Zibby Owens: Bethany Saltman is the author of Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment. She’s also an award-winning editor and researcher. Her work can be seen in magazines like The New Yorker, New York magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Parents, and many others. Bethany is a graduate of Antioch College where she was one of the architects of the nation’s first Affirmative Consent Policy and went on to receive her MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College where she studied with Allen Ginsberg. A longtime Zen student, Bethany is devoted to the fine art and game-changing effects of paying attention. She lives in a small town in the Catskills with her family.

Welcome, Bethany. Thanks so much for coming on my show.

Bethany Saltman: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: You were so nice to send me not only your book, but an awesome baseball cap with Strange Situation on it. I know now this is the second time we’ve done a virtual talk and I’m not wearing it, but I promise you I have been wearing it this summer. It’s been reminding me of you all the time.

Bethany: I’m so glad. Awesome. I love that.

Zibby: For listeners who have not read or who don’t know much about Strange Situation, your book, A Mother’s Journey into the Science of Attachment, can you give a little synopsis of what it’s about?

Bethany: The book is a memoir woven in with the science of attachment. When my daughter, Azalea, was born — she’s fourteen years old now — I was confronted with some difficult feelings. I, I think like many of us, thought that motherhood would wash over me like a blanket or some kind of comforting, soothing experience that would wipe away the edgier aspects of my personality. Lo and behold, that did not happen. In fact, kind of the opposite occurred where I was stressed out, worried about myself in relationship to this new motherhood business, and ultimately worried about her. I didn’t have problems bonding with her, so to speak. I loved her. I adored her. I found her gorgeous, beautiful, fun, adorable, all those squishy feelings that a mother often has, a parent often has, but I also felt really stressed out. I wasn’t always very good at containing my feelings, which is part of my makeup. That scared me. I knew enough to know that babies really need sensitive caregiving. I wasn’t sure I was giving it.

At the time, I’m a writer, so I was writing. I was writing a column about being a Buddhist mother, which I am. That gave me an opportunity to do a lot of research into parenthood, which I really considered humanhood. What does it mean to be a human being? At the time, I came across a lot of conversation around attachment from a scientific point of view, and particularly this thing called the strange situation. The words strange situation felt so resonate to me. I started to explore that. I discovered that there is this whole world of science of the relationship between parents and babies. That’s when I got hooked. I went on this ten-year journey to teach myself the science of attachment. I barely graduated from high school, but I was really determined to learn this science. I did my best. That’s what the book is about. It’s about my journey into the science of attachment and what it taught me about myself as a mother and as a daughter and as a person.

Zibby: I would argue it’s also about your coming to terms with your own upbringing and the relationships you had within your own family and how that affected everything going forward. There was so much in the book about the way in which you processed things at the time, the way in which you coped with things. There was talk of your bullying at home and in middle school even and some of the more deviant behaviors you engaged in to cope with that. I feel like it was also a coming of age in a way into being a mother, not just — the science stuff was really interesting, of course, but I really felt like this was a deep dive into how you became the mother you were or something. I don’t know. Not that you needed another synopsis, but that’s my two cents.

Bethany: I love that. Thank you. I really appreciate that.

Zibby: There’s a quote from the beginning I hope you don’t mind if I read. “I had always feared I was a damaged person, the victim of an unloving and maybe even dangerous childhood, crippled by something I couldn’t name. I believed I was broken, unable to truly give or receive love. It was no surprise, I told myself, that I was a terrible mother, especially since my own mother was so cold and rejecting. She and my dad threw me to the wolves, my two older brothers who never loved me. Then when I was thirteen, Azalea’s age as I write this, my parents divorced and my dad moved across the country which didn’t bother me at all because I had always felt alone.” Wow. First of all, so well-written. Second of all, what an introduction to how you feel about yourself and the self-determination that you were going to fail as a mother no matter what.

Bethany: Yeah, it was heavy. I’m not going to lie.

