Last week one of my favorite parenting emails came into my inbox with the title Screen Time is a Feminist Issue. It wouldn’t surprise me if I was feeling guilt for reading an article at that moment while my sons were watching TV. I asked Dr. Jessica Michaelson, an Austin, Texas-based psychologists who works with mothers and families all over the world if I could email her some questions about her email and share them with our Psyched in San Francisco readers. She said yes and here was our email exchange. – Traci Ruble, Psyched Founder
Traci Ruble: Hi Jessica, I have been following you for awhile and always appreciate the offer you make to mothers through your online wisdom that seems to be magically timely for me and so many of us moms. You aren’t cheesy or dogmatic but clear, caring and practical. Can you say more about you, your work, how you seem to have your finger on the pulse of what mothers are facing?
Dr. Jessica Michaelson: Thank you for your kind words, Traci! I am a psychologist and work with parents who want to close the gap between the life they wanted to have and the one they actually have. As a mother myself, I know that parenthood can be shockingly hard for highly educated, psychologically minded adults who have excelled in all other areas of their lives. I love helping parents get back their sense of competence and confidence, not only in how they are parenting, but also in how they are caring for themselves, their relationships, and their futures. I work with parents individually, as couples, in groups and online classes.
In terms of having my finger on the pulse of what mothers are facing, I find that most of my clients, no matter how different they seem, are struggling with the exact same fears and conflicts, so in my writing I am able to bring those struggles out in the open so we can discuss them as a community.
TR: Your email last week about screen time really lit me up because you tied it back to Women’s Rights. Can you say more about this link between guilt over screens and mother’s rights for self-care?
JM: I think parenthood shines the light right on vulnerabilities we have as individuals, and collectively as a society. One of the most insidious problems of our time is the intense black-or-white, right-or-wrong messages about parenting that we are exposed to all day, everyday. While I will assume that most people advocating for a certain ‘right’ way to do things are trying to be helpful, there is an implicit assumption that a mother should not trust her own instincts and an explicit assertion that horrible things will happen to her child if she strays from the advice being promoted.
So, the first level of denigration lies in this comfort we have with taking the authority out of the mothers’ hands, treating her as if she could not discern for herself what is best for her child.
Then, the second level can be seen when you take a look at all the advice out there as a whole, and see that regardless of the specific issue at hand, the woman’s well-being is rarely mentioned as a valid point of consideration in parenting decisions. If a woman wants to sleep, and doesn’t need to do so for the sake of a medical or psychiatric condition, she may be perceived as selfish. If a woman wants to send her child to his room, rather than leave the one she’s in when he’s calling her names, she may be criticized as being too shaming or punitive. If a woman wants to have some peace and quiet for 20 minutes while her child watches a show on the iPad, and she doesn’t have some urgent domestic duty to attend to, she’s accused of harming her child for her own frivolity. I will say, fathers are also subjected to this finger wagging, but the majority of the messaging is geared toward mothers, and given our history, I believe women are more susceptible to believing that their wants or needs are not worthy of consideration.
I see this show up in women’s lives every day, as the women I work with agonize over the use of screens, and berate themselves for needing breaks. I see the manifestation of these masochistic expectations of ourselves in the most brilliant, liberated women, so I know it is pervasive.
TR: While you stayed largely focused on self-care in your screen time write up, your allusion to women’s rights got me thinking about gender discrimination. How do you see women’s own internalized gender discrimination playing out in the ways we mother?
JM: First of all, it’s very important to me that we not heap more shame on women through blaming them for internalizing gender discrimination. For the majority of our species history, and still in many places in the world, women’s physical safety and security depend on pleasing others. It is a very recent phenomenon that we may consider our own desires and needs, and feel safe to do so in the face of someone else’s negative judgment. I also believe our family structures are still largely based on women swallowing their needs in the service of others. So, because of these historical and present-moment issues, many of us are very prone to try to keep our needs small and tend to them without inconveniencing anyone else.
TR: What other factors from the current cultural climate do you see affecting mothers today?
JM: I think many mothers are suffering from what I call the ‘double whammy’ of shame. There is all of this parenting propaganda we are barraged with, and we are vulnerable to falling into the right-or-wrong, better-than-less-than trap that it sets up. But, then, there is our women’s lib self-awareness, that attacks us for feeling shamed by the parenting propaganda! We feel ashamed, and then we’re ashamed of feeling ashamed. Sadly, I believe there is a lot of marketing payoff to this culture of shame, because women who feel less-than are more vulnerable to want to go buy the next thing that gives them a hit of feeling better-than or at least good-enough. The pervasive presence of the internet in our lives, sets us up to have to contend with this cycle of shame upon shame followed by the empty promises of relief through commerce.
TR: If you had one wish, prayer or piece of advice for mothers in our culture that would help them and their families thrive, what would it be?
JM: I think the first most important step for mothers in our culture is to cultivate self-compassion. We are great at having compassion for our children, our partners, the stranger on the street, but we tend to treat ourselves quite harshly. I believe we could all benefit from starting with the assumption that whatever we are thinking or feeling is worthy of respect. If you’re tired, that’s worthy. If you’re angry, that’s worthy. If you’re lonely, that’s worthy. If you’re struggling with all the shame and self-neglect we’ve been talking about, that’s worthy of respect, because it can shed light on how scared you might be to challenge the status quo and that fear may be incredibly legit.
When mothers start to feel a soft compassion for themselves and all their parts, things can start to come into balance. There can be more balance in how she spends her time each day, and more balance in who does what at home. Self-compassion is the best place to start.
Dr. Jessica Michaelson is a psychologist based in Austin, TX who works with mothers and families around the world. She is the creator and facilitator of ‘Finding What You Didn’t Lose,’ an online community program that helps mothers regain the compassion, courage and confidence they are longing for in their lives. The next round of the program begins September 14th. www.drjessicamichaelson.com