Biden's Deputy Chief of Staff Says Her First Directive From the New President Was About Putting Family First
It's not easy to be a mother in politics. And I'm not just talking about running for office, though that's certainly tricky. But even working behind the scenes, whether on the campaign trail, on a TV set, or in the oval office, can feel impossible when you are also trying to raise tiny humans. I've spent the better part of the last 15 years working in democratic politics and hosting my podcast, Your Political Playlist, but when the opportunity arose to work with former Secretary Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2016, I made the difficult decision to pass. By then, I was just married, newly pregnant with my first child, and I had very few role models when it came to being a pregnant woman on the campaign trail. As far as I could tell, it couldn't be done.
It was heartbreaking for me to have to choose between my love of family and my love of politics, which is why I've had my eye on Jennifer O'Malley Dillon for years. A mom of three—to identical 8-year-old twin girls and a 2-year-old boy—who has been working on political campaigns since 1999, O'Malley Dillon served as President Joe Biden's 2020 campaign manager, and is now stepping into the role of White House deputy chief of staff. She seems to have mastered the impossible.
"If you think about it too much, it does feel overwhelming," O'Malley Dillon says of juggling kids and a demanding political career, a point made clear by her kids walking in the room during our interview at that very moment. Her first pregnancy was in 2012, back when she was the deputy campaign manager for President Obama's reelection campaign. "At that point I couldn't remember seeing anyone pregnant on a campaign, and I considered myself something of a unicorn," she says.
But a lot has changed in the past few years. By 2018, with a surge of women running for office and taking leadership positions on campaigns, O'Malley Dillon says she saw more and more mothers working around her. Then she found herself working for a candidate who has put family first since his earliest days as an elected official: Biden is well known for riding Amtrak round trip to Washington D.C. every day so that he could be home in Delaware with his kids for dinner.
"The first conversation I had with [the president] was about family," says O'Malley Dillon. "Throughout his entire life and career, he has always said to staff that if you have a family thing, if you have a school event, if you have a doctor's appointment, he would be upset if you didn't go. That gave me freedom to try to think about how I create that balance. That's the culture he was setting, and that allowed us as a campaign to really expand the support that we put in place along the way."
Perhaps the most unexpected factor contributing to O'Malley Dillon's ability to juggle work and family—and one that has helped her foster that ability for other parents working as staffers on the campaign—has been COVID-19. Overnight the pandemic required a culture shift to work-from-home. "If there is a silver lining [to the pandemic]—and there are not many—it's that on the [president's campaign] we would do these weekly Zoom staff calls, and by the end there were thousands of people on these calls—men and women—with babies on their laps and kids in the background. I do think this industry has opened up a lot more to find ways to make it work for families and moms in particular."
As the lines between home and work have blurred, the struggle of work-life balance has become a shared one. Those Zoom calls, for instance, "are a window into people's lives—we've seen that it's OK; my mess is like your mess," says O'Malley Dillon. "I am constantly waking up my son during nap time because my office is right on top of his room. And you see that what you're going through is what other people are going through, and so you aren't a unicorn."
Cultural norms have been shifting in this direction for some time, O'Malley Dillon says, but COVID-19 accelerated it. "So much of what I think we were able to see in 2020 was about the possibility that you can find balance, that there's a way to build a team and have other things that you need to be responsible for. And that's not just moms with kids, it's elder care or other responsibilities we all took on in very different ways."
For O'Malley Dillon's part, achieving that balance meant picking and choosing the family moments that were important to her, and then proactively blocking that time off in her calendar. "That way the campaign team knew I was in my 'dinner and bedtime' window, and so we would try to schedule meetings afterwards. And we adjusted to other bedtimes, too, for parents with younger kids. Everyone was always respectful."
She carved out Sunday mornings, which these days have been for family outdoor bike rides. Of course, she's also learned to let go of some moments. Bath time no longer falls in her domain ("that's fine—a little less conflict in my life"), and she's stopped caring so much about her kids' wardrobe choices. "I used to worry about what my kids were wearing every day," she says. "I always felt like that was so important, but I've loosened up on that and, frankly, I think it's better for the kids to develop their own style."
While O'Malley Dillon says she's happy to have achieved some semblance of balance between her career and her personal life, far more important to her is creating a work environment where that is possible for employees—working moms and dads—across the board. "Having kids helped put this in perspective, but the older I've gotten, the more I've realized that what really matters is being efficient and really making sure you're focused on what you need to get done. Good work is not just about being in the office all the time and working crazy hours," says O'Malley Dillon. "Culturally, if you create an environment of trust in your team and you allow for the fact that it's OK if somebody has a family commitment—if you build systems in that way—that will help change how people imagine what's possible."