Zibby: Then later on — I’m sorry to be just reading your words here, but I’ll stop and let you talk after this. They’re just so good. When you’re talking about your decision to write about this whole thing, which I really would like to talk to you about, you said, “It had never before occurred to me to erase something I had written because my words had always been my periscope, and to cross something out would have submerged me into darkness, until I became a mother. Then I was writing as a prayer to save my life and my daughter’s. That’s how much I loved her. I was willing to risk facing a dark truth because I knew even then at the beginning of this journey that in order to save her, I had to save myself.” So good. So good.

Bethany: Thank you. I love hearing it from your feelings. I feel it anew. It’s nice. Thank you.

Zibby: Tell me about your decision to write this book and to even face everything in the past and write it down in general.

Bethany: I’ve been asked that a lot. I’ve written about how when people read the book or the manuscript they would say to me, “Wow, you’re so brave.” I thought, oh, my god. That scared me because it made me see how scary this is. I was so in it that I felt like I had no choice. It was one of those stories. People ask me a lot, how do I know what I should write about or how do I stay on course? I tell people what I told myself. I had to assume nobody was ever going to read this because I had to tell the truth. The only way I could do it was to take the audience, including my daughter, out of my mind. This was a story I had no choice but to tell because my whole life depended on it. One of the things that I’ve learned through my journey into the science of attachment is something that I always had a strong feeling about. That’s that being honest with myself is pretty much all I have. If I can’t be honest with myself, then I don’t stand a chance at being honest with anybody else. It’s not about some kind of unedited “honesty” like telling “the truth.” It’s a much deeper experience.

I knew that in order to be the mother that I wanted to be because I loved my daughter so much, I had no choice but to look at the dark recesses and the demons that I was carrying because, and the science has borne this out to be true — and so I began to really trust something. There’s so many ironies in this whole experience. Because I didn’t trust myself as a mother and as a person, ultimately, and I set out on this path to understand the science of how that works, how parental love functions, why it functions, how it came to be, and understanding this laboratory procedure, the strange situation, in the process, I began to actually trust myself. What I had been feeling was true. I did need to take care of business. I did need to be held accountable. I did need to think about my past. I did need to do some healing. I was right. Ultimately, that was a sign of my security. That was a sign of the fact that I actually did have what I needed as a child and ultimately as a parent. I had these questions. I had the capacity to ask them. I think I’ve passed that down to my daughter. It’s an interesting story. A lot of this really does have to do with perception and interpretation.

Zibby: I feel like people call this reparenting. Isn’t that what it is when you have to reparent yourself emotionally before you can be a parent to somebody else?

Bethany: Exactly. That helps, but I think that I did have what I needed from the beginning, but I didn’t believe it. I think that’s true for so many of us. We’re riddled with self-doubt. We have a lot of shame. We have a lot of concern about our abilities and our capacities. We look back at our past and we see all kinds of good reasons to doubt ourselves. Maybe we didn’t have the best childhood. We didn’t have the perfect upbringing. The fact of the matter is most of us have kind of a good enough experience, certainly good enough to come back to ourselves and do some of the work that we might need to do to be more available for our children.

Zibby: You had a scene in the beginning of the book where your father was coming in. You were in the bath. You were like, “Get mom.” You didn’t want him in there. Then you have another chapter all about that later. Then you even were sort of questioning, why was I like that? Is it possible that I was abused? You had all these questions about your family. Do you feel like you came to some sort of resolution having written the book?

Bethany: Yeah, I do. I came to a resolution that I came from a pretty messed-up family. I don’t believe that my father abused me sexually, so that’s a relief, but there was a lot of boundary violation, for sure. I wasn’t cherished the way that I cherish my daughter and that I wish that I had been cherished. That’s true. I was given a lot of encouragement to be strong, and I became very strong. I was left alone, which I think in this day and age is a gift that many parents would do well to give their children. That’s sort of the beauty of the benign neglect of the 1970s families. They didn’t really know what was going on with me. In a lot of ways, that was a gift. That was a good thing. I was left alone to develop an internal life, which I’m grateful for. I was supported. When push came to shove, when there was a difficult situation, when I was sick, when I was really hurt, when I needed my mother, she was really there for me.

