Dr. Ilyse DiMarco, MOM BRAIN

Dr. Ilyse DiMarco, MOM BRAIN

“My hope with this book was to let empathy ooze out of it, to let moms know that we recognize how hard this is and how much is going on and how much is changing.” Dr. Ilyse DiMarco sees a lot of moms through her practice as a psychologist and, as a mom herself, understands how overwhelming the emotions of motherhood often are. That’s why her new book, Mom Brain, focuses on offering strategies to help moms learn to take some pressure off of themselves and make small changes that result in big outcomes rather than telling moms what they’re doing is wrong. Ilyse shows the power of acceptance and commitment therapy, as well as the power moms have inside themselves.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ilyse. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mom Brain: Proven Strategies to Fight the Anxiety, Guilt, and Overwhelming Emotions of Motherhood — and Relax into Your New Self.

Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: I’m glad I have this book now. I just wish I had had it when my kids were even younger. It would’ve been my manual for how to get through the day. You talk about all sorts of stuff. There are a million parenting books out there. This has every single thing that you could worry about. For someone out there like me who is full of anxiety and perfectionism and all this stuff, this is the book. I’m so glad you wrote it.

Ilyse: I went through the same thing myself. I found that the parenting books weren’t really hitting the emotional piece of things. Becoming a mother entails so much emotional upheaval. I felt like all the books were really geared towards the kids, frankly. They were about parenting. How do you get your kid to sleep? How do you get your kid to eat? So few of them talked about what was going on with us as moms and how difficult it was to transition into this new phase of life. That was my goal. My hope is that this will be kind of a guidepost for moms to deal with everything that’s changing for them because so much is changing.

Zibby: It’s so true. It’s everything from the mom body to even our brain. I loved this chart, which people listening cannot see. I always think about how we’re using our brain. What percentage is for what? Before, where work was half the pie chart, now work is just maybe a sixteenth of the pie chart. It’s like, did I put sunscreen on Sam today? Crap, is that pasta sauce on my shirt? If I don’t register for soccer now, I’ll miss the early-bird discount. I need to do laundry when I get home. Why is there a Lego piece in my bag? It’s all the things, the eight million things that just go circling around that we have to synthesize and act on every single day. I just loved seeing it out here. Oh, okay, so this is not just my brain.

Ilyse: Oh, that’s me. I talk a lot about myself, and it’s all true. That’s my brain now to this day. My kids are seven and ten. My brain still looks like that. It’s still filled with way too much stuff all the time.

Zibby: I know. We were just joking about the end of the schoolyear and all this stuff. I’m like, I think I did everything I had to do with you guys except the allergist, but I feel like that’s pretty good.

Ilyse: Listen, as far as I’m concerned, with COVID, truly, if you kept your kids alive, great. That was all I think we could expect of ourselves. If all you missed has been the allergist, I’d say you’ve done a pretty great job.

Zibby: We got the dentist. We got the orthodontist, the checkups, all the other stuff. Oh, my gosh, I can’t even deal with it. You have a lot of stuff in here not just for new moms. I know you said it’s more for moms in the trenches, five and under, but I really think a lot of this is for any moms. You have a whole section in here on how we compare ourselves to other people and how social media plays into that. I know that people often talk about this. Beware of the myth of the perfect mom on Instagram and all this stuff, but you really go into it. How can we analyze the behind-the-scenes of the moms who are posting? What does it mean? Let’s break it down. I know you wrote about this for Parents magazine too and everything. As someone who is a mom and who does post a lot, I was also reading this from the other side. Am I in any way trying to show things looking easier than they are or anything like that? Tell me from both perspectives, how social media posting can be the worst part for moms but also maybe an empowering part?

Ilyse: By the way, I follow you on social media. You’re great.

Zibby: Oh, thanks.

Ilyse: You’re not one of those problematic moms. I should say, by the way Zibby, to your point before, these strategies work for moms and parents of kids of all ages. The reason that I targeted it at zero to five was only because my hope is that if you can learn these things early and start putting these things into practice earlier, it’ll make it way easier for you as your kids get older. Yes, these strategies, kids of any ages. My sister is into it, and her kids are in college and high school. Of course, she’s into it, she’s my sister.

Zibby: She would be anyway.

