Cyberpsychology in the Time of Pandemic

Yes, that is a cheap headline. Sue me.

As a cyberpsychology researcher and generally internet thinky-person, I spend a lot of time defending electronic forms of communication and community from the “get off my lawn” crowd who tend to view it as an abomination, or hotbed for addiction, or being solely comprised of the worst that it embodies. However, research (including mine) has shown, the internet is just us. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, wise, and ignorant. Like any creation of humanity, it’s just us.

Similarly, coming from a very Dawkins-esk background, I heard a lot of “religion makes people stupid” and “religion is irrational” growing up. Nope. Religion is people. It is the best and worst of us and everything in between. Dogmatic beliefs are in no way relegated to just believers. Whether or not you experience the divine, the range of human experience can’t be bracketed out of the institutions we create. Religion doesn’t make people stupid. People make people stupid. The internet does not make people cruel. People make people cruel.

Does this mean that the internet is the same as non-digital socialization? Nope. So while the whole internet addiction mishigas has taken a backseat in a world where the internet is the only thing that connects us to people outside our homes, the news, medical information, and myriad other things, I’m now taking a hard look at what digital communication leaves out.

I’ve always believed that digital communication enhances human connection and that people are way too quick to judge the quality of digital communication. Sometimes they don’t even realize it’s taking place. A student told me about a time she and her shy, adolescent cousin were texting each other in the same room. Her mom chewed them out for being antisocial when it was actually one of the best conversations they’d had. A friend spotted me and my husband looking at our phones instead of each other in a restaurant. She gave us a hard time for not “connecting.” One of our favorite things to do is read quietly together, and we hadn’t been able to do it in months because we had a young child. So date night was when we would read together, at dinner, on our phones. These instances of misinterpretation are minor but telling about the value people place on digital activity. For people who are homebound due to illness or disability, digital connection may be the primary form of human connection they have.

In the time of Covid-19, those of us who have access to the internet are relying on our computers and phones to connect with friends and family with whom we can’t meet in person. I often find myself feeling unsettled or sad after Zoom sessions with friends, and drained after Zoom classes and student meetings. It’s funny because one of my main struggles during the not end-times is with social anxiety and hypervigilance. I tend to worry after being social if I have done something insensitive or humiliating or exposing. I’ve worked pretty successfully on methods to diffuse this anxiety, especially since my job entails potentially making an ass of myself about 9 times a week in front of an audience and I don’t have time to freak out about it. Social anxiety can be released as it is just unsettled energy in my body. Stop ruminating and relax the body and presto. Okay, it took a lot of therapy and practice, but still, presto. I can let that shit go most of the time.

But now I face a whole new set of struggles, and this time it’s not particular to my psyche. I still have some social anxiety from online interaction, but less than in FTF interaction. What I have more of is this sense of being drained of energy and feeling emotionally unfulfilled. The more intimate the relationships, the more intense the feelings. I talked to a friend who is a therapist and she posited that our brains are in search mode for the other social cues we get during face to face interaction. This is similar to an article I read on the exhaustion many of us feel around quarantine. In both situations it’s like that spinning search thing on your computer – it’s like a background process that’s always going and not finding what it needs but is draining computational power. In the case of connection, it’s our psyche’s need for physical proximity and the information that we don’t get online. Sympathetic nervous systems stuff, the full range of visual information, movement, microexpressions, pheromones, smell, and touch if the relationship involves that.

I miss proximity. I miss it a lot.

In many of my classes, I emphasize research that has shown that strong social connections and close relationships are significant predictors for longevity. They are much more highly correlated with longevity than diet or exercise (just a lot harder to commoditize). These connections are also interdependent – a thing US culture has a really fucking hard time with, as evidenced by our inability to recognize that our individual and collective survival during this pandemic are inexorably linked. So when I talk to my students about it, I urge them to remember to prioritize social connection as they move into a period of their lives that can be very isolating. Whether it’s graduate school or their first job-job, social connection is no longer built into the environment and is, in fact, fraught in ways that it is not during their undergraduate years. Friendships at work are tricky and need to form over time. Dating at work is risky at best. Graduate school is notoriously isolating and graduate students tend to have very poor mental health. I try to teach them that we have to really push against our perfectionistic,  bootstrappy, individualistic culture because it can be quite literally bad for our health.

Which leaves us where, exactly, right now? I really feel the loss of connection day-to-day. Seeing my students and talking to them after class while we walk to our next stops. Lunches with friends. Hanging out with other parents on the weekends and letting our kids play while we chat. Chatting with servers, and checkers, and other random people in my usually friendly city. Just sharing eye contact and a smile. I’m learning how to read smiles through masks, but I’m not out often enough for it to feed that part of me that is just starving right now.

I’m glad Zoom is a thing. I’m lucky to have internet-linked devices and good wifi at home. I love all the different ways I can contact my people, and sharing memes and stupid videos and random thoughts or pictures of my kid being extra. But I still feel this tug in my heart. I want to be with my people. Just near them. I am maintaining the rules of social distancing because I understand how this virus works and I do not want to get sick with it or god forbid, give it to other people. So this isn’t complaining. I’m just reflecting on the realization that I am suffering from withdrawal from a drug that we all need. And that I will not take for granted again.

