Valerie Jarrett on how motherhood changed her sense of purpose
Valerie Jarrett is the former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and the longest-serving Senior Advisor to any U.S. President. Before coming to the White House, Valerie had hired a young Michelle Robinson to work with her in Chicago Mayor Richard Daly's office back in 1991. Today, Valerie still works with the Obamas, serving as the Senior Advisor to the Obama Foundation, and works with Michelle on a nonprofit called "When We All Vote," whose aim is to spark conversation around our rights and responsibilities in shaping our democracy. She also has a new memoir out called, Finding My Voice: My Journey to the White House and the Path Forward.
Beyond her life in public service, Valerie is first and foremost a mom to her only daughter, Laura. In this episode, Valerie chats with Liz about how becoming a mother changed the course of her career, raising Laura as a single working mom, as well as why she never wants any working mom to hide their motherhood identity.
Liz: Valerie Jarrett, welcome to the Motherly podcast.
Valerie Jarrett: Thank you Liz. I'm delighted to be here, love the name, love the topic, wrote a whole book about it.
Liz: Awesome. So something I'm always curious about from other mothers and I have three little kids and another one on the way, is what was your view of motherhood before you became a mother yourself?
Valerie: Well it's hard to know what to expect right and I say that to all expecting mothers. My daughter's expecting right now and I keep saying to her, "Sweetheart. It's a love like nothing you've ever felt." And I tried to approach it from an intellectual perspective as I have approached almost everything in my life and when that baby was born and the doctor said, "It's a girl" I realized that I would do anything for her. And of course while you're pregnant you begin to anticipate oh my gosh I've created a new life. But when she was out and in my arms I just realized I would do anything for her. And I was at a law firm. I had a very generous maternity leave policy back then. This was 33 years ago. I had four months of paid leave. And then I went back to work and I would just sit in my office and cry and I would worry all day long about how can I get everything done I need to get done so I can get home. And the other thing I would say to you in those early days, Liz, is that I was maybe my own worst enemy 'cause I had some notion that I was like superhuman and I had superpowers and so I could work all day and be a perfect spouse and a perfect mom and a perfect lawyer. And I had a thousand balls up in the air at one time and I didn't need any help. And that was just stupid and I realized by keeping how hard it was quiet and not even admitting it to myself, I was doing myself and my friends a disservice too because my friends were probably looking at me going, "Well she says it's easy. I guess there must be something wrong with me." And as I started dropping a bunch of balls my mother said to me, "You know what? You should ask for help and stop trying to think you're perfect. You're not. Everybody needs help and everybody does what I call the mighty juggle." The word balance doesn't really work does it right? Uh-nuh.
Liz: I want to talk a lot more about your personal motherhood journey but I also want to start by talking about your own upbringing because it was really unusual and you share so much eloquently in your memoir. Tell us a little bit about what it was like both to grow up in Iran but to also be the only child of two incredibly successful parents. How did this experience abroad influence you as a person and then later as a mother?
