Work-family conflict can seem unavoidable – especially in the era of COVID when we’re either working from home with children underfoot all day, or we’re an essential worker who has to leave the house and can’t find childcare.
In this conversation with licensed psychologist Dr. Yael Schonbrun, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Brown University, and co-host of the Psychologists Off The Clock podcast, we acknowledge that we must enact policies that provide more of a safety net for families. But even in the absence of these policies, we can make choices that allow us to live in greater alignment with our values, and also find a sense of peace.
If you enjoyed episode 113 on Dr. Chris Niebauer’s book No Self, No Problem, then you’ll find that the tools we discuss in this episode flow directly from that one.
Here’s a link to the Choice Point tool that we discuss
Here are some Psychologists Off The Clock episodes that discuss Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in greater depth:
Click here to read the full transcript
Hi, I am Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo podcast where I critically examine strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. In this series of episodes called Sharing Your Parenting Mojo, we turn the tables and hear from listeners. What have they learned from the show that is helped their parenting? Where are they still struggling? And what tools can we find in the research that will help? If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide To 7 Parenting Myths We Can Safely Leave Behind 7 Fewer Things To Worry About, subscribe to the show at yourparentingmojo.com. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you will join us.
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Regular listeners might remember that a few months ago we talked with listener Kelly and Dr. Moira Mikolajczak on the topic of parental burnout. And we discussed how parental burnout is a constellation of symptoms that can include mental and physical exhaustion and emotional distancing from children, loss of feelings of being effective as a parent. And it can lead to an assortment of risks for both the parent and the child including shame and loneliness and the risk of neglect of the child or violence towards the child. And the feeling that the situation can only be escaped through divorce or abandonment or suicide. And we talked about how one of the big causes of parental burnout is the unrealistic expectations that we put on mothers to somehow sacrifice everything for their child, and also lead a fulfilling life for themselves. In the show notes, I gave a link to an assessment the Dr. Mikolajczak and her colleagues developed to help you figure out whether you might have burnout because it might not be as obvious as you think. And after the interview, I emailed with her and we discussed how powerful self-compassion can be as a tool to deal with burnout.
More recently, I was listening to a podcast that I really enjoy called Psychologists Off the Clock which features four psychologists discussing the principles that they use in their clinical work, and how they can help the rest of us to flourish in our work and our parenting and our relationships as well. And one of the hosts is Dr. Yael Schonbrun, and she is here with us today. Dr. Schonbrun Brown is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice. She is also an assistant professor at Brown University. And she is writing a book on the topic of work-family conflict, which can be an important precursor to parental burnout, which is how these topics are connected. So I got to chatting with her about this by email and I realized that not only are a large proportion of my listeners, working parents, but the ideas that she’s thinking about are actually applicable to anyone who feels tension between their family and some other aspect of their life. So, she is going to talk us through this and also give us some new tools to deal with the days when our lives just seem a little bit out of control. So welcome, Dr. Schonbrun.
Dr. Schonbrun 03:00
Thank you so much Jen for having me. And I just want to take a quick moment to compliment your podcast, which is awesome. I love that you integrate data and compassion for parents and the work that you put out there is amazing. I am really honored to be a part of it.
Oh, thank you. It is great to have you here. So, I am always the first to admit, as far as working parenthood goes, I have it pretty easy. Even when I had a day job, I worked from home and so I never had that struggle of the commute time and the physical rushing from one place to another that I know a lot of parents and families find really stressful, that even though I no longer have a regular day job, as it were, and the podcast and this business is my work, I sometimes feel really conflicted because I really, really, really love doing this work and I also really like spending time with my daughter. But sometimes I feel distracted when I am with her. Often because I am thinking about the writing that I could be doing, or I should be doing. If I was not out collecting fill bugs in the garden, and now that she’s not in preschool for nine hours a day. And so, I wonder if you can maybe help us to understand why is working parenthood’s so hard?
Dr. Schonbrun 04:07
Yeah, I think it is great that you’re pointing out that not all working parent challenges are created equal. Some of us really are more privileged than others. But it is also helpful to point out that the vast majority of working parents do experience challenges, just as you’re describing. So, it’s a great question, why is working parenthood so hard for so many of us? And the way that I frame my answer is a little different than the way the popular press typically talks about it. So, I sort of look at it from two different directions. The first is from the outside in, and the second is from the inside out. So, I’ll tell you a little bit more about what I mean by that.
So, the outside in is the part of the dilemma in working parenthood that has to do with challenges that exist outside of us that leak into our individual lives. So, these are factors like how flexible and supportive your workplace is and whether your colleagues and work environments support balance between work and non-work time. Whether you have a partner, and if you have a partner: how supportive he or she is capable of being, or willing to be in sharing childcare and household responsibilities, and in supporting your professional effort. Whether your kids have special needs or physical or mental health issues, things like whether you have financial stressors, or whether you live in a country with reasonable family leave policies, and so on. So, the outside-in factors matter deeply because when those kinds of structures aren’t in place in ways that are reasonable and humane, we’re going to encounter painful, often insurmountable challenges. And that tends to be what gets talked about most of the time in the popular press, and in most of the books that are out there about work-family conflict. But as a clinical psychologist, I tend to emphasize the importance of the other direction. So, this is from the inside out. So, these are factors that exist inside of each of us. These are human psychological elements, things that make each of us tick, and I like to quote Sigmund Freud here because he famously said, Love and Work are the cornerstones of our humanness. And I like this quote, because it really symbolizes the fact that most of us feel a drive to engage deeply in relationships. And most of us feel a drive to engage in some kind of productive or skillful enterprise, you know, not necessarily paid, but something that is sort of outside of our private family lives.
