Deborah Groening-Rother MFT, PSyd Los Angeles

By  Dr. Deborah Groening-Rother, Founder and CEO, Well Baby Center   

As with many social entrepreneurs, I wanted to make a difference in the world. As a psychotherapist with a specialization in infant-family and maternal mental health it was inevitable that I would focus on this population when I was ready to create Well Baby Center. Rather than opening a private psychotherapy practice, I determined to start a new kind of community mental health clinic – one that was open to all socio-economic groups, offered services that were affordable to all based on their ability to pay, and had a prevention focus and an aim to de-stigmatize the process of seeking therapy. I conceptualized it as a hybrid organization – offering both clinical and community center-type services – music classes, birthday party rentals, special free community events, even a boutique.

Since I had sufficient resources to support this social enterprise experiment for its first decade, I was able to design it without a need for obtaining immediate funding.  During my yearlong fellowship with the Infant-Parent Mental Health Post-graduate Training Program, I developed the model that WBC still follows a decade later. Using my extensive business skills from my former career, combined with my more recently acquired clinical skills, I started working on designing the model in 2007. It was a great opportunity to create exactly the kind of center I would have wanted to help me navigate the parenting of my two boys. 

There is a deeper, more complex reason why I decided to open a center like WBC…

As is often the case, there is a deeper, more complex reason I wanted to start a resource like Well Baby Center. Mine was the profound benefit I received from exploring my early childhood during my many years in psychoanalytic treatment. My desire to put my hard-won lessons to good use has kept me motivated – even during the most challenging times. Analysis  is not a treatment that most people can afford so I designed Well Baby Center using an applied psychoanalytic approach. It would be short-term, affordable, and provided by clinicians with a special interest and experience in early life and its lifelong effects.

Despite all surface indicators that I should have had a happy childhood, there was more to the story.  Although I was loved, lived in middle class comfort, my family was intact, I went to a good public school, had lots of friends, took dance lessons, and went on vacations – something was missing in the depths of my being. Eventually it became clear to me that I had been emotionally and physically abused by my mother but since it was not in the more extreme ways you hear about in the news I dismissed it.  The acknowledgement of that abuse was the missing piece of the puzzle.  

My abuse – too subtle to be known by others – nevertheless wounded me in fundamental ways that I am still managing. If it affected me this profoundly, I thought, it probably affected many others too who, like me, normalized it and dismissed it as whining or complaining.  

Not only was my relationship with my mother fraught with these abusive ruptures, I also struggled with undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder until I was finally diagnosed in my 40’s. In my childhood I was always getting in trouble for talking out of turn and not paying attention in class. Although I was  intelligent, my disorder made it exceedingly difficult for me to study subjects I wasn’t interested in and to do well on tests when it was so difficult to focus. I was a quirky, spirited, misunderstood girl with a vivid imagination and nowhere to put all that creative energy and angst.  Clearly, this was what led me to specialize in child and family treatment as my specialty. I obtained a Master’s degree in Child Development along with Clinical Psychology followed by a Doctoral degree in Marriage and Family Counseling. Having subsequently received advanced training in infant and maternal mental health and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, I have made sure that every clinician at Well Baby Center has this focus as their training specialization.

Helping others speak their truth and free themselves from the shackles of their past

After getting help for myself my path was clear – to help others gain access to quality mental health services that could change their life as it did mine. A wise mentor once said: “when you speak it, it gets lighter”.  I never forgot that bit of wisdom and so decided I would help others speak their truth and free themselves from the shackles of their past. This is not about indulgence or dwelling, blaming or whining. It is setting yourself free from a problematic past that may be holding you back.  I was only 10 years old when I pleaded with my mother to take me to see a counselor.  She said, “What are you talking about? Therapy is  for crazy people.” Needless to say, since she wouldn’t let me see someone it drove me to become a therapist myself! 

New parents really need lots of support to manage this huge life transition

Well Baby Center opened its doors during the Great Recession of 2008, the after effect that continues to cause economic distress for struggling middle to low income families. Many, too many of today’s families have to manage stagnant wages and an ever higher cost of living.  There is a dearth of good mental health care options for everyone but especially for new parents who really need lots of support to manage this huge life transition. Often the low cost services offered through the county have a long wait list. In addition, there is still a mental health stigma that continues to keep people from seeking help even though toughing it out is clearly not a great plan. Isolation for a new mother is known to have serious ramifications for both the baby and the mother including serious depressive and mood disorders. 

Preventative mental health care facility and a place where parents

could receive peer and community support

Social support has been shown to be very effective in counteracting these effects in addition to having mental health care services. Those  suffering from depression or anxiety must first  find the courage to seek out any kind of support. They fear feeling shamed or stigmatized. Undocumented parents may fear legal consequences.  I determined that  WBC would address these road blocks.  I decided it would be both a preventative mental health care facility and a place where parents could receive peer and community support. In addressing the more serious problems of perinatal depression and anxiety, I wanted to make sure my staff would be well-trained to work with maternal health issues and that families could afford receiving multiple services — that financial constraints would not be a deciding factor. And I wanted it to be easily accessible — a neighborhood walk-in counseling center right on Venice Blvd with an outdoor play yard open to the community. I wanted families to come in and meet one another, and to offer affordable rentals for birthday parties or other events so it would be a place of joy and celebration.  There would be free monthly community events. 

It can be so difficult to figure out where to turn when you’re sleep deprived, financially stressed, and struggling with parenting a dependent new human being. Fundamentally, WBC has tried to answer one important question: What are the necessary environmental and social conditions from which new families may thrive?

In the last 14 years we think we have found a way to provide a winning combination of counseling, parenting, and community support.  I’m so happy I embarked on this career path and so proud of the work we have accomplished!

Post note: My dissertation was on a subject near and dear to me, Emotional MOTHER LOSS.  As I end my work as a therapist I hope to focus my attention on turning this paper into a book. 

Watch for free book chapters as I progress, which will be available to download when you subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Here is a video I made in 2017…

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