From Spy to Author to Basketcase: Reflections On (Trying to) Work

In Essays on January 21, 2011 at 2:25 pm

By Lindsay Moran

Parenthood should come with one of those warnings, like certain medications—“DO NOT operate heavy machinery while using this product”—and the warning would be simple: NEVER try to combine work with childrearing.

I learned this lesson before my son even came out of the womb. The publication date of my first (and I hasten to add only) book—a memoir about working for the CIA—happened to coincide with my then unborn child’s due date: February 2005. This was not ideal timing and resulted in a debate among myself, my agent, my editor, and various members of the G.P. Putnam and Sons publicity staff about whether we should move the publication date back or forward.

I argued for publishing after the baby was born: “My understanding is that newborns sleep a lot.” I envisioned myself yakking away with the ladies on The View while my firstborn slept quietly in a Moses basket at our feet. And, of course, I would have lost all that baby weight within days of delivery, as I had a rigorous exercise regime planned for myself.

My patrons were wiser. The VP of Putnam publicity, a bear of a man (single, no kids), whom I would come to revere for his wisdom and expertise, pronounced simply: “You will NOT be able to handle book publicity and a newborn, I guarantee it.” He had a media appearance regime planned that was even more rigorous than my treadmill imaginings.

We moved the pub date back to January 2005. I was literally about to pop. Forget about those extra 10 pounds the camera adds; I had an extra 40.

My first appearance was on the O’Reilly Factor; not quite the inviting henfest with Barbara Walters and Star Jones I had envisioned. Before O’Reilly, I shared the green room with Ann Coulter, who looked savagely skinny in real life, sort of like one of those longhaired ghoulish skeletons you hang in front of your house at Halloween. She sat cross-legged, loudly smacking gum and even more loudly ranting about the liberals, until she finally turned to me, pointed at my stomach, and said, “Can you actually feel it moving inside there?”

“Yes,” I replied, although I stopped myself before asking if she’d like to feel the baby kick. I feared the bony claw of Ann Coulter on my stomach might induce early labor. Later, everyone said O’Reilly went easy on me—my husband and I replayed countless times a clip of him saying, “Well…you MAY be right…”—and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because I was pregnant.

“You do realize,” my wise publicist said, “that some people will think you left the CIA just because you met a guy and got pregnant?”

Really? Becoming a spy had been a childhood dream of mine, and working at the CIA was the culmination—if not total fulfillment—of that dream. Leaving the Agency, with which I’d quickly become disillusioned, had been a wrenching decision that had nothing to do with my desire, still latent then, to start a family.

Anyway, the CIA goes to far greater lengths to make life easier for a working Mom than does real life (or freelance writing). It would have been wiser—not least of which financially—for me to stay at the CIA and help to provide my family financial security, and health insurance.

That cold week in January, I waddled from one studio to another: Anderson Cooper, Good Morning America, CNN’s American Morning, and various radio shows, which were my favorite because you couldn’t tell that I was the size of an aircraft carrier. Inevitably on the TV talk shows, the host or hostess failed to mention that I was pregnant—granted, there are more interesting things to discuss with a former spy—and the camera would pan away from my face to my ginormous stomach. I just looked like a CIA operative who’d gone hopelessly to seed.

Eventually, the book and I made it to the The View but it was two years later when it had come out in paperback and I was the seasoned mother of two. I left the boys at home in Washington D.C. and my husband’s care while I traveled to New York for the appearance the following day. I was so ridiculously excited to be free of my kids in Manhattan that I was like an Amish girl duringrumspringa—that period during adolescence when they’re basically encouraged to go wilding in order to determine their commitment to the church and lifestyle. I met my then last-standing single girlfriend and her British boyfriend at a bar and proceeded to set up an I.V. line of Martinis. The next morning, snuggled in a semi-circle between Joy Behar and Star Jones, my nervous sweat must have smelled 80 proof. Later, I watched the clip and came to the disheartening realization that not only did I look better at 8 1/2 months pregnant; motherhood had rendered me completely inarticulate. Maybe it was just the previous night’s binge, but since the kids, I could accurately field the frequent interviewer question, “So how many languages do you speak?” with, “I struggle to speak English.”

After my first son Jesse was born, in addition to freelance writing, I became occupied with various speaking and consulting engagements. Planning for these inevitably required protracted negotiations with my mother and husband about who would care for the baby. One such gig occurred when Jesse was about four months old and still subsisting entirely on breast milk. Diligent new mom that I was, I’d pumped enough in advance to fortify a famine-stricken third world nation. If you opened our freezer, you’d find a sack of green peas and about forty plastic containers of frozen breast milk.

