Costanza Miriano is an Italian Catholic wife, mother of four children, and journalist for Rai (Italian public television) who writes on education and relationships and has worked with the Pontifical Council for the Laity. She authors a popular blog and has written four bestselling books—including Marry Her and Die for Her—which have been translated into Spanish, French, Portuguese, Polish, Slovenian, and English.
Last month, TAN Books published an English edition of Ms. Miriano’s runaway 2013 bestseller Casate y se sumisa (“Get Married and Be Submissive”) under the title Marry Him and Be Submissive. Taking this title from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Ms. Miriano’s book offers a contemporary take on traditional Christian teachings on marriage, addressing the struggles that Catholic women today face in dating, marriage, and motherhood. Written as a series of frank and humorous letters to her closest friends, the book carries an endorsement from L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper.
In September, during her book tour of the United States, I interviewed Ms. Miriano by email about the book.
CWR: Why did you write this book?
Costanza Miriano: Actually, I didn’t think I had anything to teach about marriage! I just wanted to write letters to my real friends (I changed their names and some details) to convince them that it is possible to learn to be happy every day in our marriages. Finally, I wanted to talk about God, who is the source of love, even in a couple. But I never thought, never, that so many people were going to read it. For the first printing, they printed some hundreds of copies. I was sure that just my mother, my sister, and my old aunts were going to buy it. I never thought it would become such a big thing!
CWR: Who is your audience?
Miriano: When I write, I think I am talking to a Western emancipated woman, a woman who has passed through feminism and its achievements. A woman who is grateful because she had the chance to choose in her life. A woman who has everything but still she is unhappy, because she has lost the sense of her mission in this world: being a cradle for life. When I write I think about my typical colleagues—very good in their jobs, able to go anywhere in the world reporting about wars and financial matters; or even about engineers, lawyers, college teachers; or, finally, about the mothers of my children’s playmates, also secretaries, hairdressers. Normal women, who grew up thinking they had to establish themselves, and after that, think about others. But a woman can be fulfilled only when she gives of herself.
CWR: What is the message of this book?
Miriano: I’m discovering—because it’s a slow process, we call it conversion!—that when I give life I’m at my best. Giving life doesn’t mean just giving birth, literally. It also means generating, holding, making space. It’s the best of our vocation. God gives custody of humanity to women. We have the assignment to help humanity to look up, to the Truth, the Beauty, to God. When I speak like this it seems a very serious question, but in the book I try to say it in a funny way. During the night—a working mother of four can write in the night, and then sleep at press conferences—I often woke up my husband because I was laughing out loud (I shouldn’t say it, maybe, but I laugh at my own jokes).
CWR: Your title, rendered in English as Marry Him and Be Submissive, is a provocative callback to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where the Apostle exhorts wives to “be submissive” to their husbands, who must sacrifice themselves in love for their wives. As a wife and mother, how are you “submissive” to your husband, and how does he sacrifice himself for you?
Miriano: I don’t know if I’m always able to be as submissive as I want. Sometimes my husband goes to our bookcase, he takes my own book and says: “there’s a good book you should read.” Anyway, in spite of my daily inconsistency, I try to quit the temptation to control my husband, to [mold] him, or worse, to manipulate him. I try to accept what he gives me, which is a lot, without always checking if it’s done the way I wanted. I try to thank him for what he makes for me, and I try to avoid highlighting what’s missing to perfection (we as women are often sick of perfectionism). I try to bite my tongue. On the other hand, he gives his life to me doing silently the hard duty. All the bothers of our family life. All the broken things. Furthermore he protects me, he makes me stable: without him I think I would be a bit unreliable, he keeps my feet on the ground.
CWR: Your book promotes the complementarity approach of St. John Paul II to marital relations, seeing husbands and wives fulfilling equal yet distinct roles. How does this approach play out in your own marriage?
Miriano: Because we both work outside the house, we don’t respect traditional roles, in the sense that he often cooks, he sometimes does our laundry (I’m not very happy about that: our sheets are grey, but once they were white), he puts dishes in the dishwasher when necessary (but I think I’m more able to find room for the big frying pan). The roles are something deeper than the question “who cleans the house?”, and more spiritual. I think I’m the fire of our home, I keep everybody warm. I’m the wind: I blow to keep everybody going. But he’s the stone, he makes our children feel safe and protected, and self-confident. When he says something, they are sure about it. They know they can trust him.
CWR: You mentioned that this book unfolds as a series of candid letters from you to your closest women friends, not as a catechetical instruction or theological document. What do readers find appealing about this style?
