Playgroup as peer group

Stacy Notaras Murphy September 1, 2011

When counselor Rachel Feldwisch transitioned from full-time to part-time work a few years ago, she struggled to find flexible day care for her daughter. Luckily, her longtime friend and fellow American Counseling Association member Molly Meier was also looking for child care to accommodate her new private practice schedule. As the two traded baby-sitting sessions, they also shared peer supervision and encouragement. Both counselors now have private practices in Indianapolis and kids in full-time day care programs, but they continue to support each other as counseling moms.

“Molly and I talk about once a week,” Feldwisch says. “We are seeking our art therapy credentials and attend monthly supervision together. We often share resources such as articles and books or attend continuing education events [together].” The two counselor moms also schedule frequent playdates because of their nontraditional work schedules and because their kids are close in age.

Most counselor moms and dads would be envious of this arrangement. Anyone with children knows all too well that attempting to complete household chores and paperwork during narrow (and sometimes unpredictable) nap times is a harried game of “Beat the Clock.” But counselors in private practice might feel even further under the gun as they try to maintain the delicate balance between remaining hands-on parents and making themselves available to their clients throughout the workweek. Challenges range from the assorted complications of returning a client phone call to simply getting enough sleep to be present during a session. Some counselors seek out other parents within their professional communities — parents who know what it’s really like on the other side of the couch — to trade war stories, insights and even child care.

Flexibility or fantasy?

Many counselors envision private practice as a harmonious opportunity to see clients when they want to while maintaining the flexibility to meet a colleague for lunch, wait at home for the plumber or spend quality time with the kids. But resources don’t always line up perfectly to support that fantasy. In some communities, part-time day care is not an option, and facilities expect parents to pay for entire weeks or months of care even if they are only using a few hours at a time.

Stacie McLean, an ACA member in Lakebay, Wash., has hopes of launching her own private practice but currently is at home with her 2-year-old son because child care poses such a challenge. “My biggest hurdle as I try and break into the field will be finding quality, structured day care that can work with a flexible schedule,” she says. “Starting a limited private practice is not synonymous with predictable scheduling and income, so I am looking for an affordable, understanding care provider.

“[The current setup] leaves me only his nap time to research, network and keep up with the field. Developmentally, this age is very high maintenance. He is limited in his capacity to safely entertain himself while I work.”

Rob Reinhardt, a licensed professional counselor and ACA member in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., has found a balance with his partner of 15 years when it comes to raising their 2-year-old twins. “I see most of my clients in the evenings, and my partner goes into work early in the morning,” he says. “The kids get daddy during the day, mama during the evenings and both of us for bedtime. … My flexible schedule allows us to go to the park or engage in other activities pretty much any day of the week.”

Still, Reinhardt concedes this “shift” approach to child care can sometimes put a slight strain on his relationship with his partner because it reduces the time they spend together. “Since I own my private practice, once I’ve made enough to pay the bills and pay myself, I do have the freedom to choose whether there is more or not,” he says. “Do I want to take on the risks involved with growing the practice, along with the investment of time? I pretty regularly ask myself, ‘Do I invest more time in the business so I have more finances for the family, or do I invest less time in the business so that I have more time for the family?’ So far I feel that I’m striking a pretty healthy balance where I typically lean more toward time for the family. The current state of the economy provides a regular tug in the other direction though.”

Many counselor parents in private practice strive to see clients only during traditional work hours — or even traditional school hours. But for most, evening slots are key to filling their caseloads, and this reality often demands complicated child care strategies.

Ulash Dunlap is a counselor and ACA member in San Francisco whose son is 2. She acknowledges that devoting quality time to her husband and son even as she manages her career takes some effort — and sacrifice. “I work school hours in my full-time job, which gives me the flexibility to pick up my son after 4 p.m.,” she says. “However, I have a part-time practice as well, and it has been challenging to spend quality time when I have private clients in the evening. I have now reduced my private clients to only one night a week so I can spend more time with my son.”

Kimberly Harrell is a single mother with two sons, ages 13 and 17. The ACA member divides her time between general private practice counseling in Vienna, Va., and working as a clinical supervisor for an adoption agency. Harrell came up with the strategy of “protecting” certain nights of the week to spend time with her teenage sons. “If they have a game or event on the other nights, there is a good possibility I will not be able to make it because I’m seeing private practice clients that night,” she explains. “I have learned that my

children are more important than my career, and if I put them first, we will all be in a better place emotionally. This, in turn, paves the road for me to follow my career dreams. It may take a little longer for those dreams to be realized, but the trade-off is healthy, well-adjusted and happy children and mother.”

Creativity is another hallmark of the therapist parent. Emi Whittle, an ACA member in League City, Texas, has one biological daughter and two “bonus boys” who are the sons of her partner. An LPC and supervisor, she has a full-time job with NASA as an extramural research coordinator but is working to build an online-only private practice.

“The biggest challenge is finding enough energy to meet my priorities and still have enough left to pursue establishing a private practice,” Whittle notes. “My family comes first, and my professional obligations to my full-time job come second, which means time, energy and motivation for getting my private practice going comes last.” With her daughter getting older and now out of day care, Whittle has worked with her employer to create a more flexible work schedule.

“My hope is that I can be there for ‘kid activities’ as much as possible, particularly during after-school hours. Everything in life is a trade-off: money, resources, energy, time. My hope is to do a good enough job with parenting while also showing my child how to care for her own needs as an adult and a parent, too,” Whittle says.