Valerie: Yeah so my father who is a physician was looking for a job in the mid-50s when he came out of the Army and he wanted to be at a major teaching institution doing research. And he couldn't find a job equivalent to what his white counterparts were making. So he and my mom who were adventuresome spirits no doubt, began to explore options outside of the United States and he landed a job offer to help start a brand new hospital in Shiraz, Iran, the Namazi Hospital and to head the department of pathology. He said, "You know what? If there are no opportunities for me here then let's take this chance and go somewhere else." So I was the second baby born in that brand new hospital. They practiced on some poor little kid first and then along came I. And then we lived there until I was five and then from there the research that he was doing caught the attention of some folks at the Galton Lab at University College of London. So we went to London for a year. And then from there Dean of the University of Chicago Medical Center heard also about his research and offered him a job in my mom's hometown of Chicago. So he used to often say to me growing up, "Sometimes the shortest distance to where you really want to go requires you to be prepared to take the long way around." The scenic route if you will. And I think their risk taking prepared me to realize that you know what life isn't always linear and I resisted that in the early part of my adulthood when I was at the law firm bored to tears. But because of the choices my parents had made I think it gave me the confidence to take that leap of faith, also knowing I was so lucky, Liz, they loved me so unconditionally, they gave me all the support I needed. They valued education. They sacrificed mightily for me to get the best education possible and encouraged me to go as far as I wanted to go. And then if I stumbled and fell I knew that they would pick me up. And so that gave me the latitude to take risks but it also made me feel like oh my goodness, how am I going to measure up because they were both so accomplished. And early on I wasn't sure what to do. So I knew they were proud that I was a lawyer and so I was just kind of following the path of least resistance practicing law at this big firm. And it wasn't until I really had my daughter. She was a wakeup call. She made me say you know what, this is really not satisfying and what else are you going to do. My parents thought I was crazy when I first left and it took my mother a long time. Maybe like within the last five years she's finally like, "Okay maybe it was the right choice after all."
Liz: You've been vindicated finally.
Valerie: Finally. Finally, I've been vindicated after serving eight years in the White House. But she really just thought I had everything. Part of it was the image I was projecting and part of it was just what you want for your children is for them to do what you couldn't have done and I don't think she thought she could be a lawyer at a big law firm so why was that not attractive to me. And I just had a calling for public service. And I will say those early days practicing law taught me how to be a far fiercer advocate than I had been in a big corporate law firm. I just cared more about helping the citizens of Chicago, particularly those who didn't have a voice at the table.
Liz: I love hearing how becoming a mother gave you this new purpose at work. I know so many of us can relate to that, especially the idea that I'm going to be away from my children, it'd better be worth it.
Valerie: Yes it'd better be and it also better be an environment where I can thrive and I don't have to pretend. Like I remember at the law firm I would take Laura to the pediatrician. I would say, "Oh I'm going to a meeting." What I learned to do in city hall because all of my bosses since leaving the corporate practice of law have appreciated that the most important thing in my life, the most important thing in my life is being a good mom. And that doesn't stop when they you know graduate from high school. I still feel that way today. And that doesn't mean I'm not going to work really hard but I need the flexibility to be able to say like so for example I had a role. Any time Laura called; the call had to be put through. I didn't care if I was with you know some fancy developer or the mayor or whoever it was. I really got into it with one of my assistants who didn't put the call through once. I said, "Wait a minute. Laura you [didn't] put her through." She said, "Well you were behind closed doors." I said, "Yeah but put her through. That's the rule." And she said, "Laura said it wasn't important." I said, "Laura doesn't get to decide. I decide. That's what moms are for and I want her to know that I will be there for her and that the world stops if she needs me." And my mom who had been a working mom long before many of her generation did, she had that rule and I knew how much it meant to me when I called her to have her available. And look, again, not everybody's in the position to make the world stop when your kid calls. But if you are then you should do it. In fact in Michelle Obama's incredible book Becoming, she talks about watching me when she and I worked together, watching me like stop the meeting and turn away and go, "Hello Laura, how's your day." And she said that kind of sent a message to her about how she wanted to comport herself at work too. And I remember once she brought Sasha to a job interview and she said, "You know what? Things happen. Sitters don't show up and you need to see what my life is really like." And the guy loved her and loved the fact that she was so authentic. And so again, when we have the ability to speak up for ourselves we should do it and the employers increasingly I think this is the good news, are beginning to understand that in order to build and attract and retain the most talented folks, they're going to have to start making working family issues a priority and that's equal pay, it's paid leave, it's paid sick days, it's workplace flexibility, it's an environment free from sexual harassment, affordable childcare. I mean these are the things that working parents need and I think the more we treat men and women on parity with those then the more likely we are that both parents if you have a two-parent household, are going to be able to be free to be fully integrated into their family. I think we have to really level the playing field and right set in order for our culture to appreciate how working families have to raise their children today to be able to thrive.
