Momma Interviews "Expert Edition" featuring Shana Averbach, LMFT

May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, so I've relaunched my "Momma Interviews" series--This time with an extra special set of moms. These mommas also work to support other moms and their families during the transition into new parenthood and beyond. I'm calling it the "Expert Edition," but I think you'll find that while these women definitely are experts in their work, parenthood has a way of making a beginner out of everybody. Even experts get surprised by the unexpected and learn new bits of wisdom while in the trenches! 

This series is all about their experiences with motherhood, in the hopes that it provides you with some validation and new tips to try. Because for all the many different ways there are to be a mom (and there are definitely MANY ways to do it right), it's so amazing how much we moms all really have in common.

Shana Averbach, LMFT is a mom and psychologist who specializes in perinatal mental health in San Francisco, CA.  We had such a great conversation together. I love the way she is able to talk about how she works through her moments of self-doubt. And the connections she's made between observing new moms use trial and error to soothe their babies and how we can apply that flexibility to other areas of our lives.


Scroll down to watch the video, read the transcript or get more info about Shana below.

Watch the video:

Shana's Quotables:

Interview Transcript:

Catherine: Hi I'm Catherine O'Brien at and thank you for being here for another Momma interview in our expert series. Today we have Shana Overbach who is a psychotherapist in San Francisco specializing in perinatal mental health. So I'm so excited to have you here with us today.

Shana: I'm excited to be here too. Thank you.

Catherine: Cool. So the first question in our series of questions is, tell us a little bit about your family dynamics, what makes up your family?

Shana: My family. Yeah. My little nuclear family is myself, my husband, and my two and a half year old son. Then I am also living in the city where I grew up, so my parents are here as well. That's more my extended and everyone else is further away.

Catherine: They live close to you then?

Shana: They live close by yeah actually. My son is with them right now as we speak.

Catherine: That's always nice.

Shana: Yeah.

Catherine: Cool. The first question is how do you balance the mom, work, and relationship roles?

Shana: Yeah.

Catherine: Such a tricky question.

Shana: It is such a tricky question. Well it's just such a tricky task. I think my most honest answer is I don't totally know. I can usually do two out of three. Like everything else I just try to manage my expectations and notice when something is out of balance. We, as a family, have been really thoughtful with how we coordinate our work weeks with two working parents and having good quality time with our son. On a good day, when everything is going well, also implementing date nights. Twice a month we actually have them calendared twice a month.

Catherine: Oh good.

Shana: We kind of stumbled our way to that through time, especially in terms of relationship. He was feeling pretty disconnected. Just simply not having quality time together while focusing on how to figure out the work, parenting and learning how to be parents at all. Now we do. We're pretty deliberate with that, which is great. Except when things go wrong. So we haven't had the last two because my parents were out of town for one and they watch our son for one and then I had taken my son out of town for a special mom and son weekend. You know things like that. Somebody's sick. One of us is sick like I am right now or one of the caretakers, like one of my parents. You know, whatever. It's a fragile system and again we can usually get two out of three at best. Sometimes the stars align.

Catherine: And I kind of think sometimes that is the balance right?

Shana: Right.

Catherine: A "what needs it more right now" kind of thing.

Shana: Totally, yeah. At least at very minimum paying attention. Like I definitely notice my husband and I argue more when we haven't had quality time. When it's like "Oh. Okay that's like our only connection." I'm like "Red flag" and even naming to each other which we've learned to do over time, too. I think we just like haven't had time, let's figure something out.

Catherine: Yeah I mean I think that's the key. The same thing happens with us. Like, "Joe," because it doesn't happen very often, "When I get annoyed by you leaving water on the sink after shaving then I know we need to spend more time together.  [crosstalk 00:03:53] I don't even notice, you know?

Shana: Totally, absolutely. We've actually found a creative system very recently where we'll just light a candle and sit down. Maybe it's after bedtime and we're so pooped. We'll light a single candle or maybe eat a little ice cream. Maybe have dinner if we haven't already had our 5:30 early bird special. Even 10 minutes, I don't know. In the past I worked with teenagers in families and I don't do it anymore but I remember talking to parents about that. Like 10 minutes, eye to eye can go really, really far. That's something when we can't do the other stuff at least like trying to do that.

