Having a spouse who's a campaign staffer can hit a marriage hard.
For spouses married to presidential campaign staffers, the fight for the American Dream has never hit so close to home. Like a handful of other spouses, I have sacrificed over a year of my marriage for a campaign. Only I am the one needing the guts, while it seems my husband gets all the glory. I am the wife of a senior staffer on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
For thirteen months, I have gone to sleep alone, watched TIVO fill up with programs he'll never have time to watch, and attended family events at my sons' schools as a single mom. I keep telling myself "we're" in it to win, but the road is long, bumpy and lonely.
We are a frustrated yet optimistic bunch, we husbands and wives of presidential campaign staffers. We knew what we were getting into, but we didn't know it would hit home this hard. As our spouses work ridiculously long hours and attend grueling but often glamorous fundraising events (sprinkled with celebrities and star athletes), we work equally long ones at home—taking care of the kids sunrise to sundown and doing decidedly unglamorous work like garbage duty and dishes.
Blackberries are blacking out marriages. Our spouses' voicemails are too full to accept our messages. Friday nights once reserved for family dinners are overcome by donor requests and the latest poll results. Home life is subject to the ebb and flow of the campaigns. A good news story for a spouse's candidate on CNN can bring him home in a great mood. Some bad press can ruin an anniversary. A campaign communications crisis can botch an attempt to simply have coffee.
The daily telephone calls to touch base—which my husband and I have done for more than fifteen years—have fallen by the wayside. In the first campaign year, I think I called him at work just four times: once when the babysitter called me to report our house had a gas leak; once when I fell down the stairs; once when I couldn’t find where he left the dog’s leash, and once when our basement flooded.
A whole informal "campaign widows club" is out there. On January's Iowa Caucus night, Lisa Spies of Washington, DC hosted a "Returns Dinner" for five spouses of campaign staffers. Her husband of four years couldn’t attend; he’s living in Boston, working as Mitt Romney's CFO and counsel. Though Spies and her husband try to meet when they can—they spent New Year's Eve in Boston, a block from campaign headquarters—the day-to-day is living alone. "I've become close to my cat," she says. Spies and her husband went to New Hampshire for the primary, but she was with donors, he was with campaign staff. Spies herself is a successful political fundraiser and volunteers as the DC chairwoman for "Women for Mitt." But even this involvement doesn’t keep her from being a campaign widow.
Jim Doyle stopped visiting political websites. The ups and downs of campaign news just got to be too much, making or breaking his days—but not because he’s a campaign staffer. His wife is Patti Solis Doyle, campaign manager for Hillary Clinton. For the past year, this devoted dad has organized play dates, made doctors appointments, and done bedtime for their kids, ages 5 and 9. And he's no stay-at-home dad; he has a full-time job of his own! Yet, the Doyles have implemented strategies to make campaign season work for their family, like holding Friday movie nights at home or bringing the kids to rallies to experience the excitement. Their fourth-grade daughter seems to have caught the spirit—a poster in her bedroom reads "When Women Vote, Women Win!"
Olivia Plouffe is a campaign widow who literally moved her life for the campaign. Her husband, David, became Obama's campaign manager, which meant leaving her beloved Washington, DC lifestyle, job and new home for a Chicago high rise rental in a city where she knew no one. Now, she's raising their three-year old son, missed Christmas with her parents for the first time ever, and can't even remember her last "date night." But she's built a support network through her son's preschool and at campaign headquarters, in addition to becoming a part-time volunteer consultant on the campaign. Believing in the campaign keeps her spirits up. "If I didn't believe in the cause, I'd have a different attitude," she says. "I look at these eighteen months as an adventure."
I see it as an adventure, too, only it's hard to sneak in snuggle time with someone who's on night 393 of just six hours of sleep. As the lone parent with two boys, ages 6 and 3, it's the little, nightly non-tangible things that are most trying: staying strong when my three-year old screams at bedtime; saying goodnight to the dog. I'm trying to manage household finances even though I am hopeless at math, and making split-second decisions about paint colors my husband might hate. To my husband’s credit, he somehow coached our six-year-old's football team to victory last fall—and never missed a game.
Campaign widows are too clever to just complain. We know people are worse off than we are. People have lost spouses to death, divorce, or military service. But we're in an odd place; neither here nor there. And here is the thing: Ours is a thankless job. We are a forgotten lot, because there are no resources or support groups for people going through campaign wars. Communities don't rally around us. Neighbors don't drop by with food or sympathy.
Talk about mixed emotions…on the night of Super Tuesday, I'll be watching. My eyes will be glued to CNN as the votes roll in. (Note: On Iowa Caucus night, I was happy to see my first grader use his new math skills to figure out the percentage gap between candidates!) Despite it all— the missing my husband, taking on garbage duty, and feeling like a single mom—I will still want "our" candidate to win. Though her not getting the nomination would make my life easier—and probably better—I am not a campaign widow without a heart. I know how hard my husband has worked—too hard to lose now. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, the folks who come out of this campaign with marriages intact will be the real winners.