Writer and poet Bethany Saltman didn’t set out to write a memoir but when her research into the life and studies of Mary Ainsworth overlapped with her own childhood, she knew she had to delve into her past. Bethany tells Zibby about how Ainsworth’s attachment theories apply to the complicated relationship she had with her older brothers, in which ways her familial past has affected her connection to her own daughter, and what the dynamic with her mother is like today.


Bethany Saltman: Hey.

Zibby Owen: Hi. How are you?

Bethany: Good. How are you?

Zibby: I’m good. Thank you. Your book is so good. I read it until I passed out last night. It’s really, really great. I’m so glad you sent it to me and that we’re talking.

Bethany: Yes, me too. hat?

Zibby: I love the hat. I left it upstairs. I should have. I should be all bedazzled in your swag. I’m sorry. The hat is great too. Tell everybody what Strange Situation is about.

Bethany: Strange Situation is a book about how when my daughter was born fourteen years ago — she’s in the next room at school — I loved her dearly, I felt all that squishy love and affection, and I still felt like myself. I was really taken aback by that. I had this idea that once the maternal-love glow set in it would eclipse everything else about me, things that I wasn’t so crazy about, the fact that I’m impatient, can be angry, can be harsh. I grew up in not the most loving home, and so a lot of that came out. It surprised and frightened me, frankly, and made me feel like there was really something wrong with me. I went on this ten-year journey trying to understand what the nature of maternal/parental love is. That took me into laboratories of attachment and into the life of Mary Ainsworth, the developer of the Strange Situation and one of the mavericks of attachment theory, unsung.

Zibby: I love how you tracked down her letters. You traveled all over and accosted some white-haired person for all of her stuff. This is true passion that you have for this project. It’s awesome.

Bethany: Obsession, yes.

Zibby: Obsession, okay. One of the things that I thought was so interesting and different about your book was that you talked so much about your relationship with your siblings growing up and, essentially, the abuse that you withstood with your two older brothers. People don’t really talk about that. People don’t talk about the effects of sibling rivalry. It’s always kind of shoved under the carpet almost like your mother did. It’ll be okay. Or your father, it’s going to toughen you up. It’s just one of those things. In actuality, it has a huge impact. It’s not only the attachment with your mother and your father, but the effect of your whole core unit growing up. I was hoping you would talk a little more about that.

Bethany: I did a lot of research, as you can imagine, writing the book looking at attachment in sibling relationships. There’s very little out there. It’s something that I’m obviously really interested in. I was just talking to a friend on a socially distant walk this morning about this very topic. My relationship with my brothers is a real source of shame and embarrassment for me. I grew up in a house with two older siblings who really didn’t like me. They told me all the time. This is not your typical — you know, you’ve read the book. You can imagine, it’s very cherry-picked in the book. My brothers are alive. There’s a lot I did not say. This is not the typical mixed experience of most siblings where there’s a lot of fighting and a lot of, as you said, rivalry, but there’s also love and affection and protection. That part didn’t really exist. I think part of it is that one of my brothers, I believe, has some undiagnosed mental health issues. I feel very badly for him, frankly. The other brother who’s in the book has expressed his sorrow and his sadness about having grown up that way. He, interestingly, has raised very close siblings. Do what you will with that. I did grow up in a house where people didn’t like me. They told me all the time. They were really hard on me. My parents, 1970s, said, it’ll make you tough. The fact of the matter is it did. I’m tough, but I don’t always want to be tough. That’s my fish to fry.

Zibby: You said in the book, yeah, it made you tough, but it made you so angry. It wasn’t just the toughness. It made you hurt and made you angry and so many other things. I’m glad you said that about your siblings having an undiagnosed disorder because I was sort of thinking that as I read it. Not that I’m any sort of expert on this, but I was thinking, how is that even possible that the brothers could be like that? There’s no reason for that. Not like if I got on Instagram Live and I didn’t like you I’d be like, oh, yeah, it’s justified. I just mean in any sort of family —

Bethany: like that. Period.

Zibby: Period. Nobody should be treated like that.

Bethany: a lot of compassion for my brother, my middle brother, who was obviously suffering. I knew as much as he hurt me, I wasn’t suffering at the level that he was. Even then, I knew that. That is really the heart of the matter as far as the attachment is concerned. My mother, even though she was maybe not as hands-on as we would’ve liked her to have been — she also feels regret about this. This has been a difficult process for her, to read these reviews of people saying, Saltman’s cold and distant mother. She’s just like, oh, my god. It hurts her so much. It’s a testament to the fact that we actually do have a securely attached relationship that I could notice these things about myself and my brother growing up, continue to be curious about it, try to understand it, metabolize it, get to the heart of it, wrestle with it, and that I can be talking to my mom about it now. That’s why this attachment work is such a surprise. It is not what Dr. Sears says. It’s the opposite. It has nothing to do with a checklist of behaviors. I really want everybody to hear that. It’s about what’s going on on the inside of us. We learn how to manage ourselves by the way our parents know how to manage themselves. It’s generation after generation of this capacity to reflect.