Ilyse: It works for kids of all ages. The social media thing is really tricky. I’ve always talked to moms, historically, about comparison making. During COVID especially, the social media issue became much more heightened because, of course, social media was all we had. We couldn’t compare ourselves to people in real life because we weren’t seeing people in real life. I feel like it was ratcheted up during COVID and became really difficult. What I usually say to the moms that I work with — inevitably, they’ll come in at some point in our work together and will say, “I saw this post on Instagram. This mom seemed perfect. This mom posted about her kid. Her kid seemed perfect. My kid can’t compare.” It’s comparing yourself to other moms. It’s comparing your kids to other kids too. They’ll come in and they’ll be filled with anxiety and guilt and shame and all of this kind of stuff. What I try to do with the moms that I work with and what I write about a lot in the book is to encourage them to be critical of their comparison making. What I mean by that is to really think about who it is they are comparing themselves to. Oftentimes, the comparisons that you make, particularly on social media, are actually unfair comparisons. I have a lot of examples of this. First of all, there’s the celebrity. Forget about that. Celebrities, you don’t know anything about them. You don’t know what it took for them to get the picture or the video or whatever that they posted. You don’t know how much money they have and how much health they have. You just don’t know enough to make, in any way, shape, or form, a fair comparison. What I say about celebrities and also just other people in general is, if you’re comparing yourself to people with whom you don’t share values or whose opinions you don’t value, it doesn’t make sense to make that comparison. Celebrities are one thing.

My patients will come in and say, “So-and-so posted so-and-so.” I’ll say, “What do you think of this celebrity?” They’ll be like, “I think she’s terrible.” I’m like, “Then why are you comparing yourself against her? First of all, you have no info about her. Second of all, you don’t respect her.” This is true, also, of people we even know in our real lives, people we are connected to on Facebook, on Instagram. I’ll have moms come in and say, “Oh, my gosh, you should see what this woman from my son’s school just posted. I feel so jealous,” and blah, blah, blah. Then I’ll ask again, I’m like, “Can you tell me about this woman?” Inevitably, she’ll say, “Oh, gosh, I can’t stand her. My kid can’t stand her kid.” I’m like, “Well, if that’s true, if you don’t like her, if you don’t value her opinions, if you don’t share her values, why are you using her as a point of comparison?” I always say it’s like you go to a medical doctor whose training you don’t value and who you think is a quack, and then you take their medical advice. To me, that’s the analogy. I use that with moms all the time. Again, I really encourage moms to be very critical, to ask, do I have even enough information about this person to make a fair comparison? If I do have information about this person, is this someone whose opinions I value? Is this someone who I think is a good model for parenting?

Then that gets to, Zibby, what you said about how you can use this for good. In real life and on social media, I’d say particularly in real life, you can strategically choose who to compare yourself to. These should be moms whose opinions you value, whose kids you admire. I think the best thing you can do is get a mom or two, whether it’s on social media or in real life, whose kids are a little older than your kids because they’ve been through it, and if you really think that they’re doing a great job, they’re a great source of inspiration. They’re a great source of advice. Just to reach out to them and say, hey, I’ve got this question about whatever. I don’t think it’s about ending comparison making altogether. I think it’s about being critical of the comparing you’re doing and choosing the right people and being willing to abandon the other people. I think, too, with the rise of momfluencer culture on Instagram — there’s plenty of momfluencers who are great. I think you just have to, again, pick the ones. You can even tell from their posts, who are the ones who seem to be more in sync with you. Then you continue to follow those. Then don’t follow the ones that are filling you with shame and guilt after looking at their posts.

Zibby: It’s so true. I would also caution against taking what the kids looks like on social media — frankly, I feel like sometimes with my kids, maybe because I’ve had four or something and I see how they’ve grown up, I just try to stay out of the way of messing them up sometimes. The kids are going to be who they’re going to be. They all are born with all these unique personalities and skills and traits and all this stuff. Yes, I can mess it up. One of them’s really neat. One of them’s really messy. I did the same thing. It’s not always the parent. That kind of goes to all of the values that you talk about, which is also great. I love how you use cognitive behavioral behavioral therapy and all these other therapies. I know we went to Yale together. I was a psychology major at Yale. I’m also a huge fan of cognitive behavioral therapy. I didn’t know as much about some of the other ones. Even how we use our thoughts to help our worries, it’s one thing to know this, but it’s another thing to put it into practice. You give all these specific examples, whether you’re worrying about your mom body or your kid’s development. Am I a bad mom? I had such a bad-mom day. All these things that we beat ourself up about. You outline how to find the values and then the goals from those values and actually put it into practice even with your relationships, even into your sex life. Tell me a little bit more about that and how other parents out there can use your strategies for making their lives better.

