It’s the day after Christmas 2011. I’m at gate D49 0f Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. And I am crying.
Back home, my two daughters are snuggled on the couch watching “Bambi,” still wrapped in the cocoon of new toys and visiting grandparents. The smell of leftover turkey and mashed potatoes warmed in the microwave has cast a sleepy spell.
I’m heading to Des Moines, the presidential campaign trail and the holy grail for any reporter covering politics.
Right now, however, I’m the crazy lady crying at the gate.
“What am I doing?” It wouldn’t be the last time I asked myself that question.
I’m ashamed to admit it: But as soon as my plane leaves Atlanta behind, the tears stop and my sweet girls are an afterthought. I’ve been called up to the show and I’m over the moon.
I have been a journalist my entire adult life. I’ve worked in California, New York and Washington, D.C. For years, my life has been ruled by the rhythms and rituals of the political cycle — campaigns and elections, legislative and congressional sessions, scandals and their fallouts.
But the biggest political prize had eluded me. Now, working for The Associated Press in Atlanta, I’m covering Newt Gingrich, who at the time has staged a rather unlikely rebound in the Republican race for president.
The trip to Iowa isn’t my first. I’ve spent much of December in the first-in-the-nation caucus state trailing after the former speaker of the House with the intensity of a stalker. Before that, I chronicled pizza CEO Herman Cain’s dazzling flame out as the GOP front-runner.
But those trips, while intense, had been mere days. This is crunch time. I had kissed my two young daughters — Amelia, 7, and Eliza, then 2 — goodbye without knowing when I’d return. After the Iowa caucuses? Following the New Hampshire primary, now more than two weeks away? South Carolina? I had no return ticket.
So-called modern career women, like me, often have babies later in life. And sometimes, those babies come as professional success, cultivated through years of single-minded focus, arrives. And that leads to choices. Or not. I never sat down and made a conscious decision that I could “have it all” (an overused cliche I’ve come to despise). I simply kept going.
In this confessional age, there’s a cottage industry in provocative mommy literature and the conflicting advice can give you whiplash. Ivy League moms are opting out of the workforce to stay home. Tiger moms mercilessly drill their progeny at piano, or some other high-minded pursuit. One book argues it’s best for mommies to throw back a cocktail in the afternoon and let the kids knock about a bit. Another that attachment parenting — in which babies are worn in slings, sleep with their parents and breast feed into toddlerhood — is the ticket to a healthy, well-adjusted kid.
Anyone who doubts there is a whole lot of angst about modern mothering needs only to consider the stir created by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in The Atlantic this summer, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” The article, in which Slaughter wrote about opting out of her high-powered job at the U.S. State Department to spend more time with her son, rocketed her to cult-like status. Clearly, this touches some primal nerve.
2. On the presidential campaign trail
The Gingrich campaign bus is lumbering across the flat, gray Iowa farmland. It’s Dec. 27 and the onetime congressman from Georgia is launching an eight-day, 22-city bus tour across the state with a visit to a Mississippi River city in the state’s northeast corner. We arrive at the Dubuque Golf and Country Club, and I dutifully wedge myself between the forest of camera tripods, laptop balanced on my knees. I wriggle out my somewhat ridiculous puffy down coat and crane my neck to see the man whose every utterance I’m in charge of recording, analyzing and committing to memory. The Rotarians gaze at the press horde jammed into the back of the room with some amusement as they placidly sip coffee. This is Iowa. They are accustomed to being invaded and zealously dissected every four years or so.
Like most political reporters, I’ve read “The Boys on the Bus,” Timothy Crouse’s seminal book about covering the 1972 Nixon-McGovern race. There are two things that strike me almost immediately about this campaign that is unfolding in front of me four decades later.
One: It doesn’t stop for the extended drunken reveries that frequent Crouse’s book. Between tweeting, updating blogs and monitoring your candidate’s appearances on cable TV and radio shows that begin at dawn and last late into the night, the campaign is in perpetual motion. Gaffes and rumors are online in a matter of moments. There is an insatiable hunger for instant copy, often in 140 characters or less.
Second: There are a lot fewer boys on the bus. The Gingrich media that clambered aboard that December in Iowa are (mostly) women and they are (mostly) young. Embeds — so called because they are embedded with the candidate by all three networks and the cable news channels — lug 40 pounds of gear on and off the bus four or five times a day and jostle with sometimes hostile crowds to record every gesture, handshake and word. The Gingrich press bus skews so heavily female that Gingrich himself quips he sometimes feels as if he’s trapped in an episode of “The View.”
