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Secret Agent Mom

Black and white polaroid of Christina Hillsberg and cover of "License to Parent" in a manila folder
Before joining the CIA, Christina Hillsberg planned to join the Peace Corps. Photo by Gabriel Van Wyhe. Book cover illustration courtesy of G.P. Putnam's Sons. Design by Kendra Kay Creative.

Christina (Fonte) Hillsberg, BA’06, unknowingly blew off her initial interview with the CIA.

“I didn’t know [the interview] was for the CIA, I just knew it was for a government agency,” Hillsberg explains. “[The day before my interview], my Zulu class at IU went up to Chicago to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I decided to stay the night, and I completely skipped the interview.”

The next day, she told the recruiter a revised version of the story—blaming car trouble for her absence.

“Then, [on my way home from Chicago], I was about an hour outside of Bloomington, and I had car trouble. I learned a very important lesson that day,” she says, laughing.

But the CIA recruiter was persistent. The interview was rescheduled, and by December of 2006, Hillsberg was working as a leadership analyst for the CIA.

“My expertise was East Africa. I was focused primarily on the political leaders in my region of the world,” says Hillsberg, who is fluent in both Swahili and Zulu. “If our president was going to meet with one of the presidents that I followed, I provided the psychological and biographic assessment of that leader—everything from how the person leads to their inner circle to their likes and dislikes.”

Hillsberg eventually left her desk job to go undercover.

“I was meeting with assets and collecting intelligence,” she says. “That’s also what my husband did. There’s this running debate in our house about who had the cooler job, mommy or daddy.”

Black and white polaroid of Christina and Ryan Hillsberg and image of the family's treehouse, clipped to a manila folder
Left: Christina and Ryan Hillsberg met at an undisclosed CIA field station. “Ryan was an operations officer, which means his objective was to recruit spies and steal secrets,” Christina says. “I had just transitioned from my position at CIA headquarters to an operational role at the field station.” Right: A photo of the Hillsberg family treehouse. Photo of couple by Gabriel Van Wyhe. Treehouse image courtesy of Christina Hillsberg. Design by Kendra Kay Creative.

Hillsberg met her husband, Ryan, already a father of three, while working at the Agency. He’s the one who introduced her to the spy-inspired parenting style described in her book, License to Parent: How My Career as a Spy Helped Me Raise Resourceful, Self-Sufficient Kids.

“Ryan had been parenting for 10 years by the time we met, and I noticed right away that he gave his kids more autonomy than I was used to seeing,” Hillsberg says. “I realized that he was able to give them a longer leash by teaching them the skills he had learned at the CIA.”

In the following interview, the international spy turned full-time mom and author discusses her near-decade at the CIA, her unique parenting style, and what readers can expect from License to Parent.

Did you have a career in mind while studying at IU?
Christina Hillsberg
: I knew I wanted to do something related to Africa and linguistics. I wanted a job that would get me to the continent. For most of my studies, I thought I would be doing humanitarian work through the Peace Corps.

Can you describe your job as a CIA analyst?
: Every day I would review intelligence traffic that had come in overnight from my part of the world [East Africa]. If there was something going on in my area, such as a disputed election or terrorist attack, I’d write [a brief to be included in] the President’s Daily Brief. I viewed my role as an opportunity to educate U.S. policymakers about a part of the world that they often didn’t know very much about.

What should readers expect when reading License to Parent?
: It’s part memoir and part parenting guide. Part one tells my story—where I grew up in the Midwest, about my years at IU, how I joined the Agency, what dating at the CIA is like, etc. Part two gets into parenting principles—all told through anecdotes. Additionally, Ryan wrote sidebars for part two, where he tells entertaining ops stories from his time in the field.

Can you describe your parenting style?
: Since we’re former spies, I think the assumption is that we spy on our children. We actually advocate for the opposite of that. In espionage, developing a relationship of trust between you and your asset is critical, because they’re trusting you with their life. In the book, we talk about how that applies to our parenting and how we create trust with our kids. When trust is there, we’re able to give our children more autonomy.

