Nancy Pelosi, hero of grandparent power

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One of the most charming news photos this month shows a jubilant Nancy Pelosi assuming her role as the first female speaker of the House. Standing at the speaker's desk, with gavel in hand and a huge American flag behind her, she is surrounded by 20 children. They include her own grandchildren as well as the children and grandchildren of colleagues.

Little boys with carefully combed hair are decked out in their Sunday best – blue shirts, ties, and jackets. Little girls look demure in dresses and barrettes. One girl with long blond hair holds a baby, presumably Ms. Pelosi's newest grandchild, whose birth she and her husband attended in November.

What an appealing change from the usual Page 1 pictures of powerful men in suits!

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On the broadest level, the pint-size supporters helping Pelosi celebrate what she called a "historic moment" serve as reminders of the future generations that will be affected, directly or indirectly, by the laws Congress passes. The photo's silent message to legislators could be: Think of your grandchildren, present and future, and cast your votes wisely.

On a more personal note for Pelosi, the picture illustrates the central role her family plays in her life. Now that she is second in line for the presidency, this mother of five and grandmother of six is the highest-ranking grandmother in the nation's legislative history.

All those grandchildren create the kind of scene that delights Christine Crosby, editorial director of Grand, a magazine for baby-boom grandparents. She calls the public presence of Pelosi's grandchildren "enlightening," explaining that "many women of celebrity stature keep the fact that they are a grandmother under cover."

Not Pelosi, obviously. Rather than hiding her offspring, she offers them as examples of how motherhood and grandmotherhood have helped, not hindered, her career.

This is a woman who jokes, "When necessary, I am not afraid to use my mother-of-five voice to ensure that I am heard." She credits her family responsibilities with forcing her to fine-tune her organizational skills. And being a mother helped her hone her abilities as a listener – critical for a politician.

Roles like Pelosi's, Ms. Crosby notes, represent a refreshing change from the past, when people often looked at grandparents as "old people who are not viable any longer." She adds, "This is not true, and it is not true now more than ever as boomers become grandparents." She sees a "new breed" of grandparents – more active and vital than ever.

The average age of a first-time grandparent is 47, she says. As life spans lengthen, so will intergenerational connections in families. In many cases, Crosby says, "We're going to be in the lives of these children for 30 years. Imagine the impact this important role is going to play."

But along with its pleasures, grandparenthood can bring its share of sobering responsibilities. More than 6 million children are being raised full time by their grandparents, Crosby says. Calling this a "huge element of our family caregiving," she adds, "These grandparents are the heroes of our culture."

Other heroic grandparents care for grandchildren while parents work, often putting their own lives on hold to do so. This growing cadre of "granny nannys" includes grandfathers too.

Grandparents who have their own careers face another challenge: finding time to spend with the youngest members of the family. "This generation is not only juggling their lives and work, and their relationship with their adult children, but also their grandchildren," Crosby says.

Her own work at Grand magazine sometimes leaves her feeling that she hasn't spent enough time with her grandchildren. As one way of staying in touch, she keeps a videophone on her desk to use during frequent calls to them.

For many of us, memories of our own beloved grandparents involve more traditional roles – grandmothers in aprons and sensible shoes baking cookies with us, snowy-haired grandfathers reading to us in the comfort of their La-Z-Boy. They may not have qualified as "new breed" grandparents, but we knew their hearts were full of love for us.

Whatever a grandparent's role in a child's life, the relationship is like no other. "Grandchildren are like an elixir," Crosby says. "Forget the cosmetic surgery or any youth in the bottle. This truly is a youth formula. The whole mind-set of being with a young child and living in the land of possibilities is a youth-inducing experience."

That's good reason to use more news photos of the two generations exploring the possibilities of a relationship that is being reinvented every day.

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