August Fetterman, age 8, was watching YouTube when a political ad about his father popped up.
"Mommy, why is Daddy 'too radical'?” his mother, Gisele Fetterman, tells TODAY.com her son asked her that day.
She says she knew that sort of question was coming.
"I prepared them for that," she adds, remembering what she told their three kids at the start of a dramatic, grueling campaign that would end with her husband John flipping a Senate seat while recovering from a stroke: “You’re going to see commercials that are not going to be kind. You’re going to hear things that aren’t going to be nice. You have to be the opposite of that.”
John Fetterman is now the U.S. Senator-elect from Pennsylvania, following a high-profile campaign against Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz that was anything but "nice." In the middle of the campaign, John had a stroke, which made the spotlight on their family even harsher.
As she settles into life as a senator's wife, Gisele Fetterman, who says she came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant when she was 7, reflected on her family's journey in an interview with TODAY.com.
The Fetterman children — Karl, 13, Grace, 11, and 8-year-old August — have only known their dad as a politician. They were born when he was mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and saw him serve as lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. His Senate race, which drew national attention, was an opportunity to teach their kids about critical thinking, Gisele says.
“I tell them that misinformation is a real thing and that’s it’s important that we do our research, and we learn about people,” she says. “In politics, people lie and you’re going to hear lies about Dad. But you know Daddy. You know who he really is.”
A family decision to run for Senate
The Fettermans and their three kids decided together that John should run for Senate, Gisele says.
“When anyone runs for office, I really believe your whole family runs. It is a sacrifice, and it involves the entire family,” she tells TODAY.com. “We shared with the kids what we were thinking. We had their full support and that’s how we do it. It’s how we make all our decisions for our family.”
She says she tried to protect them from politics as much as she could.
“My 8-year-old is playing games or watching videos on YouTube and every other commercial is a campaign ad," she says. "So those things I can’t avoid. I try to limit the part I can.”
During the primary and general election cycle, Gisele Fetterman says she included Karl, Grace and August in only two events. She says she wanted their school, their sports and their friends to remain the center of their lives, even as their parents' lives changed dramatically. Though she did want them to have certain experiences, like meeting former president Barack Obama on the campaign trail.
Still, she says, "It’s always, 'What’s really important to them? What playdate do we have this week? What class are we going to be doing? What festival are we attending? Oh, and then we may have these things for Daddy’s campaign.'”
The health emergency that changed everything
Four days before the primary, on May 13, Gisele Fetterman noticed that John's mouth was moving oddly at a campaign event.
“It was my first real stroke experience, but I must have watched a PSA somewhere that stuck with me,” she says. “His mouth moved in a certain way that was not a natural way to move. I knew that wasn’t a movement we could do ourselves with our mouths, so I could tell something was happening.”
John was rushed to a hospital and received immediate treatment for a stroke, which the American Stroke Association says can make a huge difference in health outcomes.
“It definitely saved his life,” Gisele Fetterman says.
The stroke affected how John Fetterman processes speech, and his health became a campaign issue. The Oz campaign made pointed comments about Fetterman's fitness for office, and his stroke recovery even became a target for mockery. Gisele Fetterman said her children immediately understood that poking fun at a disability was wrong, and that made her proud.
“My kids were appalled by that. They thought it was so gross,” she says. “(I raised them) to be kind and compassionate and empathetic children. … They recognized what was right and what was wrong and that is all you can hope for as a parent, that you’re teaching your kids to recognize right and wrong.”
The stroke changed their family dynamic, she says, as well as their political reality.
“Families comes with challenges and that’s a part of life and you learn to adapt and be flexible,” she says. “At this time, he’s using a closed captioning tool. It’s been great to show the kids that technology can help folks be more connected … it’s really cool that there’s a tool that helped him become better right now while he’s healing.”
The family also has fun, which Gisele Fetterman shares on social media, where her photos often include cameos from their two dogs, Levi and Artie. She’s known for snapping pictures of herself and her 6-foot, 8-inch tall husband that cut off part of his head. This is a long-standing joke between the couple, she says, which started when she began posting photos on Instagram to share with family in Brazil.
“Before there were apps to resize photos you had to get a photo that was more of a square. It’s not my fault John is so tall,” she says, laughing. “I had to choose between my shoes and my whole outfit being in a photo and John’s head and it’s an easy choice — I’m always going to choose my outfit.”
From undocumented immigrant to senator's wife
Gisele first read about John Fetterman in a magazine profile in 2007, describing his efforts as mayor to revitalize the old steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. She wrote to him, they struck up a correspondence, and then later met and fell in love.
She and the children plan to stay in Braddock so they can maintain their lives and friendships, she says, and she can continue working with local nonprofits. She founded the Free Store 15104, a shop that distributes donated food and clothing, and she co-founded two other Pittsburgh-area nonprofits.
Her mother, Ester Resende, lives nearby. Resende brought Gisele Fetterman to the United States when she was 7; Gisele was an undocumented immigrant, what’s now called a "dreamer," after the law that gave children brought to the U.S. illegally a path to citizenship.
“My mom left behind an incredible career in Brazil, and here she worked as a domestic worker, worked really hard, and we had hard times,” Gisele Fetterman says. “Knocks at the door were really scary if I wasn’t expecting it, because I didn’t know if that was going to be someone to deport my family.”
Gisele Fetterman grew up longing to vote and serve on a jury, as a full citizen.
“I know how hard it was to fight to get to live here,” she says. “I don’t think anyone is better than someone because they were just lucky to be born somewhere else. I feel connected to people who come from any experience, all walks of life, who maybe faced challenges.”
In 2009, she became a citizen and was even called to jury duty, though she was not selected (she says she was too excited and thinks that made the lawyers hesitant to select her). Her experience as an undocumented immigrant influences her view of the world to this day.
“I always felt American since I was 7, but to have that proof and paper was really exciting for me. There were lot of tears that day,” she says. “I know how grateful I am to have been able to choose this as my country, and I just want everyone to have an opportunity to thrive and have joy in their lives and raise their families. That makes me want to try that much harder for everybody. I want everybody to win.”
This article was originally published on TODAY.com