Gingrich’s top staff resigned en masse during the summer after he left the campaign trail for a Greek Isles cruise and many reporters — including this one — had written him off as political road kill. Now, even he seems surprised by the twist of fate that has improbably placed him atop the polls. His insurgent campaign has an improvised, chaotic feel. Schedules are a luxury. We arrive to rallies after the candidate has started speaking. As a result, we reporters became like petulant children on the road trip from hell. Where was the Wi-Fi? Did the bus have power outlets? Could we please, please stop for coffee? Lunch is sometimes a mad dash through a gas station for whatever you can grab. I began to empathize with my own children held captive in their car seats as I ran Saturday errands.
I call my girls every night, but I find actually talking to them is nearly impossible. Eliza, so little, often babbles. Sometimes I just listen to her breathe. I can never hear Amelia well — and when I can it makes my stomach churn.
“When are you coming home, mommy?” she asks.
“Soon baby. How was school?” I feint.
“When are you coming home?” she presses.
She wants specifics. Good girl, I think with some pride even as I invariably dodge yet again.
I find myself yelling on the bus — on the bus, always on the bus — that I love them, just hoping that, at least, sinks in. The Iowa sky takes on a raspberry glow as the sun sets over the snow and I imagine the bedtime stories and warm sudsy baths taking place in the farm houses that tick by outside. As it fades to dark, all I can see is my own pale reflection staring back at me from the window.
I take solace in the women around me. There is instant camaraderie among the reporters on the bus. Some of them have already been together for months. It’s a sisterhood forged in the trenches. One, Alex Moe of NBC, has spent the last year in Iowa living at the Embassy Suites in Des Moines.
Another reporter from the Washington Post is a mom, like me. But we’re the exception.
“I don’t know how you do it,” chirps Joy Lin, the effervescent Fox News Channel embed who’s getting married after Super Tuesday. “You have to show us how it’s done.”
I feel like a fraud. I have no idea.
My husband, Craig Baker, is a saint. He tries to remain patient as he holds down the homefront solo. But he takes the phone one night while I am in Creston, Iowa, and tells me Amelia is crying, asking for me. Eliza seems less affected by my absence, a thought that is perhaps even more disturbing. She’s taken to calling me Shannon. As in, “where’s Shannon?”
There is nothing I can do but listen. I hang up the phone and hustle into the coffee shop, where the political theater seems even more absurd than normal. The same Toby Keith song blares from the loud speaker. Gingrich ambles on stage and delivers the same speech with the same laugh lines. I have to force myself to listen.
I spend New Year’s Eve at a press party in Des Moines, where I spend a lot of time talking to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who is sweating profusely in a tuxedo. I excuse myself and duck into an empty room to call home. The girls say a cursory hello and are gone, lost in the festivities whirling around them back home in Atlanta. I am glad they are happy, but the loneliness is overpowering.
Pounded by millions of dollars in negative ads, Gingrich loses badly in Iowa and, like a dysfunctional family, the press, campaign staff and candidate board an overnight charter flight to New Hampshire. After a few hours of something that resembles sleep on slippery polyester sheets at a Hampton Inn, it all begins anew. The next week is a blur of sameness. At one point, I look up from the crouch over my laptop and am shocked to see the staggering beauty of New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains against a panorama of clouds. I breathe in before going back to the endless drudgery of transcribing tape from the last event.
Back at home, my husband is struggling to wrangle two energetic girls while still holding down his own high-pressure job at CNN. We’ve begun to use Skype, hoping that seeing each other would be an improvement over the disjointed phone calls. But our schedules always seem off. The night before the New Hampshire primary, Gingrich is capping off a marathon day with a private dinner at The Draft, a Concord sports bar airing the BCS football championship game. We reporters gather downstairs. I set up my laptop in the corner of our booth hoping to say a quick hello before the girls go to sleep. Their faces dance on the screen in front of me and they warble the news of the day.
Craig squints at me through the camera.
“Are you at bar?” he asks.
“Yeah, but I’m working.”
It doesn’t help that the next moment a waitress sets my pint of beer in front me in his view.
“Nice,” he says.
3. Life on a grander stage requires hard choices
Throughout my 20s and even into my early 30s, I wasn’t sure I wanted children. I fantasized about Pulitzer Prizes and foreign postings, not play dates and helping with homework. So when the urge to have kids hit, it was sudden and unexpected. Craig and I agreed from the outset we would split the parenting duties 50-50, and I never seriously considered staying home. Part of that was for a pragmatic reason familiar to many middle-class families: We needed two incomes. But perhaps more important, my work had always defined me. I thrived on the adrenaline rush of my job.
