Balancing parenting and work

Trying to have it all is challenging for anyone with an average, stressed D.C. lifestyle, let alone a top aide who puts in 12- to 14-hour days working for one of the most high-profile committees in Congress.

Trying to have it all is challenging for anyone with an average, stressed D.C. lifestyle, let alone a top aide who puts in 12- to 14-hour days working for one of the most high-profile committees in Congress.

For Michael Bopp, married with three children under 5, it is a task that comes with much personal reflection and guilt. It is the same guilt that has been felt by lawmakers who manage impossible personal lives that often culminate in divorce; many lawmakers are well into their second and third marriages.

Top aides on Capitol Hill with similar grueling schedules also suffer personal tolls, which is why many Hill staffers often leave after they have children. But some, like Bopp, stay while knowing they need to make an effort to balance work and family.

Bopp laughs uneasily as he describes his week: Each morning he has breakfast with the children — Andrew, 4; Kelly, 2; and Kate, 8 months — and then it’s off to work as staff director and chief counsel to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Unless he breaks the family schedule, which involves sending the children to bed between 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. each night, he won’t see them again until the following morning.

“That’s terrible,” Bopp acknowledges upon hearing himself speak the plain facts of his schedule. He’d like nothing more than to say prayers with his children at night before they fall sleep, he says.

Bopp’s handsome office in the Dirksen Building overlooks Union Station. The office has an expansive feel that puts most congressmen’s private offices to shame. He seems impressed with neither himself nor his surroundings.

Children’s paintings hang on the walls. One reads, “#1 Dad.”

“I don’t know about that,” Bopp says. “I’m always happy when we can spend a chunk of time together and reconnect.”

But it’s clear Bopp’s priorities are in order. Eleven photographs of his wife and children line the windowsill. More family pictures are perched atop a cabinet. There is the wedding photograph, and the one of Bopp and his wife, Joanna, on Italy’s Amalfi coast. There are baby pictures and a shot of the two older children walking hand in hand.

In an effort to make up for time away from them, Bopp has given up his hobbies — golf, travel, tennis and congressional delegations among them — to accommodate his family on weekends. That means taking Kelly to tumbling class or joining the kids at a Wiggles concert at MCI Center. (The Wiggles are a campy, easy-listening children’s singing group of four Australian guys).

“Before kids, I would say, ‘Wow, these are serious tradeoffs,’ he says, “but now I could care less. I want to make sure that I spend time with my family.”

Each week, the family meets for lunch in the Dirksen cafeteria, where the children are treated like celebrities by staff, even after Kelly melts down when her cornbread drops on the floor.

Bopp’s wife explains that having a husband away from home for most of the day and night is hard but not impossible: “If my mind-set is that he is not home, then I am OK with it.

In the same breath, she adds, “Just yesterday I heard the term Capitol Hill widow. It’s interesting, very true at times.” She laughs, “I definitely feel like that.”

One senior Senate Democratic aide who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity discusses the trials of having a small child and working unpredictable hours. “The key, in my mind, is having a really supportive husband,” she says. “You don’t know what your schedule is like. It can always change. The end of the days are hard. Getting out of here at a decent hour can be hard.”

The aide says it is important to have childcare she can trust. She never worries about her child’s well-being in that respect. As for any guilt she feels about not spending more time with her child, she says, “Every working mother has to balance things.”

Asked if she feels she spends enough time with her child, she replies, “I don’t think anyone ever does, no matter what you are doing. It’s a balancing act and, of course, we have the recesses.”

C. Stewart Verdery Jr., a lobbyist with Mehlman, Vogel and Castagnetti, worked on the Hill between 1996 and 2002 before leaving for a job that allowed him more time with his wife and children. For his last three years on the Hill, Verdery was general counsel for former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.).

In 1999, he married an Intel lobbyist, and nine months later they had their first child. “It wasn’t planned or unplanned,” he says. “We were happy when it happened.”

Their next child arrived a week before Sept. 11, 2001, and another is due this Saturday. “It’s a lot of work to have two kids who aren’t really walking,” he continues. “The Hill schedule, as you know, you don’t have a lot of control over it. If we were in session, I pretty much had to be there.”

A typical workday was 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. “It was good and bad,” he says. “You knew there were periods when you wouldn’t get home when the kids were awake.”

How did he feel about it? “Guilty is maybe a strong word,” he says. “It was unfortunate.”

Verdery left the Hill for financial and family reasons. He went to work as a lobbyist for Vivendi Universal. That sometimes involved a lighter schedule. “There aren’t any jobs in Washington that are 40 hours a week,” he says, but “the hours were more manageable than inside the government.”

After a year, Verdery moved to the Department of Homeland Security, where he was assistant secretary for policy and “a typical day rarely ended before midnight.”

Two years later, it was back to lobbying at Mehlman, where his schedule “really depends on how hard you want to push yourself. I really wanted more flexibility at home.”

Speaking in what sounds like a political sound bite, Verdery explains, “We have managed pretty well. We like to think it’s a balancing act, but family has to come first.”

But does it? He chuckles: “You always want to be everywhere, but I don’t regret the public service.”

When the Bopps met in 1998, Michael was working at a downtown D.C. law firm. At the time, he says, he thought, “I could practice law anywhere, while I am here in D.C., I really wanted to work in the public policy field. I had an itch. Everything everyone talks about aside from the Redskins is politics and government and I wanted to be a part of that.”

The couple married in May 2000; their first child came in 2001, six years after he began working on the Hill. “My first adjustment was to change my work schedule so I could see more of [my child], which meant shifting away from working weekends and frontloading my schedule between Monday and Thursday,” Bopp recalls.

He has always had Hill jobs with long hours. In 1995, he went to work for the late Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) on the Governmental Affairs Committee and then for Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) on the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), running his investigation of the Teamsters union with the Education and the Workforce Committee. In 1999, he became Collins’s legislative director, and in 2002 she became chairwoman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Before having children, Bopp and his wife discussed the work-parenting balance. It was difficult to adjust. “We planned it pretty much from the beginning,” Bopp says, adding of his wife, “She makes sacrifices so I can keep the job — no question about it.

“We thought about it. We discussed it. It’s a schedule that works, not necessarily a schedule that works forever.”