Motherwell talks to best-selling author Christie Tate

Christie Tate Group book cover

I absolutely loved talking to Christie Tate about her debut memoir, Group, an instant NYT bestseller (and Reese Witherspoon’s November book pick)—about her writing process, her years-long experience with group-based therapy, and how it’s all impacted her approach to motherhood. Christie’s therapeutic journey reveals, with much detail, her experience with self-esteem and intimacy issues, her history of battling an eating disorder, and a childhood trauma, which she has been unable to fully write about until now.

Having worked with Christie before on essays for Motherwell, I was particularly looking forward to connecting the written voice with the actual one, and was immediately struck by her authenticity, and how easy it was to talk with her. I wanted to know more, beyond the book, about who she is as a mom, and how the skills she’s learned in group therapy (aka “group”) have made her better equipped to parent. Here’s what she had to say:

Randi Olin: So how’s it going, doing group via Zoom these days?

Christie Tate: I’m so grateful to have it, really, and the continuity of it, it’s like a muscle. But picture running outside on a beautiful day vs running on a treadmill, in the basement of a gym, with bad lighting. That’s the difference, doing group on Zoom.

We have this custom of hugging each other at the end of session, and I didn’t realize how much I’d miss that. It will really make me appreciate that touch when we are back in person, whenever that will be, when that will be safe; we have one member in the group with compromised health issues so I imagine it will be a while.

RO: One of the rules in your therapy is no secrets. Your group members become your support system, and everyone can talk about anything they want, without limitations (though your therapist is bound by doctor-patient confidentiality). The way you are in group, no holding back, is that how you are as a mom?

CT: Yes! I try really hard to put all emotions on the table, I think that’s really important. These are skills I’ve learned in group and with my kids we talk about things. I don’t want topics to be off the table, I want to be able to talk about all of it and for them to feel safe to express how they feel.

When my kids are mad at me, I want to praise them for letting it fly, for expressing emotions as opposed to keeping them in. I see this as one more guard against developing an eating disorder, or having a propensity for bad sex.

RO: Did motherhood come naturally to you?

CT: That’s the first time anyone has asked me that question…actually, I felt like my body failed me because I had to have a C-section, and it wasn’t because of the scars or what it did to my body, but because it wasn’t what I had planned, and this was my first experience with new motherhood. At the time the imprint of the parenting culture looked different, and it felt so different from my own upbringing, so it was like building a house with invisible tools.

That said, parenting after all is a relationship, and I’ve learned how to do relationships in group.

RO: As a woman who has suffered from an eating disorder, what challenges do you face having a daughter, and what do you hope she’s learned from your experience?

CT: For someone with a history of self-destruction when it comes to food, what matters most is putting the focus on my daughter’s body as something that is beautiful, and using positive words, like strong. It’s important what she feels about her own body.

I hope my daughter will benefit from my recovery, my history of asking for help with food, that her knowing all of this will help with her own experience. Plus I’m co-parenting with a partner who doesn’t have a food issue so she has that as an influence.

I like to have these kinds of conversations with my kids in the context of experiences that have happened to me. We were watching Glee with a bulimic storyline so my daughter and I talked about it, I was able to say that it might seem like the storyline is about body and food but it’s also about control and stress, to give her a greater understanding.

RO: When you were 13, you witnessed your best friend’s father drown while on vacation with her family in Hawaii. How have the themes of grief and loss and childhood trauma unfolded in your therapy journey? How do we parent in the face of our own fears? 

CT: The Hawaii story always ended on the shore of the beach, it never really went past that for me, so bringing it to group, and talking about it, enabled me to process what had happened. Everything I had written before, like the essay I wrote for Motherwell, it only went so far. I’d always kept much of it inside because I thought it wasn’t my dad, it didn’t happen to me, so it wasn’t my story, my accident. I was just a witness to it; someone died in front of me. But I learned through therapy that it was a part of my story. And then I was finally able to write about it.

We don’t go to the beach or on beach vacations as a family, my kids know I am afraid of swimming and water. I don’t know how I will get over that, and I know I will continue to worry about their safety around water, about them drowning. I’ve been open to explain to my kids why I don’t, and had built up the conversation in my mind how they’d react when I told them; when that day finally came they were more like, oh okay that makes sense and that was it.

RO: You wrote an essay for the Washington Post—My daughter asked me to stop writing about her. Here’s why I can’t do that.—which went viral because of the negative backlash slamming mommy bloggers for writing about their kids. What did you learn from this experience, and did you take it to group?

CT: Of course, and for many sessions. Looking back, it was one of the miracles of group, and it was helpful to have one group member who vehemently disagreed with my position, and to work through that defense. I know now that I wasn’t clear in my position and that I had weighed in on an already tricky topic, privacy issues—particularly when it comes to kids—which is multi-faceted, and maybe I only considered one slice of it. It was extremely painful at the time, but I see how and why it happened.

I’ve learned so much from writing that post, and the aggressive response to it. I wish I could have waited and done more research, considered it more deeply and understood the conversation I was jumping into—how do we do this parenting writing from all sides? Over the years, I’ve really turned to women writing about motherhood, it’s really helped shape my own path of motherhood. Now I say I write about motherhood, not about my kids.

RO: A central theme in Group focuses on what it means to love and to be loved, how do you think we can teach this/these things to our children?

CT: I think it’s important for our children to know that loving someone means sharing all of yourself, and all of your emotions, and that includes the anger, fear, disappointment, and loneliness. I hope my children know that this is what a true relationship encompasses.

RO: Your PostScript…did you always intend on ending the book with your kids and a glimpse into your morning routine with them?

CT: Group originally ended with the wedding scene, but it felt anti-feminist to end the book that way, happily ever after because I was married off. So the postscript—ten years later on a typical morning with my kids—is indicative that the work is never truly done. Group therapy and its process have helped me create and be and have a family, this happy family life that I have. The tools I’ve learned in therapy have helped me to keep moving forward.

Christie Tate is a writer and author in Chicago. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, The New Ohio Review, Arts & Letters (forthcoming), and elsewhere. Her debut memoir Group was published this fall by Avid Reader Press. 

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