Uncover proven techniques to manage anxiety, guilt, and overwhelming emotions, empowering you to parent with confidence. 👩👧
Joining me this week is Dr. Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco. Ilyse is the Founder/Director of the North Jersey Center for Anxiety and Stress Management and the author of Mom Brain: Proven Strategies to Fight the Anxiety, Guilt, and Overwhelming Emotions of Motherhood—and Relax into Your New Self.
This episode is a must-listen for all new and seasoned moms, with actionable insights, real-world advice, and a fresh perspective on being the parent you want to be. We’re offering you guidance on finding joy, letting go of perfectionism, and making decisions aligned with your values!
Dr. Ilyse (00:00):
Looking at these things as experiments, exposure, opportunities to see what happens when we pull back a little bit. And what I always find so interesting is 99% of the time the pullback ends. If not well then at least fine. Also, 99.999% of the time I’ll get feedback that the kid feels good that they navigated whatever it was themselves.
Dr. Sarah (00:32):
We all know that feeling of mom brain misplacing the car keys for getting appointments or searching high and low for that cup of coffee that you left in the microwave. But mom brain can also be the heavyweight that comes with being responsible for another person and always second or third guessing your every decision. Wondering if you’re a good parent. I am absolutely thrilled to have Dr. Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco joining me today. Ilyse is the founder and director of the North Jersey Center for Anxiety and Stress Management. She’s the mother of two young boys and the author of the amazing and aptly titled book, Mom Brain: Proven Strategies to Fight the Anxiety, Guilt, and Overwhelming Emotions of Motherhood—and Relax into Your New Self. The reality is becoming a mother is undoubtedly filled with incredible joy, but it also comes with its own set of overwhelming challenges, physical and emotional. Today, Dr. Dobrow DiMarco and I will share valuable strategies for parents addressing the stress, anxiety, and guilt that so often accompany the journey of motherhood.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hello everyone. Welcome to today’s episode. We have an amazing guest today. We have Elise Dobro DeMarco here. I’m just so grateful for you to come on the show. I’m really excited.
Dr. Ilyse (02:31):
Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.
Dr. Sarah (02:32):
Yeah. So you wrote a book, Mom Brain, and you are a clinical psychologist. You work with parents this landscape. I’m just really curious how when you were thinking, I’m assuming there was some impetus for this particular book to come out of you. What was it that you were getting from parents that you were like, this needs to be addressed?
Dr. Ilyse (02:57):
It was one of those timing things. So I was seeing and continue to see. But yeah, at that time was seeing a lot of, I was a new parent myself and I was seeing in my practice in New Jersey, I’m in Summit New Jersey, which is a suburb of New York City. I was seeing a lot of women mostly, but some men too, but women mostly who I think by virtue of my age and stage were coming to me. They were at the same age and stage looking for support. And my training had been in evidence-based treatments for anxiety and related issues. So I did a lot of CBT cognitive behavioral therapy for OCD for generalized anxiety panic disorder. So that was what my background was in, and I was finding that a lot of these new moms were coming to me with very legitimate issues, with a lot of anxiety, with a lot of comparison making, with a lot of guilt and shame and anger and resentment.
And I found myself also experiencing some of those things as I was having my own kids. And so I talked to a lot of women about these issues and I was experiencing these issues myself and my friends were. And I started to think the CBT strategies that I was trained on for things like OCD or generalized anxiety disorder can be really nicely modified to fit the needs of moms and parents more generally. I’ve since kind of expanded out, but CBT and related evidence-based treatments like acceptance and commitment therapy or dialectical behavior therapy has so much to offer in terms of strategies that can get to what we’re feeling in the moment and help us manage in the moment. And I found that I could kind of modify some of the stuff I knew to really help myself, other moms, other parents. So I started just doing this in my work and then I started to think, well, I’m wondering if anybody’s writing about this.
I always sort of had a side passion for writing, had never tried to write a book or anything, and people really weren’t much of the CBT literature was and continues to be a bit more clinical. There’s not a ton of lay writing that’s done about these concepts and sharing these concepts. So as I was doing more of this work and finding that it was really helping myself and other parents, I decided, hey, let me try to write a book about this and really kind of build in all the evidence-based stuff I knew catered to this population that I think can really benefit from it. So that was the origin of the book.
Dr. Sarah (05:27):
Yeah, that’s so fantastic. And I work with a lot of parents. I’m a mom myself. I relate so much to it. And it’s funny because on the one hand it’s not pathological. We’re not solving a clinical issue, you’re a parent, it’s not a diagnosis. And yet it seems like there are these universal things that seem to be across the board. This is helpful, kind of like how when I used to run the DBT program at a hospital in the city and I would run all these DBT groups and I was like, whoa, I am getting healthier as a human being by teaching these skills because I became more skillful, right? It’s not reserved only for dealing with clinical symptoms.
Dr. Ilyse (06:15):
I could not agree more. And I think what’s been really interesting for me coming from a research psychology background and transitioning into being a private practitioner is that there are so many people that come to us that don’t necessarily meet criteria for A DSM diagnosis but benefit tremendously from the skills that we’ve developed for those diagnoses. And that’s what I have found. And now it’s funny, now I feel like a lot of the moms that I treat have kids, my kids’ ages. I feel like my patients are growing with me. So my kids now are 12 and nine and I still see a lot of parents of little ones too. But it’s interesting because I have found as I’m branching out and working with parents of older kids now, I’m like, these strategies are great for everyone. They’re just great for everyone. Even if you’re not a parent, CBT Strategies, DBT Strategies Act strategies are so useful to help us in the moment. So I’m generally very passionate about taking these strategies that we know work from research studies and adapting them for everybody because I think everybody really benefits from them.
