The Power of Empty Nesters

Meet D.C.'s new influencers: women whose grown-up kids free them from domestic distractions. Mimi Swartz talks to Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett about the high energy of a second phase.

06.30.09 10:32 PM ET

Plus, Read the New York Times’ Magazine profile of empty-nester Valerie Jarrett, “the ultimate Obama insider.”

Somewhere, right now, people are probably compiling a list of Obama administration milestones: The first African-American president has been the first to increase fuel standards in more than a decade, the first to nominate a Latina to the Supreme Court—and so on, right down to White House’s first-ever organic garden. To this list can be added one “first” that has gone largely unnoticed: For the first time, a critical mass of top-level White House staff are professional women with grown children—a pioneering generation of empty nesters who have managed that fabled work/life balance at the highest professional levels and emerged with a set of qualifications unparalleled even in such a credential-rich town.

Click Image Below To View Our Gallery of 9 Empty Nest Powerhouses

** FILE ** Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California waves after speaking to delegates during the Democratic National Convention at the FleetCenter in Boston in this July 29, 2004, file photo. Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, has twice presented Republican Dennis Hastert with the speaker's gavel as the GOP extended its control of the House for two more years. "This is getting tiresome, Mr. Speaker," Pelosi joked last time. Now, heading into the November elections in which Democrats have their best chance yet of retaking the House after 12 years in the minority, all sides are taking the measure of the woman who would become the first "Madam Speaker" if her party succeeds (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)


These empty nesters bring to the table not only executive-level experience in their chosen fields but also skills honed over years of simultaneous child-rearing: multitasking, time management, patience, unflappability—everything it takes to raise a child and hold on to a high-pressure job at the same time. “All day long, I was trying to figure out how to stay on track and get home before my daughter went to bed,” recalls presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, of her earlier years as a prominent Chicago businesswoman and single mother. (She was divorced in 1988.) “How many of us have been on the BlackBerry and soothing an unhappy child at the same time?”

These days, Jarrett and her colleagues have become the ultimate blue-chip staffers, the ones who, even in this 24/7 (but supposedly family-friendly) administration, never have to leave the office to relieve the babysitter. In fact, like their male counterparts of all ages, they don’t even have to think about the babysitter. And unlike the eager, twentysomething aides who are also available around the clock, they have a hard-won wisdom and maturity that is perfectly in tune with “no drama Obama.”

Exemplars of this new set include Jarrett, whose official title is senior adviser to the president and assistant to the president for intergovernmental relations and public liaison, as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, Michelle Obama’s new chief of staff Susan Sher, U.S. Ambassador to the Untied Nations Susan Rice, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and Dr. Jill Biden. (Nancy Pelosi tops a list of empty nesters in Congress; Madeleine Albright was the outlier from an earlier generation.)

In the great boys’ club that is our nation’s capital, most professional women used to be lumped into one of three categories: the battleaxes (Helen Thomas), the courtesans (Pamela Harriman), and the unmarried, childless martyrs (Condi Rice). When a hot mike caught Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell saying that Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano would be “perfect” to be chief of Homeland Security because “for that job you have to have no life,” there was some debate as to whether this was an endorsement or a slur. (Napolitano is single and childless.)

There has also been an unwritten rule that, to be taken seriously, women in top-level jobs had to be “frumpy,” in the words of Washington Examiner White House correspondent Julie Mason, imprisoned by the power suit. The new empty-nest posse has changed all that. “They are all kind of hot; they really cut a swath,” says Mason. Best friends Jarrett and Rogers keep a crowded schedule of parties and events. They have both appeared in Vogue and allowed themselves to be profiled in the fluffy Capitol File magazine, wearing designer clothes (“Price upon request” Max Mara and Oscar de la Renta, respectively) and displaying no small amount of leg. A profile of Rogers in The Wall Street Journal’s magazine was accompanied by a smoldering photo that would give Tyra Banks a run for her money.

Unlike the middle-age matrons of old, these women of a certain age are not afraid to look good or to suggest they might be fun to hang with after work. “It’s so grim here for women,” says Mason. “They are setting an example of fabulousness.”

These women are, quite simply, past the point where they need to worry about being taken seriously. Jarrett and Rogers, for instance, have held a series of high-powered corporate jobs since they left Stanford and Wellesley, respectively, while they raised their daughters on their own. Rogers, originally from New Orleans, has been a major player in Chicago for decades, first at People’s Gas and North Shore Gas and then for Allstate Financial. (“For Desiree, this was sort of a step down,” says one major-league Democrat of her duties in the administration.) As a fundraiser for Obama, Rogers had few peers, except perhaps for Jarrett, an attorney who was previously president and CEO of Chicago’s powerful Habitat Company and who cut her teeth in the rough and tumble world of Chicago politics.

“It’s so grim here for women,” says a Washington journalist. The White House empty nesters “are setting an example of fabulousness.”

Still, their children always came first: Jarrett recalls a day when both she and Susan Rice were being held too long in a meeting with Chicago Mayor Daley, and he caught both women looking at their watches. He finally asked what was going on, and they confessed that the Halloween parade at their kids’ school started in 20 minutes and they were 30 minutes away. “Then what are you doing here?” he demanded.

Now that their children have left home—Jarrett’s daughter is in law school, Rogers’ in college, both at Ivy League schools—they can concentrate their energies on just one thing: work. “For professional women who’ve had a career and more time than their husbands in childrearing—empty nesting provides a rearrangement,” says Dr. Janice L. Krupnick, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University.

Or as Jarrett puts it, “The pressure is off.” There’s no longer a parallel track of domestic duties to be tended to during the day, no second shift at night. “It frees you up emotionally.” Jarrett points to Hillary Clinton’s expansiveness and ease in her new role: “Here she is traveling all over the world. It would be an enormous pressure if she knew she was leaving a young child. Being secretary of State without young children is a lot easier.”

On the other hand, two or more decades of juggling have made these women very effective leaders, more focused and strategic with their time, according to Jarrett. “When you are forced to balance competing interests, you are forced to be vigilant about your day. Those habits stay with you,” she says. Her years of child rearing, she believes, have also made her more patient, a more tolerant listener and much better at reading body language. (Sometimes, after all, a pouting subordinate isn’t so different from a pouting 3-year-old.) She says she’s also more likely to let a staff member out of a meeting for a child’s soccer game, because she’s been there.

The empty nesters “tend to have skills that men their age don’t have,” says Ann Stock, former chief of protocol during the Clinton administration, and herself an empty nester. Above all, these women are grateful that they sacrificed neither home nor careers to get where they are today.

“When I was younger, I never could have appreciated this stage of life,” says Jarrett, referring to the power and freedom she’s enjoying in middle age. She likes to paraphrase the old feminist saw about how Ginger Rogers could do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards in high heels. “We were used to dancing backwards and now we can dance forward,” she says. “Imagine how productive we can be.”

Mimi Swartz is executive editor of Texas Monthly, and the author, with Sherron Watkins, of Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron. She has been a staff writer at Talk and the New Yorker.