3 things I learned at the CIA that helped me survive early postpartum

By Christina Hillsberg

My career as a spy took me on adventures around the world, but a year after leaving the CIA I was ready for a different kind of adventure: parenting. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the anxiety and loneliness I would feel in those early postpartum days. 

After my son Ari’s birth, what I used to consider a slightly above-average amount of worrying turned into full-on postpartum anxiety. During his newborn days, I lay awake even on nights when he slept (as rare as those were at the time), constantly checking his breathing and heart rate stats on an app on my phone that was connected via Bluetooth to a special sock on his foot. I sometimes skipped events if there were large crowds. And after my daughter was born, I was so intimidated by the thought of taking two kids to the park that I stopped going to some that felt overwhelming to me. At one point, I even put a GPS tracker under Ari’s clothes anytime we left the house because I was in constant fear that someone would take him. 

Perhaps surprisingly, it was my CIA training and experiences that eventually helped alleviate some of this anxiety. My hope is that by sharing these techniques, they can help you make it through this at times tumultuous period too.

1.  Recognize that technology can be helpful, but be wary of an overreliance on it. When espionage is depicted in film, it’s often full of futuristic technology—freestanding holograms as analysts swipe through intelligence reports, real-time satellite coverage of intelligence operations, and unrealistic spy gadgets. While there are some impressive gadgets and other forms of technology the CIA uses, the reality is that much of the actual espionage is done with basic tools and human interaction; that is, without the use of technology. Throughout their training, spies learn things like what it means to trust their gut to get away from danger and how to navigate their way through the woods without the use of technology.

In this same vein, consider that technology can be a useful tool in giving new parents peace of mind, but be mindful that you don’t let it consume you. If you choose to use monitoring devices similar to what I’ve described, or even just basic baby monitors, try not to become obsessive about it like I was for a time. Make sure they’re set to alert you when necessary, and set boundaries for yourself on when you’ll check it manually. Remember that parents survived with only the most basic of tools and human interaction long before these devices existed, and you can do it too.

2.  Remember that perfection is the enemy of the good. It may come as no surprise to you that the pressure while working at the CIA can be intense. When it involves informing our nation’s leaders and protecting both Americans and the people committing espionage on our behalf, you can imagine how strong the desire to do things perfectly can be, especially when people’s lives are at stake. What I found, however, is that it’s all about balance.

My colleagues who stayed late into the night during our training to do things “perfectly” were often too tired to successfully complete their training exercises the following day. They made silly mistakes because they were simply not as alert as they needed to be. (That’s not to say that there aren’t situations when it’s absolutely necessary to stay late into the night, and the Starbucks at CIA Headquarters helps you prepare for those instances.) That’s when I started to implement “good is good enough” in my career, and this same principle later became useful when I found myself scrolling through all of the seemingly perfect depictions of motherhood on social media.

If I start to feel like I’m falling short of my idea of the perfect mom, I take a step back from this content and reach for the perspective I learned at the CIA. Because when we’re deep in parenting, we can believe with our whole being that we need to be perfect, that we need to keep up with all the other perfect-looking moms we see on social media. But the reality is that our kids don’t need us to be perfect. They need us to be real. When you find yourself striving for perfection, take a breath and ask yourself, is what I’m doing good enough? And often times, you’ll find that the answer is yes.

3.  When you’re ready, carve out time for your own interests or find new ones. In order to be a successful intelligence operations officer at the CIA, you need to be able to convince people to commit espionage on your behalf. And one of the ways the CIA teaches you to do this is through building rapport with others. This is best accomplished when you have an array of interests of your own because it gives you more material to draw from in hopes of making a connection with someone—at the CIA we call this You Me, Same Same. If your experience as a new mother is anything like mine was, you may feel like you’ve lost your identity. In between the late-night feedings and diaper changes, you forget what it feels like to converse with an adult. You find that you can’t even remember what you used to like to do. And then you laugh to yourself because it’s not like you have any time to do those things anyway. I’m here to tell you to make time.

The early postpartum days when I was surviving on extremely small amounts of sleep and extremely large amounts of caffeine hardly seemed like the time to take up new hobbies. Nonetheless, I knew I was going to go crazy if I didn’t get out of the house. I connected with a stroller-friendly exercise group in a nearby town. I’m not sure if it was the postpartum anxiety that made exercise feel so good or if it was because for the first time since my career I found something I was good at and truly enjoyed. Maybe it was a combination of both.

I discovered that in addition to loving fitness, which may have been the biggest shock of all, I loved being a part of a community for local mothers to connect on shared interests. Here were mothers connecting over nighttime wake-ups, breastfeeding, bottle-feeding, potty training, you name it. It was also a safe place for moms to share joys in their lives as well as struggles. Moms felt like they had finally found a place where other women could relate to the monumental changes their lives—and their bodies—had just experienced. It was the epitome of You Me, Same Same, and it all stemmed from me finding something I enjoyed.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled in several different areas in an effort to make myself a well-rounded adult and parent, everything from taking a pie-baking class to learning how to wakesurf to ice skating. At times it’s felt uncomfortable to start new hobbies in my thirties, but it’s also felt energizing and even exhilarating at times. And I know that when I take this time for me, I’ll be a better parent in the end.            

If I’m being completely honest, I’ll probably always be an anxious parent on some level, and maybe that’s you, too. These techniques aren’t a panacea by any stretch, and they aren’t a replacement for other forms of treatment for anxiety, whether that’s seeking help from a medical professional or implementing healthy habits like regular exercise, but they do help. When we set boundaries for our own use of technology, remind ourselves that sometimes good is good enough, and devote time for our own interests and hobbies, we’re not just less anxious. We’re giving ourselves a gift—an ability to enjoy parenting from a place of peace and strength instead of worry.

Christina and Ryan Hillsberg are former spies with more than twenty years’ experience working at the Central Intelligence Agency before transitioning to the private sector. They live near Seattle, Washington, with their five children and two Rhodesian Ridgebacks. You can buy the book here!

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