Dr. Sarah (07:25):
And I mean as much as being a parent is not a diagnosis, there are some very unique challenges to being a parent. There’s a tremendous amount of overstimulation. There’s like you get touched out, you have to juggle 50 million things. You have to figure out how do I stay connected to myself when I’ve got other human lives that feel more important than mine? And they’re sometimes very acutely in the balance. It’s a different level of stress than most people are used to before they become parents.
Dr. Ilyse (08:03):
Definitely. And actually one of the things that I talk to parents about a lot is I think a lot of parents can say, when I was in school if I really studied and I really applied myself, the results were there. I got the grades that I needed at my job. If I do the right things and if I work really hard and make the right connections, I can do well. But here with this parenting stuff, I can read everything. I can follow a million parenting psychologists on Instagram, I can do all this stuff and do everything, and yet things are still not going my way. And I think that is so hard for so many people who really have trouble getting their heads around all of the things that we cannot control when we become parents and all of the things that can really interfere with our best intentions or our plans. And so much of what I talk about really all the time with parents is like, okay, well what can you control and what can’t you? And let’s help you figure out those things, but know that parenting is not the other endeavors that you’ve had in your life before because there is another person involved or other people and so much out of your control.
Dr. Sarah (09:20):
Which is a very difficult thing mean especially, I don’t know if I wonder if there’s a self-selecting population of parents who come to me and maybe also to you if you specialize in anxiety, are you getting more anxious parents? If I specialize in emotion regulation stuff, am I getting families who are dealing with more challenging and out of control emotions themselves and their kids? We kind of put up our flags and people come to us for those things. But I do find there are pressures that parents have internalized, and I don’t know if it’s always coming in part from society in part from within, but I get parents who have really high expectations of themselves and by extension pretty high expectations of their kids. And I think that could be, it can make it really hard to what you’re describing, how do you let go of control? How do you focus on what you can control? That’s hard to do when you feel out of control because you want to grab onto something really tight. It’s like a life preserver.
Dr. Ilyse (10:28):
Yeah, no, and it’s a work in progress for a lot of people. And I think the, it’s funny, one of the strategies that I really like from me from exposure and response prevention, which we do for obsessive convulsive disorder and related other anxiety disorders as well, is we have this idea of screwing up on purpose where you actually have an assignment from your therapist to go mess something up and see what happens. And so on the control front, I’ve done some of that with my patients to say, okay, why not just let your kid walk to school without you? I mean there’s many, many examples, but presuming it’s safe, I’m not saying busy city streets here, but we’re talking parents who say live in a suburban area and it’s perfectly safe and they were trying to micromanage their morning and it’s not going well. So we’ll talk about, okay, well can you purposely just not go and see what happens?
Or even to the opposite extreme, like I was saying before, screw up something on purpose and see what happens. Can you not respond to that birthday party invite? Don’t send a response, right? They say RSVP by December 11th, don’t do it. Let’s see what happens. I do a lot of that where it’s like, let’s experiment with not having control over everything, as I said, in some cases actually screwing up on purpose and let’s see what happens and let’s see how that outcome compares to the outcome where you’re trying to have your hand in everything and control everything and always be there and always be doing. So we do a lot of that and I think it’s really effective. I think parents see, oh, hey, I can loosen the rains in a bunch of places and the sky won’t fall.
Dr. Sarah (12:16):
Yeah. Well I think what you’re speaking to really challenges perfectionism in parenting, which is so huge. I think for everybody, this idea that I’m hearing the audience listen to this episode and hear you say, don’t RSVP to the thing, and I’m hearing them like, oh my God, I can’t do that. That would be rude. And they would be mad, and it’s not fair to that other mom who’s trying to plan the part. And it’s totally, totally, that’s all true. And can you sit with that discomfort because it’s an exercise in being uncomfortable.
And that I think is at the core of a lot of the stuff is like can we increase our tolerance for the discomfort that comes when we let go of the tight grip on the control? And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences and it’s not messy. And you might have to go back and repair with that mom friend and be like, Hey, sorry about that, but I couldn’t get to it. You don’t have to get into the why, you could just apologize. But to be in that uncomfortable space, there’s so much magic in that, but it’s really terrifying.
Dr. Ilyse (13:30):
Yeah, you got to practice a lot. So if there’s parents who I’m doing this with, we do it very gradually and maybe the first thing is leave out a word in an email to your kid’s teacher. It’s something. And again, I would never tell parents to do anything that would jeopardize their kids or themselves or we’re talking small stuff. So we’ll kind of build, and maybe they do that and then the RSVP is later on in the process. We’ll say, okay, are you ready? And for some parents it’s just like, wait a day. So if December 11th is the cutoff, if you really can’t manage it, see how much you can push RS v ping. Maybe it’s December 12th and you say, okay, I got to do it now, but try to push yourself to the 13th or the 14th. So it’s really about kind of building up the tolerance. But you’re absolutely right it, it’s tolerating the discomfort. And I also think it’s tolerating uncertainty, which is just a great anxiety management goal for everybody because there is so much uncertainty, particularly in parenting, but in life in general. So it’s about that as well.