The path I took could not have been more different than my mother’s. Smart and vivacious, she dropped out of college and married my father at 20. I came along a year later. She became a teacher’s aide at the Newburgh, N.Y., elementary school my younger brother and I attended so she could have the same holidays and the same schedule as we did. When my parents divorced, she was the one who raised us. She was the Girl Scout leader and the PTA president, always there — sometimes too close for comfort as I grew into a rebellious adolescent.
She also went back to college part time and slowly, painstakingly earned the degree she’d forfeited to start a family. She graduated college in 1991, the same year I did. Our graduations were on the same day and, of course, she came to mine.
Still, I saw many of her choices as too traditional. Could she possibly have been happy raising two kids in upstate New York? I was determined to live life on a grander stage, and I sure wouldn’t give that up when I had kids. I was convinced she had missed out on something, even though she didn’t seem to think so.
I spent six months at home with each of my girls after they were born and then re-entered the workforce with vigor. I reasoned that they would admire me for being independent and pursuing a craft that fulfilled me and — I hoped on better days — served a higher purpose.
When my mother visited Atlanta, I could sometimes see the disapproval as she watched me dart out of a restaurant to take yet another work call or type furiously away on my Blackberry into the night.
She didn’t always hold back.
“You will never get this time back,” she said one night. “They want you.”
4. The campaign takes a toll at home
Gingrich is clobbered again in New Hampshire and can’t wait to get out of the Granite State. Soon after his charter plane lifts into the skies, he saunters back to the press seats with a Jameson whiskey in hand and holds forth. South Carolina will be different, he says. He likens himself to the Louisiana populist Huey Long who will take on the juggernaut of money and establishment that is Mitt Romney. Never a man for modesty, he promises to make history.
My mood improves as we step off the plane in the middle of the night and are greeted by the warm Southern air and a call of “welcome to South Carolina ya’ll” from Gingrich’s state director. I feel the tidal pull of home, just down the highway now.
The first rally that morning in Rock Hill, S.C., is different. The crowd embraces Gingrich as one of their own and that feeling builds throughout the state. A stop at Mutt’s Barbecue in Easley is jammed with foot-stomping enthusiasts. The momentum is palpable.
Then the explosion. Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, gives an interview with ABC in which she says he had asked her for an open marriage so he could continue his affair with then-congressional aide, now third-wife, Callista. The comeback storyline lurches: Would conservative Republicans in the Bible Belt abandon Gingrich? He hangs on with a blistering debate performance in Myrtle Beach where, in vintage, bomb-throwing Gingrich fashion, he savages the moderator.
As Gingrich’s fortunes rise in South Carolina, my own ambivalence is mounting. What am I really adding to the national discourse by being part of a huge pack all writing roughly the same thing? I am good at what I do. But I have the distinct feeling that I could easily be replaced by another reporter who would capture and process the same information. Is this about anything more than my vanity?
When Gingrich wins in South Carolina, I savor the victory almost as much as he does. It is breathtaking to be in a room with so much energy where you can see history pivot. But I am also physically spent. My voice is so strained I can’t speak. My stomach is on edge from bad meals and no exercise. While the Gingrich team travels on to Florida, I rent a car and head home, a gloomy drive in the rain from Columbia, S.C., to Atlanta. I know that following his win in South Carolina, the first few days in Florida will be critical. And, like an addict, I am frantic at the thought of stepping off, even though it will only be for a few days.
But I also know I have pushed my family as far as I can.
The normalcy of those four days at home is jarring. I take the girls to school. I go grocery shopping and do laundry. I try not to think too much about what it all means.
Eliza clings to her dad and regards me as an interesting interloper. But she is chattering in complete sentences. Amelia is suddenly reading more. When did that happen? I hadn’t missed any birthdays or Christmas. But I was missing the mundane details that make up a life. And it makes me unspeakably sad.
As I prepare to rejoin the campaign in Florida, Amelia hugs me goodbye. She doesn’t even bother asking me when I am coming home.
I miss the triumphant Gingrich rallies in Florida after the South Carolina comeback and instead arrive for the inevitable downward spiral. He sputters in the debates, normally his forte. The state is huge and diverse. The grassroots events that are so colorful to cover in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina give way to odd, impersonal affairs.