Zibby: Wow. Then you could take that whole relationship and extrapolate it. You dove deep into this research. You had these alternating chapters. Where did the impetus for this project come from? Did you know already that you wanted to include all the research? Did you want to get your own story off your chest, in a way? Did that come later? How did this all germinate and become this book?

Bethany: I didn’t want to write a memoir. As you said, I’m in love with Mary Ainsworth, the developer of the Strange Situation, so I really wanted to celebrate her. I have been a personal essayist for many years, and a poet. That’s my training. The idea of writing a book was just totally overwhelming. My editor at Random House insisted that there was a memoir component. The book came out of a piece I wrote in New York Magazine several years ago that went viral or whatever. It was about myself, but it was in service to this idea of attachment. That’s how I positioned it all along. That’s what I really want the book to be, not so much about me, but about my story as a way of understanding attachment, as an example. Tell that to my family. They don’t necessarily feel that way, but that’s the intention.

Zibby: How are you dealing with their feelings about this book?

Bethany: I’m dealing with it head-on. That’s what I do. How else are you going to do it? Bring it. I’m letting it in. I’m listening to my mom. She’s hurt. She’s read many, many, many drafts. So many people who read the book say that my mom is the hero. That’s how I meant it. It’s hard for her to see it that way because she gets really caught on, “What do you mean I didn’t pack you good lunches?” That’s the least of it. I keep reminding her, “You know, Mom, there’s a lot I could’ve said that I didn’t say. Let’s just remember that.”

Zibby: I don’t know, if my kids said that about me, how I would feel about that.

Bethany: It’s hard. People have said to me, you’re so brave for writing this book. I don’t experience it that way. I feel so passionate about helping other parents de-shame the experience of being human. That is my goal in life. I have taken so much care with my mom, with my family. I’ve offered everybody many opportunities to read it, to tell me how they feel. I’ve changed lots and lots of details to protect them, to help them feel comfortable. I feel like it’s worth it. My mom, she’s really proud. She’s ridiculously happy, but there is a hurt heart in there which I am trying really hard to help her heal. We’re healing together. To me, that’s a beautiful thing. Am I prepared for all kinds of hurt later when Azalea, my daughter, reads this and has her reactions? As well as I can be. I’m willing to give it a go because, why not?

Zibby: One thing that really stuck with me — well, not really stuck with me. I just read it. When you were talking about your mom and you said how you wished that she had spent less time taking care of things and more time taking care of you. That flashed a warning light to me. I’m spinning around the house all the time picking up and putting away and wiping down and throwing in the laundry. I feel like a whirling dervish half the time. Is there enough time where I just, who cares about the house? Is there enough time to sit down and look eye to eye and just forget about — how do you balance that without the house becoming a disaster and all the rest?

Bethany: Especially these days when our home is — we’re sharing our home with our kids, and the new puppy if you’re in my family. I’m going bananas. I really hope that people can get from this book that, yeah, I wish that she had spent more time with me, but I’m actually okay. That’s really the point. I’m sure your kids are okay too. Azaela’s okay too. Even insecurely attached kids are okay. That’s what Mary Ainsworth said. By and large, most of us do just fine. Notwithstanding all the neurosis in the world, all the chaos, all the hurt, to be securely attached means to appreciate the hurt, to feel the hurt, to feel our pain, and to recognize that that’s okay too. We value love. We value attachment. We value relationships. If we aren’t able to do that, we can move ourselves in that direction simply by trying to build more awareness into our lives. It’s free. It’s accessible. It’s always here and at the ready for us. Yes, I get it, it’s scary. It can be really scary. Oh, no, Saltman said this, and I’m doing this, but if we can move away from that as much as possible into, okay, so there’s going to be something. My kids, I’m going to screw them up somehow. If it’s because I’m so busy with the house, it could be worse. I’m sure you spend lots of time.

Zibby: I do. They are securely attached. They are. I was just saying as an example. Can you hold your book up one more time? Then to be continued for a more in-depth conversation. In the meantime, Strange Situation by Bethany Saltman. Thank you so much for coming on and discussing it with me.

Bethany: Bye.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Bye.


STRANGE SITUATION by Bethany Saltman

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