Thought Roll

The Mirroring of New Mothers During COVID

October 7th, 2020 by Dr. Nina Asher

Recently my psychotherapy practice has been filled with new moms. In addition, I have neighbors and extended family members who have had babies this past year, all born before the pandemic hit in full force. These are unfamiliar and frightening times. What is it like to raise a child in the time of COVID? What is it like to be a new mother living in semi-isolation with a new baby?

Prior to my work as a psychotherapist (now over 30 years ago), I was a child development specialist. I worked exclusively with new mothers with their babies and toddlers, in groups, and often in their homes, and later on the floor in my office. The real life interaction always enhanced the therapy work, and seeing the pair together added a unique intimacy to the therapy relationship.

A patient of mine with a 7-month-old recently said, “If these were normal times, I’d be out with her, walking, meeting up with other moms. I’d be traveling to see my family. They would know my baby.” Then she said, “My family and friends would see me mother her, and I would know that I could be a mom.”

It hit me like a bolt! New moms, especially first time moms, need mirroring as they move into their role of mother. Most new mothers suffer from fatigue and stress; ongoing support between the parents often decreases. Current social isolation due to COVID robs tentative new mothers of the outside input that could help them trust themselves. Mothers wearing masks ‘hide’ their babies as they walk their neighborhoods, in fear for their safety. They shy away from meeting with other moms, depriving themselves of the natural mirroring they might receive from each other.

Mirroring is a concept in which one person listens, validates, and reflects back to the other person that they have been seen and heard. It is a powerful act of reciprocity through which we come to know ourselves. Mirroring happens intuitively in most mother-infant pairs. The baby opens her eyes and the mother returns her gaze; she gurgles or cries and the mother responds to the need, but she also repeats the gurgling sound; or she speaks the need, “You are hungry, let me feed you.” Mothers and babies come to know themselves relationally as they engage in a dance of validation through mirroring.

My patient’s husband has grown children and grandchildren. He loves having this experience of new parenting at an older age, and seems to trust himself as a new father. My patient, at age 39, spent many years convincing me that she couldn’t get pregnant. It always seemed to me that she didn’t trust herself to attach to a baby, connect or ‘own’ it as hers. I knew about her deep fear of abandonment. My patient describes profound longing for a mother who wanted to mother. She experienced an early anxious, ambivalent attachment with her own mother and lost her father in pre-adolescence. She feels that she and her mother were never a ‘good fit;’ that her mother never embraced their many differences.

My patient knows her strengths in her career identity, and she returned to work as planned. But at times, I sense her retreating from her baby, turning more caregiving over to her husband and babysitter. She speaks often to me of knowing she loves her daughter and has never once regretted her decision to get pregnant. But she also admits to feeling left out, and simultaneously, missing her old life. I see that her anxiety about being a mother has intensified in the absence of ongoing mirroring from others.

Now, as she sits in her home office, she overhears her baby interacting with her husband and babysitter. Does her daughter need her, and her specifically? She distrusts her ability to ‘settle in’ with her daughter, a feeling she knows all too well from her early experience with her own mother. Is it ok for her to have these fears, and still be a different kind of mother than the one she had? Many new moms have some version of this feeling, their own attachment history defining how they see themselves as new mothers.

We all miss normal, familiar forms of contact as COVID keeps us in our homes. I think many new moms are missing the reflection and mirroring they might have known when people admired their babies as they went about their daily activities. I remember as a new mom, now many years ago, walking my daughter to a local bakery. While I bought bread, the women working there hovered over her strapped to my chest and I felt welcomed. Their validation filled me up. They were mirroring me, a new mom, as well as my newborn daughter.

I thought about how different this might be for my patient if she could come into my office, baby in tow. I picture us sitting on the floor, talking about her fears and anxieties resulting from her early attachment with her mother. I can see myself mirroring her being the best new mom she could be.

I wondered what it would be like to have her daughter join us on a zoom call. Would mirroring translate into this new form of therapy? Could I, in some way, help her know herself as the very specific mother of her daughter, in ‘real time’ on zoom?

I share this with my patient and tell her of my years working with new moms, sitting comfortably on the floor, the therapy weaving its way in and out of the mother-baby relationship and my relationship to the pair. We are discussing how it might feel for her to have her daughter join us on zoom for a few minutes each week. She’s been open to this idea, and also expresses vulnerability about me seeing her with her daughter. My hunch is that over time, we will meet in this way, and it will help my patient integrate our ongoing work with her new, living experience of being a mother.