For this particular engagement, I was to speak to a group of students at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and so had a ticket to fly from Washington D.C. to Boston. My “Medela Pump in Style” caused quite a stir with Airport Security, and I was made to open the mysterious black backpack—which even I would admit looked suspicious—and turn on the device. Luckily one of the TSA agents was a recent mom who rolled her eyes as her male colleagues examined the breast pump like it was a dinosaur bone they’d dug up; she waved me through. I would sooner have left one of my breasts behind than gone without the pump. Still, despite my best efforts— pumping and dumping right before my talk at the Kennedy School—toward the end of the Q&A, I could feel myself becoming engorged. Luckily, I was wearing a blazer that covered the two darkening, dampening spots on my blouse.

Once I tried to combine a writing assignment—a travel piece on Richmond, Virginia for The New York Times—with a family excursion. My preconceived notion of the trip was my husband expertly manning the boys while I sat in cafes and pontoon boats, taking notes. Instead, I pushed an unwieldy double stroller with two screaming kids over the bumpy terrain of one after another Civil War site, and dragged the entire family through the dusty Museum of the Confederacy, where the significance of Jeb Stuart’s plumed hat was entirely lost on our boys, then ages three and one. That night, both kids projectile vomited all over our stately room in the Jefferson Hotel. I ended up having to return to Richmond on my own dime a week later to re-conduct research without the distraction of the kids.

Certainly as the boys have gotten older—now four and six—I’ve been able, occasionally, to work without disastrous effect. But it never becomes easy, nor does it cease to be frustrating. I’ve conducted phone interviews while nursing an infant. I’ve let my kids watch back-to-back Sponge Bob episodes for hours just to keep them quiet while I’m trying to answer emails. I prefer to communicate almost entirely through email because nothing spells unprofessional more than a kid incanting “Mommy!  Mommy!  Mommy” at some ear-splitting decibel in the background. I’ve spent countless hours when I ought to have been preparing for a talk or a meeting instead drafting elaborate and detailed instructions for my husband regarding: what and when to feed the kids, where to find their socks and sippy cups and the Epipen, and the importance of thorough post-potty wiping.

Whenever I’m approached with a professional opportunity, I marvel that anyone takes me seriously at all anymore.

While I never paid much attention to the struggles of my CIA colleagues who were mothers—single people routinely fail to comprehend or even notice the hardships of raising kids—later, I would look back in awe at the fortitude of these Spy-Moms. Sure, almost any and every means of employment is difficult to maintain, let alone thrive at, when you’re a mother. But few require you to lead double—or sometimes even triple and quadruple—lives; to venture out in the middle of the night and meet shady informants and spend hours sitting in parked cars inhaling secondhand smoke all the while wondering if your kids will wake up and demand—in the desperate and high-pitched way that only they can—to know where you are. Angelina Jolie couldn’t have made the movie Salt without a veritable battalion of nannies, let alone LIVED it. I have the utmost respect and admiration for these women who somehow managed to be both Supermoms and Superheroes.

About two years ago, I professionally threw in the towel. I decided that conceiving of ideas and sending out pitches to publications, and then—if I was lucky enough to spark the interest of some editor—toiling over an article that I would have to “rework” about fifty times, and for which I was always paid a pittance, was hardly worth the time and energy sapped from my relationship with the boys.

People ask me all the time, “Have you written any more books lately?”  Truth be told, I haven’t even managed to read a book since Jesse was born.

I tell everyone that 2012 will be my year. That’s when both kids will be in school from nine to four and, save for the bouts of illness and trips to the gym and the highly over-rated cleaning of the house, I should have time. Right?

I look forward to September of that year with both excitement and trepidation. I know that I am ungodly fortunate to have been blessed with healthy and (to me) endlessly fascinating children, but I won’t deny that motherhood can be mind-numbingly dull. I just hope that when my working brain finally thaws, I won’t find it too far past its “use by” date. I hope as the kids’ worlds revolve less around me, and as they develop independence and passions of their own, that I will be able to regain and reawaken mine.

More than anything, I hope that—in spite of the exhaustion and frustration and feelings of self-doubt and second-guessing about choices I have made—I will still feel as if, parentally and professionally, I am doing “the right thing,” which, like every other mother out there, is merely the best that I can.

Photo provided by Lindsay Moran.

  1. Brilliant!!!

  2. Before having kids I heard parents “complaining” about how difficult it was to balance work and family. I nodded politely at them but inwardly, I was scoffing. And then I had a kid of my own. Five years later, there were three kids and three years after that, I left the world of paid employment. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. And I wasn’t a spy! I, too, hope that my brain isn’t too far past its “use by” date when I need it. Thanks for this article!

  3. Sorry I’m late to the game here, but as I struggle with full time mommy life with two of my own children, and after leaving the much less adventurous career field of PR, I am overwhelmed with the feeling of sisterhood reading this amazing woman struggles with all the same feelings I do. Thanks Lindsay, and Kate, for this great piece.

  4. […] Lindsay Moran wrote a piece on the hazards of working while parenting and, in the days after the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden, she contributed a second […]

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