By Christina Wilkie - 04/15/10 10:00 AM EDT
The Rev. Betsy Singleton Snyder is excited to spend some quality time with her whole family in 2011.
That’s when her husband, Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), will formally retire from Congress, after serving seven terms in the House. And that’s when, for the first time since the two have been married, she and their four young children might hope to meet Dad for an impromptu lunch at The Purple Cow, a kid-friendly restaurant in Little Rock, Ark.
And a long year it’s been. In December 2008, when she was 46, she gave birth to triplets — three boys: Aubrey, Wyatt and Sullivan — who, along with their 3-year-old brother, Penn, make the term “a handful” sound completely inadequate.
Less than a week after she gave birth, Betsy Snyder, now 48, was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. “I was home for five days, and just feeling bad, and having trouble breathing,” she said. She finally went back to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. “I was in heart failure for five days before we even knew what it was.”
She was hospitalized for a week before her heart was healthy enough for her to go home. An ordained Methodist minister, she said, “I was chosen to be a heart-disease survivor, and that’s something I live with every day. I can’t do everything just yet, but I’m getting my strength back.”
She also got more of her life back on Jan. 15, when Rep. Snyder, 62, announced his retirement from Congress. At the time, the lawmaker said election-year forces were “no match for the persuasive and powerful attraction of our three 1-year-old boys, under the leadership of their 3-year-old brother.”
Political insiders immediately speculated that Snyder’s announcement was a response to a poll that showed him trailing his GOP challenger, Tim Griffin, by 17 points. In spite of the conservative bent of Arkansas’s 2nd congressional district, he has held the seat for more than a decade.
But the Snyders say the decision is about much more than politics: It’s about two public servants, a pastor and a politician, who decided to become parents later in life and the immense pressures facing any young family, but especially one that’s split apart every week.
As Rep. Snyder said in an interview with The Hill: “Only your family ever really knows why you choose to serve, or not serve, in Congress. But whether or not we admit it, a lot of us [in Congress] know that raising children while trying to serve our constituents 1,000 miles away just can’t be done in a healthy way.”
In a follow-up phone interview, Betsy Snyder was driving home from physical therapy, more than a year after the birth of the triplets. In addition to rehabilitating her heart, she was strengthening a shoulder that was under strain and a weak knee that dislocated during her pregnancy. Stopping by the grocery store on her way home, she was caught in a torrential downpour. As she started talking, she said, “Thank goodness volunteers from the church are watching the babies.”
In the past year, far from the political calculations of Washington pundits, the Snyders have experienced the sorts of hardships common to many congressional families but rarely discussed in the halls of power.
With her husband in Washington for half of the week, Betsy Snyder has weathered long nights, all alone, with kids who have ear infections and can’t sleep. She has had days when she worried that her heart wouldn’t let her make it up the stairs, and she’s had to call a volunteer from her church for help.
Rep. Snyder has made sacrifices in Washington, too. After renting a small apartment on Capitol Hill for more than a decade, he told The Hill that, these days, he sleeps in his office. He explained that with three new babies and a spouse in need of ongoing medical and child care, an extra apartment just wasn’t financially feasible.
Yet they remain enthusiastic about public service.
Betsy Snyder marvels at the constituents who have approached the two of them on the street to say that they agree with his votes, or that their lives have been made better by what he’s done for the district.
For his part, Rep. Snyder said he doesn’t understand how some of his colleagues, like retiring Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D), could say they “don’t like Congress.”
“Congress is every American citizen’s choice about how we govern ourselves,” Snyder said. “And despite all the frustrations, it’s an honor for me to be here. If I didn’t have the family situation I do, then I’d serve for as long as I could.”
Snyder was 55 years old when he and Betsy Singleton wed in 2003. She was 41.
“Victor tells everyone we met in a bar, but we’d been properly introduced,” she said, laughing. “After a year and a half of dating, I said to Victor, ‘I’m not getting any younger, and I want to have a family.’ ”
After the arrival of their first son, the Snyders made the decision in 2007 to have another child via in vitro fertilization. But when she learned she’d be having triplets, Betsy Snyder initially was overwhelmed. She cried for a week.
“I thought I’d ruined all of our lives,” she said. “We couldn’t keep our car, we weren’t sure the house would be big enough — I mean, there were so many things that would have to change. But you can’t do anything about it.”
But the realities of four young children, along with her heart problems, meant that she had to give up her ministry at Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church. “In one year I’ve gained a family,” she said, “But I’ve lost my congregation, my job and, in some ways, my identity.”
To help make up for the loss, she writes a blog for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette called “Stepping on Cheerios.”
“The blog is so important to me now that I’m home so much,” she said. “It really helps link me to the world.”
Meanwhile, in the three months since Rep. Snyder announced his retirement, he said he’s been struck by how many lawmakers told him they, too, were pondering how best to balance family and Congress.
Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), the longest-serving Democrat in the House, approached her husband, Betsy Snyder said, to tell him he was doing the right thing.
“Be there for your kids,” Dingell said, according to Betsy Snyder. “It’s the right time to do that.”
In hindsight, Rep. Snyder said he had known for some time that this year was the right time to retire, and for months he’d been trying to talk himself into running for another term.
The big decision came down to one question, he said. “At the end of the day,” he noted, “the question was, how could I justify leaving my family for a whole year in order to run a tough race, just so that I could get the chance to be away from them for another two years?” There was no good answer.
Cathy Boozman, the wife of Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), met Betsy Snyder after her husband was elected to Congress, and the families became friends. Boozman told The Hill that she has often wondered “how in the world Vic and Betsy Snyder manage” their family and the pressures of a congressional workweek.
“I would never have agreed to let John run for office when our girls were little,” she said of her two now-college-age daughters. “I needed his help back then.
“He made the right choice,” Boozman said of Rep. Snyder’s retirement. “It’s going to be wonderful for Betsy and for the whole family.”
As for what awaits her husband after his retirement, “He doesn’t have a clue,” Betsy Snyder said. “He’s got to work because we’ve got four kids to put through college.”
And while the issue of money is a real and pressing one for the Snyders, they don’t place an emphasis on it in conversation.
“When all is said and done, you’ve got to be able to sleep with yourself at night,” she noted. “And whether it’s within my congregation, or among Victor’s constituents, I want our children to see us stand up for the things that are right.”
At the end of the last phone interview with Betsy Snyder, the rain had let up, and she was heading into the grocery store for bread. She had barely made it five steps before someone stopped her to inquire about her health and her family. She said she had to get home soon in order to relieve a volunteer who was watching her babies. “I know,” she could be heard saying, “sometimes I think, ‘How could I have gotten so blessed?’ ”