| | By Mike Rosen-Molina
Martina Reaves was at the end of her rope. Her 5-year-old son Cooper refused to sleep in his own room, instead slipping out in the dead of night to bang on Reaves’ bedroom door while she and her partner, Tanya Starnes, were trying to sleep. Desperate and exhausted after weeks of sleepless nights, Reaves could barely keep her eyes open through her day job as a divorce mediator. She knew she needed help. But then she remembered someone she’d met years ago, when Cooper was 1½ years old.
Reaves had attended a class on breast-feeding held by the doctor who delivered Cooper; the class was taught Meg Zweiback, who seemed to have a natural knack for understanding the problems of childhood—and a quick mind for solving them.
“She seemed very warm and very knowledgeable,” said Reaves, “Enough that I remembered her and thought: Let’s go to her and see if she can help.”
After their first meeting, Zweiback sent Reaves and Starnes home with specific instructions: When you tuck Cooper into bed, tell him he’s going to sleep in his own room by himself. Close your own door and lock it. Don’t say anything if he wakes up; don’t open the door if he comes knocking; just say something simple like, “Go back to sleep and you’ll be fine.”
Within three nights, Cooper gave up on knocking and started sleeping through the night. Reaves was astounded.
“If we lived in a village, Meg Zweiback would be the wise woman,” she said.
For more than 30 years, parents like Reaves have been coming to nurse practitioner Meg Zweiback’s home office in Oakland with the small, mundane problems faced by all first-time parents—a baby who cries through the night, a toddler who won’t use his toilet, a child who balks at eating her vegetables. (“People come to me to easily get sensible advice,” said Zweiback, “It’s nothing fancy.”) But Zweiback recognizes that it’s these small headaches that give parents the biggest worries, carrying with them the unspoken questions: Is my child normal? Will he be OK? Zweiback tackles these issues with humor, warmth, and easy-to-follow practical advice gleaned from years of research and experience. But, above all, she holds an abiding conviction that the question Is my child normal? isn’t the right one to ask. There’s no such thing as normal to Zweiback. Every child is different; every family is unique; so there’s no such thing as a pre-packaged solution that will work for everyone.
“Family is the center of everything,” said Zweiback, who is a petite dynamo with a mop of short, curly hair and an easy smile that shows in the honest crinkles of her eyes. Her enthusiasm shines through in her bubbly, excited voice, but she can just as easily transition to talking about serious issues. New clients who come to her with a routine question about why their son is scared of the dark or why their daughter throws fits in restaurants are often surprised when she wants to meet with the whole family. Her consultations include not just the child, but also the parents, and, when possible, siblings.
“It’s not about, ‘Oh, the baby doesn’t sleep,’ ” said Zweiback. “It’s, ‘What is it about this family and how it functions.’ People don’t come to the Bay [Area] because they themselves are ordinary. They come to find someone else who’s not ordinary, and they together raise a family that’s not ordinary. There’s no one right way to be.”
Zweiback looks at each child on his own terms. While for many years child behaviorists concentrated on finding ways to mold children to meet the expectations of parents, teachers, and doctors, Zweiback instead worked to help parents accept their children on their own terms.
“I get people who’re told when their new baby is still in the nursery that he will grow to be a problem child, based on just his first 12 hours,” said Zweiback. “But the reality is that every child has his own temperament and unique sensitivity. The biggest challenge is a child whose temperament doesn’t fit with his parents’.”
When Reaves and Starnes tried to take a 5-year-old Cooper out to eat, the boy couldn’t sit still. Zweiback proposed a surprising solution: Don’t take him out to restaurants. She recognized that he was too high energy to sit still for long periods. Wait until he’s 8 or 9, she said.
Part of Zweiback’s philosophy stems from her own experiences as a mother. “My child, like most, was not at the top of the bell curve,” said Zweiback. “I dealt with a lot of people who wanted him to be different than he was. Every child who comes to me is different, but it was after I had kids of my own that I started to appreciate how many people want all kids to be the same.”
Zweiback began her career as a parenting guru in another era, when parents were consistently told to trust expert opinions over their own instincts. But after years as a nurse practitioner, Zweiback thought that parents had more aptitude for raising their own children than anyone else for one simple reason: They know their kids best.
“She’s a little bit like a Bay Area Dr. Spock,” said developmental and clinical psychologist Diane Ehrensaft, director of mental health and founding member of the Child and Adolescent Gender Center in San Francisco. Ehrensaft often refers clients to Zweiback when it seems they might benefit from Zweiback’s style of counseling. As the first stop for worried parents, Zweiback has been the first person to pinpoint language deficiencies, learning disabilities, or anxiety issues—but when she thinks a family needs help she can’t give, she refers them to another expert. “She’s very warm and comfy and makes people feel like they’re in a living room, not an office. She takes a collaborative approach with parents; part of the trick is not to do it above people, but beside them. “
Zweiback grew up in Los Angeles and moved north to attend college at UC Santa Cruz the year that it opened; she graduated with a BA in political science with its first class in 1969. Zweiback has lived in Oakland with her husband, lawyer Zack Wasserman, since 1976. Together they have two grown children, one with an MBA in education administration from Mills College and the other a recent law school graduate from UC Irvine looking to become a public defender. In her off time, Zweiback likes to go to two theater performances a week, supporting small theater troupes that use local actors and perform local plays—like the SF Playhouse in San Francisco and the Shotgun Players in Berkeley.