Miriano: I think they like to look at the details of life: we Catholics know about general principles. We know catechism, we know the lives of the saints, we know the Bible. Sometimes it’s useful to think about the ways to live the faith in day-to-day life. We Catholic women like bags and shoes, just like other women. We struggle to learn to live in the world, not belonging to it. We make diets, trying not to be slaves to shape. And I tell about my family: the funny things little babies say, and the funny life of a mother who is always late, who goes to interview a government minister without knowing his face because, in the time she had to prepare herself, she had to look for a purple Barbie shoe under a bed.
CWR: What are some graces you’ve received from the sacrament of matrimony in your life?
Miriano: Everything in marriage is a grace. Living 20 years together with a creature so different from ourselves; it’s a miracle. Four children are an enormous grace. Having a house and food and the possibility to do many things is a grace. But the most important grace we receive is to understand that no human love can fill up our heart. The spouse is Jesus Christ. He’s the only one who loves us the way we want to be loved. We can’t love our wives and husbands the way they need, we can just ask for the grace to love them the way Jesus does. We slowly learn that true love has the shape of the cross.
CWR: What are some challenges you’ve faced in marriage and how have you faced them?
Miriano: My husband and I are very different: we are—I don’t know if it’s the right word—opposites. He likes cold, I like heat. He likes still water, I like it very sparkling. I hate to lose time, so when I have nothing to do—I mean nothing very urgent—I go out and run 10 kilometers; instead, when he has nothing to do, he does nothing! It sounds reasonable, thinking about it; he says that in emptiness you can have good ideas. I can think only when I run, or pray, or both (when I run to a Mass—I try to go everyday, but I’m always late). The most important difference between the two of us is maybe that I always need people around me—I invite friends, I want to know about their lives, how do they feel, and so on. He’s a bear, as we used to say: he would love to live in a cave, just with me and the puppies. We are learning to work together.
CWR: In 2013, the original Italian-language publication of your book earned criticism from feminist groups who staged protests from Italy to Spain, ripping up copies in the streets and demanding a ban on the book. What is your response to their claim that your book promotes violence against women?
Miriano: First of all, if you don’t like a book, you can easily avoid reading it. I think it’s a bit worrying, this regime of political correctness. Second, there is a judge in Spain who had to read my book (because health minister Ana Mato wanted it banned); they couldn’t find anything in my words saying that a woman has to accept violence. When a woman comes to me saying that she received a slap (it’s happened twice, but I’ve met thousands of women going around Italy), I remind her that even the Church recommends to leave home, [to] work for the restoration of the marriage [while] not living together, because it’s too dangerous. Being a cradle for life doesn’t mean we let someone take advantage of us. Ours is the highest role a human being can play. When God created the world, going from chaos to perfection, the woman was the last creature. I think only priests are more noble then women, because they allow us to access God.
CWR: In the book, you advise women to stop worrying about “first world problems” and quit waiting to get married, arguing that nobody is ever “100 percent ready” for marriage and that acting out of anxiety will not lead to a happy life. In your experience, what common reasons keep women from getting married today and what outweighs them?
Miriano: We tend to think that marriage is the end of a course; that it is graduation from life. Instead, when you get married, you begin going to the school of love. You begin your lifelong way to conversion, because the purpose of life is to know and love God. Obviously, because I try to talk also to non-Christian women (many readers are atheists, but they agree on many issues), I try to highlight human reasons (we know the human and the spiritual are never conflicting). So I tell my friends their expectations are too high. They have to dive, and then they will learn to swim. You don’t need the perfect party, the perfect dress, the perfect house, and the perfect job to decide to get married. You just need a man, and God, and the priest who makes it possible. If you also have some friends to hug it will feel better. We should also talk about the real reason why young people feel no hurry to get married: because they have sex outside marriage, and it complicates things. But that’s another issue.
CWR: You also address the complaint of many wives that their husbands “don’t listen” to them. When your husband doesn’t seem to be listening to you, what is your own response?
Miriano: The question is not that it seems he isn’t listening. He truly doesn’t listen to me! He says I talk too much, so he has to put a filter in his ears. I know it, and if I just need comprehension, when I want to complain and I don’t need a solution, I call a friend of mine. A female friend, who doesn’t have filters in her ears. When I seriously need him to listen to me, I ask: please, stop doing everything you’re doing, sit down, and watch my lips. When it’s necessary, he’s always there. When I just need to express myself, I have friends who listen, and I do the same for them. Men and women use language in a very different way. We use it to spit out feelings, emotions, worries, thoughts. On the other hand men use language to say “things.” A man always says exactly what he wants to say. When my husband asks me, “Do you need me to come and take you home from the station?”, I always answer, “It doesn’t matter.” But I actually mean: “If you won’t come, it means you don’t love me anymore, and now what are we gonna do about our four children?” We have to learn to translate each other. When my husband buys me a battery charger, I answer “I love you, too,” because that’s the way he expresses his love for me.
CWR: On the topic of pregnancy, you write there’s no way to “maintain your life” after giving birth, but you also say life after pregnancy gets “so much better.” How did pregnancy change your own life and how is it better now?
