When she was a full-time mom raising four children in San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi devised an unofficial family motto and drilled it into her children: “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.” Inelegant, perhaps; she would never be known for eloquence. But it was memorably alliterative and applicable to almost any situation. She repeated it so often that the family would shorthand it as “the Five P’s.” Which is not to say things were always under control in the Pelosi household.
“Some days I didn’t even have time to wash my face,” Pelosi said of the era dominated by the demands of babies and toddlers. When she was carpooling her children to school in the morning, she would occasionally just throw a coat over her nightgown for the drive. There was the time that California’s young governor Jerry Brown came down from using an upstairs bathroom and asked, “What’s the name of your cat?” Until that moment, Nancy Pelosi had been unaware that her children were keeping a cat in the attic.
Years after the fact, she and her husband discovered, to their alarm, that daughter Alexandra as a teenager had been sneaking out of the house late at night to play grunge during the graveyard shift at the University of San Francisco radio station. “Makes going to work look easy, doesn’t it?” she would say later, when she was Speaker of the House.
Snafus aside, Pelosi implemented a system that was virtually military. Each morning the children were required to make their beds and were encouraged to straighten their rooms before coming down to breakfast. School lunches were prepared assembly-line-style, no special requests accommodated: wheat bread, lunch meats, apples, pretzels. The girls would line up to have their hair braided or pulled into pigtails. “One day, in our haste, Jacqueline went to school with one of each,” Nancy Pelosi said with chagrin.
When it was time for dinner, their mother would ring an oversized brass cowbell on the porch to call them home, a scene that sounds more Kansas than California. As soon as the dinner dishes were cleared, the table was set with cereal bowls, ready for breakfast. “It was always planning ahead,” daughter Christine told me. “It was very organized and very focused on—we’re eating one meal; now we’re planning the next one.” Before bedtime Nancy Pelosi would press the girls’ plaid Catholic school uniforms for the next morning. The children were responsible for polishing their white school shoes. She valued efficiency and teamwork, then and later. “Let’s have some cooperation,” she would say, another favorite axiom. She would run a load of laundry, pull the clothes out of the dryer into a pile, and have the children retrieve and fold what they wanted for themselves.
Even when they weren’t wearing their school uniforms, she would often dress them in the same colors to make it easier to keep track of them. “She might say, ‘Okay, everyone, white pants and yellow turtleneck,’” daughter Christine said. “Then there would be a race to the laundry room because with everyone being relatively close in age and size, the first one would get the best clothes and the last might have a grass stain or frayed hole to contend with.”
The lessons learned from being reared in a political family in Baltimore were helpful when she ran for office, Nancy Pelosi said, but she found the organizational skills required of managing motherhood in California just as relevant. “As one of my friends once said about me, ‘I knew she was going places when I would go to her house and see those little children folding their own laundry and organizing it into stacks!’”
One daughter described it as “synchronized chaos.” Christine called her a “hands-on mom,” one who served as class mother at their schools and fashioned their costumes at Halloween. She refereed the inevitable sibling rivalries. She tried to treat all her children fairly but not the same, depending on what they wanted and what they needed. She would figure out what mattered to each of them, sometimes more than they understood themselves. They knew that they could confide in her, that she could be trusted to keep their secrets. “Everybody was always fighting somebody,” her daughter recalled. “There was always one of those San Francisco coalitions forming. You could have three on two, and four on one, and five against her, and one-one-one-one-one at any hour of the day.” In other words, Nancy Pelosi perfected the art of forging bonds amid shifting dynamics, experience that would prove crucial later.
She was strict, but she also had a whimsical side, a quality outsiders often didn’t see. Christine’s favorite childhood memory was of the times her mother would let loose. “She would just dance wildly around the kitchen,” Christine said, to the music of disco and Cher. “She would just always, always, always dance. She’s not a good singer, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She’s a great dancer, and she always dances.” Once she had grandchildren, her relationship with them had some whimsy too. She would keep in touch by text, often communicating via emoji: a plane if she was traveling. An American flag if she was in her office. Streams of hearts and smiles that could make them roll their eyes. In 2016, at age 76, she took two of her grandsons to see the band Metallica in Central Park.