Early on, she had little idea where she would ultimately end up. “I graduated [from UC Santa Cruz] the year that the world was blowing up and we all had to go do something relevant,” she said. “I had no clue what that was going to be.”
Before she found her niche, she bounced from job to job, looking for the thing that would give her the flexibility she craved: She learned Spanish to be a teacher, bottled vodka in a factory assembly line in Redwood City, and joined the United Farm Workers in Coachella Valley to help organize the first union contracts. Eventually, she met some nurses, and they inspired her to go into nursing.
“In the early ’70s, there weren’t a lot of roles for women—just teacher or doctor—beyond that, you had to invent it. I was drawn to a field that was primarily women, and the women I saw in it were all brilliant and highly competent.”
She spent a year and a half as a nurse’s aide in Stanford Hospital, making beds, giving back rubs to invalid patients, and doing the menial work that keeps a hospital running.
“It really prepared me well to support people in their daily lives,” said Zweiback. “It made me realize sometimes the most important things you can do to help people are the small things.”
Zweiback enrolled in the UCSF nurse practitioner program. (Later, she got her master’s in public health from UC Berkeley. “I wasn’t sure why; I guess I felt like I needed more letters after my name,” she said.) For the first 10 years of her career, Zweibeck worked in public health, including at Children’s Hospital Oakland as a public health nurse, the Peralta Services Corporation (where she helped start a child-care program for teen moms), and the Highland Hospital Breast-feeding Project (where she wrote the first state guidelines for breast-feeding support in California hospitals). Over the years, Zweiback constantly received questions from worried parents, so she started researching to find answers. Everything that Zweiback learned, she said, was because someone had asked her a question.
“In the process, I learned the things that I wished other people had told me,” she said.
Before the Internet, when information was more difficult to find, Zweiback become a beacon in the night for lost parents. She started penning a column for Parents’ Press in the ’80s and ’90s. People recognized in her not just a wealth of knowledge but also an innate connection with kids.
Joan Lovett, a behavior pediatrician in private practice in Berkeley, worked together with Zweiback when both were teaching at the nurse practitioner program at UCSF. Today, Zweiback refers clients to Lovett when children have experienced trauma, medical illness, or attachment issues or anxiety.
“I have a deep admiration for what she does,” said Lovett. “She’s very practical and down to earth, and she gives children and families the tools they need. For example, if a child has a difficult procedure in the hospital, she’d recommend taking the child to the hospital cafeteria for ice cream on a day that he’s not having a procedure. Her kind of care should be part of the care that every family receives.”
Her knack so impressed Martina Reaves that she sometimes referred clients in her divorce mediation business to Zweiback when they revealed that their kids were having trouble dealing with the divorce. And she herself still came to Zweiback for advice occasionally all the way up until Cooper was in high school
When Cooper didn’t show any interest in team sports, Reaves worried that he might not fit in with other kids. Conferring with the family, Zweiback helped them to recognize that Cooper didn’t feel the same draw to team sports as many boys his age did. She recommended that he look for something more suited to his independent nature, and he found a real interest in activities where he could work on his own, becoming active in high school wrestling and tennis.
“The big reward is when you can help a family let a child be more themselves or help a family to really enjoy a child’s strengths,” said Zweiback. “They come to me slightly worried, but they already know so much about how to help their kids.”
“Working with kids is in some ways harder than adults,” said educational psychologist Carole King. “When parents bring their kids to mental health professional, the kids know that they’re not there because things are going well. They might have worries that they can’t articulate. It’s important to introduce humor and fun. Meg uses a sand tray with toys in it for free play, with an instruction to parents to watch and listen to what they say as they play. The kids don’t understand that there’s a lot of knowledge and experience behind that.”
Children see the world through different eyes than adults do, and even though every adult was once a child, it can be difficult to recapture that young mindset, to put yourself in those little shoes to understand what’s bothering a child. Things that seem ordinary or amusing to an adult can be deeply troubling to a child—for example, Zweiback sees a lot of children terrified by clowns or scary TV shows.
Zweiback’s arsenal of tricks includes mediation and even hypnosis—helping an imaginative child get into a relaxed state before going through a medical procedure—and immersion therapy (her golden retriever Charlie helps kids overcome dog phobia), but the bulk of her magic is worked through simple talking and playing.
“A child will reveal themselves through play,” she said. “Just step back and be there and be present. It’s almost a magic wand cure. The child gets to play and I ask parents to sit and observe and respond to what child wants to do. It’s difficult to do, but children love it. Fifteen minutes pass, and the child is happily playing along with everyone watching. Of course, why wouldn’t everyone be watching me, they think, I’m the most interesting thing here. When parents do that, things shift.”
“The family is the core for the baby, the core of who he will be,” said Zweiback. “If parents and children feel connected, then kids can leave home and feel confident and loved for who they are.” l
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly.
Margaretta K. Mitchell is a nationally known artist and professional photographer, author, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. To explore the possibility of Mitchell shooting a portrait for the web or print, an environmental portrait, or a creative portrait of your fantasy persona: (510) 655-4920 or margarettamitchell.com.