Ilyse: I draw a lot from acceptance and commitment therapy, which is basically an offshoot of CBT. One of the major principles of ACT is this idea that we really can gear our lives towards our values. An important thing is to articulate what our values are and then set goals, like you said Zibby, consistent with those values. I use it a lot with moms because I think what happens to a lot of us, myself included, is we became mothers and then all of a sudden, our identity is just mom. We, particularly in those early days when, really, all we’re doing is being with a baby all day long, it’s very easy to lose sight of who we are and what’s important to us. As I started doing work with moms years ago, it occurred to me, wow, the value stuff we do in ACT is actually great for new moms, or moms, by the way, of kids of any age. What it allows you to do is go area by area. There’s a big worksheet I have in the book that does this. You think through parenting. You think through work. You think through friendships. You think through extended family. I have stuff in there on how you want vacations and holidays to go. You go through different areas. You take a little time to ask yourself, what do I value? As a parent, who do I want to be? As a worker, who do I want to be, as a partner, as a child of parents, whatever else? You go through and you think really carefully about what’s important to you and what you value. Then once you’ve done that, you say, okay, how can I start to make decisions that fit with my values? I’ll just bring up, of the many things, one of the things that I use values for a lot with the moms I work with is, how do you define yourself when you’re not a mom and you’re not working, if you work? Are there things about you that have always defined you that you feel like you’ve lost? Maybe you were an athlete. Maybe like me and Zibby and my mutual friend Rebecca, you’re a musical theater nerd. Maybe you were a world traveler. Think about how you defined yourself and what your passions are. Note these down. Then spend some time really thinking about how you can enact these values in your day-to-day life.

As moms, we don’t have a ton of time, per the title of your podcast. We don’t have a ton of time for anything, and so we have to be really strategic and planful about how we fit in things that are important to us. If we’re an athlete, making sure we’re still playing sports in some capacity. If we’re a big-time reader, making sure we have the time to read. What the values can do is help us see what’s important and then help us to make a plan for every day, to say, okay, reading is really important to me. How can I carve out time during this crazy day with kids to make sure that I’m just doing a little bit of fiction reading? Again, exercising is a huge part of who I am. How can I make sure I exercise? Of course, as a new mom, you really have to plan ahead for these things, for reading, for exercising, for anything else. Maybe you have to organize some childcare. Maybe you have to ask your partner in advance to watch the kid. Maybe you have to be very planful so that the second the kid goes down for a nap, you get on that app and do some exercise. Whatever it is, it really requires advance thought and advance planning. This is just one example of thinking through values. As I said, we talk values in the book around everything, relationships and so on. The goal is to figure out what’s important to you first and then figure out, all right, if I’m going to keep this in my life, how am I going to do this? Let me plan for how to do this. I talk about that worksheet in chapter three, but I really encourage people to use it throughout the book; as they’re reading about relationships, to look at their relationship values and think about that. As they’re reading about, obviously, parenting, you look at the parenting values section and so on and so forth. I’m hoping it kind of guides people as they’re reading through all the different chapters.

Zibby: It’s so true. You even cover which friends to spend time on. Is your relationship helping with your girlfriends? The boundaries you should put into place with extended family, all these things, it’s basically all the things that crop up that you’re not expecting. They’re all here with how to cope with them. I wonder sometimes, are people open to hearing this stuff until they live it? Can you read this and soak it up and then know what to do? Do people function that way? I wish they would. I wish I would.

Ilyse: Me too. I hope so. People have been asking, should I give this to moms who are expecting? I’m like, yeah, please do. I feel like if I’d read this when I was twenty-five, forget about it.

Zibby: No, that’s . Forget it.

Ilyse: Right, it’d be gone. Moms who are imminently going to become parents, my hope is that they’ll read it or they’ll read it soon after. I structured the book purposely in very discrete sections. My hope was, although moms do not have time to read, they’ll be able to dip in and out of it pretty easily and just target the one thing they’re going through. You can read it all in one clip. Maybe if you’re expecting and you still have time, you can. For the new moms or even more seasoned moms, you can dip in and out. If you’re like, anxiety’s my issue, let me dip into the anxiety section for a bit. I’m having conflict with my partner. Let me take a look at this section. That’s my hope. It is hard to prepare. I think you’re right, Zibby, that there’s so many changes in so many areas. So few of those changes are discussed, which is part of the reason that I wrote this too. Like I was saying before, I felt like everything that was available to me when I had my first son ten years ago was really parenting stuff. Some of the parenting stuff was sort of punitive too. I’ll never forget reading one of, at the time, this very popular sleep book. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was a section on what happens if you don’t time your kid’s nap right and basically boiled down to, well, you screwed up, try again tomorrow. I remember reading that and being like, wow, this is harsh. I don’t need to hear this. Again, my hope, too, with this book was to let empathy ooze out of it, to let moms know that we recognize how hard this is and how much is going on and how much is changing. To me, my hope with the book in general is that moms come away knowing how great this is and how hard this is and how in the middle sometimes this is and just allowing themselves to feel all of those things.

