Column: Nancy Pelosi is no Sheryl Sandberg
By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON — Even as House Speaker John Boehner was offering his members remedial lessons on how to talk to women, his Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, was discussing motherhood and work in a way that likely would have landed her in a heap of trouble if she were a man or a Republican.
Pelosi’s comments came during a revealing mother-daughter panel — the House minority leader and her filmmaker daughter, Alexandra — sponsored by Politico.
Nancy Pelosi described being approached to run for Congress at 46, after years as a carpool-driving, cake-baking, stay-at-home mom who also managed to head the California Democratic Party. Her four older children were in college; Alexandra was a high-school senior.
Pelosi approached her daughter with a heavy dose of pre-emptive mommy guilt: “Alexandra, Mommy has this chance to run for Congress, but it would be better if it were a year from now. ... It’s up to you, if you want me to be home with you, that’s perfect for me.”
To which, Alexandra, in a response familiar to any mother of teenage daughters, instantly replied, “Mother, get a life.”
Interestingly, however, grown-up Alexandra, and her three sisters, turned out to be more like their mother — Version 1.0 — than that bit of adolescent snark would have suggested. All four Pelosi daughters have since juggled children and careers.
“They found work situations that worked for them,” Alexandra told Politico’s Lois Romano. “Everybody role-modeled themselves after the first version of their mother — not the I’m-going-to-go-take-over-the-world second-act version of their mother. Everybody developed careers, but in their own time, and in their own way ... so they could stay near their kids. ... Nobody has gone to the 9-to-5 situation. Nobody has a nanny. Everybody secretly retreated to the ... idealized or romanticized, the stay-at-home mom version that they got and they took that into their career life.”
At which point Nancy Pelosi made clear that she thought that was the better choice. “I think they [her daughters] all understand: It’s really an important responsibility to have children. They are not accessories. They are people. And the investment that you make in them — time goes by quickly. ... But it is really an opportunity that you just can’t get back and you don’t want to have any regrets about that.”
Listening to it, my first thought was: Imagine if John Boehner, or Harry Reid for that matter, had been dispensing advice to women about being sure they don’t regret not making more time for their children.
Certainly, Pelosi said all the right things — things that happen to be politically correct but are also substantively true. About how “for women to really unleash who they are, the missing link ... is the issue of child care.” About how “everyone’s decision is the right one for them.”
But it was also clear that Nancy Pelosi is no Sheryl Sandberg. Pelosi’s mindset is less Lean In than Throttle Back, or at least think hard about doing so. For all her bona fides as a San Francisco liberal, Pelosi remains very much the “1950s housewife,” as Alexandra phrased it.
Tellingly, the role of fathers — when she was raising her children and now as her daughters raise theirs — never came up. Yes, Gen X dads may be more attuned to work-life balance than their baby-boomer counterparts. But for all the front-page stories of stay-at-home dads back-stopping Wall Street moms, the reality is that juggling remains women’s work.
Of course, the Pelosi model — kids first, career after — is not easily replicable these days, even for those with the luxury of choosing not to work. It is hard enough to relaunch a career once your kids are off to school, no less start one.
The offramp is easy to take; the onramp difficult to find. Pelosi said that the time a mother spends at home “counts on her resume. That’s not a blank — it’s a gold star.” But that assessment seems more aspirational than actual. Maybe it’s part of Pelosi’s hiring calculus. Others are more mindful of the career gap.
In that sense I find myself in the seemingly odd position of agreeing with both Sheryl Sandberg and Nancy Pelosi. Women shouldn’t limit their options prematurely. Neither should they lose sight of what truly matters. The nest empties more quickly than you ever dreamed possible.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.