Gayle King’s interview with speaker of the house, Paul Ryan, CBS this morning, Thursday April 12, 2018, reminded me of the hidden sexism that still remains within the counseling room. In the interview, the lack of acknowledgement that Paul Ryan’s wife has been single parenting is a glaring sexism. It reveals that as a society we still believe that mothers are still primarily responsible for bringing up the children. The lack of acknowledgement that Paul Ryan was not only a weekend father, but a weekend husband also reveal’s society sexism that wives of powerful men should silently suppress their needs and career goals for the good of their husband’s career. And this rule doesn’t just apply to wives of powerful men. It applies to most wives.
The reality is that what happens in the counseling room reflects the gender roles and norms that the therapist and client have learned to believe in. And this includes sexist beliefs and gender roles that have been normalized to such a degree that the underlying sexist belief, as the above mentioned interview reveals, is so hidden it has become invisible.
I hit up against this a few years ago when I went to see a local therapist because I wanted help in reevaluating the caregiving role in my family. I had just recovered from a life threatening illness that had forced me to stop being the family’s main caregiver. And as part of my physical recovery I wanted to reevaluate who does what in my family.
Like many women, I took on the main caregiving role when my children were young without thinking about it or realizing that I could demand a more equal balance with my husband/partner. I took it on because that is what my mother and grandmother had done, and my husband unconsciously expected me to be the main caregiver because that is what his mother had done. And having woken up to how unequal my own expectations are about ‘who does what’ in my family I sought out a counselor who could help me find a better balance. But my therapist had no idea what I was talking about. When I explained what I wanted she asked me; “Why do you want to leave your family?” Her question shocked me. I hadn’t mentioned leaving my family. All I wanted was a greater balance. This therapist was clearly steeped in the notion that as a mother my primary role is to take care of my family. She had learned to normalize the sexism in the Culture of Female Service (which I write about in my previous blog), that denies mothers their needs and rights as people.
Sadly this incident is not an isolated case. I hear similar stories from my clients where therapists have internalized the sexism they grew up with and they view their female clients with this unacknowledged sexist lens. And within counseling training there is a lack of examination of inherent sexism within the models and theories we use, like Attachment Theory for example, which have largely been created by men. And feminist counseling theory and the mother-daughter relationship are missing from training syllabi where sexist gender roles and normalized sexism are uncovered, examined, and challenged. The #MeToo movement has revealed how sexual harassment has been normalized and silenced for generations, showing us that as a profession we must do better. We must uncover and challenge sexism wherever it lurks.
Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, speaker, and author of The Silent Female Scream & The Mother-Daughter Puzzle. Rosjke teaches mental health professionals how to become a Certified Mother-Daughter Coach. www.rosjke.com