Liz: I want our listeners to understand a little bit more about your story and how you got to this place of deep conviction about what it means to help families. So one of the ways that you tell the story is this idea that you had of a ten-year plan when you were young. And that things didn't actually turn out in your life the way that you had envisioned them according to this ten-year plan. So can you tell us what that plan was and what you learned from that experience of not having things turn out the way that you imagined them?
Valerie: Oh yes. Yes. So I know many of you who are out there listening probably made those plans as well when you came out of school. Mine went like this and I'm not proud but it kind of went like this. I was going to go right to law school because I couldn't figure out what else to do. I had slept through the GMATs so I wasn't going to go to business school. It was a great party the night before. I had abandoned medical school because organic chemistry and my boyfriend's anatomy class just were sort of too much for me and my best friend was two years ahead of me in law school, and she said, "Go to law school. It'll buy you some time." And I thought well everybody else seems to know what they want to do. Let me make a plan and so my plan was to go right to law school, figure out my passion in the practice of law, fall in love, get married, have a baby before I was 30 thinking about the biological clock ticking away. Fortunately, it ticks much later now. And I'd live happily ever after right. That was my plan and I married figuratively the boy next door and then our moms grew up in the same apartment building that my grandfather managed. Our grandmothers were friends. Our dads were friends. He was; my husband was a doctor; my father was a doctor. I had a crush on him since I was eight and he was twelve, totally unrequited I will say for a very long time until I was 25. He finally looked at me for the first time at a cousin's wedding. And I thought oh I'm going to marry you 'cause you're perfect on paper right. Well, what could go wrong? Oh so much could go wrong. Plenty went wrong. And as it would happen my marriage started to crumble just as I was really hitting a wall at this law firm and so I felt like I'm no good at anything but I've got to be good at being a mom and so something's going to have to give here and I used to say to my daughter when she was old enough to appreciate that her parents were divorced, "Look you have one happy parent in your life. That's a good thing. If we had stayed married you would have had two unhappy parents." And, she seemed to have bought that. So, and grew up to be quite happy and happily married herself. So figuring out how do to the very best we can by our children at the same time as we're trying to thrive at work is just the mighty juggle that we all go through. I will say one silver lining in this recently my daughter joined me on my book tour and was interviewed with me. A person who was moderating the conversation asked Laura what she'd learned about me in my book. And she said she had no idea how guilty I felt as a young working mom. And she said, "To all you moms out there don't feel so guilty." She said I was fine. She'd play in my office on weekends and I'd take her to all kinds of places with me, and she looked at that as a fun adventure. So I think some of it is just you have to present it to your children as what's perfectly normal even if you think it's totally inadequate as we all tend to think. And if you present it that way they'll be okay.
Liz: This intense experience you've described of your marriage falling apart and hitting that wall at work and trying to figure out what it means to stand up to the responsibilities of motherhood on your own, you know that's a lot to handle at any one time. How did you get through that in the early days of single motherhood?
Valerie: It was really hard and I remember the night my husband moved away to complete his medical residency to Michigan from Chicago. That was before we divorced and I remember the morning he left, he left at like five in the morning, and when the door closed and I was alone with a seven-month-old baby I was petrified. I thought well what in the world am I going to do? I'd never expected to not have him there and present and engaged in her upbringing. And so I would stay up until all the wee hours of the night and I would. I'm a go to bed at ten o'clock to bed person normally and I was afraid to go to sleep. I was like, "well what if something happens to her?" and I'd go stare at her in the crib like multiple times in the night. And then very slowly, over time I began to realize I'm actually pretty good at this and I can make the decisions on my own. And I can raise her and feel confident and also would say this to your listeners and those who are in unhappy marriages will appreciate this, is that I thought marriage would complete me and I thought I'll be married and I'll never be lonely. There is nothing lonelier than an unhappy marriage. And I appreciated that once I was out of it and I was like I'm okay. I've got Laura, I have my parents who without them I don't know how I could have managed because my dad took Laura to school every single day and picked her up. They only lived a mile away and any time I was running late they could come over. I had one babysitter Laura's entire childhood from the time she was three months old until she went off to college. So I had a lot of certainty and predictability and support. But I also had developed my own self-confidence to say yes I can do this and I can do it on my own. And is it hard? You bet it is but I can do this and eventually, they do grow up.