Catherine: Yeah, no, that's so powerful. Most moms I speak to say there's moments when they're ready to throw in the towel. Can you describe time you felt this way and what got you through it?

Shana: It's so funny. When I was planning on doing this interview I was in one of those brief graceful periods. Things were feeling really smooth. It was probably like two days. I'm like, "I'm gonna have to really think..." Sleep, sleep, my first thought is sleep. Moreso in the infant phase which was the hardest phase for me and I'm only in the toddler phase and just feeling like I was never going to sleep again. I was gonna frankly lose my mind. I don't know what throw in the towel means but just feeling like I had no answers. I couldn't find anything to do, I was so tired. My son was very active from jump so sleep was hard. Definitely that was wanting to throw in the towel. Not in that iteration in the infancy one what I ended up doing was moving towards education and figuring out more about sleep and whatever. I kind of geeked out, I went to my nerdy parts because I didn't know what else to do.

Catherine: I love that, my nerdy parts.

Shana: It worked out really nicely. I feel like an informal sleep consultant now. I really went in there. It was probably a little obsessive. Now I've been able to help a lot of friends and stuff. It's not professionally done but just mention stuff, books and resources. That was one way I got through that. I moved towards education as a way of sort of just learning more. Also I think even today was a day. I kind of wanted to throw in the towel. The grace left and right now I'm not feeling well. Things have been really busy. My son is in a very Momma phase right now that he moves in and out of as he has his whole life, as they do. I'm talking like hanging onto my leg not wanting me to leave. Even with people who he knows and loves. I'm just feeling really pinned down by that and really kind of overwhelmed and heartbroken. Today I was just like, "What, what?" Definitely throw in the towel, again I don't know what that would look like, leaving.

I know enough now to know to remind myself of the transient nature of all these things. That's really what I move towards. The impermanence. "This too shall pass" type of message that I need to get to myself in this moment where I'm thinking, "This is my life now. I'll never leave a room without a child attached to my leg." This is, he's going through something. It just so happens that a lot of things are happening at the same time right now that make things a little more difficult. This is just how it feels right now. I think of that a lot. This is how it feels right now.

Catherine: Your mantra. "This is how it feels right now, it's not forever." It's so true. What do you do when you feel overwhelmed, overstretched, or less than?

Shana: Now, again I had to crawl to this. I had to get there. I reach out now. I reach out to my Momma tribe and those exist on a few different planes at this point. I have my real life, I call it, my friends I've had for a while who are parents now. Also these cyber communities. These really kind of neat Facebook groups where I trust and I name what's happening. I'll even say, "I'm just in one of these moments, I'm having this moment." I don't even really have to say, "Can anyone relate?" People zoom in with the "Me toos" and send me love. Just naming it and that's been the single most useful ... Especially for the not enough.

I just have to touch my heart center even saying that because it's such a pain point for myself and for so many people. I'm just like, ugh. Just that instant knowing I'm not alone with that, it melts it away. It takes away its power. I'm thankful that I'm at place in my life where I can get to that very deliberately now through practice. And [between 00:09:52] the self experience of what it's like to be vulnerable like that because I think at first again, I'm very aware that the infant stage of motherhood was so much harder for me. I didn't know enough to know about ... just basic learning curve. I didn't know what I didn't know.  I just assumed any feelings of inadequacy and overwhelm were my problem as everybody does, right?

Catherine: Right.

Shana: I was like, "I just can't. Apparently I just don't know how to do this." All that noise, all those stories which are just where I go when I'm feeling overwhelmed in any domain. It just happened to be the most high stakes one and the most sort of crushing to move to that place during what turns out not to be that fantasy like everything is just blissful and wonderful and all that.

Catherine: Yeah. I've had parents tell me that one of the hardest things about being a parent is the comparisons or judgements from other parents. Have you experienced that? If so, how do you cope with that?

Shana: Yeah. You know, I notice it more in insidious ways. I'm I guess maybe lucky.  I don't feel like I have anyone blatantly being like, "Well, you know you shouldn't da da da da da." I'm sure it's happened but it's more in like the voice inflection. I remember when my son was in that four month sleep regression and starting to poke around and ask people, "Did you do sleep transition?" And getting not just like, "I would never do that," but more things like, "Well, I couldn't, but..." In the parenthesis I could just see like, "I would never do that to my little young tender person but if you want to learn more about this maybe go here," and stuff like that.