And these are both wonderful drives. And they are both associated with positive effect with healthy bodies and minds. And they are both individually and jointly able to create rich, meaningful, rewarding life. So, they are both important. But each tends to demand a lot from us and to demand things that sort of pull in opposite directions in which interfere with one another. So, for example, work really wants us to engage in future thinking, to be competitive, to be ambitious to get things done. Rr is parenting really requires us to be present and connected and very patient. And then of course, both roles require an intense amount of time and energy. So, by the fundamental nature of being human and wanting to participate in both work and love, most of us are going to experience conflict between those two roles. And so what a lot of my work focuses on is making sure that we aren’t trying to solve inside-out problems with outside-in solutions, because that tends to get us into trouble and ends up making us feel more conflicted, more frustrated, more guilty, more overwhelmed.
Yeah, and I think that that distinction is so important and that they can affect each other. It is sort of like the Yin and the Yang, right, that the work that we do internally, is what shifts our culture. Our culture is not some kind of nebulous thing that is out there. It is a collection of how we all interact with each other how we think and how we interact with each other. And that by doing this internal work, we can shift our culture even if it might not go as fast as some of us might hope.
Dr. Schonbrun 07:35
Yeah, yeah. I love that you just mentioned Yin and Yang, because a lot of my thinking about working family conflict and working family enrichment, which we’ll get to is really informed by Daoist thinking about Yin and Yang and I love that you’re pointing out that it’s not just the system that affects us, but we affect the system. But yes, it can be slow progress, and I think that can be immensely frustrating. I certainly feel that frustration too.
Yeah, well, that leads us into your story, right? I mean, you got here by a path that had you exploring how these tensions exist in your own life. Right? Did you want to spend a minute telling us about that?
Dr. Schonbrun 08:12
Yeah, sure. So, I was on the tried and true academic path. I was a researcher. And before I had kids, I was really hell bent on staying on that tried and true path. I really, I love science. I love psychology. I was at a wonderful institution, so actually there. And when I became a parent, to my first son, who is 10, I now have three boys. I was just sort of shaking because it was sort of surprising how hard it was to stay motivated and focused on my career. And yet, I didn’t want to back away from my career because I really did love it, but I also wasn’t comfortable, sort of maintaining the same kind of position that I had had before. And it was surprising to me because I had always been surrounded by amazingly brilliant academics who were also terrific parents. It was not like a judgement of how anybody else was parenting, it was more that I didn’t want to be away from my kid for 40 to 50 hours a week.
And so I went through this long year of really painful self-reflection and using a lot of the skills that I talked about in my writing to really dig deep and figure out what was possible, you know, given my situation, given the financial constraints of my life, given my partner’s work, and given who I am, which is an ambitious person who really likes to be creative in the outside world and use my intellect in ways that for me are interesting. But also, you know, a person that really wanted to be really deeply engaged as a parent. And at the end of that year, I ended up backing down from sort of pulling back a little bit in my effort in my academic work, and that was a really difficult position to be into. So, it was really privileged because I had supportive mentors and colleagues who are totally fine with me pulling back a little bit It ended up being really hard for me socially because I did not really fit in anywhere. In academia, you do not have part time people. And there is a good reason for that. I mean, academic work is really intense, you have brilliant people working day and night to make progress. And part time effort really doesn’t cut it is the reality. And so, I wasn’t doing as well as the truth. And I felt that, and I also socially felt kind of out of it. Like I was not really inside of the academic world as much as I used to be. And I also was not at all a stay at home parent. And so, I didn’t really fit in there. So socially, it was really interesting.
And so, but I did a lot of thinking and a lot of sort of, again, reflecting on my values and which way I wanted to go. And I ended up in 2014, writing an essay about it that landed the New York Times, totally random lightning strike of luck. I actually wrote it during my kid’s, I at that time had two kids, I wrote it during their nap time. And then at the end of that time is I heard them calling, I Googled “submit op ed piece” and at the top it said you know instructions to say submit to the New York Times and amazingly got in and it sort of just opened up this new career path of writing about working parenthood from kind of a combined academic, scientifically informed perspective, but also one that was really clinically informed as well as personally informed.
Okay. And so, I know that you now have a private practice. And you are also in academia. And you are also a parent…
Dr. Schonbrun 11:25
..a podcast co-host.
Yes, yeah. Yeah. As I know it can be…
Dr. Schonbrun 11:30
…as you know, it does not take any time.
No. Yeah. And so, in a way, it seems like you’ve kind of multiplied the kinds of conflicts that have the potential to exist in your life. And I wonder if Is there a way to segue from the tensions that you’ve experienced into one of the more general topics that are ways in which families experience with work-life conflict, which of those have you experienced?
Dr. Schonbrun 11:55
All of them. No..
All of them are the same. .
