Decades before she was House speaker, Nancy Pelosi had an even harder job.
Last month, Nancy Corinne Prowda was watching television when her mother, Nancy Pelosi, came on the screen. Pelosi had disinvited President Trump from giving his State of the Union speech in the House while the government was shut down, and the president responded by effectively canceling her planned trip to a war zone. So, a reporter asked, was Trump trying to get revenge?
“I don’t think the president would be that petty,” Pelosi deadpanned. “Do you?”
Prowda immediately had flashbacks to her childhood. “I knew the face,” she says. It was the face that used to greet Prowda and her siblings if they had, say, skipped out on chores or sneaked into a movie they weren’t allowed to see. Pelosi’s reprimands were rarely loud, but often withering.
You children wouldn’t have done that, Pelosi would say. Calmly, knowingly.
“It made you feel worse because of course we had done it,” Prowda recalls. “She has a way of delivering her message to the intended without rubbing their face in it — without directly telling them why she’s so disappointed. It’d be better if she’d just get mad at you.”
Long before she presided over the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi presided over a house of five children in San Francisco. Back then she was just another outnumbered parent, trying to figure out how to rein in a brood of wily kids using a combination of love, leverage and Jedi mom tricks.
There was no master plan to develop skills that would later be useful in politics. It just happened, day in and day out, as she toiled in the experience that she saw — and still sees — as the most exciting, exhausting, important work of her life.
Pelosi credits that chapter of life with making her into the leader she is today: perhaps the most powerful woman in American history and the first to hold the speaker’s gavel. And she hopes that society will begin to view parenting as “a gold star” on any professional résumé.
“That’s one of the hardest things,” she says. “Makes going to work look easy, doesn’t it?”
Now, at 78, Pelosi is still at work, and her political skills and parenting instincts are being put to their greatest test. A stubborn, capricious Trump stalks the White House. The new Congress is teeming with energetic, defiant youngsters. The house is divided. And it’s Pelosi’s job, once again, to keep it from devolving into chaos.
The common version of Pelosi's origin story focuses on the future speaker not as a mother but as a daughter. She was born Nancy D'Alesandro, seventh child and only daughter of Anunciata and Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. "Big Tommy" was a Democratic congressman and then three-time mayor of Baltimore. At their home in Little Italy, Nancy learned what it meant to dole out and call in favors, to serve a community and take care of constituents.
But Pelosi insists her parents weren’t her biggest influence. “I was really forged by my kids,” she has said.
Nancy married her college sweetheart, Paul Pelosi, in 1963, and the couple wasted no time: A year later, they had their first child. By the end of 1970, they had five — four daughters and a son.
There was no flood of stories about the effect being a parent had on Paul D. Ryan and John Boehner when they took the gavel. But if a House speaker spent a decade of their early life as a football quarterback or Navy SEAL, those years would certainly be mined for meaning and relevance. Pelosi’s leadership training took place inside her home, and the experience, she insists, fundamentally changed her.
“I became so energized and efficient in the use of time and willing to delegate, to the children, responsibilities,” she says. “It really shapes you. There’s no question.”
Five babies in the span of six years meant that — out of necessity — Pelosi’s organizing skills shifted into high gear. She set up an assembly-line lunch station, where the children made their own sandwiches and packed their own snacks. One child cleared the dinner table and another immediately set out cereal bowls for the next morning. Even as preschoolers, they were folding their own laundry.
Pelosi thinks back on that time as “the best life and some of the worst days.” Dinner prep, carpool logistics, refereeing sibling rivalries — she figured out how to do all of it on very little sleep. Pelosi devoted whatever hours she could spare to volunteering and fundraising for Democratic politicians. She was good at it, and eventually became chair of the California Democratic Party. Then a good friend, congresswoman Sala Burton, became sick with cancer. Burton called Pelosi to her deathbed and asked the longtime homemaker to run for her seat.
Pelosi won the race, and in 1987, as her youngest child was entering her senior year in high school, she headed to Washington. Twenty years later she was sworn in for her first term as speaker of the House.
Her intellect and innate political skills certainly would have made her an effective leader had she never parented a single child. But Pelosi says that becoming a mom was as galvanizing as it was formative.
“What took me from the kitchen to Congress was knowing that 1 in 5 children in America lives in poverty,” she says. “I just can’t stand that.”
It wasn’t until last year, three decades after becoming an empty-nester, that her identity as a mom became a major part of her public persona. This version of Nancy Pelosi would emerge not because of her own family, but in response to a fellow septuagenarian in the Oval Office.
“You learn a lot as a parent and a mother that is directly applicable to leadership,” says Dee Dee Myers, former press secretary for Bill Clinton and author of “Why Women Should Rule the World.” “Five kids can be relentless. Having five toddlers or preteens or teenagers — all of which she had — really does prepare you for Donald Trump.”
The face that gave Nancy Corinne Prowda flashbacks also appeared in the Oval Office in December, when Trump surprised Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer by starting a negotiation session over border security without first excusing the media. When Trump tried to portray the House speaker as politically weak, Pelosi wasn't having it.
“Mr. President,” she said, “please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting.”
