All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for December 2002

Ann Romney on her choices, family, health and future

December 8, 2002 Sunday
By Jill Radsken

She is known around the house as "the Mitt Stabilizer." And as she relaxes at her Belmont home one morning with her husband, the governor-elect, and three of her sons, it's easy to see how Ann Romney got her nickname.

She laughs and interjects a word or two, but doesn't get in a full sentence for the first 10 minutes of an interview with the Boston Sunday Herald, the first she's given to a Boston newspaper since her husband won the election last month.

Instead, hyper-kinetic Mitt dominates the conversation, lamenting that he's already regained the weight he lost during the campaign, and describing himself and his married sons as unworthy spouses.

When Ann finally does takes the floor, it's to explain what is already plain to see: Her role in the family is to be a "calming" and "focused" presence. "I'm the one that kept the family going," she said.

While raising the boys

This morning, it's clear that Ann Romney is the sun around which the Romney solar system - Mitt and five sons, Tagg, Matt, Josh, Craig and Ben - revolves. The interview, held in the bright family room of their home on Belmont Hill, ranged from Ann's battle with multiple sclerosis, to her role once her husband takes office, to her early days as a young wife and mother.

The room is comfortable - on one end table a stack of magazines is topped with the latest issue of Vogue and a recent People. A pile of toys for the Romneys' three grandchildren is tucked in a corner next to the giant entertainment center.

Ann, barefoot and dressed in a black sweater and jeans, settles back to describe the diplomatic skills it took to raise five active, often rambunctious, boys.

"It was so complex," she says, likening the boys' ever-changing alliances to the Cold War's Warsaw Pact.

She says she rarely lost her temper - "I tried to keep that 'love at home' thing going" - but she could be tough when she wanted to. On family ski vacations, she gave her younger boys an ultimatum - keep up with the rest of the family or go to ski school. When the three oldest, Tagg, Matt and Josh, refused to practice the piano, she'd sit beside them on the piano bench, pinching their necks to keep them focused.

"(Then) you realize, 'This isn't working,' " she recalls.

Her decision to stay home full-time with the children came early. Ann was just 21 when Tagg was born - both she and Mitt were still undergrads at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. When Mitt finished BYU, they moved to Boston so he could attend Harvard Law School. Ann, who hadn't completed her degree yet, got her last semester-and-a-half's worth of credits by taking night classes at Harvard University's Extension School.

"I was taking exams with babies in my lap and nursing, but I finished," she recalls.

Mitt says that as he was climbing the corporate ladder, Ann was the parent that made the investment in their family.

"Her life was raising and leading the boys - whether it was driving them to lessons or practices or friends' homes or counseling with them when they were upset," he says.

"She was always there for us," adds Tagg, 32, who now lives with his family just down the block from his parents.

Living near so many colleges and universities, Ann aspired to earn a master's degree, perhaps in art history. But having five children in just over 10 years kept her from pursuing interests outside the home. In the early years, she said, "It was tough - especially in Boston, where there were so many women who were choosing career paths - to know what I was doing was the right thing for me.

"And, of course, as I got to the point where I could actually start to do something, I got MS, so that was another blow."

Devastating diagnosis

The Romney family seems to still be trying to deal with that devastating diagnosis, which came four years ago. Multiple sclerosis afflicts 350,000 American adults, who can suffer a host of symptoms, such as paralysis and vision loss. Attacks come intermittently - Ann's usually occur in the fall - and can cause brain damage.

Back in the family room, as the conversation turns to Ann's disease, Mitt jumps up from his chair and asks his youngest sons: "Want some pancakes?"

"Go ahead," she says, waving them off to the kitchen. "I think the griddle's warm. I think you just need to spray it."

The details are painful, and her eyes well up with tears quickly. Her diagnosis came just before Thanksgiving 1998, after the first attack, a month earlier, had left one side of her body numb. More terrifying, she says, was the intense fatigue.

"At that time, as sick as I was, I would have just as soon had cancer and died," she recalls. "I was like, 'Would someone please give me a different diagnosis?' because I didn't know how I was going to live with this."

The smallest task, such as picking up an envelope off a table, was exhausting. The Romneys considered installing an elevator in the house.

"I didn't have the energy to even talk to anybody. It's like a gray cloud that invaded every cell of my body. It was in the brain. It was in my muscles. It was in my organs. I had no ability to almost do anything," she recalls.

Having stacked the boys' plates with pancakes, Mitt returns to the room, and asks "What'd I miss?"

"Not much," Ann replies.

Asked his reaction to the initial diagnosis, Mitt presses his hands together. "Obviously, I was very, very scared."

He recalls that only a few months later, in February 1999, he left Belmont for Utah to oversee preparations for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Ann had planned to stay in Massachusetts until spring, when Craig, their youngest, would finish his senior year of high school. But Mitt found he couldn't sleep at night from stress and loneliness, and asked her to come to Utah early.

"I mean, I couldn't operate without Ann. We're a partnership. We've always been a partnership," he says. Then with a deep sigh, he adds, "so her being healthy and our being able to be together is essential."

Ann has been in remission for more than a year, which she credits to a variety of holistic measures. She does reflexology, accupressure, accupuncture, deep-breathing exercises, yoga, and tries to ride her horses every day.

"I'm a true believer in alternative medicine," she said.

Mitt admits he's always thought of meditation and acupuncture as "hooey," and says he has a hard time explaining her physical recovery.

"Whether it's just lucky or whatever," he says, "so what? It's working. So whatever's working, let's keep it going."

Volunteer work

Maintaining her health has become Ann's full-time job, one that she found challenging during the last months of the campaign, when she feared stress could bring on another attack. She says her basic plans for the next four years are to continue taking care of herself, and, of course, support her husband.

Beyond that, she hopes to rejoin some of the volunteer efforts she left behind when the couple moved to Utah for the Olympics. She speaks proudly of Faith in Action, an initiative of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay that she helped conceive six years ago. The effort gives programming grants to churches and religious organizations in needy communities.

She also wants to reconnect with Mother Caroline Academy, a private middle school for at-risk girls in Roxbury. Ann Romney brought a curriculum called Best Friends to the school seven years ago, and taught a few classes on communication, self-esteem and abstinence.

"(I taught that) it's OK to say no - even forcefully - because it gives you power you would not have otherwise," she said.

Mitt heaps praise on his wife's charitable efforts. "She is very much plugged into a broader community than 171 Marsh St. How she's done that and be a mother at the same time is extraordinary," he said.

Her husband's extraordinary challenges over the next four years will include balancing his time. As the interview draws to a close, Mitt vows that the family will still do "its thing."

"We'll still have sports and holidays and vacations together," he says.

And, Ann interjects forcefully, "I'm assuming you're not going to work Sundays."

© Copyright 2002 Boston Herald Inc.