The Girls in the House

How three D.C. power women help each other stay sane.

By Annie Groer
Roommates Carolyn Maloney, Melissa Bean and Debbie Wasserman Schultz share a laugh.
Photograph: Photo by Liz Lynch/ lizlynch.com

“The pace is just so crazy,” notes Bean, in nearly identical language. “We can talk about the kids, the House, the legislation, the politics, world affairs—whatever it might be—and some of what we deal with, unique circumstances we can all relate to that in a way some of our other good friends might not be able to.” Sometimes Maloney does get up and join in. “It’s especially important to me that these two other people can completely understand,” Wasserman Schultz adds. “No one else gets it. As sympathetic and empathetic as others are, it’s not like Melissa and Carolyn.”

For nearly a year Maloney got up at two each morning to work for a few hours on Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, her 2008 book about how women are still getting shortchanged. Then she’d go back to sleep until six. “What I see as the best part of living with two women whom I adore and admire is having a sounding board on the real-life issues we confront,” Maloney says. “Like all women in America, we are trying to juggle our public and our private lives, the difficulty of getting home for a child’s doctor appointment or school play, the balance between work and family.”

The pull between work and home rankles, says Bean, who was absent from Capitol Hill for a week in late 2009 because her husband and younger daughter came down with the flu. “Members of Congress almost never have dinner with their families. Sometimes we’re in Washington Monday through Friday, sometimes Sunday through Thursday or Tuesday to Friday. Debbie and I would always go to the speaker [Nancy Pelosi] and say, ‘If you’re going to have only a four-day legislative week, convene the House on Tuesday and give us the Monday dinner with the kids.’ Teens don’t want to spend their Friday nights with us. The speaker gets that.”

In December 2007, Wasserman Schultz learned just how critical a support group could be when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. But she kept the circle small; other than family members, she told only a few key aides and close friends. She maintained secrecy, she says, because she didn’t want to be known as the congresswoman battling cancer.

“I just wanted to be known as the congresswoman,” she says.

She detected the lump early, but when she learned that she carried the breast cancer gene sometimes found in women of Eastern European Jewish descent, Wasserman Schultz underwent seven surgeries over the next year, including a double mastectomy and removal of her ovaries to protect against future malignancies.

A tiny, energetic blonde with blue eyes, curly hair and a fondness for black high-top sneakers, she scheduled her operations in Washington-area hospitals during House recesses and never missed a vote. She didn’t tell her children about the cancer until she got a clean bill of health in March 2009. She told them a few days before she went public with her story. “I wanted to be able to say, ‘Mommy was sick but now she’s fine.’ ” There was no chemo or radiation, but she will take Tamoxifen for the next few years.

Four months after telling her story, Wasserman Schultz broke her leg sliding into second base at a breast cancer charity softball game pitting congresswomen against young female House staffers. Her 10-year-old twin boy and girl, who were visiting, saw her carried off the field to an ambulance; an aide brought them to the hospital. Once again, she assured them Mommy was fine—and reminded everyone else she had been safe at second. The next morning, she hobbled into an 8:30 meeting on crutches and spent the next few weeks with her right leg in a hot-pink cast.

Melissa Bean was part of the circle that knew about the cancer diagnosis; Carolyn Maloney was not. “Melissa and I are just very close friends,” Wasserman Schultz explains. “And what I especially learned from all the breast cancer survivors I’ve spoken to is, you do need a support network. She and I have talked about so many things. She was a tremendous help. All my treatment was here, and without having my husband around it was very important for me to have someone I could talk to.”

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