Christina was a single, successful CIA analyst with a burgeoning career in espionage when she met fellow spy, Ryan, a hotshot field operative who turned her world upside down. They fell in love, married, and soon they were raising three children from his first marriage, and later, two more of their own.
Christina knew right away that there was something special about the way Ryan was parenting his kids, although she had to admit their obsession with surviving end-of-world scenarios and their ability to do everything from archery to motorcycle riding initially gave her pause. More than that, Ryan's kids were much more security savvy than most adults she knew. She soon realized he was using his CIA training and field experience in his day-to-day child-rearing. And why shouldn't he? The CIA trains its employees to be equipped to deal with just about anything. Shouldn't parents strive to do the same for their kids?
As Christina grew into her new role as a stepmom and later gave birth to their two children, she got on board with Ryan's unique parenting style--and even helped shape it using her own experiences at the CIA. Told through honest and relatable parenting anecdotes, Christina shares their distinctive approach to raising confident, security-conscious, resilient children, giving practical takeaways rooted in CIA tradecraft along the way. License to Parent aims to provide parents with the tools necessary to raise savvier, well-rounded kids who have the skills necessary to navigate through life.Advance Praise for License to Parent
“What does a spy know about raising kids? Usually they don't tell you. Lucky for us, this one is ready to talk.” --Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids and president of Let Grow
“A fresh and fascinating perspective on child-rearing.” –Kirkus Reviews
“This book is unlike all other parenting books; it’s a real story, told from the point-of-view of a CIA agent who first becomes a step-mom and, then, a mom. The advice is funny, important, refreshing and oh-so-needed. I’m so glad I made time for this book.” –Zibby Owens, author of Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books
“License to Parent is a fascinating view of child rearing through the lens of two ex-CIA agents. The result is a compelling story based on years of specialized training woven into practical techniques that parents and non-parents alike can benefit from learning."
– Jessica Joelle Alexander, co-author of The Danish Way of Parenting
"Insightful and entertaining, this is a winning spin on the usual parenting fare." –Publishers Weekly
“With tips for staying safe online, living by one’s principles, and finding a healthy balance with risk, this is a fascinating and useful take on parenting.” –Library Journal
“This antidote to helicopter-parenting culture encourages parents to let their kids have authentic experiences of success and failure, preparing children for real life while enjoying the adventure along the way.” –Booklist
“You don’t need to be afraid to give your kids independence. Just get them ready. License to Parent will help you prepare your kids—and yourself—to handle almost any risk life presents."
–Sara Zaske, author of Achtung, Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children
“License to Parent is full of great parenting tactics, riveting stories from their life in the CIA, and, on top of that, it’s FUN. … I’ll never be a good spy, but with the help of the Hillsbergs, I can be a good mom.” —Melanie Dale, author of Calm the H*ck Down: How to Let Go and Lighten Up about Parenting
“What does being a spy have to do with being a parent? A lot. The intriguing storytelling reads like a novel but the real takeaways here are the crucial everyday skills anyone can teach their kids so they become more independent, more resourceful, and more confident.”
– Eve Rodsky, author of Fair Play
“In a world where helicopter parenting and hyper involvement in our children’s lives have become norm, License to Parent is a refreshing and much-needed reminder that our kids are way more capable than we give them credit for. Irreverent, hilarious and savvy, this book will empower your kids not merely to survive, but to thrive!” --Linda McGurk, author of There's No Such Thing As Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (From Friluftsliv to Hygge)
“Christina Hillsberg, along with husband Ryan Hillsberg, delivers fun and fresh take on parenting guides perfect for parents looking to navigate the risks around raising a child today…This book is ultimately a gem because, unlike any other parenting book―and even many survival books―I’ve read, License to Parent focuses on teaching the reader how to make decisions quickly and effectively…Be sure to add this to your parenting book club.” --Ladders
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.
FINDING MYSELF AT THE CIA
My Unusual Path to the World
of International Espionage
Contrary to popular belief, James Bond is an absolutely terrible spy. The primary goal of espionage is to gather intelligence clandestinely so that no one knows it's being done. Rather than shooting up a city or leading an elaborate car chase, the best spies in the world operate in the shadows, quietly stealing state secrets from around the world right under the noses of foreign governments. Quite frankly, if a spy has to pull out his gun or someone is chasing him, he's done something very wrong!
And don't even get me started on the "Bond girls." In real espionage, some of the best spies are not mere busty, lusty man-eaters. They're highly trained professional women who hold clandestine meetings with foreign assets all over the world, track terrorists, and write and brief the president of the United States. I should know. I was one of them.
Of course, I came into contact with many James Bond wannabes during my time at the CIA. They were certainly smooth operators, but truth be told, after several years there, I was done dating spies. The Agency attracted some of the most interesting individuals, and I was convinced I had dated them all-there was the spy who cooked me crepes in the nude, the spy who rifled through my panty drawer, and, of course, the married spy who broke my heart. I promised myself never again. And absolutely under no circumstances would I marry one.
Then I met Ryan, and I didn't stand a chance.
