not looked down upon to have conversations about that, and it makes it more of a support network.”
“I know we made some choices that a lot of families have made,” she said. “My daughter has a late birthday, and we decided not to start kindergarten. Because even in a great, amazing public-school district, which we live in, we just didn’t feel like we had a lot of information about what it was going to look like. And it was like a rumor mill, which I know many parents dealt with. Was my just-barely 5-year-old going to sit for five hours on a Zoom call? Is that really the right way to kick off her educational experience? So that’s the calculation we made. Every family doesn’t make that calculation, right? So it was a tough call.”
Eventually, they added Psaki’s mother-in-law to their family’s bubble. As a retired school teacher, the kids’ grandmother would come over for an hour or two of “Mimi” time each day.
“We’re remarkably blessed — they spend this special time together every day,” she said. “It’s been remarkable at boosting my daughter’s confidence and excitement about learning. She has learned how to read. But everybody does not have that. Most people in this country do not have that, and I fully recognize that. But we made up our own journey over the last year, and we didn’t know that it was the right one.”
She said that now, she’s “extremely excited” about her daughter starting kindergarten at the same public school this fall. “We are very eager to get our kids back in school, just like everybody else’s. But before then, we were certainly second-guessing ourselves every step of the way.”
Leading up to the presidential election, Psaki got involved with Biden’s team because she “wanted to find a way to help” during a uniquely challenging time in the country. But considering her family’s still-precarious child-care situation, it wasn’t an immediate “yes” when she was asked to join Biden’s presidential campaign.
Her initial response? “‘I have to talk to my husband about it.’ We are very much equal partners.” Then, she joked: “He might say that I am sometimes the dominant force in the house at times. In a gentle, lovely, loving way.”
But she’d been down this road before, and she knew the hours it’d require and the focus it’d take. So did her husband of more than 10 years, who was by her side during her previous White House tenure. “I knew that it would mean I’d have very little time with my two little kids. And preschoolers are tiring, as amazing as they are. So it was a family decision because it’s a sacrifice I’m making, but they’re also making it, too. You have to agree that you’re doing a job, kind of, as a family.”
Now, several months into the job, her team has broadened. Although she is heartened by the fact that she’s surrounded by so many working moms, she takes pride in her team’s diversity, not just along parental lines.
“It does change the conversation and the dynamic,” she said. “By having more women but also having a diversity of voices, you just have different conversations about stories that are breaking, news that is breaking, issues happening in the country. Because if people are coming at it from different perspectives, instead of exactly the same perspective, you’re going to think about things differently. That’s pretty obvious. It’s why it’s important to have more women in the workforce. More women at the table. It’s also true at the White House, we’ve got more diverse people, diverse workforces, and a diversity of voices at the table.”
Psaki, who has more than 10 framed pictures of her kids on the wall behind her desk, also acknowledged that her workplace is an environment where no one feels that they need to hide the fact that they are moms. “It’s a part of who we are,” she said. “It’s not the only part of who we are, but it’s a part of who we are. It’s a part of what we bring to the table, and that’s something that certainly is valued here.”
Particularly in the current climate, “water cooler” conversations revolve around the same things that employees across the nation are griping about. “We walk about reopening schools and how it’s impacting our friends and our kids,” she said. “One of my colleagues’ sons just went back to full in-person school, and she was sharing on a morning call about how he came home and was just glowing with the experience, being back in the classroom.”
Of course, Psaki admitted these chats often devolve into swapping stories of less-than-stellar parenting decisions and of crowdsourcing advice.
“Oh, we talk about everything,” said Psaki, who recalled a recent bribery tactic her team shared. “We talk about how when we’re trying to get our kids to listen to us sometimes, that there’s funny things we realize we all do. Which is, like, promise they can pick out a silly toy at CVS, of all places. I mean, CVS is great. It’s just funny. And we talk about activities that are COVID-safe to do with kids. There’s some sort of drive-through dinosaur thing happening in Washington DC, which is something that was circulating around some of the moms in the communications office. So it just is integrated in quite a seamless way into all of our conversations.”
Another common refrain among her colleagues, moms and dads alike: how their kids are responding to them being in these demanding jobs in particular.
“My kids definitely know who Joe is. And they know he’s on TV and that he’s a kind man, and that his favorite kind of ice cream is chocolate chip.”
“That is definitely a moment of bonding,” she said. “I was on this trip with the president last month, and the national security rep is this guy, Brett McGurk — I don’t know what his title is, but it’s something very fancy. He basically oversees the Middle East for the national security team. And he has a 3-year-old. And we talked about a range of policy issues, but we also talked about how our kids were digesting our jobs. And the adjustment. And that’s a part of it. It’s not looked down upon, to have conversations about that, and it makes it more of a support network.”
As for how her two children are adjusting to her role, she joked it’s a bit bewildering to them.
“They can’t come into the office because of COVID, so I just leave in the morning, and then I come back before they go to bed,” she said. “So it’s a little bit of a mystery where I’m going. My son always says to me in the morning, ‘Where are you going?’ And I say, ‘I’m going to work, buddy.’ And he’ll say, ‘One last time. One last time.'”
She said she’s tried to explain it to her 5-year-old in terms she can comprehend: “‘There’s this really good man, Joe Biden, who is going to help heal our country. And I’m going to help him for a little while, and that’s going to mean that I’m going to sacrifice because I won’t see you as much for this period of time. It also means you’re going to sacrifice because you’re part of it. Does that make sense?’ And she’s like, ‘Not really, Mom.'” But I hope when COVID protocols allow, that I can bring them in and show them around the building and help explain to them what we’re all a part of.”
They do, however, know who her boss is. “Of course, my kids definitely know who Joe is,” she said. “And they know he’s on TV and that he’s a kind man, and that his favorite kind of ice cream is chocolate chip. And that feels like a pretty good summary.”
And although Biden told her the first time they spoke about her becoming press secretary that if she ever needed to do something with her children — whether to attend a school engagement or if they’re sick — that she should just do it and never feel that she had to explain herself, her job is “messy and tiring” and requires her to make tough choices that don’t always put her family first.
“Is it hard to be in this job with two preschoolers? Yes, it is hard. But I also have had the opportunity to serve in one of the best jobs there is, in government.”
“That is true for every working mom, right?” she said. “It’s like, whenever people ask me about my hobbies, I’m like, ‘My hobbies?!’ I’m like, ‘I have a job and I have two kids here. I don’t know.’ So you have to be open-eyed about the fact that some days you’re going to feel like you are failing at all things. And that some days you have to not be so hard on yourself, because you’re doing the best you can. And that is easier said than done. But that there’s also no right time for anything. Is it hard to be in this job with two preschoolers? Yes, it is hard. But I also have had the opportunity to serve in one of the best jobs there is, in government. And to do that at a time when my kids are . . . their challenges are not as complicated as they will be in a few years. So I have to look at it from the bright side, too. And I am hugely fortunate in many, many ways.”
She continued: “But, yes, every day I wake up with my 2-year-old or my 5-year-old joining me in the bathroom while I’m taking a shower. Right? And by the time they go to bed, I have to get back and answer emails and do more work. And then I go to sleep. That’s the day. But a lot of people live that life. So it’s similar to what a lot of working moms do.”
And to the ones who have had to exit the workforce to care for their families, Psaki has a clear message: “I see you; we see you. This is a challenge the president is focused on, and there’s more we’re going to have to do, moving forward, to dig back out of the hole of the number of working women who dropped out of the workforce, to regain some of the back steps we took.”