The more I learn about parenting, the more I learn, the more I feel secure in my knowledge and all this stuff. It doesn't affect me as much. I know but it used to like have I'd get that shame swell, that warm wash in my body. I would just have to kind of shut everything down.  [crosstalk 00:12:19] Now I can honestly say, "You, person, have an experience with this and you have feelings about this. Often you might feel inadequate yourself about how you dealt with that or whatever. Whatever your big feelings are are there for a reason and they don't have much to do with me." I think I can honestly say I go there now with things of that nature. I can tell if it sticks still. If it hits that center where I'm like, "Ugh." I can tell then that it's something I need to think more about.  If it's something I need to make a decision about.  

Little drive-by, totally not ill-intentioned. To me it's more those things that almost fly under the radar a little more dangerous in general. Moreso I don't experience the blatant stuff.  

Catherine: That's good. I like how you say that. You just check in with yourself and it's like, "Is that something I need to be worried about? Not much but other things I need to worry about." What do you feel is your greatest personal struggle with the experience of motherhood?

Shana: Personal struggle? That's a hard one. I feel like it could probably go back to the balance piece because it's not just relationship, professional life, parenting. It's friendships, it's creativity, it's all the things that are really important to me. My biggest challenge is really feeling like no matter what I need to compromise something. I'm okay compromising but sometimes it's just they feel like big compromises. Like getting ample rest or having quality time with a friend who you really love and I can't connect with. They're all big things and they can't all fit and of course we can't expect them all to.

That I think, but even the fragileness again of all those ... when one thing goes sideways you can have a plan where your week feels balanced and you're gonna see your people and you're gonna have your date. You're gonna see X amount of clients and you're gonna read one chapter of your book, whatever. Then somebody gets sick or one care taking situation falls through. Your husband gets caught on the other side of the Bay Bridge. One thing can sort of throw everything and that to me has been the hardest part. I'm fairly introverted and not having a lot of me time is difficult and that just fits with that mix too of the balance.

I feel lucky that I really enjoy my kid. I just think he's a funny dude. I really like him. We spend a lot of time together and I wish my two and a half year old was more understanding that mommy needs some personal time too.

Catherine: We had a great time together, why don't you go over here and do your thing while mom does her thing? They don't get that.

Shana: Yeah, they really don't, they really don't. Sometimes there was those little moments of independent play and all that but they're not very long.

Catherine: No. It's usually once you're finally doing something for yourself they're like, "Oh wait, I'm done. I'm ready for you again."

Shana: Totally, exactly.

Catherine: Okay so you kind of were saying something about this but what's something that has surprised you about being a mom? Maybe something you didn't realize you'd enjoy so much or that something you didn't know that babies or kids did or something you didn't know could bring you so much joy?  

Shana: Yeah. I think it's really just getting to know someone from day one. It's insane to me and really, really noticing that people come into this world with their spirits. I just happen to love my kid's spirit. It's really seeing that uniqueness. Every day it's like, "Oh, so this is how you are. This is another piece of you." Watching just all the layers of life develop in their personal stuff and their personality traits and their relationship and the attachments. The conversations, my guy is pretty talkative. We have some funny conversations. It just blows my mind.

I didn't have an image of that. I had no set ... I wasn't one of those people who was like had a very clear image of whether I even wanted to have kids. When and all that and what that would look like. I didn't have an idea to sort of compare to what is happening. I just really appreciate what's happening despite feeling kind of tired and run down. It's insane and just how much you can love a person. Watching my husband fall in love and the same feelings and all these iterations in addition to the overwhelm for him too. It's just yeah, it's magical. It's the whole package, it's like, "Wow! This life."  This life that is in here with us, can't imagine how things were different before. We're here, it's insane.

Catherine: Yeah, it really is. How has your relationship with your husband changed and or how has it stayed the same?  

Shana: I feel like we've really been propelled into dealing with things on a much deeper level in terms of our own emotional responses to things. Our stressors, really naming what's happening for us. There's just no going around it. We also we live in a relatively small space so I've called it sort of emotional bootcamp. We've been together for X amount of years, since 2009.  I'm not going to try to do math in my head.

Catherine: It's eight.

Shana: Oh wow.

Catherine: The only reason I know this, that was the year my son was born and he just turned eight.

