Large broods and large responsibilities

How a mother of five became Speaker of the House.

nancy pelosi 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
nancy pelosi 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Last week I was in Toronto for a brief book tour. While I was being interviewed for a newspaper, the writer asked me if my wife was OK with having eight children. Didn't that impede her ability to do anything besides mothering? And how did she feel being stuck with parenting as a permanent vocation, since, with a large family, there was no possible way she could do anything else? I pointed out that Queen Victoria, Canada's former ruler, had had nine children, and that hadn't stopped her from overseeing an empire that encompassed a quarter of the earth's surface; or from serving as Britain's longest-reigning sovereign. True, she had plenty of help. But then, she was always an extremely devoted mother and grandmother and did not delegate her parenting responsibilities, nor her royal obligations. And after 20 years of marriage, she was widowed, never remarried, and had to run her family and her empire with no partner. Misogyny takes many forms, but one of the least noticed is how we convince women that they are so weak and incapable that they cannot possibly mother a large family and have time for a successful career. Hence, women are encouraged to postpone motherhood until they are in their 30s in order to prioritize their careers, and then to have two to three children, at most. Of course, this is shockingly bad advice, seeing as the infertility rate for women vastly increases once a woman reaches her thirties. I have personally counseled scores of women who waited to their thirties to have children, only to struggle to get pregnant. But this is beside the point. Are we really convinced that women are so fragile they will crack from the stress of too many children and too much work pressure? Will their delicate little constitutions come apart at the seams as they struggle to juggle family and career? And why don't we think that men will come undone from similar pressures? THIS IS WHY Nancy Pelosi becoming, in all likelihood, the next Speaker of the House of Representatives, is so significant. Here is a woman who pushed off her career to have children. And not just one or two, but five. She subordinated her professional ambition to motherhood and became involved in California elective politics only once her youngest child was a high school senior. She was not elected to the House of Representatives until she was 47. A woman starting her career that late in life, and remaining a very active mother and grandmother, would be written off as a has-been. But Pelosi is about to assume an office that will make her third in line to the presidency and the most powerful woman in America. Then there is Hillary Clinton, a 1960s feminist who was lambasted by other career women for leaving the confines of the sophisticated East Coast and following her husband out to the hillbilly wilds of Arkansas. Why would a woman who was her class valedictorian at Wellesley subordinate her own professional interests to that of her husband and facilitate his career rather than pursuing her own? Surely she perpetrated professional suicide by pushing off her own political aspirations in order to support those of her husband. But now, after her husband's career peaked and she stepped out from under his shadow, Hillary Clinton is the most powerful female senator in the United States and the leading Democratic presidential contender. It doesn't matter whether you like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, or whether you agree with their politics. Their political prominence is significant because it gives the lie to the contention that women who put marriage, family and kids first will come out last professionally. CONDOLEEZZA RICE is a remarkable woman with extraordinary achievements which are only magnified by the remarkable fact that she emerged from segregationist Alabama to become the American secretary of state. But her life, as single and unattached, reinforces the notion that women reach the top only through singleminded devotion to career, unencumbered by family. That is the wrong lesson for today's young women. We must forever abandon the notion that women are so incompetent that they cannot possibly succeed at both large broods and large responsibility. On the contrary: Motherhood is the best possible university for extraordinary success in the workplace, especially in fields like politics. Being a mom, especially to a large family, teaches organization, patience, perseverance and leadership. A successful mom is a manager who inspires a spirit of teamwork within her children. She learns empathy through acknowledging the individual needs of each of her children, and that no two are alike. She also learns how to handle formidable pressure and put every setback into perspective. The car may break down, the bills may be difficult to pay. But so what? Her youngsters are healthy, and that's what matters. Maybe this is what gave Nancy Pelosi the wherewithal to withstand years of ferocious criticism and attack and stick to her goal of making her party the majority in the House. After all, no matter what her political enemies thought of her, her children and grandchildren were healthy. And in light of that fact, what did everything else really matter? The writer is host of Shalom in the Home which begins airing again on January 8 in the US.