“I’m totally imperfect — my life has not been perfect, my daughter won’t be perfect and our relationship won’t be perfect, but the biggest gift we can give ourselves is to allow ourselves to be who we are. If you are a parent it’s what your child needs more than everything. It’s the most scary thing to do, but it’s what’s needed,” says Bethany Saltman, 50.
Coronavirus is drastically changing our social lives, work habits, and economies. Another, perhaps less explored, way this pandemic is affecting us is by amplifying the inner workings of our family dynamics. With schools shutting down across the world, parents were assigned a new role as both full-time carers and home-school instructors. Being a parent, pandemic or not, has never been an easy job, and this overnight change has left many feeling out of their depths — juggling the upkeep of their kid’s education and special needs simultaneously with their own jobs, dilemmas, and anxieties. It is not uncommon for people to feel they are coming short on their parental duties, especially when life gets in the way.
Bethany is up to speed with the science of parenting; after all, she has just finished her first book on the subject. Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey Into the Science of Attachment is a deep dive into psychological research and data, collected in numerous interviews with experts and visits to labs, archives, and universities. The whole inspiration for the book, however, was far more personal, being based on Bethany’s own experience as a mother: “It’s a book about when my daughter was born — she is 14 now. I loved her and was deeply filled with all those wonderful maternal feelings, but I also felt like myself. Which is sometimes edgy, impatient, frustrated, not the fantasy of maternal sensitivity many women have and that we think we will have, by virtue of becoming a mother,” she says. “I was confused about this reality and, being a think-y type of person, I started learning about attachment theory.”
Parenting and Attachment Theory
Attachment theory, a psychological theory concerning relationships between humans, boils down to this: in order to get to that place to be sensitively attuned to our children, we need to be attuned to our own feelings first. In other words, what we do to our children (be it tuck him in, read to him, or sing him a lullaby) doesn’t matter all that much. “There is no checklist of things we can do to be a good parent, in the same way there is no checklist that makes us a good person. What matters most in the relationship field, what really affects how our children feel, is how we ourselves feel,” she says. “We think that, as women, we are supposed to feel a certain way. As a mother, I felt angry and irritable many times and I thought, ‘I must be a broken human. What kind of a mother feels that way?’ It turns out many women experience what I experienced,” explains Bethany. “A crying baby makes you nervous and uncomfortable. It’s not that we have to feel good about it. It’s that we have to feel.” Sometimes — and this is timely advice — we just have to sit with our feelings and embrace them.
Finding Self-Connection Through Buddhism
“Just feel it” is definitely one of those pieces of advice that is easier said than done, and Bethany is well aware of that: “Touching in with our feelings is no easy feat, it’s an awareness practice,” she concludes. In Bethany’s own case, Zen Buddhism was a big part of her journey. She first got introduced to the spiritual practice in her late 20s, when, following a toxic relationship that had left her feeling broken, she found herself desperately standing at Barnes & Noble’s self-help section. “I considered myself an intellectual and a feminist, I had no interest in the self-help section,” she remembers, “but something turned my head to the left, to the ‘Eastern thought’ shelf where I picked up this book on Zen. I sat down in a chair and started reading it and I knew that I was finding myself.”
As Bethany delved deeper into Buddhism, she felt more connected with both the philosophy and herself: “The first time I sat in meditation, I felt I had come home,” she recounts. Since that first calling at Barnes & Noble, Bethany has been devoted to the practice, her life one of meditations, monastic living, and silence. “I met my husband in the monastery. We still live ten minutes away from it. I’m a senior lay practitioner there,” says Bethany, who has been live streaming with other members of the monastery during corona times. “That’s why I’m coming out with my first book at 50. I spent every waking moment before that in practice, getting my life in order in a real way,” she says.
A Book Combining Science, Personal Anecdotes, Poetry and Zen
After years of sitting in the Zendō, learning how to let feelings and thoughts come and go, Bethany felt it was time she had a voice in the world. Strange Situation: A Mother’s Journey Into the Science of Attachment, which comes out on April 21st, is a mix of the science and data on attachment theory as well as Bethany’s personal motherhood anecdotes, her background in poetry and Zen — it is as much a research paper as it is a memoir. “My vision for the book was a big poem with footnotes. It’s not linear; I’m sharing the truth of my story,” she says.
“The opportunity is always available for anyone, at any moment, to become securely attached”
Bethany is not one to give practical advice on parenting, neither is she telling us how to touch in with our feelings. For some of us, opening up to our emotions comes easy, maybe while listening to beautiful music, or reading an inspiring book. For others, it can take years and years of therapy, or in Bethany’s case, meditation. The point is, “the opportunity is always available for anyone, at any moment, to become securely attached,” she explains. For many guilt-ridden parents, just knowing that will be far more hopeful and helpful than any actionable parenting tip. Attachment, I find out, is also far more forgiving than is expected: “Attachment is a simple, elegant articulation of the fact that, yes, we really do need each other, and, yes, what we do in relation to each other matters. And yet we don’t have to get it right all the time, or even most of the time,” says Bethany.