Shana: Awesome, eight years. Wow. We've been married for whatever, half of that. This has just been just very intensely deeper in terms of getting to know one another's emotional space. There's a lot, lot more work to do there too. So much more but it just brings up so much. I feel like our baseline is the same. I feel like when we get on those dates, there we are. It's just us.  Two people who like and love each other. I feel like a lot of our humor is the same even throughout our parenting life and that's helpful because that's very important to me.

Shana:  Yeah, that's been really lovely. That's new and different because we didn't have the opportunity to see that before we had our son.

Catherine: Yeah. How about your relationship with friends, family members. How's that stayed the same or changed?

Shana: Yeah. I feel like in time I've been finally ... it took a while and this was hard for me. I didn't think about this as a challenge. I feel like a lot of my really good friendships, I've figured out how to integrate it all to make sure to have individual time but also time where they are getting to know ... my Auntie friends where they can be with my son and get to know each other. That is the piece, my girlfriends are so immensely important to me and have always been such a big part of my life. I definitely feel a loss of more time together.

At the same time, I have other friendships that I really developed a lot more as maybe our kids are around the same age and I got to know them in a new way. It's a lot of shifting but I really, really felt a deep loss for a while. I was sort of picturing everyone together in a room at a party while I was stuck at home. I think I've made it clear how much I love my kid but you know not necessarily having that type of social fun. I was picturing everyone at a party I wasn't, again, invited to.

Then as I came more into my balanced view and really understood that what was happening was I was just having to recreate my identity around this. I realized just like anything else like no, everyone else is having their ups and downs. They're missing each other too.  Still we're all in it together. I think all adult relationships sort of change due to life circumstances or whatever. I would say I moved through that sort of loss and have now found a way to make sure to stay connected to the extent that I can with all the other factors and to build other friendships.

My family, I feel like it's been somewhat connecting. Since having grandparents do any kind of caregiving it takes away from other ... I sort of miss having just regular hanging out maybe with my parents. Really the most we see each other is I'm like, "This is how the day is going and I have to go to work and da da da. This is when he should nap. Thank you, bye!" You know that whole [inaudible 00:25:19] my day, came to meet you here. There's not a lot of kind of regular mundane ... sometimes we get there. Sometimes we can all just hang out over extended time where they're not babysitting, we're just hanging out and that's really lovely. I think they're enjoying seeing me become a mom and all that. There's certainly a lot of handing off versus quality time. You know, you know!

Catherine: Yeah.

Catherine: What's the greatest lesson you've learned as a mom?

Shana: Greatest lesson I've learned as a mom. Man. It's something like expect the unexpected. Things change. Its back to that message about the transient nature of things. That it's just an insanely wonderful experience that cracks your heart wide open and requires you to be extraordinarily flexible. I think that learning that so far ... Again, I know I'm gonna learn so many more lessons.   Has been really helpful just to notice any rigidity. You're trying to do the same thing over and over again because this is how you want to do it. I learn little micro lessons all the time from the interaction with my kid and want to apply them to myself.

I love this when I have moms in my office in my practice, I love watching them. Baby will start to fuss and I love watching mom try to hand the baby the toy, maybe switch baby's position. Maybe give baby a bottle, maybe put them, face them another way. They just try and they move through it so seamlessly. Maybe they don't feel like it's seamless. It looks like that to me they're just trying. That to me is the message. I love using that as a metaphor in search of like, you can do this with yourself too.

If something is not working for you ... because I think we get so centered in a way we're just like, "I'm gonna try to get to sleep at this time. I only want the baby to sleep here. I only want to exercise the way that I used to." I like to convey to them and I like to convey to myself, "Okay, try a different version of this." Really you just can't settle into life in the same way. I mean, I would argue that we all need to be flexible whether we're parents or not. We need to learn that about ourselves but again there's that real bootcamp feeling to learning that with a child. Yeah, noticing when you need to try something different with yourself, for yourself. The same way you do with a little one. That's been a huge lesson and really helpful.

Catherine: Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you as a mom?

Shana: I don't. I was trying to think about that before we talked. I don't have a favorite quote. I have all of Brene Brown's TED Talks. All wrapped up in an essence that I like to have as an aura around me all the time. Which is all about staying in your vulnerability and doing the best you can do. Checking your perfectionism at the door. Knowing that's a way to try to control things and not feel vulnerable. Just knowing, well "You are enough," is a quote that I love. You are enough. I just don't know who to attribute it to but the thought comes up for myself and others all the time. I want us all to have it on a post it on our mirrors. I don't know if that's just a thing people say if someone has their Pinterest mark on that. You and I know that's something that certainly resonates always.

