Some cases that you encounter as a psychotherapist you never forget. In 1986, I had just started as a trainee at the Infant-Parent Program at San Francisco General Hospital when I began working with a family that almost broke my heart.
The family was headed by a young mother whose partner had abandoned her. She lived with her 9-month old infant boy, along with a very angry grandparent who kept herself physically distant from the mom and child, even though they were sharing the same home. In the grandmother’s brusque interactions with me, she expressed disdain for her daughter in-law and grandchild, and for my home visits. I soon became angry and frustrated with her – not exactly a productive stance.
Fortunately, I had an excellent teacher and mentor. Jeree Pawl had co-founded the program just seven years earlier after coming to San Francisco with world-renowned social worker and psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg. I talked with Jeree about this family and about my frustration. In turn, she wondered what would be possible if I were to sit in a chair across from the grandmother and have a chat – really get to know this woman and her perspective.
I was dubious. From what I’d seen, it seemed unlikely to work. But after long discussions with Jeree, I found myself in that chair, asking the grandmother what it was like for her to find herself in this role. I learned of her anger and disappointment with her son, her suspicions about his involvement in illegal activities, criticism of her daughter-in-law’s parenting, and deep down her worry that her son would never return, and that this grandson would be taken away from her by his mother.
Jeree’s genius: nurturing clinical imagination
I sat in that chair and engaged the somewhat hostile grandmother not because Jeree told me to, but rather because she had taken the time to explore my feelings and sense of helplessness, and to help me be curious about someone else’s perspective. Thinking back, I realize that Jeree’s genius was the way she nurtured and prompted my clinical imagination – as she did with so many people she mentored and trained over the years. She helped us cultivate empathy for everyone and curiosity about all involved in a complicated family dynamic, allowing us to hold more than one set of needs, feelings and longings in mind.
I’d like to think that I applied much of what I learned from Jeree in my clinical work and especially in my role as a mentor and clinical supervisor over the past 40 years.
Jeree Pawl died on November 19, 2021, at the age of 91. She was a pioneer whose innovations shaped the field of infant mental health and deeply influenced systems of care. She assumed the directorship of the Infant-Parent Program after Fraiberg’s untimely death from cancer in 1981, and she led it until her retirement in 1999.
For me, working with Jeree was a heightened experience shaped by her capacity to tune in to others. She didn’t lecture, suggest what articles I should read, or direct me. Rather, she got to the heart of the matter with astute insights about what I was feeling and observing in my work, along with questions that helped me explore where I might go with the heartbreak, frustration, or confusion I was experiencing with different families.
Jeree’s innate warmth enabled her to create an environment where each client and each trainee was treated with graciousness and an acceptance of who they were and what they might need. Her kindness was balanced with wit, playfulness, humor and a no-nonsense, unsentimental approach. She was able to take in a great deal and pay close attention to the details of clinical work – but still emerge whole, without becoming hopelessly entangled in the complexities of a case. In this way, she opened the door to expanded meaning and possibility.
After I completed my training with the Infant-Parent Program, I began to realize just how broadly Jeree’s work and impact extended – and to see ways to carry her careful and attuned support for parent-child relationships into many environments. In fact, as I learned later, Jeree’s work has had a profound impact on many systems of care, including mental health, infant-toddler childcare, early intervention and child welfare. She was also a long-time board member and leader in the Zero to Three organization which has been an impetus in the growth of services for infants, young children and families.
In talking with colleagues who knew Jeree, they all shared one overriding impression: Jeree was always a curious learner, intrigued by each case and each situation. And her work was always centered on helping infants and young children get what they needed to develop in a healthy way.
Holding another in mind
In 2017 an event was held at The Zero to Three annual conference in San Diego to celebrate the creation of the California Association for Infant Mental Health. Jeree spoke at the event, which turned into a passing of the torch. Jeree provided an exuberant send-off, delighted to see the people she had mentored over the years continuing and extending the work she had begun decades earlier.
Jeree left behind a treasure trove of books, articles, podcasts and videos that describe her work and the importance of “holding another in mind.” She described this experience of being deeply seen, remembered, and held as one of life’s greatest privileges.
She leaves a distinct legacy to those who hope for a better world for young children and their families. This could be described succinctly in what has become known as the platinum rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto others.” This message highlights the idea of parallel process, in which the provider’s interactions with a client become a template for that client’s ability to interact with others more thoughtfully and empathically. A straightforward message– but it is oh so hard to live up to. Jeree Pawl inspires us to try.
Mary Claire Heffron, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who trained at the Infant Parent Program from 1986 to 1988. She is medical staff emeritus, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, where she formerly directed community-based training programs, and is currently involved in teaching and consulting nationally and internationally.