‘Makes going to work look easy’: 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.