Dr. Schonbrun 11:58
Yeah. At the same time. Well, and if Interestingly, I mean, I think you are pointing something out that is really true, which is I do experience a lot of work-family conflict. And I also experienced this other phenomenon that I write a lot about, which is called work-family enrichment. I experience both. And what is I think underdiscussed in the public sphere is how parenting and professional roles can really complement one another. And that does not mean that they do not also conflict I mean that that is a true reality. And Jen, I hope it is okay for me to disclose we this is our second recording of this episode. Because what happened in the first recording is I botched it. And the reason they botched it is I tried to do it at home, it was kind of a gamble. I put my three-year-old to bed to nap and I told my oldest if he is not sleeping, can you just take care of it because I need some quiet to do this interview. And my oldest took care of it. But my three-year-old had to go to the bathroom and I heard the shuffling in the background. It was really distracting, and I could not focus. There is just sometimes where I do it very badly. It is the truth. And I think this gets to something that you said in your introduction, which is the role of self-compassion. And so, I engage a lot of self-compassion when things do not go well. And I hope that you, at some point have an entire episode dedicated to self-compassion, because it is such a powerful construct.
But in brief, it has three components. So, the first is mindfulness to kind of making space for whatever it is that you are feeling, in my case, embarrassment and sort of frustration and disappointment, sometimes kind of anger. Like I wish I had more help with the kids, especially now that we are in a pandemic, and childcare has gone out the window. So, the first component is mindfulness. The second component is self-kindness, to sync the kinds of things to yourself that you would say to a friend who is struggling, so you wouldn’t call up a friend who had botched an interview and say, “Wow, you did a really bad job. You should really be embarrassed, and you know, have your tail between your legs.” You’d say, “You know what? We’re all human.” Like you were carrying a lot that day. You did as best you could. Forgive yourself, you can see if you can rerecord. You would say kind, supportive, encouraging things. And so if you can say those kinds of things to yourself, and, and it is like a muscle, I think for a lot of people who have that really critical voice, it’s a really hard thing to do but practice and it becomes easier. And then the third component is common humanity. So, remembering that many working parents, so I would say, I would venture to say all of us, especially now, have had those really hard days, like you’re not alone. Sometimes you feel alone when you are having a rough day. But just remember, you know, this is the plight of the working parent, we are all in this soup together. And knowing that really does ease some of it, and it does not undo it, but it makes it a little easier to tolerate. And then it makes it easier to sort of connect back in and figure out what makes the most sense to do with whatever the frustrating experiences is.
So that’s kind of on the side of work-family conflict, but on the side of work-family enrichment. You know, I think I am really fortunate. I am incredibly privileged because all of my roles really do feed one another like my academic and scientific background, helps me do better clinical work. My clinical work helps me to do better, more applicable sort of digestible writing. And my writing helps me to do podcasting, they will, they will really feed each other. And I think my parenting and my perspective on parenting and my interest in parenting, and in my professional work helps all the roles as well.
Yeah, yeah. And that, I think, is a really important thing to recognize that it can feel as though were being torn in 15 different directions. And in some ways we are and you know, if there’s work-family conflict from the number of hours that you’re working, and I guess that’s in the that’s referred to as family-to-work conflict isn’t there and then there’s also work-to-family conflict where you may be having demands for child care, or elder care, and that’s impacting your family. But also on the flip side of that maybe your spouse has a suggestion for how to deal with a scenario that you’re facing at work that you wouldn’t have come up with by yourself and that your role as a spouse can then benefit your role in your work world. And that there are a bunch of ways not just in yours, that happens to line up pretty neatly, but for any parent who can learn a conflict resolution strategy, and a course that work, and then apply that to conflicts you’re having with your child, there are a whole host of different ways that these things can fit together to actually benefit us, right?
Dr. Schonbrun 16:23
Absolutely. Yeah, you’re referring to this, I mean, whenever I read these studies, and Jen, I sent you a bunch, but it was kind of hurts my head a little bit because it’s work-to-family conflict, family-to-work conflict, work-to-family enrichment and family-to-work enrichment, and then there’s all these really complicated models, but the basic idea is that they all impact one another in both positive and negative ways. And you are right. I mean, my life just does kind of neatly fit in together, but I conducted like, I think it I’m at 50 interviews right now for this book project that I’m working on and I had the opportunity to interview people that whose lives don’t as neatly as mine does. And even, like, for example, I interviewed a woman who works in customer complaints at a utility company and she talked about how that taught her patience, which really helps her to parent better. And I talked with a woman who is an exotic dancer, and she teaches her daughter about feminism. So, there is, there’s just really cool ways that whatever your professional sphere is, and however you approach parenting, they really can help each other. And I, you know, it doesn’t sort of sometimes it happens on its own, but the way that I write about it, and the what I’m hoping to communicate is that if we get really strategic, we can really magnify the way that we allow our family enrichment to happen. And that’s kind of my hope, and through my writing and through the messages that I try to communicate out to the public.
Yeah, yeah. My broad smile for those who are watching on YouTube was when you mentioned the customer service I one of my first jobs here in the US was working in customer service for our waste management company. Listening to people complain about their trash eight hours a day, five days a week, right after a price increase had been implemented that was a… my introduction to the working world.
Dr. Schonbrun 18:07
How did that? How did that inform your communication skills and your patience?
You know, I had not thought about it in that way but it is certainly I would say actually did have an impact, yeah, on just the power of listening to somebody. And now when I see that a customer service rep is listening to me is taking on a conscious effort to understand the perspective I’m coming from when I’m frustrated with their service, then yeah, it helps me to connect with them and to not feel angry at them or at the company, but to work towards the resolution. So..
