By Ellen Goodman
BOSTON—And so Nancy Pelosi ascends to the speakership with a series of “firsts’’ raining down on her like confetti. She’s the first woman, the first Italian-American, the first Californian, probably the first chocoholic to take her place two heartbeats away from the Oval Office.
But maybe there’s another moniker worth adding to her résumé as head of the unruly House-hold of Representatives. She’s the only speaker whose first career was as a stay-at-home mom.
There’s nothing new about politics itself as a second career. Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was a doctor before he ran for the Senate. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert was a teacher and coach. And who can forget Ronald Reagan’s first career before he ran for political office at age 55?
But Pelosi married young, bore five children in six years, raised them, and didn’t run for office until her youngest was ready for college. She was 47 when she got onto the fast track. She won the Speaker’s Cup at 66.
Pelosi was not plucked from the kitchen to Congress. The stay-at-home-mom label may be politically correct these days but technically incorrect. Pelosi, offspring of a political family, was always involved in a campaign, she says, “no matter how little my babies were, if I was wheeling them in a carriage or carrying them in my stomach.”
Nevertheless, she was the real mom McCoy, the cupcake-baking, jeep-driving, school-trip mother who made the pink and silver angel costume that her youngest daughter still has. When she first ran for Congress against 13 other candidates, she had to face billboards aimed snidely at that résumé, asking whether she was “a legislator or a dilettante.”
Now, a grandmother of six and leader of 233 Democrats, Pelosi brags about her first career rather than burying it in her résumé. So she may end up as one of the success stories that changes the way people think about “opting out” and “opting in.”
We are in another long and heated debate about mothers who leave the workforce. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows an uptick of about 8 percent from 1997 to 2004 in the number of married women at home with infants. The biggest increase was among mothers with college degrees.
Most young mothers who leave the workforce plan to relaunch their careers sooner or later. Indeed for many the “option” in opting-out may feel like a lack of options—poor childcare or inflexible work hours.
But these mothers may find that even the shortest trip off the ramp carries a huge economic toll that can last over a lifetime. The make-it-or-break-it years coincide famously with the have-children-or-forget-it years. When they try to get back in, says Ann Crittenden, who wrote “The Price of Motherhood,” many women still feel like they’re wearing a scarlet letter: “Only the letter is not an A, it’s an M.”
That may be changing, one profile at a time. In 1998, Brenda Barnes became the poster mother for off-ramping when she left her job as CEO of PepsiCo to be with her family. Two years ago she became the CEO of Sara Lee. Karen Hughes famously left the White House to spend time with her son in 2002. She came back in 2005 to do public relations for America.
Of course, Barnes spent her “opt-out” years serving on seven corporate boards and teaching graduate school. Hughes spent them on the phone with the president. Nevertheless, these are famous women getting back on the fast track.
Demographics also seem to be leading to the on-ramp. Some well-known companies are now deliberately and directly recruiting from this older hiring pool.
It’s still the rare applicant who puts down stay-at-home mother—or father—on a job application under “work experience.” But economists as well as mothers at the playground now parse child-raising skills as qualities that are needed at the office. Need someone for multitasking? Instant problem solving? Motivating and organizing people with, um, different personalities? Mom’s the one.
I’m not saying that Nancy Pelosi is Everywoman’s role model unless Everywoman can live on four hours of sleep and a diet of chocolate. But she’s a reminder to women that life is longer than you expect and 47 is younger than you think. She’s a reminder to companies and the country that we have a lot to gain from welcoming parents into the second act.
Pelosi forever talks about her “mother-of-five voice.” Her children remember the organized mom who set the breakfast table after the dinner dishes were cleared. They also remember the mother-of-five words she used—words that may prove crucial to this brand-new head of House-hold: “I’m not taking any complaints! Let’s have some cooperation!”
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.