In the fall of 2008, when the presidential election was in full swing, I was on maternity leave after having my second child. At the time, I had been working at a tech company for two years.I had been drawn into the private sector after graduating from business school and was excited about the challenge of creating a new online payments product.
Though I was happy in my private sector job, as I watched the 2008 election unfold, I felt an urge to return to government service. The housing market was in the midst of a catastrophic downturn, our nation was on the brink of financial collapse and a full-fledged global economic crisis was underway. Watching these events awakened my commitment to public service. The possibility of an historic presidency energized me further.
At the end of the election, Larry Summers was selected to serve as the Director of the National Economic Council at the White House. I had worked with Larry before as the Deputy Assistant Secretary when he was Secretary of Treasury and as his Chief of Staff when he was President of Harvard. When he entered the White House, he offered me the opportunity to join his team.
I was thrilled, but also anxious. I was young and single during the Clinton Administration when I worked at the Treasury Department; I understood how intellectually engaging, but also how demanding these jobs could be. Now with an infant, a three-year-old and spouse to consider, I was unsure I would be able to commit to the fast-paced lifestyle of a White House staffer.
Although I recognized I was fortunate to have interesting career options, I focused on all the reasons it might not make sense to take the job: I’d never see my family; I had only nursed my youngest son for three months, but had done six months with my eldest; the pressure would be too intense at home and work and therefore I might not have impact; and so forth. It was my husband who told me that I had to take the job. From his perspective, working at the White House was likely a once in a lifetime opportunity and he would make the necessary adjustments to help make the situation work for the family.
Still reluctant, something I had never been before when it came to my career, my decision became clear when a female astronaut and mother to boys told me a story. Surrounded by her female astronaut friends, her young son asked, “Mommy, can boys grow up to be astronauts too?” This was a source of pride for her and it was a wake up call for me. If I wanted my young sons to see the girls at school, their future wives and someday daughters as equals -- leaning in to my career would be a step in the right direction.
I took the job and embraced my new responsibilities, but I also explained to my boss at the outset that there would be moments where I would need more flexibility than I had asked for in the past. I spoke up at times to try and make things more manageable for me and others on our staff. When the White House was slow to issue state of the art laptops so that we could finish our work at home, I asked Larry to get involved to help expedite things and he did. If missing a Saturday morning planning meeting meant getting to see my child’s soccer scrimmage, I explained and recruited someone else to attend.
Was the situation perfect? No. Did it require making some trade-offs? Definitely. Was it sustainable for the long-term? No. But because we discussed the issues up front and made adjustments along the way, I was able to play a role when some of the most important economic decisions of our time were made. I got to work with brilliant people who have served as mentors ever since. And taking that job helped me to develop the global public policy skills that prepared me for my current job at Facebook, which I absolutely love.
Most importantly, I was able to give our boys the kind of example my husband and I wanted them to have and still be there to fulfill the needs they had at that juncture in their lives. If I wanted their world to be filled with female “astronauts,” I needed to strive to be one myself.