In her book, Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much, Emmy Award–winning contributor to CBS News Sunday Morning and panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, Faith Salie, takes on her lifelong quest for approval—one which many women can relate to. In it she digs deeply into the myriad ways in which women are taught by society to want and seek approval from their partners to their parents, their peers to their children—essentially everyone, and about essentially everything. We asked Salie about some of the most hot-button topics and how women can learn to lighten their load.
Books for Better Living (BBL): Let’s start with why, as women, we often try to tamp down our feelings when we’re in a new relationship because we’re afraid of appearing “needy.” You talk about how you desperately wanted to tell John, now your husband, that you loved him but feared saying the words before he did. When you finally trusted your heart to take the leap, regardless of what the outcome might be, the result was that he said it back. Why do you think it’s important for women to shake off that burden of coyness, of playing hard to get, instead of revealing their true feelings? And how do we get comfortable with that?
Salie: Look, I do think that some discretion at the beginning of a potential relationship is not a bad thing. I waited a few months to tell John I loved him. I didn’t pounce on him and declare him my mensch in shining armor even though I suspected he was (finally) the one. . . Maybe because I interview people and offer my opinions for a living, I didn’t hold back much. I didn’t want to. I wanted a man who was ready to receive all of me after having held myself back for a decade in a first marriage in which the love felt constantly conditional. However, I think not being coy and being honest about your feelings does call for a measure of self-possession. I don’t think I understood this as a younger woman because I saw friends all around me in my twenties and thirties getting married and having kids. I wanted to shore up my options. I wanted all my big life questions answered. I was desperate for my ex-husband to marry me because I didn’t want to miss out on all the things that were “supposed to” happen in your thirties. I would encourage every woman, especially those who are younger than I am, to treat yourself with reverence. What you want matters. Know yourself enough to know what you deserve. . . Take the time to create the life you want, into which you can invite someone. If being honest about who you are and how big your feelings are “scares” someone away, then you really are saving yourself valuable time.
BBL: I also love how you discuss the art of silence—of not feeling the pressure to fill pauses in a conversation in that “dinner hostess” kind of way. I think this is a tricky one for many women. We’re used to being the “doers” and that translates to conversation as well. Our society seems to reward stoicism in men but considers that same kind of trait in women to be boring. It’s also about vulnerability. As you say in your book, “people hate silence, and when they will do anything to avoid it, they sometimes become very vulnerable.” What have you learned as a woman trying to listen more and ramble less?
Salie: The more we listen, the stronger we are. It really is a position of power to listen. . . Listening and not interrupting and not tap dancing verbally is an exercise in discipline. Once you start exercising this listening muscle, this ability to sit with silence and to recognize the vulnerability it evokes in you and the person you’re with, you will be amazed at the quality of your exchanges. You stop trying to impress. You make genuine connections. . . Women don’t have to be the hostesses of every conversation. We don’t have to chatter and make what I call little listening orgasms (“Yes! I know—totally!”) to make everyone else feel at ease. I’m a huge feminist, so don’t get me wrong: I encourage all women to speak up for themselves, always. But I’ve learned a quiet smile is sometimes the equivalent of a power stance.
BBL: Women, whether working or not, often take on the bulk of the responsibility for planning and maintaining the household. How do you relinquish control over some of those responsibilities in order to free up time for yourself without feeling guilty?
Salie: I never feel guilty about relinquishing some of those responsibilities; I actually feel annoyed at myself for not relinquishing more! What almost killed me was figuring out how and when to write, with a newborn who was breastfeeding ten times a day, a toddler who had to be in a million different places and wanted his mommy, an apartment in which I didn’t even have a desk, and also having four other jobs! I had to hire a babysitter in addition to our nanny to make sure that both children were taken care of, where they needed to be, and were getting their naps in their own cribs. It was a nightmare, but I never felt guilty. I just occasionally felt sad that I didn’t see my kids as much as I wanted to. It was the price I paid for doing what I love and writing a book that is dedicated to them. I sometimes felt irrationally resentful toward my husband who has no real notion of how the sausage of getting through the kids’ days is made. But then I remember that I get to have the career I want and see our kids consistently, whereas he’s gone all day in an office. . . Bottom line: I always remind myself that being a fulfilled person makes me a better mother. That spending time with my husband alone (we occasionally go away from the kids to remember each other’s names and to sleep) makes us a happier family. Whatever it takes to get there is worth it.
BBL: One of the struggles that many women have is with infertility, often blaming themselves for not being able to get pregnant. What is some helpful advice you might provide to women who are going through this experience to help them keep a positive outlook?
Salie: I’ve never understood why any woman would feel guilty or embarrassed about struggling to have a baby. It’s so common. It bonds us, if we let it. I love to talk about it and to share my stories of how I became a mother, finally, at forty-one and forty-three. I don’t even use the word “infertile.” To me, it’s just a challenge with fertility. I understand, and have lived, the deep sadness of losing pregnancies, but blame is just not a word that should even enter the picture. . . There is always a way to become a mother. It may not be the way you envisioned, and it may not be the easy way. But I believe that our children choose us, and if you are open to being chosen, and you try in every way possible (and, realistically, in every way you can afford), you will become a mother. If you clutch and claim that faith, it will carry you through the journey.
BBL: Your story about your eating disorder is very powerful, and so many women struggle with body image issues, if not full-on disorders. You end that chapter by talking about your little girl’s pudgy legs and the “scrumptious cellulite on her butt” that she’ll lose but will likely regain in the future and hate. As a mother of a girl that really spoke to me. What can we, as women and mothers, do to try and give our daughter’s positive reinforcement about their bodies, particularly in a culture that is downright punishing when it comes to appearance?
Salie: Wow, I’m just learning as I go on this one. My daughter is now two, and I always kiss her belly and say, “I love your body.” My kids see me come back from the gym all sweaty every morning, or I huff and puff through my runs when I take them in the jog stroller. My four-year-old son asked me why I exercise, and I said, “I want to be strong, always, so I have energy to do all the things I want to do.” I left out the part about wanting to fit into my jeans—they don’t need to know that. I have vowed never to let my kids hear me say a disparaging thing about my body in front of them. (I do have those thought bubbles; I’m not that evolved or self-accepting!) But I will seek guidance from women around me as my kids—particularly my daughter—grow and become more conscious of their bodies. I grew up with a mother who exercised and ate very healthfully, and I’ll try to emulate her.
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