Monday, June 24, 2013

Dr. Mom

”Are you a mother?”

This is a question my clients have been asking me for years. It always has a different motive. Sometimes pure curiosity, sometimes malice, sometimes scorn, sometimes surprise, and sometimes just a little kid who is struck by the fact that oh-my-gosh, my therapist might be someone’s mom. As a therapist, it’s my job to try to discern the reasons behind the question before answering. Early in graduate school they train you with a simplistic response that bases on never disclose ANYTHING personal, so you are left floundering with awkward responses such as , “Oh, um, funny you should ask…um, so, do you like ice cream?” or the robotic-devoid-of-emotion-response ”I am not permitted to disclose information of a personal nature.” As you progress in your career, you realize the better idea is to try to understand why the person is asking, and then respond to that question instead. However, with little skill, you then end up sounded like a cross between Freud and Sherlock Holmes. ”Funny you should ask that. Can you tell me WHAT exactly it would mean to you if I WERE a mother? And the poor client looks dumbfounded and stares at you.

Now that I’m farther along in my career and have learned how to appropriately integrate parts of myself while still maintaining my identity as a psychologist, I usually just say something like, ”Nope. Why do you ask?” And that starts an interesting conversation.

The point is, as psychologists, we are trained to be blank slates for a reason. I’m not going to go into the many reasons and theories behind this because I promised myself this will not be a therapy blog*, but let’s just leave it at, most good therapists will spend a lot less time talking about themselves and a lot more time talking about you. If we do bring ourselves into the equation it should be for a good reason that we have thought through carefully.

BUT. Some things you cannot hide. Like your gender. The color of your skin. Your age. A wedding ring. And…..your prominent stomach that screams…”I AM GOING TO BE A MOMMY!” Now, this is weird. A round belly is a very personal thing and allows the families I work with to project all sorts of thoughts onto me. Such as, “Be Careful With Her – She’s Expecting,” “She Must Be Maternal and Caring,” or “Well NOW She Gets What I’m Going Through, “ etc, etc, etc.

So what is my point here? My point is, my pregnancy has become intertwined with my job in an interesting way. My clients and their parents now know something about me (and may think they know a LOT about me) that I maybe would not have normally shared so openly. In fact, we need to have sessions about it (“What Will Happen When Your Therapist Leaves You for Six Months To Take Care of Her Own Child?”) and process what it means. It brings up issues of mothers’ own pregnancies – either successful or tragic. It brings up confusion and a little discomfort for the children. Basically, it’s weird.

Speaking of weird, everyone knows about oddly personal comments that pregnant woman receive, with everyone and their grandmother telling you what to do or think. Well, I can tell you it's doubly weird when it's coming from my clients. I've had comments about "how wide my hips are" or that I should "eat more" because my belly is too small or whether I want to go back to work and if so, who will take care of my baby. It's very bizarre to have people analyzing my body and health when I am supposed to be the one giving them advice from a professional distance.

To make it even more complex, the majority of my clients are monolingual, Latino immigrants. Family is a big deal in traditional Latino culture. I even studied it - familismo- in my dissertation. My clients have been known to bring me gifts (another grad school face value no-no) that have important cultural meaning to them. Now I’m worried they will start bringing gifts for my baby. What do you do with that?

So, to bring me back to my point…I am realizing that this shift from non-mother to mother is not just a private shift for me. I am being observed. And I need to figure out how to integrate this part of me into who I am publicly at work. The responses I have gotten from families have been like a mirror for me. I see the reflected images and think, oh, yes, this too is part of motherhood. It is something that male therapists will never (have to?) experience. Something unique to being a woman in this professional role. I imagine there are other roles (teachers? social workers? doctors?) who experience something similar to this. I mean, imagine being a pregnant OB!!

But really, we’re just women. We’ll be “just mothers.” No matter how much people want to put us on a pedestal or examine us. Just like every other idea my clients have had about me, I need to remember that their ideas come from them, not from my reality. In the meantime, I will have to keep going through this very public metamorphosis while still trying to provide really good care for my patients. And, at the same time, allowing myself time to figure out what it means to me.

”Are you a mother?


*I really try to keep my job out of this blog. I know there are psychologists out there who blog about their careers, their professional values, or even (ugh!) their clients, but I want this blog to just be about me. So, since part of ME is my profession, it will seep in occasionally. I just want you readers to know, that when I make comments about something related to child psychology, I am NOT recommending anything, I am just talking in my totally non-professional capacity. Also, when I make comments about how I want to raise my kids, I am not talking based off of years of training and education, but just what feels right to me. As a person. As a mother.


  1. So what ARE you going to do when your clients bring you gifts? you know as well as I do that if you refuse them, it would be rude! For my job I work with recent immigrants/refugees to Canada and sometimes they bring my gifts (especially food)to thank me. I always feel super awkward, but since I work for a non-profit and we have a relaxed atmosphere I usually accept.

    I found this post to be very thought provoking. Thanks for sharing :)

    p.s. So are your therapy sessions in English or Espanol? If you were going to learn a third language, which would you want to learn?

  2. Usually, I accept the gifts unless they are something over-the-top. Often they are something thoughtful and meaningful. One time a mother gave me some handmade lace that her mother made (she sells it back home in her country), as a thank you for helping her son at the end of therapy. It had import and meaning to her so I accepted it. BUT it's different if it's for the baby. I feel weird somehow. But yes, I will probably accept it if it's small because it has cultural and personal meaning for the client. Ethical guidelines support that, so I'm ok in my thought process.

    My sessions are in both English and Spanish, depending on the family (not all are Latino or first gen) and some are bilingual because the child prefers English and the parents Spanish, so we switch back and forth. If I could learn another language, I would without a doubt learn Italian. My family is Italian on my Dad's side and I have cousins who live in northern Italy. I'd love to visit. Plus, I can understand Italian because of its similarity to Spanish, so it wouldn't be too hard :)

  3. I definitely think this awkwardness affects the women who are REs or ultrasound techs! At my fertility clinic, there was a nurse, a doctor and a tech who were all pregnant and they kept trying to hide their tummies under ginormous scrubs or lab coats, but of course it's not their fault they want a family WHILE helping others who are struggling to build theirs... just glad I'm not in that position! As a freelance writer who works at home, I really haven't encountered any of this; I haven't even had a stranger ask me if I'm expecting. Although I did once hear a construction worker start to whistle and then stop, mid-whistle, as I walked by... think maybe his roving eyes finally got down to my stomach and were like, "Ohhhh..."

  4. I didn't even stop to think about how very personal this is in your profession! My own time with a counselor very specifically excluded speaking with him about anything in his personal life. What a challenge!! Glad you're putting together a plan on handling the questions and gifts. Thinking of you!

  5. When I was pregnant (the last time), I had lots of my patients bring me gifts - I think I was given 12 handmade blankets, as well as stuffed animals, clothes, was incredibly sweet and at times a little awkward. I can't count the number of times in the past year I've had a patient ask when I was having another baby. People are very nosey here in the South.

  6. I've had a very similar experience at my job. It can create a really interesting dynamic. Sometimes it gets awkward but most of the time, the conversation ends up in a productive place.


Don't just sit there, say something!