Perhaps our work together will help re-invent a new form of mirroring during the COVID era.

Intention and Attention in Psychotherapy and Meditation

January 15th, 2017 by Dr. Nina Asher

I have thought a lot about the concept of intention as it applies to both psychotherapy and meditation. My life’s intention is an ongoing commitment to working on myself. My work as a psychotherapist allows me to help others in their commitment to this journey. My meditation practice creates a space in which I can quietly reflect on my thoughts, and like in contemplative psychotherapy, see what is arising.

Whereas psychotherapy is a relational process that involves a steady attuned connection between two people, meditation is a contemplative process of being in relation to oneself. The two interface in their intention of bringing awareness to that which is waiting to be seen.

I have thought of specific intentions for myself over many years. They often take the form of stating a commitment to a particular area of myself that I feel needs “more work.” For example, “I want to be kinder with myself when I am struggling;” or, “ I need to work on reaching out more quickly when I need or want contact with someone.” At other times, my intentions go to how to “do” more – be more active in things I believe in such as self-expression through writing and social action.

Recently, while meditating, the word attention arose. In the next breath, I saw the word intention. Then I felt my breath contract with urgency. I paid attention to the tightening, noticing that the word attention resurfaced allowing me to relax. I wondered if at times the concept of intention revealed pressured thoughts about things I “should” do. By contrast, attention provided openness of noticing. And both words emerged in a meditative state amid insight.

Maybe the best way to hold to the intention of working on myself was to make a commitment to paying attention to that which calls for it?

Once the words “more,” or “should,” or “trying,” or “doing” came into the picture, I felt pressured and trapped with expectations that might never be met. I have seen myself locked in lofty, albeit good intentions, that do nothing but keep me stuck “trying” to do, losing track of simply being.

I see this in my work with patients who want to, “get better,” as if this is a goal with a direct, perfect route. I focus with them on what I believe helps the most; that is, staying in a process of looking inward within the therapy relationship, and learning from each piece that unfolds. In doing so, I gently set the intention to pay attention.

Intention and Attention

January 3rd, 2017 by Dr. Nina Asher

2017 rolled in and with it the days prior, filled with people speaking about their intentions for the coming year. This tradition of setting resolutions, more recently referred to as intentions, is an old one. Like with anniversaries and birthdays, each new year compels us to take stock, reflect, and anticipate what is coming next, and what we would like to do differently.

We know that the newness of 2017 is really an extension of the dwindling days of 2016; but somehow, we ponder the landscape of the unknown, looking towards it as a kind of beginning. We fear the unknown, and yet, we reach for it, coloring it with hope for improvement.

2016 was not an easy year. But with all its troubles, most of us had moments of peacefulness and gratitude. As far as we know, 2017 will reveal its own distinct challenges; and hopefully we will still experience moments of gratefulness and calm.

When I began to reflect on the coming year, I could not think of a quality or concept that reflected an intention for 2017. Many familiar ideas emerged such as “being kinder with myself when I am struggling” or “reach out more quickly when I need or want contact.” But somehow, none of these took hold as something new for the coming year.

I thought a lot about the world picture that began forming itself many months ago, but is now here, known and not known for what it will bring. Many of us had good intentions, but somehow they got in the way of us paying attention to what was evolving in front of our eyes, and behind closed doors.

A week or so ago, while meditating, the following word arose: ATTENTION. And in the next breath I knew that INTENTION was not the right concept for me this year. Unless, I thought, my intention is to pay more ATTENTION to that which calls for it.

As the days inched towards 12/31/16, I let the word ATTENTION live inside me. When my mind wandered to a particular intention, it quickly drifted away to the words, “rest your attention on what needs it.” And, when my attention felt cluttered with the needs of others, I found myself remembering what is hardest, but most necessary. That is, keeping my attention on my felt experience.

Be it fear or confidence, confusion or clarity, paying attention will guide me to what comes next.

The Day After

November 15th, 2016 by Dr. Nina Asher

I am shell shocked, in a daze. The unthinkable has happened and it screams out ignorance and hatred. My heart is aching; sadness washes over, seeps inside every pore.

This is not a simple loss.
I am grieving for us all.

I feel like I did the day the World Trade Center was attacked.
9/11; today, 11/9
Then, like now, there was no way to make sense of what happened, but I know we are experiencing something that we cannot process, yet.