Dr. Schonbrun 18:39
Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that I read about is this idea that we are more likely to build emotional intelligence and practical wisdom when we have this complex array of roles in our lives. And so I think that we built it in parenting because parenting is definitely some a role that requires you to learn to listen better to communicate more effectively, be patient, to be compassionate, and similarly jobs. I mean, especially jobs that are really hard on the interpersonal front, right, they are rough. And I am not saying, you know, it’s a great thing to have a job that you don’t like, but it does. Those kinds of jobs often do offer that skill. And especially if you can frame a job that you don’t like, as something that’s offering you a skill set that is going to benefit your family, it becomes a little bit easier to see the silver lining of it and tolerate it better. And I do not mean to suggest there that, you know, if you’re being treated badly at work that it should be okay. It is not it is it is a way that you can use one role to benefit the other.
Yeah, yeah. And so, shifting gears a little bit. I think one of the ideas that I really loved about your work was how you pull from so many different sources of information and not just the research literature. And I have been studying Buddhist principles a lot over the last year or so. And I have read a lot about the idea of struggle. And how just being alive represents a huge struggle. Because we have this natural tendency as people to want stability and security. And we think, oh, if I can just get through this busy period at work, then things will be better or when my child gets through this particularly irritating developmental phase, then things will be easier. And if only I can get the promotion I have been working for at work, then we’ll have enough money and I’ll finally be able to relax. And actually, if any, or all of those things happened, then the dishwasher breaks or somebody gets sick. And there is this whole host of other things to worry about and to deal with and more struggle with this. And so, I’m wondering, I don’t know if you have an opinion on this, but why do we find this so hard to accept? Why cannot we just take on that “Yes, life is struggle and we do it anyway.” And it is okay..
Dr. Schonbrun 20:49
Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, I think it is largely our wiring we’re wired to you know, be motivated for things to feel more comfortable. I mean, it is an interesting thing from an evolutionary perspective, because our human biology has evolved much more slowly than our culture has. And as a result, you know, we are still wired to try to get enough caloric intake to make sure that we’re comfortable to make sure that we’re safe. And those kinds of things for the most part, obviously, there are certainly some people who are, you know, struggling to make ends meet and to put food on the table. But for the most part, most of us do not face imminent danger on a day to day basis. But our wiring does not know that. And the human brain does not distinguish between imminent threat and social threat. And you know, so for that reason, we are just kind of oriented to want to push towards things being more comfortable. And knowing that I think is really empowering because it does not mean that we can undo those internal urges to move towards greater comfort, but we can respond to them differently. So the kind of treatment that I practice, which is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which has a huge empirical database supporting it you really highlights that, you know, we don’t try to change emotions because we can’t. And we can work with our thoughts, but we often cannot have perfect control over them. But what we can do is we can change our relationship to our internal experiences, both at the thought level at the, you know, perspective level, and use that to inform what kinds of choices that we make. But yeah, what we cannot do is sort of undo the fact that we’re going to be uncomfortable at points that that is just a part of the human experience, but it isn’t something most people like,
Yeah. And so, I wonder now if we can spend some time discussing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, because I know it’s such a cornerstone of your work, and it’s going to help us understand this issue a lot better. And actually, this do over give me a nice opportunity, because last time we did this interview, I kind of framed it up in a way that made sense to me. And then halfway through it was clear you were seeing it and ordered a bit differently and it sort of made for a bit of an odd transition midway through so let’s just go with your way of thinking about it. Maybe you can tell us the framework and how the pieces fit together. And then we can see how to apply it to the issues that we are talking about here today with work-family conflict.
Dr. Schonbrun 23:11
Sure. Well, if I understood your confusion correctly, I think that it was that you were prioritizing one element of the core processes of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. And that element is values, which are enormously important, and values are what I write a lot about. So, it might have been me sort of misleading you into thinking that was like the core process. So, there is six core processes and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and I’ll sort of run through them. But what I will start off by saying is that they all sort of converge on this skill that psychologists call psychological flexibility, which is an enormously important construct, and has been studied and found to be associated with all sorts of importantly positive things like mental health, physical wellbeing good parenting, skillful work. And the way that we define psychological flexibility is the ability to be self-aware, the ability to have clarity in what matters most to you, the ability to stay in touch with the present moment, even when it’s uncomfortable. And with all of that in hand, to choose behaviors that help you become the person that you would most like to be, as you move your life in directions you find meaningful. So that is a really long sentence. But it is basically like to do what makes the most sense that allows you to do what matters most to you, in a flexible way. And the skills that help you to become more psychologically flexible, are as follows. So being in touch with the present moment, so it is kind of that mindfulness construct, acceptance with equanimity, of whatever thoughts, emotions and experiences that you might be struggling with, being aware of your thoughts and your story. So, kind of what it is that your mind is telling you. And then the second three are the more active ones. So, learning to unhook from thoughts and stories when you get caught up in them, gaining clarity on the values that matter most to you. And I will define values in just a second. And then the last one is kind of obvious and actually quite hard to do. But it is taking committed action to move your life in directions that matter to you. So just a quick side note on values, because I think a lot of people get values and goals confused. And so, I use a lot of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy practitioners use the metaphor of a life’s journey. So, in a life’s journey in a journey, your destination would be the goal. So, it’s things like getting a promotion or earning a certain amount of money or having your kids be excellent at soccer. But your values are the way that you take the journey. It is kind of like adverb. So, because we don’t have perfect control over arriving at our goals, values are actually a more useful thing to focus on. So, it’s like, as a parent, I want to stay compassionate. As a worker, I want to stay focused. As a working parent. I want to stay patient with the process or look for balance day to day knowing that you know any given moment if you feel really imbalanced, in one area, so the values are really important, just as a compass for how you take your journey knowing that, you know, hopefully you’ll get to your goals. But it regardless of whether you get to your goals, you have a lot of control over how you take the journey.
