Q&A: Mom Brain

Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco is the author of Mom Brain: Proven Strategies to Fight the Anxiety, Guilt, and Overwhelming Emotions of Motherhood—and Relax into Your New Self. We caught up with her recently to ask some questions—about her book and her writing process—and here’s what she had to say:

1. What does the title of your book title mean/how did you come up with the title?     

We’re all familiar with the pop culture notion of “mom brain”—the idea that we become mothers and all of a sudden can’t think anymore and forget everything and leave the house with no shoes on. What we know from research is that our brains actually do undergo structural and functional changes that support baby caregiving. Essentially our babies move to the top of our mental priority lists, knocking some other things (like, say, where we left our shoes) down the list, or off it entirely.

And of course, once we become mothers the way we think and feel about ourselves, our relationships, and our work changes profoundly. Our emotional experiences become significantly more complicated. And that’s what the book is about—learning to cope with all of this emotional upheaval and all of these changes. The title “Mom Brain” really felt like it encapsulated that. Also I should give credit where it’s due: my college roommate came up with the title years ago, when I was writing my book proposal.

2. Are moms today more subject to feelings of guilt and anxiety than in the past? If so, why, what’s changed in our cultural expectations surrounding motherhood?

Actually, I think one problem is that we have not changed in our cultural expectations surrounding motherhood. Mothers are still tasked with carrying the bulk of the household load, both emotional and logistical, regardless of their circumstances. At the same time, something that has changed is the rise of social media, with “momfluencer” types indicating that every aspect of parenting is perfectible. Moms are under enormous pressure to buy certain things and parent in specific ways and devote themselves 100% to their kids. So the emotional and household loads have gotten significantly heavier, while moms are still expected to be the ones to carry them.

Another problem with social media has to do with comparison-making, which is such a significant source of guilt and anxiety for moms that I devote an entire chapter to it. Moms go on Instagram and see what other moms and/or other kids are doing and believe they or their kids are falling short in some way. Of course, social media posts are highly curated…but even moms who know this intellectually find themselves consumed with guilt/envy/anxiety when, say, they see a picture of a mom and her sun-kissed children blissfully frolicking or read a mom’s post about her four year-old tennis pro daughter. We have to be very deliberate about how we consume social media so we don’t get sucked into a vortex of anxiety or guilt or envy every time we scroll on our phones. In the book, I present a number of strategies to help moms successfully manage their social media consumption.

3. How long did it take you to write the book? What was the most challenging part of the writing process?  

I completed the book in two phases. I spent about a year writing and revising it and submitted it for copy editing in November 2019, with a planned publication date of August 2020. Then COVID hit, and I learned that the publication was being delayed until May 2021. I was devastated at first, but it was ultimately a blessing, as it afforded me the opportunity to revise the book to fit with the post-COVID world. 

As an example: I have a whole chapter on coping with maternal worries about health and safety. One of the anxiety management strategies I recommend is exposure, where moms deliberately expose themselves to feared situations. Pre-COVID, I might have tasked germ-anxious moms with, say, touching everything in a pediatrician’s waiting room as an exposure exercise. And then of course COVID hit, which rendered such a recommendation reckless and irresponsible. I (along with all cognitive-behavioral therapists) had to change how I thought about and treated health anxiety.

I’d say that was the most challenging part of the writing process: coping with the delay of the publication and re-thinking some of my recommendations in light of COVID. It’s tough to have to pick a book back up again when you think you’ve finished it. That said, my publishing company, Guilford, was incredibly supportive and allowed me to make any changes I thought were necessary. I was very fortunate in that regard.

4. Was there anything you ended up including in your book that surprised you/you didn’t expect? 

The COVID part, for sure. I also ended up including an entire chapter on vacations, holidays, and special events, which I didn’t necessarily plan for initially. For me as well as the moms I treat, these “milestone” events are a major source of anxiety and stress. As I was thinking about the book I realized that readers would benefit from a specific focus on those situations.

5. How can moms in particular benefit from the behavioral therapies you discuss in the book?

The great thing about Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and related evidence-based treatments like Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is that they offer concrete, user-friendly, effective skills that busy moms can easily learn and use in the moment when difficulties arise. I deliberately structured the book in small sections so that moms don’t have to read the entire book in one sitting (which of course no mom has time to do). If moms are dealing with particular issues, like intense irritability and emotional upheaval, identity changes, work-life stress, anxiety, perfectionism, social media comparing, or changes in relationships, they can flip to relevant sections of the book and learn how to address these issues. 

6. Are you working on anything else?

I actually love writing shorter pieces (for wonderful publications like Motherwell!) and I’ve written a number of those since I finished the book. I’ve got some ideas kicking around for my next book but nothing concrete yet. Like many moms of young kids, right now I’m just trying to get through the start of the school year! And like all mental health professionals, I’ve been exceedingly busy since COVID hit.

7. What books are currently on your bedside table?

I am an avid fiction reader so I’m always in the middle of a novel. I’ve got Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews on my nightstand right now. So far it’s great—a well-written, twisty mystery that has nothing to do with current events. I’m all about reading as escapism these days! 

Cover of book Mom Brain

Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco is a clinical psychologist and writer based in Summit, New Jersey specializing in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety and stress, with a sub-specialty in working with mothers of young children. She is the author of Mom Brain: Proven Strategies to Fight the Anxiety, Guilt, and Overwhelming Emotions of Motherhood—And Relax Into Your New Self. She can be found at her own blog and @DrCBTMom on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. You can buy Mom Brain here.

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