My father died on 11/11, 17 years ago. He was a leftist, a cynic of “the system,” but he had a kind, loving heart. What would he have made of this atrocity? In times like this, he often said, “It has to get worse before it gets better.” And yet, today, those words hold little comfort.

Does everything that gets worse always get better?
Is that the natural cycle of things?
What is the new normal?

Yesterday the unthinkable happened. It feels like what it must be like to have received a terminal diagnosis.
We all know we will die but somehow we don’t really believe it, even though it happens to everyone, time and after time. We know death spares no one, but we keep it at arm’s length, perhaps as a way to keep living.

Death is a part of life.
But is ignorance? Is hatred?

Yesterday, this country voted for ignorance and hatred.

My daughter, now 30, worked on both of Obama’s campaigns, and Kerry’s before that. That first decade of her adulthood taught her history; it brought out her passion for justice. Her grandfather would have been proud.

She was hopeful yesterday, until she wasn’t.

I see her heart breaking as her world turns upside down, and I can’t reassure her. I have no way to understand this. My head is pounding, my ears ringing. I am terrified. A part of me shuts down, a dull ache in my heart, in the pit of my stomach. A sharp bullet wakes me up.

Today, through tears, my daughter said, “I guess I have taken the bubble I live in for granted. Maybe I need to be more grateful.”
To which I respond, “Bubbles exist to remind us that we are in this together, holding each other. They are protective but we also need to see outside our bubbles because the truth of how things lives in both places.”

I say these words – I want to believe them now, and protect her. So why do I feel so afraid, and alone, vulnerable and fragile? How can something so awful bully itself upon us as if this is the way it was meant to be?

Up is down and down is up.
We do our normal things so as to stay steady, but right now, nothing feels real, except grief.


November 10th, 2016 by Dr. Nina Asher

What is it to be protective – to protect in a real way – which is to hold a space for someone to see, speak the truth and be heard? It is not bubble wrapping someone with trigger warnings but rather it is holding someone when they bump up against painful realities – personal or societal. If the words aren’t spoken, a true, deep layer of feelings can’t be experienced. If we spend all our time removing places where safe speech can exist, how will our children grow to know kindness, wise speech, empathy, compassion for their own and others experiences?

So when colleges ban books, words or ideas from the normal dialogue, they are making a serious assumption. That is, they are presuming to know what will offend, disturb a person when what triggers one person might not register to another.

Universities then become more paternalistic – that is, they determine what is damaging instead of letting words, books, speakers exist in a climate of openness where what is triggered can be discussed and understood in the context of the individual or the group.

All of life is about the context and circumstances that exist in a particular time, place, or person. Omissions limit discussion.

Protection is not being over-protected or coddled. Rather, people feel protected when they are held with respect, listened to, heard, and are allowed to experience their truth without judgment.


November 9th, 2016 by Dr. Nina Asher

The digital age continues to be an ongoing topic for parents, schools and children. We hear a lot about what is problematic about “screens,” and we hear a lot about how parents feel they have no control over their children’s screen time.

Screens can be addicting
Screens as transitional objects
Screens as pacifiers
Screens as attachment devices

Screens as a way of bonding with friends in a world separate from adults.
Bring awareness to what is so compelling about screens and some part of it will likely be the longing to connect with someone, or something.

Multi-tasking makes us think we are accomplishing a lot when brain research shows we are accomplishing much less b/c we are so scattered.
What we remember when we write with our hands vs. when we use a computer.

Violent games don’t create violent teenagers but they do stimulate violent parts of ones self.
How does one differentiate between isolation that is a reflection of a disturbance vs. a kid needing privacy, liking alone time etc.


May 3rd, 2016 by Dr. Nina Asher

Doubt is a wonderful thing because it allows for questioning, thoughtfulness, reflection and discernment. However, much of the time when we notice ourselves doubting it takes us to the place of giving up. We don’t simply doubt; instead we believe the self-doubt, which says, “I don’t know why I even thought of that idea; I didn’t want to do it anyway.” This inevitably leads to backing away and trusting the story of “I can’t do this.” From there, we experience a constriction of the self.

I often wonder what would happen if we simply paused for a moment, letting the statement, “just doubting” live expansively within us? Perhaps we could pause long enough to investigate further the experience of doubting, rather than lurching into an action or decision based on a constricted, fear or doubt based story.