Dr. Sarah (14:34):
And I feel like even with our kids, there’s the, I’m going to be the perfect mom or the perfect dad that always signs up for the PTA meeting on time or RCPs or says yes to this and this and this and this, but then there’s also the, I’m going to let my kid figure this out. I’m not going to solve the problem. There’s the things that are both perfectionism for us or sitting in the discomfort about how we see our own role as a parent or our identity as a parent, but then there’s how do we support our kids? And it’s intertwined my identity as a parent is connected to how much I allow my child to struggle with something and teasing those things apart a little bit like I’m curious or thoughts on how do we help parents separate themselves from their kids a little bit?
Dr. Ilyse (15:30):
Yeah, I mean it’s interesting. I was mentioning that as I’ve gotten older, my patients too have gotten older and all of our kids have gotten older. And this is definitely something I didn’t address as much in mom brain because mom brain, while I think actually useful for all parents because these are evergreen skills, it was really focused on parents of kids ages, like zero to five. So this particular issue didn’t come up, but this idea, yes, of when do we let our kids make their own mistakes, make their own calls, comes up all the time. And once again, I tend with my patients to frame it as exposure opportunities to say, okay, this is an exposure therapy exercise. I mean, what I hear about a lot now, so my older one is in seventh grade, so I certainly hear from him and I hear from a lot of my patients who have kids around that age, the social stuff man is just, I’m sure all your listeners can relate those who have middle school kids. There’s just so much. And I’ve talked to so many of my patients about, well, do I get involved if I find out that my kid is having a lunch table squabble with another kid? Do I get involved? And again, it goes even earlier than that by the way of do I?
Dr. Sarah (16:41):
Oh yeah, I’m dealing with it in kindergarten right now. It’s there.
Dr. Ilyse (16:44):
Yeah, I was just thinking too of somebody who I work with and it’s swim lessons and the kid is ready, ready meaning from the instructor to do swim lessons without the parents present. And this patient of mine can’t wrap her head around not being there to stare at her kid doing swim lessons, so afraid her kid is going to flail and her kid is not going to be able to do it without her. And so all of these are examples where I’ll say, okay, well we’ve got to work on you challenging yourself. We’ve got to work on you. Here’s your exposure homework for the week. Let her go into swim lessons herself or we’ll build up to it. Be in there for the first 10 minutes and slowly make your way out or whatever you want to do. And similarly, for parents of older kids, it’s a lot of, okay, we understand that you’re really interested in solving this lunchroom squabble for your kid.
Can your assignment this week be not to reach out to that mom and give it some time? Let’s give it some time. Let’s give it between now and your session next week and let’s see what happens. So it’s a lot of that. It’s almost like looking at these things as experiments, exposure, opportunities to see what happens when we pull back a little bit. And what I always find so interesting is 99% of the time the pullback ends. If not well then at least fine. And the parent has, and what I will say also, 99.999% of the time, I’ll get feedback that the kid feels good that they navigated whatever it was themselves. So it’s such a confidence builder for the kid to be able to say, you know what? I walked into the lunchroom and I decided not to sit next to so-and-so but put myself next to so-and-so instead, and it felt really good.
Instead of, oh, the parent has to call up so-and-so’s parent and say, what’s going on in the lunchroom? Or similarly with the little kid in swim class to be like, oh my goodness, I did swim class by myself. It was the big kid swim class. That’s all really important in terms of the development of our kids. And I’ll just end on this very quickly, but I think what happened with Covid unfortunately is that parents spent so much time with their kids over a concentrated period of time that I think it’s been particularly challenging for parents to back off after that even as the world has reopened and as things are now deemed as safe as they’re going to be and all of that. And so I’ve found I’m doing a lot of that work post covid, a lot of the let your kids do, let your kids be, don’t try to control kind of stuff.
Dr. Sarah (19:25):
Yeah, same honestly. Although it’s funny, and I’m curious if your experience has been that a lot of this anxiety of I need to do this, I need to solve this problem, I need to be present for every thing, I need to be in it with them all the time. Is that in your experience with the people that you work with, is that coming more from the parents internally, this is what I’m supposed to do. Is it a response of the parent to the child who’s asking for it? Is the child saying, don’t leave me you, I can’t do this without you, I need your help. While those are two separate things, I think they can feed into each other and kind of become a propelling kind of thing.
Dr. Ilyse (20:11):
Like a symbiotic thing. I would agree, yes. So I would say I’ve heard both, and I’ll say in terms of them working together, that for me was a very big covid thing. So I saw a lot of people who had babies around the time of covid or whose kids reached toddlerhood when covid hit. And I think that for me was a particularly challenging mix of the kid wanting the parent to be there and the parent wanting to be there because the kids had at home with their parents and nobody else for a long time. So the kid got really used to their parents as the only people around, and in turn, the parents got used to being the ones who were watching their children 24 7. And so that dynamic is very tricky in terms of now those kids starting to, they’re like toddlers or a little older and they’re starting to get out in the world.
And I think on both sides, the kids like, oh my gosh, I need my parents. And the parents were like, oh my gosh, I can’t not watch my kids. And I do think that was particularly a particular covid thing. And then as far as the, I should say that I treat just adults, not kids. So I hear about everything just from the parent side. I think with parents of older kids, it depends. There are some kids who experience anxiety who really clinging to their parents. And so in that case, we really talk about, okay, well what’s the best role for the parent in terms of not accommodating the kid’s anxiety? Right? I will say though, I think a lot of the impetus to involve oneself comes internally from the parents that I treat, right? This idea. And I think there’s just this general idea now as parents, and I’ve read, and I’m sure your listeners have as well, I’ve read so many things about this, about the expectations of parents in our generation even as opposed to our parents’ generation where the expectation is like you do everything. You are always present, you are always involved. And I think carrying that expectation around when you see your kid struggling, you think, oh, I have to involve myself here because that’s my role as parent, call it helicoptering, call it whatever you want. I’m responsible for dictating this kid’s happiness, which you can’t be. So it becomes very difficult. So I would say a lot of it does come from the parents themselves and their own expectation of themselves, their own very unfair expectations of themselves.