Yeah, yeah, I think a metaphor, I guess that I saw in the book that I had read sort of the intro to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy was that it’s like taking a walk with a friend or a hike with a friend and you’re aiming for a peak. And, and you might make it to the peak, and you’ll be able to see amazing views in all directions. And that will be awesome if you do, but the values are more about what how are we going to be on this walk? Are we going to talk amongst ourselves? Are we going to have a deep conversation? Are we going to look at the things we see along the way, both the scenery and also maybe you know the flowers that are at our feet? What are the choices we’re going to make about how we’re going to be on this walk as we’re moving towards the top of the mountain that we’re aiming for, which I find kind of helpful?
Dr. Schonbrun 26:56
Yeah, I love the way that you describe that and what you’ll notice is that if you’re really paying some attention to your values, as you’re taking this walk with your friend, you’re still keeping in mind your goal. But you’re not allowing the goal to sort of take over because if you sort of overfocus on where you’re going, you miss the flowers, you miss the conversation with your friend, you miss the opportunity to savor that togetherness and that sunshine on your face. And so, you know, really is keeping that goal in mind, but really putting a lot more emphasis on the moment to moment way that you take the journey.
Yeah. Okay. All right. So, let’s go into some of the other components of it and just kind of tease those apart a little bit. And mindfulness was the first one that you had mentioned. And I should mention, I don’t know if listeners are hearing this through my fancy pants microphone, but I just heard something crashed in the next room and my daughter is supposed to be hooked up to earphones watching Octonauts right now because I had thought that she and my husband would be out of the house by the time we recorded and they are not. And I am noticing a certain sense of irritation rising in myself as we are having this interview. So, I’m being mindful of that. And I know that in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, there is this focus on paying mindful attention. And I noticed when I was reading about it, it was very much around mindfulness to your thoughts like what is happening in your brain. And I am wondering if also there is a focus on the body and noticing what’s going on in the body as well as in terms of signaling. Oh, something is happening, I need to pay attention to.
Dr. Schonbrun 28:22
Yeah, yeah, I mean, the mindfulness component, and ACT really does, ACT as sort of short form for acceptance and Commitment Therapy. And by the way, for just for listeners who are interested, I can send you the link a couple of links to episodes that we’ve done that really dive deep into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy isn’t at the core components. But mindfulness really, you know, there is a lot of attention paid to what the story is that our mind tells us the stories that we get hooked into. So, I do a lot of couple’s therapy. The examples that I often give are sort of like, you know, my partner is late and I think oh, it means that my partner doesn’t care about me that I can really get fused with that story. And that will really inform if I do not unhook from that story that will really inform how I respond to him when he comes home. And so, there is a lot of attention paid to what goes on in the mind, the stories, the thoughts, the words. But there is also a lot of attention paid to what happens in the body, but also what’s happening in our environment. So, depending on what’s going on, and what it is that you tend to get fused with, there’s really a lot of flexibility in this kind of approach. You might focus on trying to be mindful of some of the things that get you hooked and sort of cause you to walk away from your values. So that’s kind of the trick is like, you want to be mindful, right? There are so many stimuli in our world, which is partly why our attention gets so narrowed and sometimes on the things that are not terribly helpful. And that this approach doesn’t undo any of that, but it sort of gives you a little bit of a guide as to like what to pay attention to and in terms of what gets you in trouble, if you can pay attention to and be mindful of make space for the kinds of experiences internal or external. So, you know, your emotions, your physiology, your fatigue. For me, I have to pay attention to my fatigue. Because when I get really tired, that really causes me to walk away from my values, especially as a parent. And so that’s something that I pay a lot of attention to and has become a practice of mine. Because I know that it can get me into trouble in terms of behaving in line with my values. Does that make sense? I just did a couple of metaphors there.
I stuck with it. Yeah. And if listeners are thinking left brain stories, you may be thinking back to a recent episode with Dr. Chris Niebauer, where we talked about that in depth, and this idea that
Dr. Schonbrun 30:34
That was a terrific episode.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, I really enjoyed actually his book is very professionally written and easy.
Dr. Schonbrun 30:40
Also got a great title, right? Yeah. No Self No problem.
Yeah, yeah. There was a funny story about it. Actually, he told me after we finished recording, that a student was in a course as somebody who did not know was in a course. And they had been assigned the task of finding the worst named book that they could, and he had self-published this book under a different title. I do not remember what it was. And the student proposed it. And the guy teaching the course was a publisher. And the publisher reached out to Chris Niebauer, and says “Hey, your book has a terrible name. But it’s an awesome book and we should publish it.” So that was how he got a publishing deal.
Dr. Schonbrun 31:17
That is too awesome! Well, I love the name.
Yeah. Yes, yes. When they mind is probably not doing that. And so the whole premise of that book is that we think of the stories that we tell ourselves about, oh, my partner’s late, that means they don’t care about them as being reality as being the truth, when actually this is our left brain, saying it’s kind of making up this version of the truth based on the facts that it has available to us about the current situation about things that have happened in the past. And one of the things that Dr. Niebauer’s book does so deftly is pulled together so much of classic psychological research to show that these stories are not based in reality, the vast majority of the time. We just make stuff up that fits a story that feels right to us. And if we can unhook, as this therapy teaches us to do from that story, then it frees us to react in a different way and even to not react but to respond in a way. And I think that goes to another key point about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, right? The choice point. Can you talk us through the choice point and what implications that has?