There will be lots of studies on this. Actually, there are a crapton of studies already starting. They will measure the effectiveness of coping, and mental health among different quarantined demographics, and the effects of socioeconomic status on mental health, and cortisol levels before and after a video chat with a friend, and lots more necessary stuff. But I hope that we also, as researchers, really dig into the emotional and physical phenomena that we and others are experiencing during this time due to separation. What is happening to our bodies when it feels like our hearts are shriveling up? What does loneliness taste like during this weird-ass time? How do we and others describe it? What will we experience when we come out of our caves again? Will it look like PTSD or will it be something new?

Who will we be, and who will we be to each other, once this is over?

Shaming the Mother

The attacks on women are now so vicious and varied that it’s hard to know where to start. From Hobby Lobby winning the right to refuse to cover contraception in their employees’ health insurance, to the near ban on abortion in my state, to the decriminalization of rape by universities and the military, it’s bloody hard to be a mother raising a girl in this society. How do I teach her the primacy of sexual consent in a culture whose legal system blames the victims of sexual assault? How do I teach her sexual responsibility in a culture that simultaneously holds women solely responsible for birth control and limits its availability?  I don’t have the answers to these questions, other than VOTE.

However, I am interested in a phenomenon that I’ve experienced and observed called mother shaming. Our culture seems to relegate mothers and the practices of motherhood to the home or out of sight, and reacts negatively when we don’t comply. It seems a combination of the pre-cultural revolution separation of the spheres of women and men, combined with the second wave feminist ideals of not allowing motherhood to consume women’s lives. Put these together (along with a still highly paternalistic corporate culture) and you get a world where any representations of motherhood are supposed to be sweet, gentle, clean, and most of all, out of sight. We must be Athena in the workplace and the Virgin Mary as mothers. To this I say bullshit.

There are myriad problems associated with this phenomenon. Breast feeding shaming and harassment. Ignorance of postpartum mood disorders. Lack of paid maternity leave. Unavailability of high quality affordable childcare. Career penalties for women who take time off to care for children. Social stigmatization for returning to work instead of caring for children full-time.

These problems play out on systemic, interpersonal, and psychological levels. The lack of subsidized (systemic) childcare financially strains families, particularly those that need two working parents (or a single working parent) to survive. The social stigma surrounding both staying home and returning to work are inescapable. Psychologically, it is difficult to escape  the feeling that we must do (not have) it all, and never complain, cry, scream, or sleep. Women sometimes enforce these social norms on each other as a way to direct their own internalized pain around these issues. The condescendingly named Mommy Wars are well-known to any of us who have been judged for our parenting decisions. Consequently, while I think the extreme right-wing is responsible for feeding the flames of mother shaming in our culture while advancing legal barriers to female health and safety, we must also take control of how we internalize and enforce these unhealthy norms on ourselves and one another.

I wrote in my Manifesto about my experience as a new mother starting my teaching career, and the negative feedback I received from a female student for not hiding my nascent motherhood skillfully enough. That was in 2011, and since then the legal penalization of women regarding family planning and care has increased more than I could have possibly imagined.

I’m particularly concerned with the archetype of the mother in our society. As a mother, I’m supposed to be sweet, self-deprecating, patient, kind, self-sacrificing, graceful, gracious, and accommodating. I should happily subsume myself into the care of my family. If I work outside the home, I must completely compartmentalize my mother identity while working and then put it back on when I get home.  Mothers are not sexy, but they shouldn’t let themselves go (get old, fat, or tired). Mothers consider others before themselves. Mothers are vessels for their children long after they have stopped being the physical vessel and nourishment; we don’t need personal space, solitude, or interests.

I am supposed to be an flawed version of the Virgin Mary; stained by my sexuality, but redeemed by my ability to subsume myself in a wholly receptive identity.

I’m not even talking about what I’ve been told, or what other women may feel; these are the messages that I’ve internalized about motherhood from living in our culture. I certainly wasn’t taught these values by my family; I somehow just absorbed them over time. When I became a mother, it was like somebody threw a switch in my head and suddenly this was who I thought I should be. Weird.

It’s bullshit. I need space and solitude. I do not have limitless patience or energy. I have intelligence, ambition, personality, sexuality, and a big independent streak. No one would  describe me as passive. I get angry, sad, tired,  and scared. Daily. I don’t stop being a mother when I’m working, and I don’t stop being a teacher/student when I’m mothering. This doesn’t make me a shitty mother; it makes me a good role model for my daughter, and a wiser teacher and student. I love my daughter to pieces, but she does not define me; I do.

When I see my friends trying to compartmentalize their motherhood to appear “professional” at work, or repressing their personalities to be good mothers, it makes me sad. When women judge other women for choosing the “wrong” identity or not playing their roles well enough, it makes me angry. And when our society shames or penalizes women for delaying motherhood, remaining childless, or choosing to becoming mothers, angry doesn’t even begin to cover it. Livid, perhaps.