Liz: Talk to me about those, I want to call them superpowers but I also want to acknowledge how much work goes into being a single mother or a parent who just doesn't have that kind of support. When you look around at other women who are raising children on their own what strengths do you see in them?
Valerie: Well, first of all, you have to be really well organized. Before Laura was born you know I'd go out to lunch and talk on the phone with my friends and hang out with my colleagues, and I did not have a sense of urgency. When you have a child you wake up in the morning trying to figure out how to get home and how to organize everything else to get out of the way so that you can do that as efficiently as you can. You also learn to multitask and I'd learned how to; you know you compartmentalize on the one hand but you also learn how to be warming a baby bottle and changing a diaper at the same time you're negotiating a complicated deal on the telephone. I can't tell you how many times I walked into meetings and look down and there were stains on my blouse from milk or food or who knows what. And I wish I'd laughed at that more often than I did. I would just be mortified at the time. And now I think I would just say, particularly if I had other working moms in the same situation. I think what can be lonely is if you feel like you're the only one and you walk into a meeting and the guys have all had a good night's sleep the night before and you'd been up with a baby with a fever and you're looking disheveled and you've got food in your hair. It's just hard. I'm laughing about it now because it's so far in the distance in the rearview mirror but at the time I spent a lot of time in tears and I just would have to suck it up and say, "Okay I can do this." But admitting it's hard is like the first step and don't try to pretend you've got it all when you couldn't possibly have it all. It's just really hard and so cultivating people in your life who can be a support network I think is important even before you have children 'cause you're going to rely on them when you do. Everybody needs a backstop.
Liz: So you have lived a lot of the struggles of motherhood and single motherhood, working motherhood and you've also influenced policy on highest levels and studied what actually works. What is it that we can do to make life easier and better economically for families in 2019?
Valerie: Well I think the good news is that companies are beginning to realize that they're competing in a global marketplace and in order to do that they have to figure out, "well how am I not only going to get the most talented to come in the door?" But, "how am I going to get them to stay here?" And evidence is beginning to show that companies that appreciate that and put in place policies that support working families and that's everything that we've discussed earlier from equal pay to paid leave, paid sick days, workplace flexibility, a culture that's supportive. I often say that if you have a paid leave policy on your books and nobody takes advantage of the paid leave policy then you actually don't have a paid leave policy. And we see this all over the place where companies will adopt these policies but the tone and the culture doesn't give you permission to take advantage of them. I would contrast that for example with President Obama's White House where we gave everybody three months of paid leave. You know, you would think, "Well my goodness in the White House with all of the challenges that we're facing how did you possibly do that?" Well, we put in place a provision where if you took leave and the number two person would step up to the plate, that person would then come to more senior meetings and have more responsibility and we'd get a chance to see what they could do. It was a win: win. And when senior men started taking the full three months, that would send a very powerful message to the men in the organization as well. I remember at one point the press secretary didn't travel with President Obama overnight. He said, "I have a new baby. I need to be home." Well, what kind of shockwaves does that send for a guy who's a press secretary to say I'm going to stay home because that's where I think I should be. And so it helped us create a culture that was supportive of working families in one of the most high-pressure places in the world. And so it can be done but it has to be more than just a policy on a piece of paper. The people at the top have to support it and empower people to appreciate the fact that they know that they will come back to work really ready to work hard if you've given them a reasonable amount of time to bond with their children for example or they know that they don't have to come to work sick. I don't want you coming to work sick. So there are a lot of reasons why these policies are good for society and I think looking at it not as a nice-to-do for women but as a business imperative for the economy, for working families and for our country to give us a competitive advantage 'cause everybody else has many of these policies. So that's just one example of many in which I think employers have