Zibby: Talk for a minute or two about the whole section on perfectionism. I found that to be very helpful. It’s so funny, yesterday, I was trying to finish writing this article for Moms Don’t Have Time to Write for Father’s Day. I wanted to find a perfect picture of my dad and me from when I was younger. I was like, I must have it saved on Shutterfly. I must have it in here or there. Should I go try to find these albums? I realized, I was like, I’m spending too much time on this. The time and perfectionism are enemies here. You have to sacrifice one. Finally, I was like, you know what, it’s good enough. Some things just have to be good enough. I feel that way with my kids. Four out of five doctor’s visits, good enough. My older kids are fourteen now. It’s taken a lot of time to relax. This is not just a parent thing. It’s a person thing. Tell me how I could’ve maybe spared myself earlier, what the secret is to not making — maybe this doesn’t afflict most people, needing everything to be just right. What can we do?

Ilyse: Oh, it afflicts so many people, Zibby. That’s why I did a whole chapter on it, because I hear about it all the time. Me too, I am fully guilty of this, for sure. There’s a couple of things. I’ll give you highlights of some of the strategies we use for perfectionism. It’s a huge problem. What happens is that the media and, again, these momfluencers and whatever sort of conspire to make us perfectionists because our messages are sent to us that we can have the best X, Y, Z. We can do it all. As a result of that, perfectionism just runs rampant. A few things as a general summary of the perfectionism stuff. One thing that I tell moms to do and I try to hammer home in the book is delegate. Here’s the thing about delegating. When you’re a perfectionist, you do not want anyone else doing anything else for your child because you’ll do it best. You will match their clothes the best. You will plan their parties the best. You will make the best meals. You will make the whatever. That may all be true. What happens when you close out everybody else helping you — there’s a term for that, maternal gatekeeping. Have you ever heard that, Zibby? Basically, you’re closing the gate on other people helping you because you think you’re the only one who can do it. Then what happens? Then you’re the only one who ever knows how to do anything. Then no one ever helps you. Then you become resentful. The resentment builds and builds.

I really force moms to delegate. I say, you know, this is going to be hard for you. I’ll give an example of somebody that I’ve been working with of this example of delegating. She had her daughter’s birthday party coming up and decided that she was going to do all this stuff for it, really over the top, really elaborate. She was really stressed out. She was working on the birthday party while she was trying to work and do remote school. It was driving her crazy. I said to her, I was like, “All right, you have got to offload this. Who can you offload this to?” She said, “I’m sure my mom who’s retired would be happy to help.” I’m like, “Give the party to your mom.” For her, this felt awful. The last thing she wanted — she’s like, “My mom is not going to get on Pinterest and personalize every party favor,” and whatever. I said, “This is an exposure exercise for you to hand the reins over to someone else and see what happens.” She delegated to her mom. Party went fine. Was it done exactly as she would’ve done it? No, but it saved her so much heartache. I think the more you practice delegating, the easier it becomes to manage the icky feeling that you get when things don’t go exactly as you’d want them to go.

Zibby: That’s a big deal. I feel like if you had just told her to have the mom do the invitations, that would be a thing. The whole party, that’s a big —

Ilyse: — Let me backtrack and say that much of it had already been done, so it was basically what had to be done towards the end. I think she hadn’t ordered the food. It was a party favor situation too, I think was what really drove the bus here. The mom was Pinterest deep diving. We tried to put a stop to that. A lot of what I talk about is that. Challenge yourself to delegate. Challenge yourself to offset some of this stuff to other people. There’s certain stuff you’re going to want to do exclusively. That’s fine, but don’t gatekeep everything because then you end up overwhelmed and all of that. That’s one thing. Another thing I actually have people do — there’s a cognitive behavioral therapy treatment for perfectionism, actually, specifically. I take a lot of the strategies from there.

Zibby: I feel like you need to be my therapist. Do you actually take clients? I feel like I should call you. You should whip me into shape.

