The late Rev. Professor and Harvard minister Peter J. Gomes often said, “Get over it, get used to it, get on with it...Life is inherently messy, filled with unfinished business…if we are to live well and not just think about living, we had better take care of those things that are right before us and doable.”
After reading Massachusetts-based security expert Juliette Kayyem’s newly released Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home, one might ask if this sentiment is at the heart of all curriculum at Harvard.
Kayyem, who began her work in public service in 1999, was appointed Massachusetts’ first Undersecretary for Homeland Security in January 2007 and assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2009-2010. In her book, she talks about trying to avoid a single point of failure and the need for America to become a more resilient society.
“Resiliency is a constant learning curve,” she says. “The changes we make should create a new baseline for future catastrophes…All I can offer is that the pursuit of resiliency is often undertaken in the context of bad mistakes, and worse choices, at the most unpredictable times.”
Her words echo those of Rev. Gomes, reminding readers that life is messy: We need to stop being afraid of terrorism and learn how to get over it. In order to ensure the security of ourselves and our families, we cannot expect the government to design a panacea that will ameliorate all threats. Rather, we must learn how to protect ourselves.
In addition to her role with Homeland Security under the Obama Administration, Kayyem is also a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism. She’s currently a national security analyst for CNN, a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and lives in Cambridge with her family.
Writing as both a mother and a homeland security expert, Kayyem talks frankly about what worries her most: “I have three kids and I’m in homeland security, and the capacity is infinite.” Recognizing that the potential for harm is constant, she decided that maybe that’s not how she should judge this conundrum of security.
While the term “Security Mom” gained popularity during the 2004 election and originally was ascribed to white, suburban mothers who were immensely worried about terrorism, Kayyem has redefined that phrase to mean: “Any woman who plans and prepares as she raises her children in a world where anything can happen.”
“Are we better prepared knowing that there is an infinite amount of things?” might be a better way to approach security for the home front and the homeland. In reality, all any of us can do is try to avoid the single points of failure, whether it’s a mom missing a birthday or contraband getting through undetected at airport security.
Some mothers will read this book and pass harsh judgment on Kayyem’s choices as a mother. In her narration, she makes clear that her devotion was to both her career and her family.
In one scene, she recounts a disrupted 2009 Christmas celebration caused by the intelligence failure with Umar Abdlmutallab, the man who managed to get through airport security with explosives in his underwear and board a U.S.-bound Christmas Day flight. Weaving together stories about her family life with these intelligence disasters, she conveys the reality of the sacrifices one must make in a life of public service.
Kayyem describes herself tucked away in the bathroom trying to understand the security issue at hand when her daughter walks in on her. She starkly waved her daughter away. In hindsight, she writes, “It was harsh, unforgiving, but I was on the call with everyone else who had given up on Christmas.”
Later that evening, then Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano was on TV remarking, “The system worked,” in defense of the intelligence failure. Kayyem, though, goes on to note, “It was clearly a talking point, not really thought through, for how it will actually sound when it comes out of an administration official’s mouth.”
Ironically, when talking about her own family, Kayyem says she and her husband relied heavily on family and full-time help to balance home and career: “We weren’t happy all the time or very often all at once, but we rolled with the tumult. Which is why I am very proud to say: The system worked.” Maybe, like Napolitano, she hadn’t thought about how that would sound to her readers.
For those who are tempted to judge the choices she made for her family, Kayyem offered these words as a further explanation of what she knows to be true because of the unfolding of time. Several years have transpired, delivering the gift of hindsight:
“For me, it was that working mothers are really hard on themselves in terms of every day has to be judged as a good day,” she says. “That two to two-and-a-half years of our essentially not seeing our kids, of their being raised by a community, of my daughter unhappy most of the time judging from many years later, it worked.”
Noting that she has little time or patience for the “Mommy Wars,” Kayyem talked about the real emotional struggle for working mothers who believe that every day has to be the perfect day.
“We have to have it all or lean in. In reality, maybe sometimes it’s not so good,” she notes. “Only years later when you can look back and say, yes, my marriage was under stress, but this was something important for us to do.” Her husband didn’t have these issues. Men aren’t made to feel that they are making a choice when their careers pull them away from their families.
Her choice to leave government life in fall 2010 came at a time when she and her family could no longer live with her being a commuter mom. “There was no question that I was absent, and I think we all have our rules,” Kayyem said. “I’m not judge-y about decisions women make and what they decide to do; these realizations that day after day I was not involved with my kids’ lives. I missed a birthday. That was breaking a rule, but part of it was the responsibility of my job at that moment.”
One of the most loaded and heart-wrenching sentences in the entire book was after she had made the decision to leave her job: “I wasn’t plagued by lost ambition.”
“I wish working women would be more forgiving of themselves and each other. I think, looking back in those moments, we don’t recognize how long our life unfolds,” she said. “I can say with total confidence that that period of time with three kids in five years, when you can’t breathe, that is intense and also thankfully short. Then you wake up and your daughter is 14 asking for $20 to go down to the mall. Lost ambition is a choice.”