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PERSPECTIVES: Reflections From the Field Reflecting on “How You Are Is as Important as What You Do”: Jeree H. Pawl’s Enduring Influence in Contemporary Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Practice

Lauren Perez, Esther Wong, and Maria Seymour St. John, Infant-Parent Program, University of California, San Francisco


Jeree H. Pawl, a luminary in the field of infant mental health and a founding member and past president of the board of directors of ZERO TO THREE, died November 19, 2021, at the age of 91. Her contributions to the field were immeasurable. Through clinical innovation, administrative leadership, writing, public speaking, teaching, training, and pioneering the practice of reflective supervision, Dr. Pawl helped to shape the ways we all understand our charge in this work. She advocated for inclusive, interdisciplinary collaboration on behalf of infants and young children and their parents and caregivers. She knew that babies and their parents need a workforce that is well trained, well respected, and well supported, and she worked tirelessly to bring this into being. Dr. Pawl is perhaps most well known for her adage that “How you are is as important as what you do.” In this article we reflect on some of the ways in which we feel her influence in what we do—and how we are.

Jeree H. Pawl’s career as a psychologist was summarized in a life tribute published in the San Francisco Chronicle on December 18, 2021 (Celebrating the Life of Jeree H. Pawl, 2021). Soon after earning her doctorate, Jeree joined world-renowned social worker and psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg in the Child Development Project at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where the team collaboratively innovated infant– parent psychotherapy, a ground-breaking approach to addressing difficulties in the relationships between infants and their parents. In 1979, Fraiberg and her clinical team were invited to join the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. They started the Infant-Parent Program at San Francisco General Hospital to address the needs of very young children and their families, as well as the community professionals who served them. In 1981, Jeree assumed the directorship of the program, which she stewarded expertly for nearly two decades. While tending to the daily functioning of this community-based program in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district, Jeree was also instrumental in the development of ZERO TO THREE and was elected president of the board of directors in 1994. Her professional writing and speaking helped the world to see and feel the vital importance of the field as it was being born.

Jeree possessed an almost uncanny ability to “feel her way” into the experience of others. She helped adults to understand the meanings expressed in the behavior of infants and toddlers. Parents too felt understood, even in their most bitter conflicts, and were able to embody more fully the parent they wished to be, thanks to her unflinching attention to their experience. Practitioners across disciplines felt heard and valued by her, and their commitment to working on behalf of infants, toddlers, families, and caregivers was galvanized by her guidance and vision. A key element of that vision was captured in her famous adage, “How you are is as important as what you do.” Through her writing and presenting, teaching and training, consultation and supervision, Jeree mentored and inspired thousands of professionals, seeding the field and inspiring programs and policies regionally, nationally, and worldwide.

We are three infant and early childhood mental health workers who are part of the present-day clinical team at the University of California, San Francisco Infant-Parent Program. In the following sections, we each offer reflections on ways that we feel and recognize Jeree’s influence. We draw on and respond to excerpts from Jeree’s writings on a range of topics, appreciating how the work that we love, while responsive to pressing present-moment concerns, is sustained by intergenerational transmissions.


Jeree H. Pawl helped adults to understand the meanings expressed in the behavior of infants and toddlers.

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