I didn't start off dreaming of joining the CIA. Prior to college, I didn't have much exposure to the wider world at all, let alone the world of international espionage. I grew up primarily in the Midwest in a Catholic family that alternated between being Christmas-and-Easter Catholics and regular mass attendees. I was the youngest of three kids, and my mom stayed home with my siblings and me until returning to nursing part-time when I started high school. She was born in a small town in West Virginia, and at ten years old, she moved with her parents and siblings to a farm that had been in her family for generations. That farm, and its rolling hills and roaming cattle, became a permanent fixture of my childhood and the place where I spent the majority of my holidays until I became an adult. My dad, also from West Virginia, grew up in a nearby town, and throughout my childhood he traveled domestically and internationally for his work as a safety and environmental manager at an aluminum plant.
When I was in elementary school, we moved to a suburb of Chicago, where my traditional meat-and-potatoes family values continued to take root. Each day, I traveled by bus through cornfields to school and came home to my cookie-cutter house on a cul-de-sac. I lived a largely normal Midwestern childhood, participating in extracurricular activities like basketball and marching band. My mother played the traditional role of stay-at-home mom who volunteered as "Room Mom," sewed matching outfits for my siblings and me each holiday, and had dinner on the table by five o'clock every night. My dad carried his weight by doing the stereotypically "male" chores like mowing the lawn and taking out the trash, and he was always good for a game of PIG or HORSE in our driveway.
While I had never thought of my parents as having the most agreeable or even the happiest of marriages, divorce wasn't in my frame of reference. You can imagine my complete and utter shock when they divorced my senior year of high school, after twenty-five years of marriage. My dad and I had been touring a college a few hours away when my mom filled her car with a few essentials and left. She had rented an apartment across town and invited me to stay with her-I was the only child still living at home at the time. Even though I missed her, I chose to finish out my senior year with my dad. When the summer began, I joined my mom in her tiny apartment and began to come to grips with the fact that everything I thought I knew about marriage and family had been turned upside down.
To be clear, I knew then, like I know now, that marriage is a two-way street, and although my mom was the one who left, there was hurt and pain caused on both sides. Regardless of what happened, the desire for a traditional family ran deep for me, but as I witnessed my mom start over professionally and find her identity independent from my dad at nearly fifty years old, I began to sense the seeds of a new desire being sown in me to have a career and stability in my own right.
Even so, I entered Indiana University (IU) never having traveled outside the United States and with one main career ambition: to marry and have children soon after graduation. Those seeds for a professional career that were planted after my parents' divorce, however, began to grow when I started studying Swahili.
I originally applied to IU as my safety-net school. You know, the school you pick near home, in case you don't get into any of your preferred choices. I envisioned myself going out of state and had applied to several other universities, thinking I'd study journalism. However, that plan changed during my senior year of high school, when I discovered I had a talent for foreign languages. (I got perfect grades in Spanish and Latin, despite dozing off in many of my classes.) With my older brother's encouragement and guidance, I chose linguistics as my college major. Couple that with my growing interest in Africa (sparked by a high school research project and cultivated by an unhealthy obsession with The Lion King) and my decision to study Swahili was born. Turns out IU had one of the best African-language programs in the country. Instead of a safety net, it became my target and first choice.
Learning Swahili and taking other courses on topics like African politics and literature sparked a desire in me to truly learn-not to simply study material for straight As like I had done up to that point. I couldn't get enough of my Swahili class-so much so that I took a separate independent-study course, which consisted of reading Swahili novels with my professor. This experience gave me a deeper appreciation for the culture in addition to the language itself. I was also a volunteer language tutor on campus, where I reveled in opportunities to deconstruct the grammar of the Swahili language and help other students understand how it worked. After two years of studying Swahili, I was granted a scholarship to study in Tanzania, which only furthered my interest in Africa, as I fell in love with the people and culture. Time went on, and I enjoyed the language more and more. Soon, I started to picture myself joining the Peace Corps, perhaps as the start of a career in the humanitarian aid world. And what better way to reach people and make a difference than communicating with them in their native language?
But life had a different plan for me.
My interview with the CIA was more of a happy accident than the result of any sort of careful planning or long-held aspirations. One of my professors mentioned that a government recruiter interested in applicants with foreign language capabilities would be on campus, and I sent my résumé forward just to see if I'd hear back. I wasn't even sure that I was interested, but I figured it couldn't hurt to learn more.
My mother and new stepfather often told me that they wanted me to consider a future with the federal government, if only for the stability it would provide. As with any independent-minded twenty-one-year-old, that was enough to make me not want to do it. My stepfather was a senior special agent for the Department of Homeland Security and the antithesis of my father. My dad was a sociable, life-of-the-party man who enjoyed his beer, whereas my stepdad was a buttoned-up, rule-following former police officer who didn't drink alcohol or even caffeine. A lot about him screamed safety, and I suppose it made sense why my mom fell for him. Who wouldn't want a safe place to land when you're rebuilding your professional life after twenty-five years of focusing primarily on your kids?