How many parents have used the same tone with a kid who’s getting lippy? I am your mother, young lady, and you will not speak to me that way.
A few weeks later Pelosi’s daughter Alexandra appeared on CNN to give America some insight into her mother’s lethal tact. “She’ll cut your head off,” Alexandra said, “and you won’t even know you’re bleeding.”
During the shutdown it was Pelosi herself who invoked her parenting résumé to characterize the president. Trump had reportedly walked out of a meeting with the House speaker after learning that she still wasn’t going to give him money for his wall.
“I’m the mother of five, grandmother of nine,” Pelosi told reporters. “I know a temper tantrum when I see one.”
And, of course, when Trump wanted to come to the House to give a speech before doing what she’d asked and reopening the government, Pelosi pulled what many Twitter users saw as a quintessential mom move: She took away one of his privileges — in this instance, access to a prime-time audience.
Pat Schroeder, a former congresswoman from Colorado, recognizes some parenting tactics in the way Pelosi has interacted with the president. “She’s nicely pointing out to him — graciously, with great poise — that no, he’s not in charge 24 hours a day, all by himself,” Schroeder says. “And that isn’t that different than what you do in motherhood.”
The challenges Pelosi has faced in recent months haven't just come from the Oval Office. Democrats won a decisive House majority in the fall, but a significant number of candidates campaigned with a promise to buck Pelosi's leadership. For some, she was too progressive. For others, she wasn't progressive enough. A few thought she had been in charge long enough and should make way for a new generation.
But Pelosi has spent decades — first at home and then in the House — eliciting cooperation out of rivals.
“She’s used to synchronized chaos. She’s used to people wanting to be different and wanting to strive,” Pelosi’s second-eldest daughter, Christine Pelosi, explains of her mom’s ability to elicit cooperation among disparate parties. “She’s used to competition among people.”
Christine says her mom raised five very different children and treated them equally, which didn’t necessarily mean the same. Pelosi refused to let the kids compare themselves to one another and would often tell them all, “I’m not taking complaints.”
Even within their family, Christine says, her mother practiced “coalition politics — with five kids it could be three-on-two, four-on-one, depending on the day, the hour, the moment. The shifting dynamics between siblings meant that you had to have a sense of harmony and you had to let every day be a new day and let everything be different. . . . It’s not like it’s it didn’t happen, but it’s a clean slate.”
And Pelosi learned how to marshal consensus. Almost every parent of multiple children does.
“Let’s say you’re trying to get five kids to watch one video,” says Myers. “If you have one who ends up angry or left out, that’s not helpful. . . . You try get everybody to an agreement where everybody feels good.”
Pelosi brought her caucus together, imposed a limit on how long she would serve as speaker, and rewarded new members with plum assignments. In the end, more than 90 percent of the Democratic caucus felt good enough about Pelosi to vote her back to the speakership.
Nancy Corinne Prowda says her mom was always skilled at winning people over to her point of view. “If we were asking to go on a trip and she didn’t want us to go, she’d say, ‘Tell me why you want to go.’ And then she’d say why she didn’t want us to go. Then she’d say, ‘I’ll let you make the decision.’ It was our choice,” Prowda explains. “It wouldn’t be as much of an ‘I’m telling you not to go.’ ”
And Nancy Pelosi, her daughter says, “usually got her way.”
One recent Tuesday, Pelosi returned to her office after a vote and settled into a brocade armchair, softening as she started to talk about her children — "those little sweetie pies."
Pelosi says she gets less sleep now than she did when she had five kids younger than 7. “But then I didn’t have to get up and get dressed. Just pull on my jeans, wash my long hair. I didn’t even notice it.” Today she is coifed and polished, wearing lavender and pearls.
She knows how much angst parents — and especially mothers — have as they try to balance their careers with the needs of young children.
“Know your own power,” she advises. “Don’t let anybody diminish for one moment the time you spend at home. . . . Because probably nothing is more energizing, purposeful, better to orient you to know how to use time, delegate authority.”
Last week, Pelosi sat in an elevated seat behind Trump as he finally offered his State of the Union address. From her perch, she shot steely looks across the room, compelling proper behavior from her own caucus. She offered the president an exaggerated, what-a-big-boy-you-are clap that her daughter Christine tweeted “took me back to the teen years.” (Pelosi insisted that she was genuinely applauding a line in Trump’s speech that called for an end to “the politics of revenge, resistance and retribution.”)
But even as Pelosi reflects on how the work of parenting shaped her, she’s loath to admit that it informs her interactions with Trump. Liken the commander in chief to a cranky child? The speaker of the House wouldn’t do that.
“I wouldn’t say that because he’s the president of the United States,” she says, “regardless of how one would characterize his behavior.”
But, she adds, “I’m not far from where you are.” If a child in the back seat of her old Wagoneer were being intentionally provoked by a sibling, she’d tell them to “ignore it.”
And she’d say the same about Trump to her colleagues and the American public. “He has things that he says about women or whatever — immigrants and the rest — don’t be offended. Ignore it.”
“That’s his problem,” she says. “Don’t take the bait. Never.”
by Ellen McCarthy