When both parents are counselors, the work/life balance can get even trickier. Ryan and Jacqueline Morrell live in Auburn, N.Y., where Jackie is a credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor and Ryan is a mental health counselor and ACA member. They have a son who is 3 and are expecting their second child any day now.

“One of the biggest challenges we face in balancing work/life obligations is having enough time for personal self-care and stress relief,” Ryan says. “Jackie and I typically work more than 40 hours per week, and one weekend a month I’m on call. On top of spending time with family and friends for birthdays, holidays, weddings, etc., and teaching and parenting our children, very little time is left for us.”

They have created “phenomenal” schedules, he says, by working for agencies with flexible policies. Ryan enjoys a four-day workweek but spends a good amount of time at home completing paperwork. “One of the challenges I constantly face is not being able to get all the paperwork done on time at work, so I am often found typing at home late at night,” he says. “I do most of my typing when my family is asleep, so when I come home, we can spend time together.”

Special understanding

Counselors are attuned to recognizing when their clients are struggling with work/life balance. It stands to reason they can also recognize those struggles in their peers and can provide unique feedback to one another. Feldwisch says having a close friend who is also a professional colleague definitely helps her face up to the realities of being a counselor mother. “As my longtime friend, Molly [Meier] knows that I value balance,” Feldwisch says. “I have worked hard to achieve a balance between my career as a counselor and my personal life, but it hasn’t always been an easy task. When Molly sees that I am struggling with a professional decision that could put strains on my personal relationships or self-care, she helps me to see other possibilities.”

Establishing this kind of connection with other counselor parents seems to be on the wish lists of many ACA members nationwide. And although the playdate/supervision relationship might be ideal, some of those who spoke with Counseling Today said they would be happy even with an online forum where they could hold such conversations and swap insights.

“Most of my counseling peers and

contacts have grown children, so I don’t get as much inter-parent involvement as I would like,” McLean says. “I would find a weekly or even biweekly group to be a wonderful asset. I picture it giving parents of small children a much-needed break from intensive parenting, a heavily taxed family system and the need to give to our clients. It could also offer younger parents a preview of upcoming parenting tasks. … Counselors have a way of illuminating tough barriers with a few short words. Groups may also provide a support network for counseling parents to help each other in practical ways, such as shared child care or other resources.”

Similarly, Whittle has made connections with other counselor parents but finds that time and distance are obstacles to meeting regularly. “I do think the idea of an actual ‘counselors-as-parents peer group’ is fascinating and, indeed, I might like to participate. The biggest problem would be time. Perhaps an online group would work for that as well,” she says.

Harrell agrees: “I know other counselors who are parents, but we rarely talk about the issues around being a parent and a counselor. It would be nice to hear how others handle it. I’m thinking that because we are all so busy as it is, maybe an online forum would be the best way to communicate.”

Finding a forum

Jen Kogan, a Washington, D.C.-based licensed clinical social worker and a mother of two, founded the DCTherapistMoms e-mail list group in late 2008 because she was looking for a community of peers who were also juggling child-rearing and private practice. “I had spent a few years at home with my kids midcareer and had not found a lot of support as I re-entered the workforce,” she recalls. “People have told me that our [e-mail list group] differs greatly from other professional groups in that it is a very supportive and nurturing space where members can feel free to ask clinical questions in addition to questions relating to mothering.

“The openness and helpful tone of the group is an important resource for parents. They know they can ask a question about finding child care, ask a clinical question, post an article or seek a referral, and all their questions will be answered — most times by more than one person,” Kogan says. The DCTherapistMoms group has held two formal social gatherings each year since its inception, but members are also known to meet regionally for drinks or dinner.

After launching on the Yahoo!Groups service with just 12 members in 2008, DCTherapistMoms’ rolls now sit at approximately 230, including male and female counselors, social workers, psychologists and marriage and family therapists. “The nicest surprise is to see how word has spread throughout the D.C.-area therapist community. Each week, a few more DCTherapistMoms join,” Kogan says.

DCTherapistMoms remains a free, members-only service with a searchable database where therapists list their specialties and practice details. This past spring, the group began offering member-taught continuing education programs. Peer supervision and practice-building groups have also formed via the greater e-mail list group, and a volunteer mentoring program is currently in the development stage.

Nicole Cornthwaite, a licensed marriage and family therapist and mother of two, is a member of the “New Practice Group” that formed via DCTherapistMoms. “After being a stay-at-home-mom for three-and-a-half years, I am in a place where I am ready to start preparing to go back to private practice,” she says. “I have come to know and appreciate how helpful this [group] is in this process. Not only has it served as an avenue for networking with colleagues and the professional world, but it also provided me with the opportunity to join a New Practice Group for those interested in going back to, or starting up, a private practice after having children. When I tell my friends about the group I joined, they are amazed that a group like this exists [because] it is a perfect match!”

Cornthwaite has come to appreciate both the shared experience of her New Practice Group members and the accountability of belonging to the group. “I get to hold myself accountable for setting up my practice and then reporting to the group — like finding office space, organizing forms, website issues, etc. Both the [e-mail discussion group] and the New Practice Group are proving to be a great way to step back into the professional world,” she notes. “I don’t think I would have had the courage to start back up if it had not been for this [e-mail list] and group.”

Stacy Notaras Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and mother of two balancing work and professional life in Washington, D.C. She is also a member of the DCTherapistMomsGroup. To contact her, visit therapygeorgetown.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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