Dr. Schonbrun 32:23
Yeah, sure. So, the choice point is this idea that we’re always choosing what we’re doing, even when we’re choosing not to do anything at all. So, like choosing to stay in bed all day, still a choice. So, imagine that there’s kind of a circle with two arrows coming out of it when going sort of up into the left and when going up and to the right. And the circle at the bottom connecting the two arrows is the choice point. And that is the point where we are making a behavioral choice. So, we’re always making a behavioral choice to do something you know, even if the thing that we’re choosing is to stay in bed all day and not to move at all. We are always making a choice, you know, to eat something or not to eat it, you know, when it’s even when it’s put in front of us. So, we often have this feeling like we’re not making a lot of choices. But if you sort of really, you know, take shred things down to their bare minimum, we are often making choices, even if they are more passive choices. So, the idea of the choice point is that sometimes we do things that move us toward the person that we want to be, and the kind of life that we want to live. And those are towards actions. So that would be one of the arrows. And sometimes we make choices that move us against the kind of person that we want to be these are away moves. And the idea of the choice point is that it’s much easier to move towards the kind of person that we want to be when we’re not hooked into the thoughts, the feelings and the situations that sort of feel really true to us. As you were just talking about, you know, we sort of buy into these narratives, but when we can kind of take a step back and say, you know, that’s just a thought that my brain is telling me as opposed to that is the truth, then we have more flexibility, right that here comes the psychological flexibility construct to make that more intentional choice of moving towards our values or away from our values. The example that I often given therapy is one that I think most people can relate to but it’s like, after a long day of work, you know, if you sort of had this value of trying to get healthier, you might have a plan to go to the gym. And at the end of a long day of work, a lot of people will say to themselves, or their minds will say to them, I cannot I absolutely cannot go to the gym, I’m too tired. So that thought I can’t be not actually true. I mean, you, you could, you might make a choice not to, but that is a choice. And so by taking a step back and recognizing that short sentence, “I can’t.” as a thought that were fused with and then deciding to kind of take a step back and really tell yourself like, okay, that’s just a thought I’m telling myself, but really, what do I want to do? Right, what would be a value driven action? And what do I feel like you know, I can be capable of doing today to move myself more towards the kind of person that I want to be. Now that is not very easy, right? That sort of like committed action, when we are really not in the mood is very, very hard to do. But once we unhook from the thoughts and the feelings, we have more potential to make those kinds of choices, which again, doesn’t make it easy, but it just gives us more options. So that is hopefully a good explanation of the choice point. But I will say it is actually nice to look at it in the visual, so maybe I can link you to a visual of that choice. Because really nice way to sort of boil it down to you know, how do you get more psychologically flexible in the face of being hooked with thoughts and feelings?
Yeah, but I think the idea itself, I mean, even without the explanation, I can imagine thinking okay, I just cannot go to the gym right now. But then that creating that space, that unhooking then allows me to create options like well, what can I maybe I could go for a walk, maybe that would feel good, maybe that would help to clear my head in a way that going to the gym wouldn’t right now and also it helps me to get closer to my value of getting exercise or whatever the value is that we’re working towards.
Dr. Schonbrun 36:03
Absolutely, yeah. And taking it back to the working parents fear, I do think that a lot of the stories that we tell ourselves about working parenthood sometimes do not allow us to be our most valued selves. Now, again, like working parenthood is very hard and many of us working parents are tired, and we’re just, you know, depleted and that is a reality and a situation that I think we need to be mindful of. Like, when we are really depleted, it’s not the time to say like, okay, now I’m going to go do a whole bunch of things, because that would be value inconsistent. It might be time to elevate a different value, like, for example, self-compassion. But some of the stories like, you know, like some of the headlines that are going around right now, I think are terribly unhelpful, like saying that working parenthood is untenable is unsustainable, I think isn’t helpful because we need to sustain. So in my opinion, and again, I don’t want to invalidate anybody’s experience like honestly, I feel almost on a daily basis like it’s unsustainable, but because we do need to sustain I’m not sure how helpful it is to be confused with that narrative. And instead, I think it is more useful to take a step back and say, you know, this is extremely hard. What do we each need? And then, you know, to really push on the infrastructure around us to provide more of it, but also to look within our communities, within our families, for the kind of help that we need, and honestly, to give ourselves a break as often as we can, because we do need to sustain I mean, that, to me, that feels more true than we can’t sustain.
Right? Because we have to. Yeah, there are not many other choices. Let us put it that way. Yeah. So okay, so one thing I do want to explore is that we’ve sort of talked about this in a little bit in isolation. And when we talk about the example of the gym, and I choose if I am going to go to the gym, or if I’m going to go for a walk or something else. But so much of what we’re talking about here is not just concerned with me in the decisions that I’m making, but how my decisions and my traumas and my stories, interact with other people’s issues and traumas and stories. And so, I can kind of see this playing out in two ways, either I realize I’m about to make an unskillful choice that isn’t in alignment with my values. And I unhook and I make the skillful choice. And then maybe my partner’s experience and their traumas shaped their responses to mean that my skillful choice does not actually result in my better wellbeing because of the way they interacted with that. That is one potential way I could see this breaking down. And then another way, maybe something I’m doing is not a skillful choice and it isn’t bringing about greater wellbeing for me, but it’s helping me to cope with some aspect of my life that maybe I can’t change right now, and it’s keeping me functional. What path forward do you see in those kinds of situations? Is it the idea is linked enough that there is a single thing we should be doing or are they completely divergent?