to start thinking differently and we also have to if we're able to, we have to speak up. I tell a story in my book; and look, everybody's not in this position, but I was in a meeting with Mayor Daily and fortunately I was there with Susan Shirl who was the head lawyer for the city and I was running the Department of Planning & Development. We were both very intimidated by Mayor Daily. We were real young and grew to love him but he's a little scary in the beginning. We were looking at our watches and we kept looking secretly at our watches and then each other. He caught us and he looked at me and said, "What's so important that you'd rather be doing than being here?" In the moment of truth I'm not sure I would have had the courage to do had Susan not been right there at the table which is why there's safety in numbers. I said, "Oh gosh the Halloween parade starts in 20 minutes and Susan and I are 25 minutes away and we have second graders." He said, "Then what are you doing here? Go. Go." So we go flying down Lakeshore Drive in Chicago and we get there just as these little darlings come out of the school in their costumes looking all over the crowd for their parents. We were there. But if I hadn't had the courage to speak up then how would he have even known, right? And so sometimes we're so afraid we'll look like we're not committed to work if we say, "Excuse me sir but I've got to do this. I'll be back." But what's so infuriating about that and drives me crazy is that when the guy goes, "Oh I'm going to go leave early to take my son/daughter to soccer practice" and what does everyone say, "Oh what a wonderful dad that is." Women don't get the same pass and we should. We should have employers that say just what Mayor Daily said to Susan and me which is, "Get down there and go to that parade." In return we are both so loyal to him to this day. Right.
Liz: I got tears in my eyes thinking of that moment of like almost I can imagine myself being in that situation of the panic of we're not going to make it and their little eyes are going to look up to try and find me and I'm not going to be there.
Valerie: It's the worst feeling. It just is.
Liz: But you made it and so this idea that you just shared of how you over the course of your lifetime, how you found your voice and owned your power. That is so clear. That is a big theme in this book. You have also lived and traveled all over the world. You've seen the inner-workings of government. You've impacted public policy for generations to come What in your experience makes you feel optimistic about the world we're creating for this next generation?
Valerie: Oh so much and believe me there are things going on right now that terrify me too so I don't want to look like Pollyanna in any way, shape or form. But I am heartened by the level of activism I'm seeing as I travel both around the country and the world. People who maybe got a little complacent and kind of assumed everything would go along swimmingly are now realizing, "Oh I actually have to show up and vote and get involved in my community. I can't just take it for granted that things are going to go the right way." And in the United States I think I noticed that the day after the last inauguration when we had the Women's March, the young amazing students from Parkland who traveled the country and created March for Our Lives and they were registering people to vote in blue and red states. And we had demonstrations all over the country trying to end our epidemic of gun violence, the Me Too movement and Times Up. The midterm elections where we saw record number of young people for example voting. Now they're still too many people who do not vote but I was heartened by we have now more women in congress, more than ever before. So there is a sense of urgency that may have grown out of the results of the election but it's more than just demonstrating against something. There are people who want to be advocates for something who are willing to get in the arena and fight for their country and their world. And as I travel around the country I see these ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things and they give me faith. I started an organization called When We All Vote together with Mrs. Obama that's designed to change the culture on voting in our country so people will appreciate how important it is for them to get involved and to vote. I also started an organization called the United States of Women that's continuing the work that the White House Council on Women and Girls around gender equity in the country and encourage everybody to get involved with both, I'm helping President Obama with his Obama Foundation, a platform of civic engagement. And so it brings me in contact with so many of these folks that I tell you just love our country and want to see us get back to a time where we're seeing what we have in common, where we're not polarized, where the rhetoric and the tone and divisions takes the temperature way down where we can see the humanity in one another; empathize and put ourselves in each other's shoes. And I think that I'm feeling pretty good that that day is coming.
