Second Acts: How My Kids Helped Me Kick My Crime-fighting Addiction and Find a New Career as an Author
By Michele Martinez
I spent eight years locking up hardened criminals as a federal prosecutor in New York City and loving every second of it. The job was a constant adrenaline rush. Listening in on wiretaps. Debriefing killers and drug dealers about the gory details of their crimes. And standing up in court in front of the judge and the jury using all my skills to bring the bad guys to justice. It took me years of education and preparation to get that job, and once I had it, I was so crazy about it that I was sure I would never leave. I’d found what I was meant to do with my life.
But I hadn’t factored in something very important: having kids, and the huge impact they would have on my life. I know I’m not alone in that. A lot of women I know who grew up in the 70s and 80s in the immediate aftermath of the feminist movement were, like me, just blindsided by motherhood. I’m not saying it wasn’t my own fault for being naive. I’d grown up believing I could have it all, which sounds foolish in retrospect. I come from very modest roots and was deeply invested in getting ahead, achieving, making a difference in the world. Focus on education and career, I said to myself, and the rest would take care of itself. I knew I wanted kids, and I wanted to spend real time with them, but I just assumed I would find a way to fit everything in. Even once I was pregnant, I didn’t think much beyond the government’s good maternity leave policy. I’d spend an idyllic three months bonding with my new baby, then find a good babysitter, share parenting responsibilities equally with my husband, and forge ahead with my sacred career. Needless to say, I was completely unprepared for the real demands of mommy-ing.
My first child was born after I’d been a prosecutor for three years. Coincidentally, three years is the minimum term of service in that job, and many prosecutors who don’t intend to make a career of it leave right around then for private practice. So at the moment my son came along, you could say I had just “graduated?into a more senior echelon of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I had some good will built up, so I was in a good position to handle the challenge that lay ahead. Which was fortunate, because as I soon found out, being a prosecutor was not a nine-to-five job, and mothering was most definitely not a five-to-nine job.
The first thing that happened was, in the glare of hindsight, completely predictable. My maternity leave ran out, it was time to go back to work, and . . . I wasn’t ready. My son was a very intense baby who didn’t sleep a lot. At three months, he was still getting up twice every night, which meant I was barely sleeping. The breast-feeding thing hadn’t gone well and we’d spent our precious “bonding?time in tears trying and failing to figure it out. My husband was up for a major promotion and was working pretty much around the clock (not by choice). I found an energetic Irishwoman named Nora to babysit. I liked her very much, but she was new to the job and to us. Going back to work just felt wrong. Yet, leaving my job was simply not within the realm of possibility for me. Financially we could have swung it, but emotionally I could not. Being a prosecutor was who I was.
The government’s generous family leave policy got me through that difficult period. I negotiated a temporary part-time schedule. Later, when I went back to work full time, I took a supervisory position that allowed me to work at home on Fridays, although it meant giving up all the fun trials. I also had a wonderful boss who was a mother herself and deeply supportive of my efforts to juggle career and family. For a while, it all seemed manageable. But then some unpredictable things happened. Nora got pregnant and left. And the woman I hired to replace her turned out to be a real problem.
It’s every working mother’s nightmare, and it struck out of a clear blue sky. I liked our new babysitter, who was young, cheerful, had a can-do attitude and seemed madly in love with my son. I felt we had finally settled into a good routine. I was by nature and profession a suspicious person, yet I had no inkling of trouble. Then, in the middle of a busy afternoon at work, the telephone on my desk rang. The woman on the other end said, “You don’t know me, but your babysitter is friends with my babysitter. Your babysitter is mistreating your son.?In order to protect her babysitter’s privacy, she refused to give me her name, her babysitter’s name, or the details of what was allegedly going on. And then she hung up. I was completely shocked and shaken, and moreover, unsure whether to believe her. So my husband and I took the only possible next step. We installed a nanny-cam, and watched. I saw some nice things. The babysitter singing to him, playing with him, seeming loving and attentive. But over the course of several days, I also saw a lot of neglect. Long stretches where he was “napping?in his crib with the lights out, obviously wide awake, while she talked on the phone or watched tv. And occasionally, I saw that she was hitting him. Not abusively. Not any differently than my own mother had “spanked?me growing up when such methods of discipline were considered acceptable. But we had told this babysitter when we hired her that physical punishment was forbidden in our house. I couldn’t allow her to hit my son. I no longer trusted her. So I did what I had to do -- fired her and took a leave of absence from work.
Weeks passed, and my office needed me to make a decision. And I felt utterly desperate, trapped and unable to make up my mind. Other mothers, my own family and friends seemed to feel enough was enough. Wasn’t it obvious that I should quit and stay home? I was the only one who had any doubt about that.
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It ended up taking me two more years and the birth of a second child to finally give up being a prosecutor for good. Even then, it was a wrenching decision, and I will always miss that job. But, ultimately, the story of my decision to leave is a positive one -- a story of re-invention, and of how our children bring us to new and unexpected horizons. Because the thing that finally got me to make the break was discovering meaningful work that I could do from home -- work that I would probably never have come to had it not been for my need to be with my children more.
It all started with a dream -- literally. One night, I had a dream about a fire in a townhouse that killed a handsome silver-haired lawyer who was secretly leading a double life. The next morning, I woke up, wrote it down and thought, hmm, this would make a cool opening scene in a novel. In fact, I got pretty excited about the idea. I started working on a list of characters, then an outline for a plot. As I worked, I quickly realized that writing a crime novel would be an amazing way for me to use my insider knowledge of real-life crime and law enforcement. I stole what hours I could here and there, but I was already stretched too thin between my job and my family. So finally, the day came when I felt ready to give up being a prosecutor to be with my kids, but also to pursue other work that I loved.
All's well that ends well. Now I write every day, and although I still work really hard my family is totally excited about my new career. My debut novel featuring federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas, Most Wanted, got terrific reviews from the critics and readers alike, as did the second book in the series, The Finishing School. The next book, called Cover-Up, is coming in March 2007. In it Melanie investigates the brutal murder of a beautiful tabloid tv reporter who specialized in digging up the dark secrets of the rich and famous. And whenever I sit down at the computer, I get to ride along on all of Melanie's adventures, bringing to life the same types of vivid characters and intense situations I lived through in all my years as a prosecutor.
Michele Martinez, a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, is a former federal prosecutor.
Her third Melanie Vargas thriller, Cover-Up, will be on
sale in paperback everywhere December 26, 2007. The fourth book in the
series, Notorious, will be on sale in hardcover from
William Morrow February 26, 2008.
Copyright ?005 Michele Martinez