Dr. Sarah (22:55):
So if someone’s resonating with this, they’re like, okay, wait, maybe I am, maybe a lot of the perception that I have that I need to be doing X, Y, Z all the time. Maybe that is coming from an internal place. How do you help parents explore that? Check that a little bit, challenge it, stretch past it. I mean, we talked a little bit about a little exposure strategies, but what are some other things that parents can do when they’re noticing that happening?
Dr. Ilyse (23:26):
This is, so exposures is specific strategies, and I’ll say sort of a larger thing that I have most of my parents do at some point down the line in our work together, which is, and then this comes mostly from acceptance and commitment therapy. I have parents think a lot and do a whole worksheet on, I have one in the book too, on their values, the things that matter to them, the things that are important to them as people. And there’s one section that’s parenting values, but there’s a whole bunch of other sections. And so there’s values as a partner, there’s values in work if you work, there’s values in terms of leisure activities and recreational things. I spend a lot of time with parents going through values work because I like parents to be able to use their values to dictate the choices they make as opposed to using what they feel they should should be doing.
So I’ll give an example, and this is a composite example of lots of parents who I’ve worked with who’ve come to the same conclusion. Parents will often articulate as a parenting value, I want my kid to be independent. I want my kid to be able to go to sleepaway camp to make their own lunch to whatever. And so we’ll go through those values and then we’ll come upon decision points where they will express a desire to do something for their kid. And I will say, wait a minute, this is not values consistent though. You’re saying that you value independence in your child, so why are you choosing to do X, y, or Z thing for them? And I think that can be really helpful because like I said, I think it helps parents to separate what they truly want for themselves, for their kids versus again what they perceive they should be wanting or should be doing.
And if you can start to reference values in that way for them, it can be really helpful. And that leads into the other issue of parental self-care, and I hate that term, but parental parents doing things that are for them, just for them, not for their kids, not for their jobs, whatever. And that too is values driven to say, okay, well if you value X, Y, Z things in your life, we got to help you make choices consistent with those values. So I think values work in general is very, very helpful and I frame a lot of things in terms of that.
Dr. Sarah (25:48):
Yeah, there’s two things that you said that made my mind go to. One is like, okay, when you do values work, it sounds like what you’re doing is helping a parent find an internal locus of control. Whereas if I’m thinking I’m supposed to be doing this, I’m supposed to be doing that, this is what people expect me to do, these are the rules, those are external focused, those are external locus of control. And when we have way too many of those, we really lose our compass. And so going inward and saying, well, what do I want? What is my value here? Can be that sort of anchoring internal compass thing. And then that’s super helpful to be checking avere decision against that. But then the other thing you said was like, okay, yeah, we have our values for our kids and as parents, but when we open that back up to the whole, because I think sometimes with parents who get sort of really anxious about doing everything and being very tightly controlled about how they’re perceived as a parent or how they interact with their kid or how their kid interacts in the world, they are solely thinking about their parenting identity and their relationship with their kid and their relationship as a parent to themselves as a parent becomes the only thing in the space.
And so that zooming out and saying, okay, but we’re more than that, that’s important. It might take up a really big piece of the pie, but what are the other slices? What is the oven? And is anything atrophying? Is anything getting really neglected? How do we balance that out more? That feels super important in terms of managing anxiety because it also, it’s like, oh wait, hold on, wait. There are other things I care about and that are part of my identity, which then makes, if parenting is your only identity that you can connect with, then every decision that could potentially be difficult becomes basically life or death, make or break. Am I everything? If this doesn’t work, then who am I if I’m not the good parent versus I am so many things, if I have a tough day in parenting, I’ve got a lot of other identities I can lean into and feel stabilized.
Dr. Ilyse (28:11):
Oh yeah, I could not agree more. In fact, one of the things that I stole a little bit from CBT for eating disorders, which in my former life I used to do a lot of, there’s this concept of thinking of the self as a pie, think of it as a circle. And in the eating disorders world, a lot of, one of the things we talk about in treatment is sort of like what slice of this pie, what percentage is taken up by thoughts of shape and weight? And of course for folks who are in the midst of a significant eating disorder, a large chunk of that pie is taken up by shape and weight. I’ve talked to a lot of parents about their pies and this idea that parenting can take up way too much of that pie. And this’s exactly what you’re speaking to Sarah, exactly where it is you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, and you’re right, everything gets viewed through the lens of parenting.
Every decision gets made vis-a-vis your children, which is not to say you don’t want to include your children in your decisions, but there’s also other factors in your life. And so one of the things that I work with patients on a lot is this idea of how do you get more slices in that pie because it’s really important to get back to who you are. And that’s actually been an interesting transition I’ve made too in working, starting to work with parents of somewhat older kids, is they are like, wow, my kids don’t need me that much anymore. And now I’ve got this huge pie that’s devoted just to them, but they’re off at school all day. And so we work a lot on how do we, again, get different slices in there and we want values consistent slices, we want things that are really important to them and meaningful to them.
