Natalia Brzezinski, Tech-Savvy And Gen Y, Breaks The Mold For Ambassadors' Wives
WASHINGTON -- Natalia Brzezinski arrived in Stockholm, Sweden, on a freezing night in November with her husband, newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski, and for the first two weeks after she arrived she thought an iPhone glitch was turning off her email every weekend.
She recalls thinking at the time, “I would write all these emails Friday and Saturday, and by Sunday I’d think, why hasn’t anyone written me back?” But after about three weeks she finally got it. “Weekends in Sweden are sacred,” she said, “it’s brilliant. From Friday night until Monday morning no one checks email at all. Can you imagine? Weekends here are for life and for family and that’s it.”
For Brzezinski, weekends are also for blogging with her husband, a European security expert and one of a handful of young ambassadors appointed by the Obama administration in the past year. Together, the two of them have created the first official U.S. embassy blog in the world that is co-authored by an ambassador and his wife. “Mark writes about what’s important to his work, like green energy and trade, and I chronicle what’s important to mine,” she says.
These days, that chronicle revolves around two primary goals: firstly, to make the Ambassador’s residence as open and inclusive as possible, both brick-and-mortar and via social media, and secondly, to foster dialogue between Swedish and American women about work-life balance. Brzezinski's dual goals collided in her most recent blog post, about the Swedish concept of “lagom,” or family balance.
As the mother of a two-year old daughter, Brzezinski, 27, is fascinated by the Scandinavian country’s family-focused labor policy. “In Sweden,” she wrote on the blog, “both parents get generous family leave and have total job security when they return. The mother often takes the first 9 to 15 months, while the father ‘mans’ the second shift,” at which point the child is eligible for full-time day care."
But Brzezinski’s interest in “lagom” dates back much farther than her arrival in Stockholm. An absence of balance shaped her own childhood in Chicago, and it’s part of what makes her such a thoroughly modern diplomatic spouse.
A Long Journey
“I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago near the airport,” explains Brzezinski, an only child, “and my mom worked all day cleaning houses. At night she’d study for her MBA, while my father worked the graveyard shift.”
Brzezinski’s parents immigrated to the United States from Poland in the 1970s. Her father was trained as a lawyer, but found work as a janitor before eventually joining a successful building maintenance company. Her mother, who earned her MBA, works as an accountant for the city of Chicago.
“I watched how hard my mom worked, and I saw her break down sometimes,” Brzezinski says during a phone interview from Stockholm. “But whatever happened, she was always working.” As a result, Brzezinski says she largely raised herself, with help from the structure afforded her by competitive figure skating, which she pursued throughout her teens.
Today, her mother’s experience motivates Brzezinski. “I'm driven by this desire to level the playing field for women,” she says, “so that no one has to make the same choices my mother did, about whether to work or to raise your children.”
All of which seems very far away, at least on the surface, from the U.S. ambassador’s residence, nestled between one of Stockholm’s ubiquitous canals and Djurgarden Park, the city’s answer to Central Park.
“My mouth fell open when I first saw the house,” Brzezinski says of the residence. “It was all lit up with beautiful mosaics and fireplaces.” More than once during our conversations she spoke about the lights of Stockholm, a reminder that Sweden averages of only 4-6 hours of sunlight per day in February, and 18 hours a day of darkness.
“In order to combat the darkness, they light up the city,” Brzezinski says at one point. “The light bounces off the canals that separate all the little islands that make up Stockholm -- it’s just magical.”
A Complicated Role
But it hasn’t all been roses for Brzezinski. “Being the spouse of an ambassador is a really complicated role,” she says, “and it’s really opaque, because I’m not a government employee. I don't speak for the embassy, and I don’t speak for the U.S. government, but I still consider myself a public servant and I want to live up to that.”
Despite the constraints, her day-to-day experiences are less structured than her husband’s. “I’m the one who gets to be out there, who gets to the grocery store and to school and really live an everyday Swedish life.”
To help her navigate the more complex challenges, Brzezinski sought the counsel of a veteran diplomat, Melanne Verveer, currently Ambassador at Large for Global Women's Issues, before she left for Stockholm.
“Ambassador Verveer told me that my greatest resource would be the power to convene, to bring people together who might never be in the same room otherwise, and to spark substantive dialogue between them. I think about that every day,” she says.
In the short time she’s been in Sweden, Brzezinski has focused on reaching out to Stockholm’s young political journalists and bloggers, many of whom are women. “We’ve got one of the world’s highest ratios of bloggers per capita here,” she says, “so there is a huge demand for information.”
Near the top of this year’s list of hot topics, she says, are the 2012 American presidential elections. “Swedes are huge consumers of news and media, and the U.S. elections are front page news here every day. In fact, I think I saw ‘Santorum Surging’ on the front page of the paper just this morning.”
That Brzezinski feels at home with political journalists is thanks in no small part to her stint on Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) congressional staff, but these days it also has a lot to do with her family -- her sister-in-law Mika Brzezinski is co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and her father-in-law is former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
But it was a chance encounter with her future husband Mark at a dinner in 2007 that steered Natalia’s life away from the freelance journalism she was pursuing at the time. She and Mark Brzezinski, a corporate lawyer, were married in November of 2008, and Aurora Brzezinski was born the following year.
Natalia spent the first year of her daughter’s life looking after the baby, doing lots of yoga, and trying to keep writing, which was harder than she expected. With her typical candor, she says she’s aged a lot since her daughter was born. “Three years have been like thirteen years,” she observes wistfully, “but that’s alright. That was my decision and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Now, without an assistant or an office, Brzezinski faces the same conundrum of many diplomatic spouses abroad: how to build platforms on the edges of the embassy, utilizing their unique positions, while steering clear of projects best left to those in official capacities.
In short, the residence is Brzezinski’s terrain, and she has big plans for it. “My dream is to make our residence a little think tank for women’s issues and for young people, and if, at the end of our posting [to Sweden], I could have created a cogent dialogue, or something even that survived after we were gone, well, that would be fantastic.”
To accomplish her goals, Brzezinski intends to expand well beyond the traditional diplomatic spousal role of being a hostess and take a more hands-on and proactive approach. This includes blogging, Tweeting from her personal handle, @natalbrz, and posting photos from her travels on Facebook. She’s also writing a speech to deliver in March at a conference on women’s empowerment. The topic? “Millennials and their Values in the New Workplace.”
“Mark and I just got back from a trip to the sub-Arctic rim of Northern Sweden where they’ve just opened a huge Facebook server hub,” Brzezinski says excitedly, apparently unaware that she's also making a case for women's empowerment and the value of millennials. “They practically had to cut the building right out of the ice, but it’s the perfect latitude on the globe for their satellites. If you want to see it, I just put photos from the trip up on my Facebook page.”
WATCH: U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski and Natalia Brzezinski's joint greeting upon arrival in Sweden.