By Dawn Van Osdell
Stephanie Morales can peek out her living room window and get a good look at the old wood-shingled courthouse building on the South Bay’s Redondo Beach Pier. Inside its blue doors lies the Mother Nurture Center, which Morales founded in June 2014. The center is her dream come true. If you live in the area and happen to fit into one of Morales’s four “P” categories—Planning a Pregnancy, Pregnant, Postpartum, or Parenting—it might be your dream, too. As Morales explains, “It’s a place for prevention and support for all things related to perinatal health, and a welcoming community and resource for all growing families.”
An airy, light-filled space with warm, paneled walls, whitewashed floors, and a front row view of the Pacific Ocean, the Mother Nurture Center houses more than three dozen health and wellness providers, as well as myriad experts dedicated to the care and support of mothers and mothers-to-be. It’s a no-judgment zone, open to any woman “regardless of her birthing method, parenting style, or how she arrived at motherhood,” says Morales. Expectant moms come to attend expert-led classes, prenatal massage, yoga, and acupuncture; or for lesser-known services designed to alleviate certain discomforts and complications of pregnancy, such as a breech baby and “trapped emotions.” As new moms, they return, often with dads in tow, for parenting support groups, Dads Huddle, Mommy & Me infant development workshops, and the center’s popular lactation services.
Surrounding the central open space that is dedicated to group classes, and a well-curated baby boutique lined with designer onesies, teething rings, and lactation aids for nursing moms, is a series of private rooms where body work and mental health services are offered—led by Morales, a marriage and family therapist specializing in maternal mental health issues. She helps individuals and couples grappling with issues more complicated, and less discussed, than mere car seat safety and swaddling. “There are so many women struggling with the mental and emotional aspects of pregnancy and parenting,” says Morales. In fact, an estimated one in 5 women suffer with maternal mental health issues, many of them in silence. “They need a place to go where the providers are well-informed. A place where there’s no stigma and no shame,” she says.
Morales first hit on the idea for the center after she and her husband, Alfonso, became first-time parents to daughter Paloma in 2003. The young family was residing in San Francisco and like many new moms, Morales craved the support and assistance she imagined would be hers if she lived closer to her extended family, nearly 400 miles away in her native Southern California. Morales had moved north to pursue a graduate degree in psychology in San Francisco. She met and married Alfonso, a business owner, while attending classes and managing a 60-bed psychiatric unit in the San Francisco County Jails’ Mental Health Department. “The complexity of it was intellectually stimulating,” says Morales, but emotionally it was too much to handle once she became a mother. Within a month of Paloma’s birth, the couple quit their jobs and headed back to LA’s South Bay.
Although they were in close proximity to Paloma’s grandparents, who often helped out, settling into Redondo Beach was not as easy as Morales had imagined it. She battled postpartum depression, which she remembers as a truly horrific experience. “We are told that this is the most joyous time in our lives and that we will naturally fall into our roles,” says Morales. Yet, as a new mom, she battled teariness, anxiety, a sense of low self-worth, hopelessness, and, she says, “a real concern that I was not a good enough mother.” She was trained in mental health and yet couldn’t find anyone in town who knew what to do to help her. “There was a complete void of resources. I vowed to myself that I’d somehow, some day, create a one-stop wellness center for families in my community. Someplace where mental health was the crown jewel.”
In 2005, the Morales’ welcomed their second daughter, Reina, into their family and along with her came a stroke of bad luck: Stephanie developed peripartum cardiac myopathy, a life-threatening heart condition that can strike in the months immediately following birth. Struggling once again to manage motherhood and her own well-being, Morales began her journey in earnest to create awareness around the issues that afflict so many expectant and new moms. “I knew it would become my life’s work,” she says. She volunteered with Postpartum Support International, a global web of resources for new moms; and became a founding member of the Los Angeles County Perinatal Mental Health Task Force, a legislative policy think tank responsible for increasing awareness, enhancing services, and providing education for providers throughout Los Angeles County.
A year later, Morales made the leap from her full-time position as a therapist at a community-based mental health facility into private practice. She focused on helping women suffering with pre- and postnatal mental disorders, and challenges such as the loss of a pregnancy, postpartum psychosis, and fertility and third party reproduction issues. With the help of others interested in building what she deemed a “mommy super-center,” she was able to expand her practice and welcome other practitioners. She took a leap of faith and secured the open, light-filled space she had long imagined for a wellness center. Over the course of three months, she had the old courthouse redesigned to provide private and group services, and hung a sign—the Mother Nurture Center.
Despite the seriousness of the issues she treats, Morales jokes (sort of) about creating a parenting franchise. What’s no joke: says Morales, “We all need someplace to go to feel supported and nurtured in this parenting journey, no matter which stage we are at.”
For more information on the Mother Nurture Center, visit mothernurturecenter.com