I have an image of a dark space around the idea of the Mother in our society. That there is some subconscious aversion to the very idea of motherhood that causes us to react by trying to conform to these harmful ideals. There is an invisible blind spot, or an unhealing wound that we avoid through negative judgement and the creation of unquestioned social norms. I sometimes imagine the archetypal Mother trapped within a spherical prison that emits some kind of repelling energy that keeps us from examining why exactly we expect women to hide or modify who they are in order to survive.

Motherhood is messy. The process of making another human being and expelling him into the world with our bodies is strange, frightening, painful, and gory. Nourishing a child with milk that our bodies make for her is not clean. It is a messy, strange, mysterious, and earthy process that makes the fact that we are animals–not angels or gods–utterly inescapable. It is also the most powerful force in the world. Our species would cease to exist if women’s bodies could not menstruate, gestate, and lactate. But instead of revering these abilities, our society degrades them and insists we keep them out of sight.

The true nature of motherhood not fit with the objectified, sterile version of women peddled to us by traditional media and advertising. Our stretch marks and loose belly skin are not shameful or ugly. Breastfeeding is good for our bodies, and good for our babies’ bodies. Shaming mothers who breastfeed, and idealizing artificial breasts is unnatural and insane. The assumption that our work as parents has no relevance or positive impact on our work for pay makes no sense at all. I think the entry of many men into the childcare workforce may be helping to change these norms, but slowly.

We need to release the Mother from her prison. Millennia ago, socio-religious systems encoded power into spirituality by claiming that women were lesser and innately sinful instead of the source of our being as a species. I believe we can choose to stop playing by these destructive rules and live as the full, ripe, powerful beings that we are. We create and nourish life. We need to share the wisdom that comes with this miraculous ability, instead of allowing it to be reduced and degraded until we have no sense of our own, limitless value.

Procrastination or Germination?

I need multiple arms and magical powers.

I need multiple arms and magical powers.

I have had a crazy semester. I’m taking three classes, teaching two, being a mom, trying to cook occasionally, and now the end of the semester is upon me. In between now and Dec. 15 I have to grade 15 papers, submit 22 grades, write a lengthy position paper that’s supposed to be publishable quality (help me! I haven’t done this in years!), survive Thanksgiving, remember to celebrate my anniversary, and not drown in dirty clothes.

At this moment, I’m dealing with the manic ups and downs of the steroid shot I got on Friday to ward off impending bronchitis and the accompanying asthma. It’s worked so far, but sleep and focus are both hard to come by. So here I sit, blogging, in the hopes that it will help me get focused for this paper.

Learning wise, this has been a mind-blowing semester. I took Human Development, Social Justice, and Feminist Theories. All life changing topics, but I think HD really shifted my perspective the most. The first part was grueling; we had to read a really dense, jargon-laden, example-free overview of the field to get the basic frameworks through which human development is viewed. The reading got progressively more interesting and exciting. Each week, we had to write a paper on the theory/theories we had read about and explore a certain aspect. I was terrified at first; the professor for the class is known as being the Writing Ninja and I was sure I was in for some hard, necessary criticism. She was actually pretty easy on me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

My writing is not perfect; far from it. I’m pretty obsessive about editing, so that helps. I self-edit, I always have at least one other reader, either my mom or my husband (both of whom write for a living), and I try to do at least one out-loud read-through, which also catches the worst of my errors. I’m good at critical thinking, mostly because I don’t automatically negate my own reactions and opinions, no matter how renowned the author. There’s this constant internal-external process I go through where I take note of what interests, offends, excites, or otherwise entices me to reflect in the reading, and then compare it to my own experiences, previous studies, and general beliefs. I think I picked up this process in grad school, and it is serving me well so far in my new program. So I shift in and out of analysis and personal reflection, and it seems to work for me. I think it has the advantage of taking an idea and really knocking it home; so much academic writing is entirely abstract. And BORING. Some of the best ideas are hidden by some of the worst writing! It boggles the mind. I have this wacky idea that I can write academic quality papers that are still reflective, interesting, and specific.

However, I’ve never taken this approach in a formal paper. The two I’ve published academically were not personal, and I want this paper to be personal as well as rigorous.

I’ve had a harder time in my Social Justice and Feminism classes. It’s been confusing and difficult. I love many of the readings despite how heartbreaking it is to read the stories of people who have been disenfranchised, or whose cultures and histories have been misinterpreted and rewritten by those in power. These stories help me see where we are different, and where we are the same. Where I can help, and where I should just listen. But the language of Social Justice is totally different from my language, and I often feel lost, misinterpreted, and mostly just really trivial. From my standpoint as a white, educated, affluent woman, I feel like I’m not supposed to express my opinions or try to share or relate with people who are different. I don’t get this message from my fellow students, but it’s the impression I’m getting from the field of study itself, I guess. Or at least some of it. Some of the authors and editors clarify and seem to invite me into their experience, others seem to be saying, Stay Out! I started this program because of my specific interest in aspects of feminism and human behavior, but I’m having a hard time getting the twain to meet.

So I guess I want to take the writing style that was so successful in my HD class, and use it for this SJ type of paper. Wish me luck. And thanks for reading my rambling. I’ll be posting my final HD paper shortly. It’s all about my love of Kegan.