WASHINGTON — Here's how Karen Hughes, counselor to President Bush, tries to balance motherhood with her job as one of the most powerful female advisers in White House history: On Wednesdays, she tries to leave her corner West Wing office two hours earlier than usual, at 5:30 p.m., for what she calls a "midweek moment" with her ninth-grade son, Robert.
Her husband, Jerry, a lawyer, runs Robert's schedule. When the president requires Ms. Hughes's presence in Texas or at Camp David, she takes her son as often as she can. The White House director of communications and self-described "baseball mom" doesn't come in on weekends unless she has to though she works from home. On the campaign trail, she pulled Robert from school for an education in real-life politics, much of it spent on a plane.
But even these accommodations were no match for arguably the most demanding white-collar workplace on the planet. Hughes's announcement this week that she will be leaving her boss of eight years to spend more time with her family is reviving an enduring cultural debate, one particularly unusual in the White House: whether women can balance high-powered careers with normal family lives or any sort of family at all.
Already galvanizing the discussion is a new book by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett that found that 49 percent of high-achieving women (those earning $100,000 or more) in the US are childless. Certainly, in the realm of Washington politics, working moms are rare.
"The hours that are involved in politics are very, very long ones, and are really not conducive to anybody's family life," says Karen O'Connor, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University here.
The issue of whether women can juggle both a high-powered career and motherhood was certainly raised by the Washington media after Hughes made her announcement. In response, the woman who knows the president so well she can finish his sentences, says she has successfully juggled family and career all along. Still, she emphasized, her family has always been the priority.
"I've always prided myself that this is a family-friendly White House, and I think this is a family-friendly decision," she said, explaining that she would still be a key adviser to the president.
President Bush began his administration with a half dozen moms in critical jobs, a rarity in the Clinton White House.
He has also made a special effort to make his administration "family friendly" in response to some mothers' concerns about the "meat-grinder" White House.
"The president assured the chief of staff that he didn't want that to be an impediment to us coming, and it hasn't been," says Margaret Spellings, head of the domestic policy shop. Spellings says she appreciated that, in the first few months, she was able to go back to Texas every other Friday to spend time with her two daughters.
Still, schedules do break down due to the unique demands of working for what is truly a 24/7 operation. Crises intervene at all hours and the White House must respond.
The travel schedule is grueling, with staffers often having to be at Andrews Air Force Base for a 5:30 a.m. check-in.
Thus it's not unusual for White House parents to bring their kids to the office, Spellings explains. "Mary Matalin's daughter was up here yesterday playing with makeup."
In the corporate world, you can at least plan your personal life, says Lisa Caputo, former press secretary to Hillary Clinton when she was first lady. "You can't plan in the White House. You are not in control. Your life is at the beck and call of the president," Ms. Caputo says.
Dads suffer, too. One Sunday evening, when Philip Brady, staff secretary to Bush senior, tucked his son into bed, the child spontaneously said: "See you next week, dad." It wasn't that he was going out of town. He just wasn't home during his son's waking hours.
Karl Rove, the other Texas adviser in the president's inner circle, is another parent in the upper echelons of the administration. He too, has had to make sacrifices as a parent of a teenage child because of the demands of his role.
"It's still exceedingly rare for a father to quit work to take care of the kids," says Bruce Reed, former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton.
Hughes says the family decided to move back to Texas so that her son can develop "roots" before he heads to college in three short years. But she insists that she is just changing addresses, not roles.
Although she won't be on the White House payroll, but she plans to come back to Washington "at least every couple of weeks," Hughes told CNN's "Inside Politics with Judy Woodruff." She says she'll be a "key adviser" who helps Bush with communications strategy and major speeches.
The Hughes move, which is due this summer, is being lauded in some quarters by those who can empathize with the demands of her job.
Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to president Clinton says, "I think Karen Hughes, to her credit, made the decision that ... her family came first. That's not an easy decision, God bless her."
Staff writer Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.