Motherwell talks to bestselling author and therapist Lori Gottlieb

Best-selling memoir, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, is about one woman’s experience both as a therapist and as somebody in therapy. It may not seem like a parenting book at first glance. But as psychologist, author, and mother, Lori Gottlieb acknowledges: “so much of who we are has to do with how we think about our own parents, and our own childhood, and then how we bring that to our own parenting and our own self-conception as parents.” I had the opportunity to talk to Lori recently about the success of her book, including details about her writing process, how she juggles it all, and her perspectives on family and parenting. 

Randi Olin: John, Rita, Julie, and Charlotte are the four patients you weave together with your own therapy journey. When did this idea come to you, to braid the stories?

Lori Gottlieb: I wanted to pick people who were very different from one another and yet in terms of structuring the book I found the common themes between them all. I was writing their four stories and me as the fifth patient and as I was writing you can’t help but see the parallels. So every chapter is a conversation from the one before and the one after it. When you’re reading these different stories and you’re weaving them together they’re not so discrete. There’s an emotional valiance that is carried over from chapter to chapter.

RO: You were 37, coming out of a relationship, and you wanted a baby. You decided to use a donor. What was it like for you as a single woman trying to find “the whole package”? 

LG: I knew that I wanted to be a parent and somebody suggested a sperm donor to me. I really didn’t know what to expect at the time; it’s much more common now. Back then it was like what are you talking about and I was really worried, I didn’t know how long I’d have to have a child and I didn’t want to wait. So on the one hand there’s this grieving process because I’m not going to do it the way I’d always imagined, with a partner, at least for now, but there was a freedom to it, like I can still be a parent. My biggest concern was how would it be for my child, what will this person’s life be like if they don’t have a father, because I think it’s very important to have these two people in your life, I really do, but that wasn’t my circumstance. 

RO: How about as a single mom, truly on your own, especially in the early years? 

LG: When my son was younger, so many times my friends or people in baby groups or other parents at the preschool they’d just be casually talking and they’d say things like oh my god my husband is on a business trip for three days and I’m thinking, three days are you kidding me?

A lot of new moms feel very isolated, it’s a big change, but when you are doing it alone you have an extra layer of isolation. There’s not another person who loves your child in the way that you do, who would appreciate him in the same way and so a lot of it happens and you are the only person who sees it happen. 

RO: There’s a natural instinct as a parent to protect our kids from pain, and we’re willing to go to great lengths to do so. You were in your 40s, your son was eight, and you had a break up with a long-term boyfriend who you thought you were going to marry. Tell us about your experience talking to your son about the relationship ending and, in general, how parents can help kids navigate through such a grieving process.

LG: It wasn’t just one conversation I had with my son about the breakup, and I think that’s really important for parents to remember. It’s not like you have the one conversation and you have to get it right in that one time and then you’re done. You have a conversation and it goes how it goes and then you have more conversations.

I didn’t know what my son was going to feel but I wasn’t going to try to smooth it over for him, or take away the pain for him so that he wouldn’t feel it. Because the only way to get through it is to feel it and so even if in the short term I said hey let’s go to the movies he’d still feel it. As adults, if we try to push it down, the feelings just get stronger. The same thing happens with kids but kids don’t know how to talk to you about it and so kids will then behaviorally reflect what they are feeling.

We worry that our kids will experience some emotion that will make them feel unsafe but in reality it’s talking about the hard things that makes them feel more safe. Teenagers in particular want to be respected and they don’t want to be treated as though they are incapable of having these conversations. They are capable of having the conversations. And the more practice you can give them having these conversations the better that they will do in their future relationships.

RO: You gave us three different, very specific examples of grief: John’s experience with losing a child, Rita’s estrangement from her family, and of course Julia facing a terminal illness. How do all those different kinds of grief affect a personality, a relationship, a life, etc?

LG: We think of grief as very monolithic but there are all kinds of grief that people experience. It plays out differently for different people. John couldn’t cope with it, couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t acknowledge it. For him it was like move on, I’m not going to do what my wife does which is cry about it. People really disliked him in the beginning, as I found it so hard to like him, but then you see that he’s this great dad. He wanted to be this very stable person, to deal with the death of his child privately and he didn’t want that to feed into his children’s childhood. So that’s how he dealt with grief. Rita was like a walking ad for grief. You felt like death just walked into the room when she came in. She was so depressed and deflated and hopeless. And Julie was this person who probably never would have even ended up in therapy had she not been faced with grieving her own death.

RO: An important theme in your book is how we grow in connection with others. Is this something we can instill in our children, and if so how can we approach that with them?

LG: Absolutely. In our family, it’s such a big deal. Community and connection. I talk to my son about his school community, his basketball community, his synagogue community, whether or not he finds it meaningful. These connections, these relationships—these people who know you as you age—are going to be important to you. You all knew each other, and you’ll remember certain things you went through together. I always talk to my son about how important it is to have different people that you connect with, and also to connect in person with them.

I think we see ourselves differently through the lens of somebody else’s experience of us; it’s really great when a friend feels comfortable enough to tell you something that is maybe helpful to you that you wouldn’t hear from somebody else.

RO: How do you manage it all: your practice, your weekly Dear Therapist Column in The Atlantic, writing this book, and of course, parenthood?

LG: Realistically, I’ve never had to juggle more—even when I had a newborn. This is so challenging. I have a teenager and there’s a lot going on with what teenagers need to do, and I have the practice and I have the weekly column, and all the travel involved for the book. And I’m doing a TED talk this fall. All the things, there’s never a minute that isn’t booked in my day. When you’re writing it’s different, you can say I’m going to have this quiet time to myself and I’m going to write. Right now it’s this thing after this thing after this thing which gives it a totally different rhythm to the day.

RO: Any final thoughts about parenthood, and how being a parent relates to the characters in your book?

LG: Parenting is infused throughout every character’s story. You look at John and the whole back story about what his father said to him regarding not going to medical school, that instead he could could teach. And John was like, are you kidding me I can do this. John grew up without a mother and then he later ended up being just like his dad as a grieving father. I think he learned a lot of lessons about grief in terms of the way his father handled it. And Rita, of course her childhood was this sad, barren existence and her parents probably did the best they could. As therapists, we don’t blame the parents, we’re not here to do that; we’re here to understand whatever experiences inform our patients how they are today so that maybe they don’t have to limit them in perhaps the ways in which they have.

It’s like that moment in the mothers chapter where I spend so much time thinking why can’t my mother change and then at some point that changed from why can’t she change to why can’t I, why can’t I do something different in those phone calls, and it’s so liberating, when the whole world opens up to you.

Lori Gottlieb is a psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, which is being adapted as a television series with Eva Longoria. In addition to her clinical practice, she writes The Atlantic‘s weekly “Dear Therapist” advice column and contributes regularly to The New York Times. She is on the Advisory Council for Bring Change to Mind and has appeared in media such as The Today Show, Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, CNN, and NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Learn more at LoriGottlieb.com or by following her @LoriGottlieb1 on Twitter.  

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