Rhythms of life

Jenni McHugh prepares to serve new parents and babies as a clinical social worker

“Every household has a rhythm,” says parent educator Jenni McHugh. “Rhythms are very powerful and very meaningful.”

McHugh learned to sense those rhythms while attending home births, working beside midwives, just out of college in California. Later she paid attention to household rhythms in southeastern Minnesota, where she developed a home-visiting program for parents with newborns.

Now McHugh is completing her master of social work (MSW). Her goal is to become a clinical social worker for families with infants and women with perinatal mood disorders, including postpartum depression. She plans to serve women in rural communities whose histories include complex trauma.

McHugh knows that the transition to parenting can be profoundly positive. But when the transition is challenging, a lot is at stake for families, partly because the link between maternal and child mental health is so strong.

“You think about something as simple as playing peekaboo with a baby,” says McHugh. “So much is happening during that back-and-forth game. The child is learning that, even if the parent isn’t there, they are there. But what happens if the parent isn’t  there? Or doesn’t know how to play?

“I’m drawn to work with families when it’s not going well,” she says.

A big part of McHugh’s work is listening to people’s stories—what is said as well as what isn’t. It’s no accident that her undergraduate major was English, which develops attention to narrative and subtext.

“Maternal mental health affects the child’s, so that intersection is a wonderful place to do the work of prevention and intervention,” she says. “Helping a parent reframe her story so she sees herself and her child with the capacity for a rewarding relationship is an honor. I just love that work.”

After graduation, McHugh wants to continue exploring ways to bridge prenatal care, parenting, and mental health. She is inspired by the Mother Baby Program at Hennepin County Medical Center and interested in investigating integrative therapies at the University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing.

Putting down roots

The rhythm of McHugh’s own life has shaped her path. Born in Detroit, she spent her teen years in New York City and later lived on the West Coast. During a semester at Yale she met her husband, whose family had farmed near Red Wing, Minnesota, in the 1800s. They moved to Winona in 1995 as part of an intentional community, founded Featherstone Farm, and had three sons.

“Being married to a farmer means we’re rooted here,” says McHugh. In the rolling bluff country of Winona County, along the Mississippi River and Interstate 90, she has experienced the rhythm of the seasons and the community.

McHugh volunteered and worked for Winona’s Early Childhood Family Education program, helped start a support group for new mothers at Winona Health, and was instrumental in the beginning stages of Winona State University’s student-parent group. Eventually she earned her parent education licensure through the University of Minnesota’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction online.

The need for more social workers in maternal and infant mental health is critical. McHugh was drawn to the MSW program because of its flexibility and fit, combining social justice with clinical training for emotional and social health.

“After my first day at the U, I went home and told my husband, ‘I found my peeps!’” she laughs. She planned her schedule to minimize the long drives from Winona and completed her field placements close to home—the first at a community mental health center in Winona.

For her second field placement, McHugh was an outpatient social worker in the obstetrics department at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, which offers a range of birthing options.

“Hospital birth and home birth have very different social environments,” McHugh notes, “but there are similarities, too. Women want to feel empowered.”

The experience allowed McHugh to reflect on her path since attending home births more than 20 years ago, when she first felt the pull to work with families.

“It was an intense lifestyle—I was not ready for it at that point,” she says. “Now I can’t wait to finish my MSW. Time has worked in my favor.”

Learn more about the master of social work program and the School of Social Work.

Story by Gayla Marty | October 2014