One winter day in 2019, I was at the top of the Flatiron Building in New York City with my editor talking about my next book idea. I was pitching a very different book. But as I did, I realized that it was not at all the book I wanted to write. I wanted to write, I had to write, about motherhood. But not the good parts. I wanted to write about the post-partum depression, the anxiety, the feelings of loneliness, the loss of identity. Those were all things I experienced as a mother of young kids.
I had two children eighteen months apart. But still, I went into the whole parenting thing with a very sunny, glass half full perspective. Sure I could do it all. Sure I’d remain the woman I was before. Sure balancing career and motherhood was a breeze. I couldn’t and it wasn’t.
One day in Paris, on my first business trip since having kids, I had my biggest breakdown since becoming a mother. I had been pregnant or breastfeeding (or both!) for nearly four years straight and had finally stopped. I had my body back. I was wearing nice clothes. I was in Paris! But I looked at the woman in the mirror and started bawling. I did not recognize myself. Not outwardly, but inwardly. And I did not like the woman I was. I felt like all that was left of me was a mother. That all the interests and talents that I had were gone and were replaced by “mother.” I felt suffocated and empty. I realized that the things that made me and my life feel unique had been ignored since I’d had my first child. I no longer had the time to develop as a person, concentrating only on my children’s development. And that lack of balance was suffocating me.
Society, for the most part, was telling me that this was okay. This was how it should be. Mother first. Woman second. Career shoved somewhere in there when it didn’t take away from childrearing. Mostly in the middle of the night. I could not go on as I was. Something had to change.
Eventually, I got angry instead of sad. And I started to make changes. I started building myself back as a woman, as an individual, as a writer. As a woman first, and then a mother. It has taken years and I’m still not done, but that day in Paris, I realized how necessary this rebuilding was.
At times, I still mourn the person I was. The freedom I had to grow as a person. The balance between me and my spouse that became so unbalanced when we had kids. But I now know that while I can never be who I was again, maybe there’s a way to be someone new, and maybe I’ll like that someone even more.
Through Katharina Edgeworth, my protagonist in “A Woman of Intelligence,” I wrote about many of the things that I felt or experienced as a new mother. The loneliness. The sadness. The emptiness. The boredom. The anger. And of course Katharina is experiencing this during the 1950s, when your self-worth and happiness were supposed to come from being a wife and mother. If it didn’t, you were essentially a monster.
“A Woman of Intelligence” is a book about the Cold War, about the KGB and the FBI in the 1950s, but it’s mostly a book about losing yourself as a mother, finding inspiration in unlikely places, with the help of unlikely people, and building yourself back up, becoming even better than you were, or ever thought you could be.