So yes, I think it’s a huge piece. And you mentioned it reducing anxiety, which I couldn’t agree with more. I think honestly, one of the things that can help with this, the really hardcore anxiety you have about your kids is having other stuff in your life too, because it can mitigate some of the kid related anxiety where if again, your whole pie is just your kids, it’s really hard to manage some of the anxiety and listen, parenting is wonderful and scary and difficult and anxiety. There’s always going to be something making you anxious as a parent, whether it’s something your kid is experiencing or what’s going on in your kid’s environment, or there’s always going to be something and you want to have, again, other slices that help to mitigate that kid related anxiety a little bit or take you out of it or help you focus on something different.
Dr. Sarah (30:42):
Yeah, if parents are like, what would be one or two things somebody could do to maybe become more aware of their pie and the ratio of it, and then also maybe to what’s a skill you might teach to help somebody diversify?
Dr. Ilyse (31:00):
So I actually tell parents to make the pie, and again, I stole this from Ccbt for eating disorders. Part of, in fact, one of the assessments I used to do a lot for ccbt for eating disorders actually asked patients to do this, to create a pie and figure out what percentage was shape and weight. So I’ll have patients be like, Hey, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about what’s in your life and what takes up your brain space. If this pie is your brain space, hypothetically speaking, what percentage do you think is kids? What percentage do you think is recreational stuff? What percentage do you think is time with your partner, whatever. And so we’ll just throw it out there. And then what I am very big on as a way to bring more values, consistent stuff into one’s life is scheduling. I’m a huge proponent of scheduling.
So this is sort of more of the B of CBT, the behavioral piece where again, having done a values exercise, I’ll say to my patients, all right, what are some things that you value that you are missing right now that’s not present? So big ones I hear about are exercise is a big one, socializing outside of the kids’. Fear is a big one. Any other hobbies are a big one. We talked about our mutual friend who sings doing things like that. As a parent, sometimes extended family is a big one. Sometimes it’s not. Depends, spirituality, there’s a whole bunch of things that people can identify that are values consistent that are missing from their lives. And then I’ll say, okay, we got to schedule these things in. And I don’t mean schedule, like say, okay, well maybe one day this week I’ll exercise. I’ll say, let’s take a look at your calendar and let’s find, if you want to exercise two days a week, let us find two days where you can fit an exercise exactly when exactly what are the circumstances going to be and put it in your phone as you would a meeting for your kid or a work meeting or anything else.
And it sounds really annoying, but I have found the best way of getting parents, particularly of really young kids, to get some values, consistent stuff back into their lives to say, all right, I’m going to prioritize this. I’m going to find the times and days that really work and sometimes it requires modification. I’ve talked to, God knows how many parents now about doing little exercise things while their kids are napping. They’re like, well, the only time I have, I’m like, look, can you get on YouTube and do a little yoga for 15 minutes? So some of it involves creativity to say, maybe you can’t go and run eight miles a day like you used to, but how can you fit this in? It’s important to you and it’s values consistent and it’s going to round out your pie. So it’s really about scheduling. And I do so much scheduling because I really do feel that if you’re a parent, if you don’t have something scheduled in for yourself, you’re not going to do it. There’s always going to be a kid thing that can come up, or if you work a work thing that’ll come up, there’s always going to be something else. So you’ve really got to prioritize and very specifically schedule and the values consistent things you need.
Dr. Sarah (33:54):
Yeah, I think that’s so true. On the one hand, these are sort of big open questions, reflective questions, what makes you happy? There’s this question, I don’t remember even where I saw it, but I didn’t come up with this, but someone posed this question and I literally almost cried, but it was like, what would your 7-year-old self be sad to know that you don’t do anymore? And I was like, dang, that…
Dr. Ilyse (34:28):
That is powerful. That’s exactly, look, that captures it so beautifully. Exactly what I’m saying. Yeah. It’s like the stuff that makes you you is still important when you’re a parent and it can so easily get lost, I guess. I love that question.
Dr. Sarah (34:46):
Yeah, it definitely hit me. I knew the answer immediately and I was like, it’s swimming. I used to swim. I used to be such a swimmer. I was on swim teams my whole life and I don’t swim ever anymore. And I would be so sad if I knew that maybe it wasn’t a 7-year-old me, but maybe it was like if an 11-year-old me knew I don’t swim anymore, they would be so what? That was my life. And I think too, so there’s this more abstract emotional piece of what do you need? What’s missing? What did you let go of that is part of who you are. And there’s a play element to that too. I always am. Play needs to be on that pie. People are very like, okay, well yes, I need to exercise. Yes, I need to cook more healthy foods. Yes, I need to schedule that time with a friend. Yes, I need to get on date on the calendar with my partner and all these things, to your point of we need to schedule them. They actually have to happen. We can’t just think about it. They have to be put in and made concrete. But then there’s also what do we do to play? What do we do that’s just joyful?
That’s harder. I think for parents who are very anxious or perfectionistic or feeling very overwhelmed by the need to be a certain level of got it all togetherness. They’re moving very far away from play, I would imagine. And so play is probably a hard place to just, how do you make space on your calendar for that, right? What does that look like?
Dr. Ilyse (36:29):
I totally agree with that. And I think the challenge is that a lot of parents feel incredibly guilty if they do anything for themselves that’s fun. They’re not allowed to do that. They’re not. And it’s this idea of, no, I can make fun for others. My job is to make fun for other people. I happened to be somebody sent to me, this was a couple years old, but there was this Saturday night live thing with Kristen Wig a couple of years ago where she plays a mom on Christmas morning and the kids and the dad are talking about how they got all these amazing gifts and the mom’s like, and I got a robe. And it’s like that’s the running joke of the sketch is that she got everyone else’s presence. All they got her was some crummy robe that was on sale and she looked sad.
