We all keep secrets from our children. Some big, some small, some appropriate, some ill advised. Most of them, in all honesty, are pretty inconsequential, on par with sneaking squash into the tomato sauce.
There are parents, though, who must keep almost everything from their children. These parents lead far more interesting lives than I do.
“The entire time I worked at the CIA, I lived under cover and had to lie to everyone except my husband about where I worked,” said Melissa Mahle, a former CIA operative who became a mother during her time in the agency. Mahle left the CIA in 2002, and, after writing a critical book about U.S. intelligence gathering, has gone on to become a children’s author.
She will be part of KidSpy Workshop, a children’s writing program at the International Spy Museum on Sunday, May 20th.
We exchanged e-mails about how she juggled parenting and spying, and how she finally told her daughter the truth.
Mahle had her daughter while she was an operations officer, living under cover and focusing on counterterrorism in the Middle East. (She has said that she fielded highly sensitive calls during her labor and delivery.)
That’d make for great dinner table conversation, no?
Well, no. Mahle was not allowed to reveal the details of her “day job” to either her husband or daughter.
Still, it turns out some of her experiences are similar to what many parents endure in high-stress professions.
“When I joined the CIA, I was 26-years-old and thoughts of having children were far from my considerations. I was focused on forging a career in a very non-traditional environment. I remember being asked by a supervisor, at the time I was requesting an overseas assignment to the Near East Division within the Directorate of Operations, what were my childbearing plans — a question illegal as can be. I denied ever having an intention of being a mother because at the time the CIA was still very old school and I suspected my assignment request would be denied.
“As the clock ticked on and I completed one assignment after another, developing a solid reputation as an Operations Officer, I started thinking more about having a family. I worked long hours in an exciting job, but I felt a hole in my life. Professional success could not fill that hole. I rather naively assumed I could have both without having to make sacrifices. I thought that parenting just required good time management.
“When my daughter Hana was born, I quickly learned differently and that I faced a dilemma of priorities.”
Mahle left the CIA, after, according to an interview she gave The Post in 2005, a field mistake forced her departure.
She went on to write “Denial and Deception: An Insider’s View of the CIA From Iran-Contra to 9/11,” (Nation Books, 2004) that questioned the bureaucratic battles within the agency.
But it wasn’t the book that revealed the truth to her daughter.
“When Hana turned 8, I took her to the International Spy Museum for a fun program they hold, called Operation Secret Slumber. I gave the keynote talk, telling the assembled kids about the real work of spies. Hana was in the back of the room, but I saw her hand shoot up into the air. Wonderment spread across her face, she blurted out ‘So you’re here because you’re the spy?’
“She had finally put together the bits of information gleaned from family talks around the dinner table.”
But Mahle says she won’t ever reveal everything.
“As she has grown older, I have tried to answer her questions, but there are many things I cannot discuss, which frustrates her.
“For example, she is determined to find out my ‘code name’ which is one of the many things I will take to my grave.”
What secrets do you keep from your children? When and how do you plan to reveal them?
The KidSpy workshop is from 1-3 p.m. and for ages 9-14. Tickets are $25 per person.