Scattergood Foundation

Advancing Innovative Strategies for Change in Behavioral Health

The Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia

Name of Innovative Program: 
Mothering Without a Home
Sponsoring Organization
The Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia
Name of Innovative Program Lead: 
Ann G Smolen, PhD
E-mail Address of Innovative Program Lead:
Project Description: 
Homeless parents have almost always had a chaotic life, filled with trauma and dislocation, and themselves often had insecure attachments as children.  They may be suffering from the effects of severe trauma, may have problems with affect regulation, and often have difficulties with attachment and interpersonal intimacy.   The struggles to provide for the physical needs of their children, in the absence of a stable home, complicate their efforts to provide for the emotional needs of their children, when their own physical and emotional needs are not being met. This project would involve setting up psychoanalytically informed mom/baby groups that would meet twice per week on an ongoing basis. Within these groups the mothers will learn about normal child development as they begin to 'mentalize' and view their children as separate individuals with their own emotions. Child therapists from The Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia will run these groups as well as supervise staff on how to set-up and continue the groups.   
Creativity and Innovation: 
 The women will make photo journals of themselves with their children.  Photographs help the mothers focus on and really see themselves and their babies.  First Hour: Children with a child therapist. The child therapist will promote recognizing complex and painful affects and putting words to these feelings. Her work with the children facilitate the development of the ability to mentalize.During this hour the women will view themselves on videotape from previous sessions. Normal child development is addressed as the women learn to recognize attachment behaviors in their children. In the second hour the mothers and children “played” together. Attachment behaviors will be addressed as they appear within the group interactions. There will be some structured time with the mothers and babies together where dance movement and singing became an important ritual. This portion of group ends with snack and reading. 
Many homeless women live with personal wound of being rejected by their own families, left to care for their children alone.  They have not had their own emotional needs met and thus are more likely to be critical and irritable with their own children.It seems obvious that homelessness would impair a mother’s ability to parent her children effectively, yet there is little empirical research on the parenting and attachment styles of the homeless.  By capitalizing on the strengths of the African American family, and providing interventions that assist the homeless mother in providing greater support and control and nurturing, agencies can help high-risk families function more efficiently in society.  Mental health practitioners must appreciate ethnic and racial differences so they may facilitate ethnic pride within the families with whom they work.  This in turn will help families be more receptive to formal supports with more positive outcomes.
  Psychoanalytic informed mom/baby groups that help mothers view their children as separate indivudals with feelings of their own and teach normal child development in a way that is experienced, are invaluable in helping to promote healthy development. These groups are inexpensive to run. They could be set up in transitional housing facilities as I did in my project, or in community centers, schools, day cares or mental health  centers. Staff therapists could be easily trained to run these groups so they could continue long-term. 
As noted above, with some training, staff therapists, teachers, and day care workers can be trained to run these groups. The Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia has many highly skilled child therapists who can run groups but could also supevise and consult to community agencies. My book, "Mothering Without a Home", is an excellent source of information on how to set up these groups and provides the theoretical meaning behind the technical interventions. 
 Change and growth could be observed as the women gathered around the table where we shared experiences of what it means to be homeless and to be a mother.  As they came to see me as dependable and caring they began to integrate bits and pieces of information I offered them. Because I showed them that I appreciated and valued their minds, they in turn, began to notice and value the minds of their children. I demonstrated a commitment to their well being that they came to value. I became their playmate, a playful, loving mother, bringing glitter and shiny stones, singing songs and dancing to childhood lyrics. Our group provided a safe “holding environment,” a place and time that was always the same. Within this sameness trust developed and healing could begin.  As I demonstrated flexibility and creative processes they too were able to become more flexible and creative.