And to me, that’s exactly what we’re talking about is my job is to make fun for everybody else, but there’s no fun for me. So yes, the fun is a hard sell. And again, that’s why with the values worksheet that I have and that I have in the book, or you can get values worksheets, if you just Google it, you can find a whole bunch. One of the sections I have is recreation and leisure. And within that, I really encourage people to be like, so yeah, there’s working out. And for some people they love it and it’s part of their identity and it is fun for other people. They have to force themselves. So for the people have to force themselves. I’m like, well, what’s the leisure activity that you like? And to your point about that quote, I will often ask people, what did you used to do before you had kids?
And sometimes people will be like, I don’t even remember. And so I’ll really be like, okay, take yourself back to high school. What were you doing in high school? What were the things that brought you joy at that time? And so sometimes you really have to take people back so they can remember. And again, it’s about scheduling this stuff in and about saying, this is a therapy homework assignment for you. You’ve got to go home and do x fun, frivolous thing that you haven’t done since you were 16 years old. And as with any kind of exposure type homework in CBT, these things all feel sort of uncomfortable at first until you do them enough times and then you’re like, okay, I can get behind this. So the first time you’re doing that frivolous thing, instead of dipping into the list of a million things you have to do as a parent, you’ll feel a little icky.
You’ll be like, oh gosh, the time is passing and I should be doing this, but I’m doing this fun thing. The more you do it though, the easier it gets until you’re like, yeah, I really can get behind this. Me doing a fun thing at whatever cadence works for you once a week, once a day, I’ll talk to patients about what they need. So it it’s practice. It’s funny to say it’s like practicing leisure activities, but you do have to practice it and get used to it and get used to stepping back again and not always full throttle parenting all the time.
Dr. Sarah (39:23):
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a lot easier to be, to just add more shoulds to the list of to-dos. And I think that’s the tightrope we have to walk is how do we expand our identity outside of parenthood, but not just in terms of being like, oh, I also need to hit that organic market and I also need to send all the thank you notes, whatever. I guess that’s parenting usually, but whatever. How do we make sure it’s not just more shoulds?
Dr. Ilyse (40:00):
Yeah, no, because the shoulds are unending, unending. And particularly we’re like social media is concerned. It’s just a constant bombardment of shoulds at parents.
Dr. Sarah (40:13):
Yes. And you talk about this a lot too, this idea of how much social media has sort of hijacked the way our perception of ourselves as parents and the story we tell about ourselves as parents. I definitely want to hear your thoughts on that.
Dr. Ilyse (40:28):
Yeah. Oh goodness. I have so many thoughts. And I think a lot of the social media parenting stuff really exploded over the pandemic too. Everyone was home and had time and was lurking around social media, and there’s so much of this. Yes, so there’s so many aspects of this. So there’s the aspect of performative parenting where people go on social media to perform as parents. So you’re seeing their beautifully curated parenting story. You’re not necessarily seeing what’s going on behind closed doors. And obviously I talk to patients about that a lot. Another thing I talk to patients a lot about is the idea of considering the messenger, which again is a CBT concept that I’ve sort of adapted to the parenting space. I think a lot of parents, at least many of the parents that come to see me will come in and say, oh my gosh, I saw this thing on Instagram that I’m supposed to do and I’m not doing it. And oh, no. And they won’t really stop and consider who’s telling them supposed to do that, who is the messenger here?
And sometimes I’ll ask, and the parent, my patient will be like, I actually don’t remember. It was something I saw on Instagram, I don’t remember who said it. And sometimes they will remember, but it’ll turn out to actually be someone where if I have my patient look into their background, it’s very clear to them that this person has very different values from theirs. And that’s where it gets back to considering the messenger. If you’re getting a message coming in through social media that you should be doing something and it’s giving you anxiety, ask yourself, who’s telling you that you should be doing this? Is this a person whose opinions you value? Is this a person whose values you think you share? Because if so, okay, maybe that’s someone who it’s worth your time listening to, but if not, toss it aside. I liken it to, if you’re going to a medical doctor for some physical illness and you look online and you don’t really respect that doctor’s training and you think the doctor kind of sounds like a quack, and then you listen to their medical advice anyway, that’s sort of the way that I see it.
And so I really try to help my patients be consumers on social media and ask themselves, who’s telling me this? And again, is this someone whose opinions I value and whose values I seem to share? And this gets at a lot of the celebrity stuff too, where patients will say, oh my gosh, this celebrity mom is doing that. And I’ll be like, okay, well what do we know about this? Celebrity mom probably has a staff of thousands. There’s probably a lot of things that make her values a little different than yours. So it’s a lot of that of being, like I said, sort of a more educated consumer. And then I have some patients, frankly, who just either go off social media entirely or we’ll choose to be very, and this gets back to scheduling, be very structured about it. So I’ve had tons of patients who will say, I scroll in bed at night and then I can’t sleep because I’m filled with all these things I feel I should be doing. And so I’ll say, okay, well we can’t be doing this at night. What’s your social media time for the day? When are you doing it? When are you stopping it? Et cetera. So there’s a lot of that too, of just figuring out, okay, how much of this can I reasonably consume and still feel like I can keep my head above water? Which I think is important.
