The clock is just about to strike 5:30 p.m. in County Council candidate Linda Gilligan's kitchen when a visitor says she's leaving so the family can eat dinner.
Gilligan's husband, Brian, looks up, puzzled, as though the guest were speaking Chinese.
"Dinner?" he asks. "Dinner? We don't have dinner here any more."
He walks over to one of the kitchen cabinets, where some newspaper clippings have been tacked. He takes down a coupon for Italian specials at a Severna Park restaurant.
This is what he and the three kids have been eating since Linda started campaigning, Brian Gilligan says. She's not there to make dinner, "and I can't cook. It's been hell. I didn't think it was going to be this bad."
Get used to it now, Mr. Gilligan.
Veteran politicians and their families say anyone with an interest in public life should prepare to pay a private price. Evenings away from home, media criticism, a phone that rings constantly, store clerks who offer a piece of their mind -- all are a part of political life, not just for the politician but for his family, too.
"The pressure it puts on family life is probably the worst thing about politics," said outgoing County Executive O. James Lighthizer, who ought to know.
For the last eight years, he's "literally never been there" to help raise his two youngest children, Conor, now 12 and Meghan, 11. If it weren't for his wife Gloria, Lighthizer said, "there wouldn't be a family."
So great are the pressures that go along with public life that they limit the number of good political candidates, said Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis. "You need an outside income. You have to have the time to put into it. And you have to have a family that's willing to give you the time."
"It's difficult on the whole family, whether you're a woman or a man," said Council Chairwoman Virginia P. Clagett, D-West River, who is divorced.
"In order to be elected, you have to have to be someone people recognize, someone who's popular. It's a whole ego thing, and for some people that just won't work."
Wives may suffer jealousy when a political husband "wants to be popular with everybody, including women," Clagett said. Outgoing Councilman Michael F. Gilligan said political "groupies" often dog male candidates, and infidelities do occur.
Margaret "Puddy" Neall, wife of Republican county executive candidate Robert R. Neall, said she's aware that other women are watching her husband. "That doesn't bother me at all. It's almost like a compliment," she said.
On the other hand, husbands often can't cope with a wife who's in the limelight, said Lamb.
Lamb's first marriage disintegrated after 27 years when she was appointed to the county school board. Her former husband didn't understand why Lamb, a housewife who had raised their four children, was suddenly working 30 or 40 hours a week.
Today, Lamb said she has a "liberated" husband -- Severn River Association Treasurer Tod Knowles -- who does not feel threatened by her public life. She said, "I wouldn't be in (politics) if he wasn't the way he is."
"What I have tried to do is keep my own life busy enough so that I am not just sitting around depending on Maureen," said Knowles, who married Lamb nine years ago.
Knowles, who is a good cook, said he doesn't mind eating alone. He goes with her to social functions and fund-raisers, but generally stays out of the public eye. He doesn't campaign with her and doesn't answer her phone.
The only thing Knowles does mind is that Lamb won't take a vacation longer than two weeks. "I keep hoping she'll say, 'This isn't really important, I can miss that meeting.' I wish she would change our lifestyle, but if that's what she wants to do. . . ."
Knowles' supportive attitude seems to be more typical of women than men.
Many leading male politicians have wives who say that while they may not like politics, they put up with it for their husbands' sake.
"I never really liked his being in politics," said Cheryl Gilligan, wife of Michael Gilligan, the two-term Glen Burnie councilman and unsuccessful county executive candidate. "I felt like we lived in a goldfish bowl."
When Gilligan told her he wanted to run for county executive, "I wasn't thrilled. My original thought was, 'Oh no.' "
But then Cheryl Gilligan took a leave of absence from her job to run her husband's campaign headquarters.
Gloria Lighthizer had a year-old baby and was pregnant with a second child when her husband was elected to the House of Delegates in 1978.
During the campaign, "she'd sit up in the living room -- she was pregnant with Meghan and had Conor bouncing on her knee -- and she'd be running the automatic typewriter," Lighthizer said. "I don't think I could have won without her."
"I'm just very laid back," Gloria Lighthizer explained. She's never held a full-time job outside their home and enjoys being a mother, giving the children the time her husband hasn't had during his eight years as county executive.