Dr. Schonbrun 38:45
Yeah, I mean, so when I hear you describing these complicated scenarios, I think first of all, I just want to say like life is complicated. And I do think that it’s easy in writing or in a blog post to say, you know, our goal is, you know, our goal is to have good well-being, or to have healthy kids, or to have a sustainable job or economy…
Let us do it.
Dr. Schonbrun 39:08
Yeah. But the reality is so much more complicated. Like I often will tell, you know, I’ll be doing parent coaching with some of my couples and they’ll say, you know, that sounds really good in here but when I do it at home, it doesn’t really work and it, I say, “You’re right!” Right? Like in here in this quiet environment where we are just chatting, it’s much easier. So, on the ground, things just are more complicated. And so, what ACT helps you to do is to clarify, you know, when things get complicated, what do you want to stand for? ACT also, again, and I will always come back to this really highlights the importance of psychological flexibility, so you know, when you feel like things are going bad, you had been elevating the value of engaging with your partner, you know, to do something cooperative and somehow it triggered him, or her, then you pivot, right? You sort of take that information, right? That is sort of the awareness, the mindful awareness piece. You assess it, you sort of check internally like, and then you wonder to yourself, okay, given that this has happened, given that things are going south in a way that I didn’t intend, what value do I want to stand for now, right? To sort of get myself into a position where I can feel more value aligned, and it might be, okay, now, instead of cooperative action, I am going to engage compassion, right? In this kind of instance, where my partner’s clearly feeling injured. What I want to stand for is being a compassionate and caring partner. And so, you do that pivot you meet, you sort of engage your psychological flexibility, and then, you know, manifest some kind of committed action that’s more in line with that second value. I mean, one metaphor that practitioners sometimes use with values is like, you can only be looking at one side of a Rubik’s Cube, right to solve it at a time, right. So, you can only really do one value at a time but anytime you decide, like, okay, like I’ve gotten about as much as I can get out of this face of the Rubik’s Cube…
Flip it around, yeah. Yeah, I love that. So often, I think solutions for problems parents are facing presented as this this is the way.
Dr. Schonbrun 41:01
…you turn it and you work on a different side. And being able to make that transition can be hard but the more that we practice it, again, the more skillful we become. This is all about growing the kinds of skills that help us to be more effective. And part of the skill, as you know, effective people in relationships and in complicated lives that have multiple roles, is being able to transition roles, but also being able to transition values. Okay, you know, I was trying to be compassionate to my kid and they were pushing the line too much. Now I need to sort of engage my firm value of you know, lovingly but firmly setting a boundary. And being able to make the transition carefully allows you to continue to be effective as a parent, it does not make you inconsistent. It makes you flexible. Yeah.
And you will implement this, and you will do it and then everything will be fine. And then the parent tries it and it does not work and they don’t have any direction on where to go next or how to adjust their approach and you do need to adjust. You need to be flexible and see what worked in the moment and what didn’t and pivot and even if something seems like it’s working, and by working, I mean, it’s making the situation easier for both parties involved to deal with in this moment, and a week from now, it may not work anymore for both parties. And you may have to go through this process again, in a flexible way.
Dr. Schonbrun 42:23
Absolutely. I mean, when it comes to kids’ development, like that couldn’t be more true. Right?
The only constant is change as it were.
Dr. Schonbrun 42:28
Right? Right. So, it requires a lot of flexibility. And I actually think that’s, again, one of the ways that family roles can really enrich professional roles, because as a parent, you certainly have to learn how to move with your kid depending on where they’re at developmentally or personally, or, you know, in their social life, or academically, and skillful parents are able to do that to sort of meet their kids where they’re at. And I think the same is actually true in professional spheres, but we tend to get sort of like rigid and, you know, stuck in in a particular way, but once we get that skill more beefed up, we’re able to use that I think a lot of individuals really use that to their advantage. And I think, again, that that is one of the ways that parents can really help your professional life.
Mm hmm. Okay. All right. So, thank you that that hit the first half of that. And then the second half was you know, if I’m doing something that I’m recognizing is not skillful, but that it’s helping me get through this difficult situation I’m in right now. What do I do in that kind of situation?
Dr. Schonbrun 43:27
Again, I think that becomes a question of what do you want to stand for? Do you want to stand for just making it through? Or do you want to stand for something else, like, you know, making the world a better place like, in this pandemic, I think a lot of us and I include myself in this lot, are largely just trying to make it through like, you know, working on social justice has always been important to me, but the reality is, my days are long and exhausting and I just don’t have as much to give, as I would in other circumstances, which doesn’t mean I don’t, but it’s probably not as high on my list as it might be at another time, and, you know, others might judge me for that. And that has to be something that I can live with because right now, you know, I need to sort of make sure that the needs of my kids are met and that my professional demands are not left by the wayside. And I think the same thing goes for anybody in any given situations that we have to sort of figure out what is the most important thing? Is it just getting through the moment and coping without losing your mind? Or is it you know, prioritizing the care of somebody else? Or is it growing a skill or is it you know, something else entirely. I sort of think about this sometimes in the morning, I will have an hour to myself because I wake up early…
A whole hour?
Dr. Schonbrun 44:44
…I wake up really early. And in that hour, I mean, it is like my one precious hour of the day that the kids are not awake. And there is so many things that I want to do. I want to go for a run I want to meditate. I want to stretch my body. I want to do some reading. I want to get some work done.