That’s what this experience has taught me, of writing this book and learning where those critical situations of attachment really are. When a child is under stress and reaches out to the parent, does the parent come to their own senses? Can they manage the stress of being in the presence of a stressed baby or a child or teenager to be able to offer some kind of soothing? We don’t need that much. It’s kind of amazing how little we can go on and how that works. It’s that quality of attention, that just enough. Just tell the child it’s okay and that you see them and that you love them and that you get it, and they can move on and keep going. When we don’t receive the most basic care, the most basic attention, we keep asking for it and we keep clamoring for it. That’s what our attachment system is built to do. We are determined to feel felt. If we don’t get it, we’re just going to keep looking. That’s how we lose our way.

Zibby: How did you end up going from being Jewish to being Buddhist?

Bethany: The old Jew-Bu process. That’s a great question. I was raised Jewish. I was not given a bat mitzvah. My parents gave me a choice because I was a girl, which I resent, but that’s the way that they thought. I didn’t think of myself as a spiritual person. I didn’t associate any of my questions or my concerns or my struggles with a religious or a spiritual path at all. It wasn’t until I had a lot of emotional upheaval in my twenties with a really toxic relationship. That was a very powerful experience for me. I really felt like I was on my knees. I couldn’t work. I was totally addicted to this person. It was very, very painful. It was in this moment when I was near suicide, really. I just felt like I didn’t know how to go on. This voice in my head led me to a Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and up the escalator, it’s one of those I’ll-never-forget-it moments, and up to the self-help section.

I thought, oh, my god, this is really it. I have hit rock bottom. I really fancied myself a feminist, a poet, an intellectual. I never in a million years thought I’d go to the self-help section for anything. I went up there. I was faced with all these books. Then to my left I saw this book peeking out on a shelf. This was so long ago. I’m dating myself. There wasn’t even a Buddhist section. It was the Eastern thought section. There was this book facing out. It was really pretty. It was called Nothing Special: Living Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck. The whole thing just drew me. I went over to this book and sat down and started reading it. I thought, this is it. This will save me. This will help me. This will heal me. This will help me understand who I am and why I am struggling so mightily right now. I never thought that I would actually meditate or do anything remotely religious or spiritual, but I thought the words of having to really face yourself and sit in stillness, that resonated for me. I knew that that would help. Eventually, I did end up going to a monastery and living at a monastery, in fact. I met my husband there. That’s how that happened. I’m still a hundred percent Jewish, but practice Zen.

Zibby: Wow. I kind of laughed when you were on the escalator saying you had hit bottom by going to the self-help section. I hope you know that wasn’t because of the pain that you were in, but your view that the self-help was the bottom of the barrel when, in fact, self-help authors are also amazing and have lots of —

Bethany: — Of course. Oh, my gosh, I was so young.

Zibby: Back in the day, especially then, I feel like it had a totally different branding than it does now, which is very mainstream.

Bethany: Totally. All the books were lavender.

Zibby: A different font. It was a whole thing.

Bethany: I just didn’t associate myself in that way. I really identified as this bulldog, strong, Antioch feminist, which I was. It was just a real identity crisis for me. I’m glad I went through it.

Zibby: I’m glad you got what you needed. That all just goes to the power of books, really. Sometimes it’s exactly what you need. Sometimes there’s nothing better than the advice you can get or the perspective you can get. Think about people out there who are going through, right now, what you’re going through or feeling like because of their childhoods maybe they’re not parenting the way they want or they want to be different or they need to revisit. Now they have you as a guide. It’s very cool. It’s full circle, really.