People often speak of compassion fatigue as the ongoing depletion that accompanies caring for another person. The more I practice psychotherapy, and the teachings of insight meditation, the more I think what those of us in the caregiving professions, or in caregiving roles feel is not compassion fatigue, but rather empathy fatigue.

Although empathy and compassion are similar, the terms often used interchangeably, these two concepts differ in several ways.

Empathy asks us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We reach out into their pain, as our neural, hard-wired systems work at identifying with whatever is being felt. Empathy asks us to have a vicarious experience of another person’s feelings, thoughts or attitudes. This quality often implies that we, as listeners or responders be in harmony, or agreement with the person in need of our empathy. That is, the condition of one person induces a parallel or reciprocal condition in the other.

Those of us in the helping professions know that we can tune into a client and actually feel for them in whatever they are experiencing. We care about the other person as we reach into their feelings and reflect back our concern. This empathic wiring has served humanity well. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to sense what those in pain might need.

However, empathy calls for a hierarchical relationship between two people in which the empathizer enters into the world of the person in need of understanding. It is through empathic reflection and mirroring from one to the other that allows a person/client to be heard.

In contrast, compassion begins with caring for oneself first, and in that, opening to care for another. Christopher Germer, psychologist and meditation practitioner says “ Self-compassion is taking care of ourselves just as we’d treat someone we love dearly.” When we beat ourselves up for struggling, making mistakes, or simply feeling sad or angry, we stray from compassion for ourselves. Why wouldn’t we allow ourselves the same kind of care and warmth we extend to others who are suffering?

Compassion asks us to accept all parts of ourselves, even the ones in which we struggle. It is in the seeing of our problems that we can begin to accept them as teachers. As caregivers, we can help clients turn towards their pain as we not only empathize, but hold or witness the whole experience with acceptance and compassion.

Pain is not an abstract concept. We all feel pain, but we often believe that we are alone, no one understands what we feel, and we are the only ones to have had this experience. We are in a contracted state of need. Compassion creates an expansive container in which suffering is known.

We share the pain of another because although the stories are different, the underlying fear, pain, or shame is universal. We cultivate compassion as we draw from the wholeness of our experience, including all parts. We meet the other person from a place of “We are all in this together. Your story may differ from mine, but we all have and will suffer; and we all will die.”

From this perspective, we are not so different from each other. Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun, says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

Whereas empathy helps the person in pain, compassion is like a loop of connection and love. It is inclusive and reciprocal. In holding compassion for another, we are also receiving compassion back. It is an invisible, often wordless flow of all-encompassing space of acceptance. It feeds back, and unlike empathy, it is not experienced as fatiguing.


November 22nd, 2015 by Dr. Nina Asher

My meditation teacher called it “crooked grief.”
I loved that image, as I wondered, “what in the world could that mean?” She explained, and I pondered.

Crooked grief slips out the side door of your body in the form of anxiety, fear, distractibility, irritability, and annoyance. We see it in our tone turning toxic with judgment and blame. We notice it in the breathy, speedy pace of long “to do” lists begging for our undivided, immediate attention. It haunts us as we engage in compulsive “overdoing.” Like a hawk on high alert, we find ourselves in crooked grief, sweeping down, flying upward, bypassing what we truly need.

There is no blame in crooked grief. It appears as a reminder that grief is there, wanting to be held, felt. Grief becomes crooked when it goes unacknowledged. It longs for a place to be seen and heard, a protected space in which to live.

Crooked grief is a place holder; that little tugging we feel lurking just outside our heart. It calls to us when we can’t “find time” to honor the presence of grief.

That is all it asks of us.


November 22nd, 2015 by Dr. Nina Asher

And yet, people enter therapy with the idea that they can fix their problems, or at the very least, make them go away. They have an entrenched notion that if only they try hard enough, or find the right therapist with the “perfect” instructions on what to do differently, all their problems will conveniently disappear forever.

I like to think of “problems” as doorways to growth. The word problem connotes bad, wrong, needing fixing, something which elicits shame and blame. Everyone has problems. No one is immune to them. So to acknowledge a problem with openness is a different way to think about the things that get in our way. Problems are there to help us see ourselves more clearly; they help us reach out to touch the edge of clarity.

In therapy, we don’t sit down to solve a problem, but rather, we engage in a relationship that allows us to see that the “problem” exists because at one point it helped us adapt or exist in the best way we could. As the therapy couple walks through this together, the problem begins to unstick itself, dissipate, and afford us the space to try out new ways of being.