Dr. Sarah (43:56):
I think that’s so helpful. So I’m hearing filter, filter the information that’s coming in with a little bit of double checking, and I love this idea of who is telling me this and do they match my values? I also feel like to add a layer to that, I also feel like we could ask, let’s say for example, because my head goes to me, I’m a psychologist, I talk about parenting, and I also want parents to listen to what I’m saying and then think, does this work for my kid? Because not every single thing that even someone whose opinion you respect will or should work for your kid. And I feel like there’s a lot of people in this space who have fantastic credentials, they know what they’re talking about, and yet they sometimes fail to give parents that dose of permission to say, you don’t need to use this if it doesn’t work for you, because no single thing will work for all kids.
And I think that is a missing message in a lot of social media content. I think yes, we need to filter out who is this coming from? Is this a vetted source? Do they share my values? Because right away you can get rid of a lot of noise just with that question. But even inside the, yeah, I respect where this information’s coming from and I think we share values and does this match up in this particular scenario with me and my kid? Because sometimes it won’t, and we need permission again to your internal compass thing, that internal value and maybe that internal value is like, I want my kid to be independent to your earlier example. One family’s independent child is going to look super different to another family’s independent child because those two kids are different. And one kid may not be able to do something that another kid could, and we could still see them as independent. So it’s like you have to also really be like, does this fit me and my family in this moment in time, in their developmental stage, in the chaos in our life, in this moment? What’s our resources? What’s going on? Do we just have a big transition? Probably not going to be super into whatever it is, but that individualization and that reflecting it back to like, is this fit my reality? I feel like can be very, that can cut out a lot of noise too.
Dr. Ilyse (46:37):
Yeah, I agree. And I talk to patients a lot about guidelines versus rules, exactly what you’re talking about. Because they will at times latch onto a certain social media account or whatever that we deem, as you said, values consistent and appropriate, but they take the words as gospel.
And you never can because as you pointed out, and it’s not just, even if you have one child, kids change so much that something that might work for you for even, and obviously between children totally different, but even within a kid, things are changing so much and something that might work for them now might not work for them three months from now because their environment has changed or, so I always talk about guidelines versus rules. These are all just guidelines, but you don’t always have to follow guidelines if in fact it’s not appropriate for you. The one that comes to mind instantly about this is the breastfeeding thing, which goodness. I mean, if I had a dime for every mom who came to me wracked with guilt because she could not breastfeed, it’s all my fault. Oh gosh, I could talk about this for a million trillion hours.
But I think this is a great example where there’s been so much messaging from very obviously reputable sources that breastfeeding is good, wonderful. However, it does not work for all women for a variety of reasons. It may be physiological, it’s difficult for them. It may be situational. They’re in a work situation where it’s impossible. There’s so many reasons why it does not work for many women, and it’s totally fine for those women to feed their kids in other ways. So I think that’s to me, a shining example of not following these things to the letter and really considering your own circumstances and your kids’ circumstances and what’s, as you said, what happens to be going on in your lives at that period of time.
Dr. Sarah (48:40):
Yeah, I think to your point, one of the reasons why parenthood has this unique set of stressors is in part because yes, there’s pressure coming from inside, it’s coming from inside the house. We put so much pressure on ourselves, but where did it originate? We internalized it from somewhere. We weren’t born with some notion of what we are supposed to do as parents. A baby isn’t like, okay, I’ve got this rule book from birth. It’s like, no, we take it in as we grow. And it is generational, and I think I hope we’re moving in a direction where we’re in some ways breaking some of those cycles. But I think in other ways we’re creating a whole new set of perfectionistic problems and pressures on parents that did not exist for our parents. And I think definitely social media is one of the things that is new. If you look generationally, it’s kind of new to RF. We’re probably, I mean, I’m 38, my kids are six and four and a half. I think parents of this sort of millennial and even just one generation before, not even that much. We’re the first generation to be parenting in the realm of social media and it’s toxic.
Dr. Ilyse (50:12):
Oh, definitely. And I think it’s even so my sister has 22-year-old and a sophomore in college. And even the difference between what she was exposed to and what I have been exposed to with a 12 and 9-year-old vastly different. And I imagine for you, Sarah, with somewhat younger kids, it’s even more of a thing. I think you’re right. I think it’s just right. And again, because there’s no end to what you see on social media, there is no end to the messaging that’s being thrown at parents about all the different things they need to be doing. They need to be buying, they need to be saying, I mean to the point where I have patients who really want to be told what to say to their children in very specific interactions and think there can be kind of scripts for everything. And I think social media says, yeah, there can be.
And here’s the script. And I think the pressure is so intense and so difficult. And you mentioned internal locus of control. I mean, for me, I think a general mission that I have is to help parents get back to that internal locus of control to get back to again what they value. Because I feel like, I don’t know my parents, if I think of my mom in particular, I don’t ever remember her caring much what other moms were doing. And I think in part it was because she just didn’t know. I mean, there wasn’t social media she didn’t know. But I would love for parents to get back to that, to feel like I’m going to make choices that are good for me and for my family, given who I am given who, if I have a partner, who my partner is given who my children are, I’m going to make the values consistent choices for all of us that may be totally different than the choices my neighbors make for their kids. And nobody’s wrong and nobody’s right. That’s another thing too. A lot of parents will come in and ask me, do you think I was wrong in this situation? Whether it’s a parenting decision or a discussion with another parent or whatever. And I’m like, there’s no right or wrong. There’s just like what’s values consistent for you? What for you is most is the decision, the action that fits best with how you want to parent and who you want to be.
