What is the most valuable piece of advice your mother gave you?
“Life is not fair.” My mother told me that throughout my childhood. She said I should be prepared to work twice as hard as anyone else and not to fret or complain; just work hard and good things will follow. Don’t worry about what someone else is doing. Embrace hard work and the rewards will come. She also said the higher you go, the harder you have to work. She really tried to impress on me that a strong work ethic is important and life is not easy.
What do you think is the most valuable piece of advice you gave your daughter?
I told my daughter the same thing my mother told me. I also spent time talking to her about developing goodwill, in the moral sense. In other words, if you can do a kind gesture, do it. Always follow through on your commitments. I tried to prepare my daughter for a life of genuine kindness and decency. I taught her not expect to get anything in return for acts of kindness. Rather, her motivation should be how good it makes you feel to help others.
You were and still are a very hard working mom. How did you balance your commitment to work with raising a child, especially as a single mom? What were some of your key strategies and what kind of support system did you have in place?
I was fortunate to have had parents who were at a stage of life where they could give me extraordinary support. It would have been impossible to do what I have done without them. Also, I had the perfect caregiver when my daughter was only three months old, who also helped. Having parents who were there and one caregiver provided stability and gave me the flexibility to do what I needed to do. Being a single mom also forced me to be extremely efficient. I would begin each day focused on a clear strategy designed to get home in the evening to see Laura before she went to bed. This drove me to be very goal-oriented during the day –so no chatting at the water cooler for me!
I would also share what I did outside the home with my child to demystify my absence. I took Laura to work, community public events and meetings. But Sundays belonged to Laura. I didn’t work out of the home on Sunday unless it was a child friendly event and she accompanied me. She knew that at least that one day was her day.
It’s very challenging to be a single parent. I was very fortunate to work for organizations that embraced and supported the fact that I had certain responsibilities to my daughter that needed to be met. If I had to rush out of a meeting to go to school for an event or teacher’s conference, it was fine with them. It was an enormous relief that I didn’t have to hide the fact that my daughter was my first priority.
We all want to give our adult children advice, sometimes unsolicited. What have you found to be the most effective way of giving advice to an adult child that will be “heard”?
My daughter is living independently. I know that a lot of young adults have had to come back home to live, and it can be challenging to figure out how to communicate with them while they are living with you. I think you have to respect them as adults and treat them as you would have wanted to be treated at their age. You have to be careful not to revert back into a relationship you had when they were much younger. Really work to respect them as adults.
What are the most interesting and challenging aspects of your current job?
There is not a moment in this job that isn’t both interesting and challenging. It’s an honor and a privilege to work for President Obama and this Administration. I have a range of responsibilities. One of the responsibilities that I am most passionate about is my role as Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. President Obama is committed to ensuring that his administration improves the quality of life for women and girls. My job also involves reaching out broadly across the country for advice, guidance and input from the American people.
What is your proudest achievement?
Raising my daughter to adulthood. Nothing in my professional life compares. Professionally, I am very excited about my current job. I never expected as a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago to one day work for the first African American president who is also my friend! It was unimaginable to me, but hopefully for a lot of young people, our President and First Lady are the embodiment of the American dream. It doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, if you work hard, you can reach your goal. I am very fortunate to live my dream.
Note: Valerie Jarrett is senior advisor to President Obama and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement. Ms. Jarrett also serves as Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Prior to joining the Obama Administration, Ms. Jarrett, a lawyer, was the CEO of The Habitat Company. For more information on the activities and initiatives of the Council on Women and Girls, see profile.