But safety wasn't necessarily what I was looking for. Nonetheless, when I landed a generic "government interview" the same week as my Peace Corps interview, I reluctantly took their advice and showed up to the interview in my Merona suit from Target and a poorly ironed white button-down shirt.
"Hi, Christina. I'm Frank. We spoke on the phone. I'm from the Central Intelligence Agency."
Did I hear him right? I had mistakenly assumed this was some low-level, unimportant government entity, since the flyer didn't specify which agency the recruiter represented.
"Your foreign language skills are very impressive," Frank said.
"And I see you were a Fulbright scholar in Tanzania," he continued as he looked over my r and back up at me.
It turned out that my unique language capabilities were also needed by the CIA. There weren't many applicants who knew Swahili and Zulu (I studied the latter during my final year of college). They were impressed.
This was a stark contrast from my Peace Corps interview experience earlier in the week, where I was told that I didn't have any skills. This was about the time it was starting to become trendy to travel to Africa to "help people," so the Peace Corps was becoming pickier about who they chose. The CIA recruiter, on the other hand, was impressed with me, and there's no doubt the CIA has always been and continues to be very picky about who it chooses.
Frank went on to tell me about the position. He said I'd have the opportunity to use my Africa expertise and foreign language skills to influence US policy, and I'd even travel to Africa on a regular basis. I could barely contain my excitement. I couldn't believe I almost skipped out on this opportunity entirely.
A few weeks later, I received a job offer from the CIA, contingent on a background investigation and security clearance. I filled out pages and pages of biographical information, and security investigators began interviewing my family members, friends, friends of friends, and neighbors. Was I a patriot? Did I use drugs? Had I ever hacked into any computer systems? Did I pirate music? Was I a trustworthy person? Thankfully, as a fresh-out-of-college twenty-one-year-old who had traveled to only one foreign country and had very little life experience, I breezed through the process, with the exception of the polygraph examination.
I underwent extensive medical and psychological testing and not one, but two polygraph examinations. I failed my first four-hour polygraph on account of suspicions that I was a drug smuggler, all because of a pot muffin I consumed during a layover in Amsterdam and failed to tell them about. (I blame it on the Catholic guilt. That shit runs deep.) Luckily, I had another opportunity the following day. (I later learned that the polygraph is useful only as an interrogation tool, and it's only as reliable as the polygrapher who is conducting it.)
I passed the second attempt with flying colors, and four months later, I found myself sitting in a room with about fifty others taking an oath to spy for our country. Some of my fellow recruits were motivated to join out of a fiercely patriotic desire to serve their country. Others were thrill seekers looking for adventure. Many were fulfilling a lifelong dream to be like James Bond. Strangely, I was there because of my love of a foreign land.
I was excited, but not for the first time I found myself wondering: What am I doing here?
Fast-forward several years: I was working at the CIA as one of the most senior analysts on the East Africa account, which aligned perfectly with the language and subject matter expertise I'd brought with me from my university studies. Despite my initial fish-out-of-water unease, I discovered that once I was in a professional environment where I excelled at something I loved, I had more career ambitions than I'd previously thought.
I lived and breathed my job-and I was good at it. It turns out that most of the work at the CIA wasn't in-the-field spy tradecraft, at least not in my directorate, the Directorate of Intelligence, or DI, which is now called the Directorate of Analysis. It was about writing, briefing, and critical thinking. I spent my days analyzing swaths of intelligence reports that had been collected by operations officers in the field, writing intelligence assessments for the US president and other US policymakers, and briefing those assessments to US leaders. The very cautious, careful, detail-oriented qualities that had made me good at school made me shine at the Agency. As my career thrived, I didn't really have time for serious romance, although it hadn't always been like that.
Paul and I met on our first day of orientation at the CIA. He was tall, clean-cut, and attractive. We both brought packed lunches and agreed to find a table to sit together. I learned over ham-and-cheese sandwiches that he'd grown up in a small farm town in Iowa. He was stoic and calm-robotic, even-and I wasn't surprised when he told me he was an engineer and had been hired into the Agency's Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T). Learning he was an engineer fascinated me, probably because it was something I felt I could never do. Paul told me he had always wanted to be an astronaut but due to a heart condition he'd had as an infant, he wouldn't pass the physical requirements to travel in space. He decided to do the next best thing-become a rocket scientist.
As I sat across from Paul and listened to him speak, I mentally checked off boxes in my head: Successful career? Check. Attractive? Check. Intelligent? Check. Ambitious? Check. It was only day one and I had found myself the perfect boyfriend, and dare I say, the perfect husband.
After only three months, Paul and I moved in together. I felt like I had all my ducks in a row-the successful career and now the right man. And what's more? Even my mom loved Paul. He was a smart, stable man with an ability to support me-qualities she emphasized were important in a partner. She also continued to stress the importance of having my own career, just in case. I trusted my mom's advice, and with her approval, I was even more enamored of Paul.
|Title:||License to Parent|
|Author:||Christina HillsbergRyan Hillsberg|