Bethany: I hope so. Back to your original question of why did I write this book and how did I think about my daughter and that question about the actual writing, it was for that. I’m willing, and I stand by this even though I’ve gotten, certainly, some pushback and criticism, but I am so determined to help de-shame the process of feeling like you don’t have what it takes for parents. It is so important for us as people and for our kids because we did bring them into this world. They deserve our best selves. It’s so available. All we have to do is turn toward it. We don’t have to buy anything. We don’t have to do anything differently. Certainly, we want to try to be kind and patient and all of that. I work on that every single day and fail, but it’s what’s going on on the inside of us. That’s what this work has taught me and really confirmed for me. My internal experience of myself is what is going to really matter for my daughter. If I am trying to put on a smile and do the right thing and give her all these amazing experiences and feed her all the right food and make sure she’s off her screens and make sure she’s exercising and doing SAT prep and all that stuff, which is fine, but on the inside I’m seething or I’m depressed or I’m hating myself, those experiences are only going to go so far because what our children really need and what they’re queuing into is an attunement and is a delight. That’s Mary Ainsworth’s word. That can only come when we are able to delight in ourselves. That’s just the way that works. It sounds sort of new age-y or back into the lavender book self-help-y world, but that’s what the science is telling us. I feel very affirmed by that. The desire to meditate, the desire to become more mindful, the desire to take care of ourselves is worth it. We’re not being selfish.

Zibby: Totally. You’re absolutely right. What is coming next for you? You’ve written this book. You’re in a better place yourself. What’s coming next?

Bethany: Oh, gosh. I am trying to teach myself how to write a novel.

Zibby: Wow. How’s that going?

Bethany: It’s so fun. It’s so fun. I’m loving it. I’m taking master classes. I’m reading. I was so in this world for so long. This book took me ten years. I couldn’t really read fiction very well. I couldn’t read much nonfiction either because I had to try to listen to my own voice. It was difficult. Now I feel like I’m so liberated and reading all kinds of stuff and trying to really learn the building blocks of narrative in a different way. There’s a narrative in this book, for sure, but how to write a suspenseful book. I’m really having a blast.

Zibby: That’s great. I don’t always hear that it’s such a blast from different authors, so that’s great. I’m glad you’re having fun because that’s the whole point. No one has a gun to your head to do it, so you might as well enjoy it.

Bethany: Especially during this time which is so heavy, so hard. I will also say that a lot of this attachment work is very relevant to what we’re all going through right now, first with COVID and being in quarantine and all the feelings that come up around being with our family, there’s a lot to learn, and also with the pain of looking at cultural trauma and how important it is that we do look deeply inside of ourselves and at all the details, all the feelings that arise in any circumstance. Whoever we are, whatever kind of position we’re in, looking at ourselves is the greatest gift to other people, and taking care of ourselves, not in a mani-pedi kind of way, although I love that too, but really taking ourselves seriously and not shying away from the trenches in our life. I’m falling back a lot on what I’ve learned in the attachment work in this moment of reckoning, which is very, very welcome.

Zibby: You essentially just answered this, but do you have any other advice to aspiring authors having spent ten years on this memoir? What advice would you have?

Bethany: I would say tell the story that you have no choice but to tell. Spend some time cultivating that. What is that story? Ask yourself those questions. Really stick to your guns. There’s lots of time to get beta readers and to get editors and to try to sell it, but that really important work of self-study. It doesn’t mean you have to write a book about yourself, but to learn to listen to yourself, that’s what writers do. They listen to themselves. Even if it’s about characters that have nothing to do with them, we write through our own senses. The biggest challenge is becoming in touch with our voice that comes in through the senses. That would be my advice. A sitting practice is always great. A meditation practice is a portal into that. Even two minutes, five minutes of stillness and opening the senses is incredibly helpful and healing. It puts you in such a good mood.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you, Bethany. Thank you for this. Thanks for our Instagram Live. I know we talked more then about what it’s like to have brothers who aren’t particularly nice to you and more about your parents. I just wanted to hear different stuff this time, but that was also — it should be part and parcel of this conversation. Thank you for both combined.

Bethany: Thank you, Zibby, for doing all the work that you do. I’m inspired by you and by your championing of books. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you and your work. Thank you very much.

Zibby: You too. Thanks, Bethany. Take care.

Bethany: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.