What CIA-type skills are discussed in the book?
: The book talks about how to spot and avoid danger, [be] prepared for emergencies, and [do] surveillance detection, but it also talks about softer skills like writing, persuasion, and technology. The goal is not just to create kids who are self-sufficient, but to raise interesting and well-rounded people with a sense of adventure.

Black and white polaroid of Christina Hillsberg at CIA headquarters and her moderating a panel
Left: Christina Hillsberg, pictured at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Fairfax County, Virginia, was with the Agency from 2006 to 2015. Right: In November 2021, Hillsberg moderated the Women of Spy Thrillers panel, featuring the female cast of Amazon Prime’s Hanna and IMDb TV’s Alex Rider, at the Soho Hotel London. Photo, left, courtesy of Christina Hillsberg. Photo, right, courtesy of Amazon Studios. Design by Kendra Kay Creative.

Can you share an example of how you’ve taught your kids to spot and avoid danger?
CH: There’s this technique called “get off the X.” The X represents danger, and the longer you stay on it, the more likely you’ll be harmed. This technique can be applied in a very serious situation like an active shooter scenario, but it can also be applied in day-to-day scenarios where your kids feel unsafe. I share an example in the book: Our two older daughters were walking home one night, and there were two men that they thought were following them. Instead of speeding up and walking home quickly, they thought critically. They chose a different path that was better lit, they got to a gas station where they were safe, and they called home. We consider that an example of “getting off the X.”

Do you think your kids recognize the freedom you’ve given them?
: Yes. My son, who recently turned 5, is starting to notice that some of his friends don’t know how to do some of the things he knows how to do, such as shoot a bow and arrow or ride a motorcycle or wake surf.

What do you say to parents who say 5-year-olds and motorcycles don’t mix?
CH: I like to say that if motorcycles sound scary, take it off the table. Parenting advice can be so overwhelming—take what works and leave the rest, because just like every child is different, every family is different. In the book, we talk about motorcycles in the context of alternate transportation. The idea is to get you thinking. If there’s a natural disaster, and a car is not an option, what will your family use? Maybe it’s motorcycles. Maybe it’s bicycles. Maybe it’s a scooter. It’s about thinking through what your family would do.

Is there an event that you’re preparing your kids for?
: With our kids, we emphasize that we’re not preparing for anything out of paranoia. We also try to emphasize that, statistically, the chances of an emergency taking place that would require some of these skills is low. It’s more about them thinking through scenarios and understanding what to do.

Is there anything that’s off the table for you as a parent?
: Ryan and I aren’t always on the same page as parents—and I’m very transparent about that in the book. One thing that’s off the table is tools. Ryan introduced knives for whittling to our oldest kids (we call them the Bigs) when they each turned 5. Our son (one of the Littles) just turned 5, and I’m still not quite ready for that.

Rapid Fire with Christina

Where is your favorite writing spot?
: Our treehouse (pictured above). Ryan and the Bigs built a treehouse, and coincidentally, they finished it in March of 2020 at the start of the pandemic. It’s where I ended up doing homeschool for our two Littles last year. We called it school in the trees. It’s a great spot.

What is your favorite writing snack?
: Watermelon Sour Patch Kids.

Is there a book that you love to recommend to parents?
: Fair Play by Eve Rodsky. It became a movement during the pandemic, because it’s about the distribution of the domestic workload between partners.

Is there a book you’d recommend for language lovers?
: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. If you’re a linguist, this book is fantastic. It [discusses] everything from the cult of SoulCycle to Scientology to multilevel marketing. Amanda Montell also has a podcast called Sounds Like a Cult.

Read an excerpt from License to Parent.

This story is part of our IU alumni author series, Novel Ideas.

Written By

Samantha Stutsman

Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a senior content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.

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