There goes your hour.
Dr. Schonbrun 45:02
Right, it is like, and so I can choose to get a lot of things done a little bit, but I can choose to get one thing done a lot. I mean, an hour’s not actually that much time. But, you know, I think the same thing goes for the dilemma that you’re expressing, which is like, if you feel like you’re harming somebody by taking care of yourself, then you might want to sort of strike a different balance of choosing a value that that is more balanced, like, you know, something that doesn’t totally misalign you but also doesn’t totally misalign them. So self-compassion combined with compassion, for other might be a good combination, or, you know, pausing to listen but not offering yourself up too much in terms of, you know, your opinion, might be a way to balance that but you know, finding a value that aligns with what you want to stand for in that complicated moment and really bringing self-compassion along for the ride because sometimes it really is just incredibly complicated.
Yeah. And I think you are opening up for where I wanted to end up with this conversation was around the social justice elements of this because…
Dr. Schonbrun 46:03
Yeah, it is so important right now.
..yeah. And has been for a long time, but not all of us, myself included, have been aware of that for as long as we should have been aware of it.
Dr. Schonbrun 46:12
Yeah. And so I always whatever I am looking at, I’m trying to examine, well, what are the social justice implications of this thing that we’re looking at? And so, when I’m looking at Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I’m thinking okay, well, so much of this is in recognizing you have a choice and deciding which choice you want to make. And so it reminded me of the quote from the Austrian psychologist, Viktor Frankl, and he lived through several concentration camps and I see you smiling because I know that you are a fan of his as well. One of the things he said was, “When we are no longer able to change a situation we are challenged to change ourselves. Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. Between stimulus and response. There’s a space in that space is our power to choose our response in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” And in some ways, I really agree with what he is saying here. Because we do all have a choice in every situation. And every moment, even if we are told we’re going to be killed in the next minute, we can choose to approach that death with our head held high or low. But at the same time, it seems as though it puts an awful lot of onus on the individual, in much the same way as the research on grit and growth mindset is applied in schools and the children of non-dominant cultures are told, well, if you just have a growth mindset, and if you’re just more gritty, you’ll be a better student, you can get out of your bad neighborhood, you can have a better life, instead of addressing the root issues of poverty and systemic racism that these children are experiencing all day, every day, even in schools. And so what I’m worried about here is that we’re in danger of doing that with parents of all races who are living in this patriarchal system that tells them well, you must sacrifice everything for your child and also you have to be productive worker and self-fulfilled. And then especially with parents of non-dominant cultures who also have to do this, I mean, frankly, while they are in fear for their lives and for their children’s lives. And so, I’m wondering if I’m asking, Well, how can we balance this idea that we all have a choice with the idea that there are some choices that we just shouldn’t have to make? But I do not even know if that’s really the right question. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that if you if you don’t mind.
Dr. Schonbrun 48:25
Yeah, I mean, I think it is a really important question. And I think it is a very broad question, so I’m not going to be able to answer it. But I think it’s important to be asking it And my answer in brief kind of comes back to what I was describing in the very beginning of our episode, which is that I really believe that these challenges exist in two directions from the outside in and from the inside out. So, it’s not either or it’s both. And so we both need to work at the systemic level to make changes to make things you know, more feasible for working parents, like, if I have to work full time and parent full time and teach my kids, there are just limits to what’s possible. And I’m in a privileged position where I have some flexibility, you know, individuals who are encountering racism and fear and not able to keep their jobs if they don’t show up full time, but have young kids and you know, are living in unsafe neighborhoods, it’s just not possible. But where the choice does exist from the inside out is to choose the attitude to pick your values and maybe your value is you fight for justice, you know, take to the streets in ways that are as effective as you possibly can make them you collaborate with other people you join the movement you make your voice heard as much as you can you gain allies and I think that’s a part of the inside out work that helps the outside in get better. They help each other right, it sort of gets back to that Yin-Yang idea that we talked about in the beginning that it’s both and, and by working it from both sides, we not only make working parenthood more possible, we make it richer and more satisfying for everybody. And that would be the goal. But yeah, I think it your point that we do not want to suggest that it’s all on the individual working parenthood to just make it happy and make the best of it. Because if that is not possible, no, there do need to be supports in place that make working parenthood possible and humane. And at the same time, we can be working from the individual side of things from the inside out to, you know, carve our own unique paths that are maximally successful and enjoyable.
Yeah, yeah. So, thank you for that conclusion. I think that that really gets to the heart of the work that we need to do. Is the work that we need to do within ourselves that by extension, shifts our culture and shifts the way that our culture supports everybody, hopefully more in the future than it does right now. So, yeah. So, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about the sort of the theory of the work-family conflict, but also the concrete tools that we can actually put to use. I mean, I am hoping that what parents got out of this when they’re hearing this is okay, I can see when I’m at a choice point, and I can see that I need to unhook. And I can think through well and understand what are my values? And how can I make a choice in that moment that is better aligned with the value that I want to have. So, I think this has been super practical for parents. So, thank you so much for bringing all that to this this interview.
Dr. Schonbrun 51:05
My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on.
So, I’ll put all of the links to Dr. Schonbrun’s website as well as any other resources she can make available to us related to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and the articles that you’ve had published in various places. They will all be at yourparentingmojo.com/workfamily. Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show at yourparentingmojo.com to receive new episode notifications and the FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Leave Behind and join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group for more respectful research-based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you. I will see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.
Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership
She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com
And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school