Dr. Sarah (52:39):
And it goes back to sitting in the discomfort because someone might think you’re wrong, and you have to be able to say, they can think I’m wrong, and it’s going to feel uncomfortable to know that and to continue to move in a direction that feels aligned with my values because I might be judged for it. I have felt many a time on the playground judgment, and it’s not like in my head I can feel it and I can see it. And for example, if I’m not making my kid share a toy, if people have listened to the podcast, they know I have sort of a bigger view of sharing. You need to give a child access to territory for them to be able to willingly learn how to give it up. And so when they’re little, I’m like, yeah, you’re using that. What can you say to this?
Can you tell the kid, I’m not done. You can have it when I’m done. Instead of saying like, oh, no, no, you have to let them have a turn. And I get the look from the person who’s like, give my kids a toy. Now it’s their turn. And it’s like, oh. So it’s like I’m parenting in alignment with my personal values. They’re not better or worse than anyone, but they’re the ones that I’m choosing. They work for me and my kid, and I might be pissing somebody off in doing it, and it’s uncomfortable and I have to tolerate it. And sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m just like, you know what? Just give him a toy. We’ll practice this somewhere else another time. So it’s hard. Being parent is so hard. A lot of discomfort. And sitting in it is the work sometimes.
Dr. Ilyse (54:20):
Oh yeah, I do. I mean all the time. So part of my book has no stories specifically about patients I treat, but composite stories based on patients I treated, but also I write about a lot of my own stuff. And one of the things that came to mind when you were sharing your story there was that when my older son was in kindergarten, we were tasked with dressing them for Thanksgiving and they were supposed to dress the first Thanksgiving, and we were told to consult Pinterest. And I was like, you know what? Not only do I not have time for this, but I stink at this. I am read this. I’m not crafty. I can’t do costumes, I stink. And my son was like, I don’t really want to do this. And I was like, okay, well, I think we’re not going to do this.
And it was my first year in a new school and I was very conscious of how people were thinking of me and my family. And I very reluctantly talk about sitting in discomfort. I can still remember dropping him off at school. The best we got was an orange pumpkin. So he was in an orange pumpkin long sleeve. And I’m looking at the line of kids waiting to go in and there are these impeccable costumes, and I’m like, yeah, I’m going to probably be judged for this by some and my kid, perhaps by some. But you know what? I made a values consistent choice, not just for me, but for my son who was like, I don’t want to dress up. And I was like, well, I don’t want to be making first Thanksgiving costumes out of pine cones or whatever. I don’t want to do this either. So it ended up for me that was the same as your example there. That’s my story of this where I was like, and I did feel uncomfortable a hundred percent, but I don’t regret it because I think for me it was the right thing for me. I was exhausted. I had a two-year-old at the time. Also. I just couldn’t make it work and it was right for my son.
Dr. Sarah (56:06):
Yeah, there’s beauty in us sharing those stories because again, the parent who did the elaborate acorn paper mache, whatever, that was their choice. And maybe they felt very compelled to do it, and it wasn’t a values-based decision. Maybe they were like, this is my joy, right? Oh my God, I get to craft, this is me playing. Right? So for whatever, and there’s no right or wrong, and we’re so stuck in this idea that there’s a set of rules, and if we don’t obey the rules, we’re wrong. If other parents don’t obey the rules, we’re going to judge them. It’s like, whose rules? Whose rules? We got to rethink this a little bit.
Dr. Ilyse (56:48):
I completely agree. And you’re right. And I happen to know, having gotten to know many of these parents much better now. Yeah. The ones who had the elaborate costumes are the ones who love this stuff, who love making things, who love. And so again, value’s consistent for them.
Dr. Sarah (57:04):
So maybe that’s the takeaway, right? If you take one thing away from this episode, it’s like how do you just check in with your values? I think that this idea of doing an actual pie would be really great exercise for anyone listening to just do it, get a piece of paper, draw a circle, figure out what goes in that pie, and then figure out and then look at it and say, how does it feel to look at this? Does this feel okay to me? To see this particular set of ratios is something I want to change. What do I wish? What would my seven Yearold self want this pie to look like.
Dr. Ilyse (57:36):
I really like that. I’m going to use that, Sarah. I really, really like that. I think you said it well too. Maybe you say 11 or 12-year-old, right? Because that’s right where my son is right now, and I’m like, yeah, that age when you’re so passionate about so many things and you really identify with things like what can you get back from that time?
Dr. Sarah (57:56):
Yeah. Yeah. So co-create that values wheel with your inner child.
Dr. Ilyse (58:01):
Dr. Sarah (58:03):
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on. If people want to read your book or learn more about your work, how can they connect with you?
Dr. Ilyse (58:12):
So my book is called Mom Brain and that you can get it on Amazon or anywhere else. Well, I’ll give you my old and my new website. So I’m still operating with my old website. My new one is under construction. Should be ready. My old one is Doctor, it’s not that fancy, but it’s just my old one is doctor cbt mom.com, which is DR ccbt mom.com. My new one is going to be dr elise.com, D-R-I-L-Y-S e.com. If you use the old one, you’ll be sent to the new one, so it’s fine. But that’s where there’s just information about me and my practice and my writing and all that stuff.
Dr. Sarah (58:50):
That’s so great. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. This was lovely talking with you.
Dr. Ilyse (58:55):
Yes, same here. Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Sarah (59:03):
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