It is in Florida where I receive a job offer to come to this newspaper to do investigative work. Travel will be minimal. The chaos of breaking news less intrusive. Huddled with my cell phone in the corner of a strawberry stand in Plant City, Fla., I ask for time to consider.
On primary night, as I wait for results to begin to roll in at a generic conference center in Orlando, I watch a frantic text message exchange play out between my husband and our irreplaceable nanny. He is running late. She needs to be somewhere. I am staring helplessly at my phone when I run into Jackie Gingrich Cushman, Gingrich’s youngest daughter, who had spent some time on the trail with her dad and who had two young children of her own.
I must look distressed because she pauses.
“Kid trouble,” I volunteer. “I’m not there and I should be.”
“It’s impossible,” she says. “You do the best you can.”
For a few moments we are just two moms commiserating. Then I enter the ballroom to write about the latest thumping her dad has been handed by voters.
The campaign moves on to Nevada. And it’s somehow fitting that I make the decision to accept the AJC job while in Las Vegas staring out of the Bellagio Hotel at the massive fountain light show: the whole thing a glittering illusion.
It would be too simple to say the decision came because of my girls. There were also lots of the usual reasons that someone leaves one job for another. The presidential race would have ended, and I am sure I could’ve hung in there white-knuckled for the duration. But there would always be another race that would interrupt dinner or demand my time for a weekend rally. There would always be the breaking story that would call me away from reading to my girls at night. At least for now, I want something different. Less Krispy Kreme donuts and more Whole Foods. When I accept the new job and quit the old one, I expect to experience deep sadness. And I do. But it is accompanied by another feeling: relief.
5. Choosing priorities redefines ‘having it all’
I traveled with Gingrich for one last brief stop in Colorado and then peeled off the trail for good. Gingrich had been shocked when, during a dinner in Jacksonville, Fla., he learned how young my children were. I was tempted to mention that his own daughters weren’t much older when he began running for office, a pursuit that surely involved long stretches away from home. But that’s a conversation for another day.
It would be nice to say that I’ve never regretted the decision. But it wouldn’t be accurate. Watching the national conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, I felt the itch. There is something to being at the center of the vortex that is intoxicating. There are days when the idea of making another soul-crushing trip to Target seems more than I can bear.
But I am coaching Amelia’s soccer team now. I am taking pleasure in the simple act of her reading me a book. I know every quirk of Eliza’s fast-evolving vocabulary. (My youngest daughter does not like to be called little). My husband is more than a little relieved that we are back to our old 50-50 deal. And I am still doing good journalism, deeper journalism that strives to break away from the pack rather than be part of it.
The Atlantic piece that exploded on the mommy lit scene in June outlined how the American workplace culture must adapt to accommodate more women. I traveled in nine states with two presidential candidates. There is no way I could have done that job through flex time or working at home.
My editor strove to make the campaign trail bearable for me with kids. When it involved shuffling reporters in Iowa so I could get home for my daughter’s pre-Christmas birthday, she did it. She urged me to tell her when I needed a break. The problem was me. I couldn’t do the job part way. The job is what it is, take it or leave it, and it demands something that at this point in my life I was unwilling to give. I never made a conscious decision I couldn’t have it all. Like a lot of folks, I just keep going.
Amelia informed me recently that I wasn’t a reporter anymore.
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because you’re home now. You’re not on TV covering the president,” she replied.
I can’t say that didn’t hurt a little bit.
But when I watched the final presidential debate last month, I did it with my kids bouncing around the living room in their pajamas. Amelia sketched pictures of the candidates as Halloween characters, and Eliza curled up on my lap and went to sleep. That’s not a bad compromise.
About the reporter
Shannon McCaffrey always planned to go to law school, but somehow ended up in journalism, her profession for more than 17 years. Shannon caught the political bug covering the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y. Moving to Washington, D.C., she reported on Hillary Clinton’s history-making U.S. Senate bid and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The New York native moved to Atlanta in 2005 with her family. She became Georgia’s statehouse and political correspondent for the AP, where she covered multiple state and national campaigns. Shannon joined the AJC earlier this year to do investigative work. She’s currently training to run a half marathon and has been trying (without success) to bake homemade bread.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
As the 2012 presidential campaign comes to a close Tuesday, AJC reporter Shannon McCaffrey recalls her personal journey covering the GOP nomination across nine states for the Associated Press. Here she writes about the strain it put on her family and her identity as a mother.
See more photos and video: www.ajc.com/go/personaljourneys
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Coming next week: A daughter repairs her relationship with her father, a Vietnam veteran