Catherine: That's perfect. Definitely perfect. How about a favorite song that inspires you as a mom? NPR, that's not a song.

Shana: NPR or as my son calls it, "Talking, talking. I want to hear talking!" I really don't because and my pause is coming from thinking about actually I was doing a continuing ed for my CEUs with Brene Brown and her course and they talk about having theme songs. It's more about, it's not about parenthood but it's more about like what you'd want playing when you're walking into the arena to be brave. The song is "This is My Fight Song," I don't even know who sings it.

Catherine: Yeah, I love it.

Shana: But yeah, I don't even know how that fits with motherhood but it's just it makes me feel like I can do anything.

Catherine: It's true though.

Shana: I don't want it to feel like a fight per say, and it doesn't. Although, days like today it sort of does. I do like the song "Shake It Off," in all it's iterations.

Catherine: How about, I can't live without a gadget or a product or something that has made mom life easier or better for you?

Shana: Again, I'm going to my nerd parts.  It's a book and the book is called "The Happy Sleeper" and I recommend it to all my friends and all my colleagues.

Catherine: Oh really?

Shana: I was trying to think of gadgets. I don't have those types of things that I'm terribly in love with. That book is something that really taught me a lot of the things that I absolutely just didn't know. Just about the natural rhythms of baby sleep and it was a real game changer for me. I still get texts from my friends that I've recommended it to. I get texts in the middle of the night like, "Thank you, Jesus."

Catherine: Wow, that's good.

Shana: I think it resonates with many but that's been my most prized object related to motherhood.

Catherine: No, that's good. All right so last question. What is one piece of advice you'd like to give other moms?

Shana: One piece of advice to give to other moms would be to try to soothe yourself before doing anything else so you can access your inner wisdom and find your right answers. Or soothe yourself, read the variety of things you want to read about whatever. Listen to the opinions of whoever you trust and then divide it by four. Always have your wisdom and what you sense that you know. I won't say what you know know because we don't always, again so much of this is about learning new skills. One thing I loved, you did the PSI?

Catherine: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Shana: I don't remember which presenter said it. It might've been Birdie Meyer and it just shot through me. She said, "Maternal instinct is a myth." I was like, "Huh!" That protective instinct is there. Real animal like I will do anything for you. I think a lot of what we think of as maternal instinct, it can be very, very alienating to a mom who's not quite getting it. Simply because she doesn't get it yet. She's assuming she doesn't have some sort of instinct that might not actually exist at all.

Maybe some people have observed others mothering more or have siblings or maybe they have some other natural propensity towards due to just their natural traits or maybe they happen to not be in their fear in the moment they can move toward ... Whether that exists or not I don't know, but I 100% believe we all have inner wisdom that we need to access and we absolutely need to calm our nerves before getting there. Whatever that means and I don't know that all of us know how to do that.

I know I certainly wouldn't if it wasn't for all these years of education, therapy. Would anyone become a parent without being a therapist? I know I couldn't have done it. I know it would've been a very different picture for me because of my context and history. Finding ways to soothe yourself, be compassionate with yourself. Find your inner wisdom as you're navigating and just knowing there's no capital R right answer just what's right for you.

Catherine: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah, I say that all the time. Thank you so much for being with us. I love everything you had to say. You can learn more about Shana and her practice in the show notes and the awesome stuff that she's doing. Thank you so much for being with us and enjoy your son. They're such fun ages. I love that, the three, four. Not that it doesn't have challenges but I feel like it's so fun and as they start talking about how they experience the world just makes it so much more fun. I mean, fun, but ...

Shana: Totally. It's work but yeah it's definitely been a verbal world with our world, right? Like, oh, yeah, let's talk about that. Thank you for having me.  

Catherine: All right, thanks. Yeah, bye.


About Shana Averback, LMFT:

Shana Averbach LMFT.jpg

Shana Averbach supports moms, from pre-conception through the postpartum period, in her San Francisco-based private practice, and through writing. Her work focuses on mindful self-compassion and she is motivated by all the amazing things that happen when people start being more kind to themselves.

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