Like many high-achieving professional women, Janet Froetscher made her concessions to motherhood. During her early years in finance and executive jobs, she worked three days a week to accommodate her young children. She checked her voice mail religiously from home, worked at night and let her clients assume she was traveling or in meetings when they couldn't reach her.
As her children got older, she often worked from home, or left work early, in order to see them more. She felt the constant tug of work versus home, the sense of needing to be in two places at once.
"I wanted to be home when they were there," says Froetscher, now 52. "I've always had in my mind, 'Where are they?' "
Then, with one child in college and a second about to start, Froetscher took a job as president and CEO of the National Safety Council, based in Itasca. For the first time since she'd had kids, she worked "a normal workweek" from the office.
She's been doing this for almost three years now, and she finds herself in a new phase of her professional life. She doesn't worry about hustling home, particularly on nights when her husband, a consultant to private-equity companies, is traveling. Becoming an empty-nester has given her the opportunity to work in a new way, without periodically pondering the whereabouts of her children.
For many women, the empty-nest phase of life doesn't just change their home lives. Women talk of how they now work long hours without worry, finally have taken a job requiring lots of travel or have started a business with their newfound energy and evenings available for networking.
"There is greater focus on their career," says Phyllis Moen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota who studies work-life balance. "People that I've interviewed say things like, 'Now, this is my time.'"
Just as baby-boomer women redefined what young motherhood looked like—blending family life with professional aspirations—now they're redefining the empty nest phase. They're building careers when, in earlier generations, those their age would have been considering retirement, if they'd worked at all. Without needing to be home at 6 p.m. to review homework and engineer family dinners, these women can stay late, take clients to dinner or take classes to improve their skills. They can pour themselves into their work again.
Megan Walls, the first woman partner at a Chicago municipal bond firm, was having the most lucrative years of her career when she decided to transition into executive and life coaching, in part to devote more time to her kids as they entered adolescence. Now, with both kids out of the house as of last summer, Walls, 50, can focus exclusively on her career, participating in weekend training sessions and taking on a client who requires travel to Indianapolis.
For many, just the ability to work without feeling like they should be someplace else is revelatory. Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, whose daughter, Laura, is now in her 20s, has said of working during the empty nest phase, "It frees you up emotionally."
"I was always, always, always trying to balance, never feeling as if I was where I was supposed to be," says Josette Goldberg, who worked for years in executive and officer positions for Fortune 500 companies in the Chicago area. "If I was at work, I felt like I was supposed to be home. If I was at home, I felt like I was supposed to be doing more work." The best metaphor for that two-way tug came when Goldberg became the first female officer at Balcor Corp. about 20 years ago. That same day, her 4-year-old son came down with chicken pox.
For years, Goldberg, who lives in Buffalo Grove, wouldn't take a job in Chicago for fear that if her son had an emergency at school she wouldn't be able to get to him quickly. The compromises went in the other direction, too. She remembers vacationing in Disney World before cellphones and having to close a deal on a public phone in the noisy theme park. (She asked the others on the conference call to hold on while a band marched by.)
When her son graduated from high school, Ms. Goldberg finally took a job downtown, but in the end this job, as senior vice president of human resources and administration at Trizec Properties, soured her on the corporate world. She became an executive coach. She still works long hours, 60 or 70 a week, but she has more flexibility now. "When I'm on vacation now, I'm on vacation," Goldberg says.
There's an irony to acquiring flexibility as an empty-nester, when one presumably needs it less, but it's not uncommon. Many women work for years in the corporate world before they build up the experience and connections they need to venture into entrepreneurship. Middle age is a time for reckoning, a time to look back at one's career and consider what should come next. Those unhappy in their jobs are better equipped to find alternatives, while those happily climbing the corporate ladder know their strengths better and may be able to accomplish more.
"You know, that wisdom thing is for real," says Kathleen McDonald, 56, of Evanston. "There is something about time. There is real value to just having been out there for a while."
McDonald knows all about building wisdom. She's discovered a third career with her children grown. As a young professional she got two advanced degrees, including a master's in public administration at Harvard's Kennedy School, and worked as an assistant vice president at a bank. She left her job after having children and worked part time running her own business managing the estates of senior citizens, as well as managing a family rental property. With all three kids nearly out of the house, she went back to school to become a certified financial planner.
These days, McDonald leaves early in the morning and works late. Instead of overseeing family dinners at 6:30 p.m., she often meets her husband at the kitchen counter late in the evening with takeout. She loves her job and the freedom of being able to work hard, and she also feels the urgency of trying to build a business quickly. Her colleagues, she says, are mostly 20 and 30 years younger.
"What I've explained to many of my younger colleagues is I'm not going to have a 30-year career," McDonald says. "I have to hit the ground running because, to build my practice, I have to move faster."
There is little data on precisely how age affects ambition, but it appears that other factors may combine with age to influence how we perceive our work as we grow older. According to 2011 research from McKinsey & Co., ambition declines for many women during their late 40s and early 50s. But this is less true for women who have gotten further professionally. They tend to retain their ambition, as do women who have had only one child or no children at all.
It's not just work lives that change in middle age, of course. Marriages can change, too. Couples get to spend more time together having adult conversations. They can make spontaneous dinner dates. McDonald says that she and her husband, an attorney, now have much more time to chew over work concerns. His business is more established, and they discuss the challenges of building a practice.
"It really is this whole starting over," McDonald says. "What we talk about has changed. I mean, we still go on and on about our children, don't get me wrong."
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