Miriano: I can’t even imagine my life without children, now. I love them like crazy, sometimes they ask me to stop saying it all day long. I wake up and tell them how beautiful they are. I somehow know they are normal, but they look extraordinary to me. My life has changed because as a mother I have learned to do so many things. When I was childless, I found it exhausting changing the water for a goldfish. Now nothing impresses me—I had twins. You learn things by doing them, and you lose nothing being a mother. Nothing apart from perfect nails and time for shopping, maybe. But what you get is much more than what you lose. You earn hugs and kisses and laughs and smiles. In a word, happiness.
CWR: When you have problems with your kids looking sloppy in public, or other issues where you may tend to beat up on yourself as a parent for not raising them perfectly, you write in the book that “wine helps.” What do you mean by that?
Miriano: It was a joke, I actually don’t drink (I’m just so Diet Coke-addicted, I can guess its expiration date with my eyes closed). But I meant that we, as mothers, all feel like this, every now and then. The trick is to laugh about it, hoping not to have lice in your hair when you go to the hairdresser.
CWR: Besides being a wife and mom, you are a familiar media personality in Italy, and many women today find it essential to their psychological health to seek fulfillment in work outside the house. What advice do you give women about balancing their home lives with their professional lives?
Miriano: It would be a very, very long answer. And it would change a lot depending on work conditions. For instance, I’ve been lucky because my public role began when my children were already grown up enough. Anyway, I think women can give very good things to society, can contribute to making the world better. But it’s useful to remember that not even the Sistine Chapel is a work of art as important and precious as the Son of God. I’m sure I’m using the best part of my skills when I’m a mother. I use my brains, creativity, strength, even if sometimes I feel like I’m invisible at home. The fact is that a woman is always defined by a look. We need to learn not to seek for the look of the boss, in the office, or the one of other people in general. Not even the look of our husband. We have to seek for the look of God in our lives, and learn to be defined just by that. So it won’t be so important if we are successful or not, according to the world.
CWR: How does Catholicism influence your approach to being a wife and mother?
Miriano: As I said, I try to love my husband the way I want to love God. If I forgive his not listening by saying nothing, it’s because Jesus asked me to do it. The same for him: He forgives me when I’m late, which is always, just because of God. And I try to educate my children by teaching them not to be successful, but to earn eternal life.
CWR: Who are your role models in the faith, either living or dead?
Miriano: I love the Blessed Mother! And my sisters are Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Thérèse of Lisieux, Claire of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Madeleine Delbrel, and Chiara Corbella Petrillo, a young mother of three who died when she was 28.
CWR: How has your faith changed or evolved over the years?
Miriano: I hope I deeply understand that God is a true and real person, who wants to have a true relationship with me. I’m no longer a baby full of fear in front of God. I want to be more and more the spouse of Jesus. And you can be a spouse when you decide not to live for yourself. You will find your beauty just like Michelangelo used to do with marble: you take off the parts you don’t need. The more you subtract yourself, the more you find your hidden beauty.
CWR: How do you pray?
Miriano: I make very challenging prayer plans, but I never completely follow them. What I’m able to do is to go to Mass, pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and a Rosary while driving or working. One hour a week I go to Eucharistic adoration, and one more hour I pray the Gospel, doing Lectio Divina. I would love to pray all four sets of mysteries of the Rosary every day, but I never succeed.
CWR: Earlier this year, Pope Francis published an apostolic exhortation on the family called Amoris Laetitia. If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about your experience of Catholic family life today, what would it be?
Miriano: Amoris Laetitia is about the beauty of the family, and it’s full of good things (the Holy Spirit knows how to do his job). But going around Italy I meet thousands of families. I learn that people are happy when they listen to someone who says that it is normal to find family life not so beautiful sometimes. There are times when to love your spouse is to love your enemy. It’s not because you are doing wrong, it’s because human nature is wounded. And loving your enemy is what Jesus requests. There are times when you will ask yourself if you have married the wrong person. There are times when you have to embrace the cross. But it’s not because your spouse is wrong. It’s because you are wrong: in the sense that there is a bug inside each one of us. We call it original sin. And embracing the cross is not a misfortune, but the path to sanctuary. Jesus heals us, and the wound is the original sin.
CWR: What do you hope people will take away from your life and work?
Miriano: I hope people listening to me think: “She seems to be joyful, and hers is a very simple path; if she can do it, I can do it too.”
CWR: Any final thoughts?
Miriano: Do you really want to know what I’m truly thinking now? I’m thinking: I have to go iron many clothes, but I can’t avoid reading again very carefully what I answered, because Father Salai is a Jesuit, and if I said something theologically wrong he will immediately realize it. The problem is that I won’t realize it. So I’m going to iron.