Liz: You're also about to become a grandmother for the first time. What does it mean personally for you to become a grandmother?
Valerie: Well I think it's just as I couldn't predict how I would feel when I became a mom, from what everybody has told me it's even better. In fact, my mother said to me, unfortunately, she said it directly to me, "You know really the only reason to have children is to become a grandparent one day." And I'm like "Mom I'm right here. I'm standing here. You're talking about me. What are you saying about me?" But every grandparent who I have spoken with; I have several of my friends now who are grandparents and they say there is just nothing better in life. And I'm glad I'm in a phase of my life where I can be present and I can be involved and I can be helpful. And as I said to you way earlier Liz, I just could not have raised Laura the way I did without supportive parents. And so I'm glad Laura waited until I was no longer working in The White House and that she and Tony decided that now's the time. And so I will be as available and present in this grandbaby's life as I can possibly be. And I think children need all the support they can get. It really does take a village to raise a child.
Liz: So at Motherly we talk about how motherhood brings out our superpowers, these forces and strengths within us that we didn't necessarily know were there until we had a child. What do you think your superpower is?
Valerie: Well it's just you can't give up. When somebody else is counting on you, you have to be resilient. And I used to be painfully shy. I know that's hard to believe since I can't shut up now. But I was also really sensitive and my feelings got hurt easily and my mom, when I was younger, would say, "Girl you gotta toughen up some. And not everybody can live up to your high expectations." And I think working for local government in Chicago taught me I can't give up. I have to be fighting for my daughter and I have to fight for all the children of the city who count on people to be in there and not give up. And learning how to realize that you're shaping somebody that you hope grows into a responsible, caring, beautiful adult. That takes a lot of work. It doesn't happen on its own and it's hard. It's really, really hard. But we do have those superpowers.
Liz: Valerie Jarrett thank you so much for joining us on the Motherly podcast.
Valerie: My pleasure. My pleasure. I'm delighted as I said. No better job in the world. No more difficult job in the world but we should all try to get it as good as we can and we're not perfect and they won't be perfect either but we can make them healthy and empathetic engaged adults. That's our job.
Most Recent Episodes
Zahra Kassam, internationally certified Montessori teacher and CEO and cofounder of Monti Kids, the only at home Montessori program for birth to age three, talks to Liz about the Montessori approach, how to facilitate independent play, her approach to temper tantrums and meltdowns—and why kids are more self-sufficient than we often think. Zahra is also offering all our listeners $60 off Monti Kids boxes. New customers can go to Montikids.com and enter this code at checkout: MOTHERLY60.
Molly Sims, author, actress, advocate, lifestyle influencer and former model talks to Liz about how she's learned to be less hard on herself after having three children, the positive impact her mother has on her, and why she prefers staying in with her family to nights out on the red carpet. She also opened up about pressures of caring for sick parents and small children at the same time.
Chelsea Clinton, the Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation, public health and international relations expert, and former first daughter opened up to Liz about her approach to motherhood, what she's learned from her mother, why she was drawn to public health, and how she's talking to her children about coronavirus. She also talked about how her organization, Too Small To Fail, is helping families get through this challenging—and often confusing—time.
You can access Chelsea's family staycation toolkit and print-out, which features dozens of fun educational ideas for families stuck at home during the coronavirus at https://talkingisteaching.org/Staycation.
Kara Richardson Whitely is a three-time climber of Mount Kilimanjaro and the author of Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 pounds and Weight of Being. She's spoken candidly about her struggles with binge eating in her books and has inspired millions—including Cheryl Strayed and Oprah—with her journey as a plus-sized mountain climber. In this episode, Kara talks to Liz about motherhood, how she talks about body image with her children, the changing conversation around obesity, and her biggest adventure yet—a new movie of her life produced by and starring This is Us star, Chrissy Metz.
Hosted by Liz Tenety
Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.