Ilyse: Listen, the truth is, especially with COVID, cognitive behavioral therapy for all. I think we all need this. Another thing that I have moms do that I borrowed from the CBT for perfectionism stuff is actually purposefully mess up. This, I really like doing because it’s fun. My patients hate it, but they are happy at the end. When I say purposefully mess up, I don’t mean with anything that’s super important. Don’t send your kid to school in the winter without a coat or whatever. You can do things like “forget” to RSVP to a birthday party or make a spelling error in a work email, things like that. I actually task them with practicing this. We come up with specific things they’re going to do imperfectly to see what happens. What you need to learn is you can do things imperfectly, and by and large, things turn out okay. I think a lot of moms are so afraid of ever doing things not a hundred percent that they do everything in their power to make everything go a hundred percent. I love that. I love basically screwing up on purpose, practicing that. Another thing that I talk to moms about a lot with the perfectionism stuff is just reminding them that there’s a limit to what they can control. You may, say, plan an amazing party for your kid. Then it snows that day.

Actually, that’s happened to me. I planned a Lego party for my older son maybe when he was turning seven. The pizza just didn’t show up. Think about fifteen hangry seven-year-olds and no pizza. I remind moms all the time to think about all of the aspects of a situation that are outside of their control. Even if they’ve planned things to the hilt, weather can conspire to screw things up. The kid can conspire to screw things up because we don’t have control over our kids. Again, we could plan an amazing birthday party, and then our kid is tantrum-ing the whole party. We don’t have control over our kids, necessarily. There’s so many other environmental factors that we don’t have control over. That’s something I talk to moms about a lot, too, regarding perfectionism. I even have a strategy in the book where you think about an event as if it’s a circular pie. Then think about what percentage of that pie you have control over. Inevitably, moms will come up with so many other aspects of a situation that they recognize they have no control over. All you can really do is do what you can with the parts you can control knowing that there’s so many that you just can’t possibly do anything about.

Zibby: I just did a birthday party for my fourteen-year-old daughter. We’re all kind of obsessed with Nailed It! — you know the show? — where, of course, nothing ever goes right.

Ilyse: Yep.

Zibby: We decided that we were going to do four teams of two girls and each try to make this impossible cake. It was so much fun. As were setting up, we were like, it’s all going to go wrong. That’s the point of this party. Nothing’s going to go right. That’s what the fun is. I feel like it was almost a whole therapy exercise. It was so fun.

Ilyse: I love that. I think it’s great.

Zibby: I could show you the ridiculous polar bears that came . Thank you for all of this stuff. Last question, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Ilyse: For aspiring authors, yeah. It’s interesting because it sort of depends on the way you come to it. For me, I always loved to write. I was a psychology major also. For a while, the only writing that was required of me in graduate school was academic writing, and I hated it. Then I just stopped writing entirely as a result. Then I was realizing, per our values discussion earlier, that I really valued writing and it was something that I missed, and so I started working it in. This is my advice, which is tailored, I suppose, more to people like me who really want to write kind of as a side hustle. It’s not necessarily like they were English majors and have been in writing classes their whole lives, but rather want to do it as a side hustle or maybe, like me, are in some sort of healthcare space and want to write for popular audiences. I think the best thing you can do is just start writing. Start small. What I did was I just started my own blog. Then at the same time, I was looking around at some of the other popular mom sites of the day like Scary Mommy, for example. I was noticing that a lot of those sites actually offered for anyone to submit stuff, cold submissions. You didn’t have to have an agent. You didn’t have to have a journalism pedigree. You could just send stuff to them.

I just started sending stuff in. Of course, I had the benefit of it being my side hustle, so I didn’t have to write to live. I think if that’s the case, it’s a different trajectory that you have to take. Again, for someone like me, I just started throwing stuff in different sites. Then I started doing videos to accompany my writing. That was all what led up to me getting a contract to write a book. My advice would be that if you’re like me and you’re writing as a side hustle, just start writing. You can start with shorter pieces. See if you can write for your own blog. Just get stuff out there on social media. That’s another good thing about social media. There’s a lot of things I hate about it, some of which we’ve discussed. It’s a really great way of sharing your writing and connecting with other people who are doing similar writing and similar work. Getting on social media and putting your stuff out there and submitting shorter pieces, for me, that was a really good way to dip my toes in the water a little bit. The more I did, the more I was able to do until it led up to the book. That would be my advice.

Zibby: Great. Ilyse, thank you so much. I really loved your book. I’m totally giving this as a gift. This is the book for new moms and old moms and anyone who has to deal with the stuff in their head of being a mom. It was great to reconnect after school. Thank you so much for coming on.

Ilyse: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. This was great.

Zibby: Bye.

Dr. Ilyse DiMarco, MOM BRAIN

MOM BRAIN by Dr. Ilyse DiMarco

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