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Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Understanding the Crucial Link Between Mothers, Daughters, and Healthby Christiane Northrup
Mothers and Daughters
The Bond That Wounds, the Bond That Heals
The mother-daughter relationship is at the headwaters of every woman's health. Our bodies and our beliefs about them were formed in the soil of our mothers' emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. Even before birth, our mother provides us with our first experience of nurturing. She is our first and most powerful female role model. It is from her that we learn what it is to be a woman and care for our bodies. Our cells divided and grew to the beat of her heart. Our skin, hair, heart, lungs, and bones were nourished by her blood, blood that was awash with the neurochemicals formed in response to her thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. If she was fearful, anxious, or deeply unhappy about her pregnancy, our bodies knew it. If she felt safe, happy, and fulfilled, we felt that too.
Our bodies and those of our daughters were created by a seamless web of nature and nurture, of biology informed by consciousness, that we can trace back to the beginning of time. Thus, every daughter contains her mother and all the women who came before her. The unrealized dreams of our maternal ancestors are part of our heritage. To become optimally healthy and happy, each of us must get clear about the ways in which our mother's history both influenced and continues to inform our state of health, our beliefs, and how we live our lives. Every woman who heals herself helps heal all the women who came before her and all those who will come after her.
A mother's often unconscious influence on her daughter's health is so profound that years ago I had to accept that my medical skills were only a drop in the bucket compared to the unexamined and ongoing influence of her mother. If a woman's relationship with her mother was supportive and healthy, and if her mother had given her positive messages about her female body and how to care for it, my job as a physician was easy. Her body, mind, and spirit were already programmed for optimal health and healing. If, on the other hand, her mother's influence was problematic, or if there was a history of neglect, abuse, alcoholism, or mental illness, then I knew that my best efforts would probably fall short. Real long-term health solutions would become possible only when my patient realized the impact of her background and then took steps to change this influence. Though health-care modalities such as dietary improvement, exercise, drugs, surgery, breast exams, and Pap smears all have their place, not one of them can get to the part of a woman's consciousness that is creating her state of health in the first place.
Before birth, consciousness literally directs the creation of our bodies. It is also constantly being shaped by our life's experiences, most especially those of childhood. No other childhood experience is as compelling as a young girl's relationship with her mother. Each of us takes in at the cellular level how our mother feels about being female, what she believes about her body, how she takes care of her health, and what she believes is possible in life. Her beliefs and behaviors set the tone for how well we learn to care for ourselves as adults. We then pass this information either consciously or unconsciously on to the next generation.
Though I acknowledge that the culture at large plays a significant role in our views of ourselves as women, ultimately the beliefs and behavior of our individual mothers exert a far stronger influence. In most cases, she is the first to teach us the dictates of the larger culture. And if her beliefs are at odds with the dominant culture, our mother's influence almost always wins.
Maternal Attention: An Essential Lifelong Nutrient
When a TV camera focuses on audience members in the studio or at sporting events, what does the person on camera shout out? More often than not, it's "Hi, Mom!"
Each of us has a primal need to be seen and noticed by our mothers, and that's why the loss of one's mother can be so devastating. In a letter at the beginning of Hope Edelman's book, Motherless Daughters, a woman whose mother died when she was thirteen wrote:
No one in your life will ever love you as your mother does. There is no love as pure, unconditional, and strong as a mother's love. And I will never be loved that way again.
One of my newsletter subscribers recently used nearly the same words, although her loss came much later in life:
I lost my mother four years ago when I was forty-nine. And I sure do miss her. Mother-daughter relationships are one of the most intimate we will ever have and often one of the most complicated. One of the most painful things I realized when my mom died was that I would never again be loved as unconditionally (in this life) as a mother loves.
A daughter's need for her mother is biologic, and it continues throughout her life. Not only was our mother's body the source of life for us but it was her face that we looked to, to see how we were doing. By gazing into our mother's eyes and experiencing her response to us, we learned crucial first lessons about our own worth.
The quality of attention we receive as babies determines in part how worthy we feel to be here on the planet. When our mother shows her approval through smiling and talking to us, then we encode the idea that we are all right. If, on the other hand, she is not present for whatever reason, or withholds her love when we don't do what she wants us to do, we feel abandoned. We'll do whatever it takes to get that attention back. As young children, our mother's approval or disapproval felt like either the kiss of life or the kiss of death. No wonder she still has the power to affect our well-being. No wonder, even as educated adult women, we keep going back to the same well of maternal attention to see if we're okay and lovable and to check out how we're doing.
I firmly believe that the mother-daughter bond is designed by nature to become the most empowering, compassionate, intimate relationship we'll ever have. How is it, then, that when we go back to that well to be refilled, the result is so often disappointment and resentment on both sides?
Too many of my patients and friends have told me painful stories about going home for the holidays. Here's one of them:
During my junior year in college, I went home on the Friday night before Mother's Day. I'd already told my mom that I'd be unable to stay and have a family dinner on Sunday because I had to get back, write a paper, and study for my final exams. When I walked into my house, my mother burst into tears. I said, "Mom, what's wrong?" She continued crying and said, "The ones you love the most hurt you the most. Don't get close to anyone."
I said, "Mom, are you upset because I'm not staying down here for Mother's Day?"
She replied, "I can't talk about it."
Of course this made me feel as though I was being a terrible daughter (which is exactly what my mother wanted to convey). I said to her, "Mom, you haven't been happy with me since the day I moved out to go to college." She obviously wasn't willing to talk about what was really going on. She refused to address this and just kept cleaning the kitchen counter. She finally said, "I promised your father we were going to have a good day. So let's have a good day."
This sort of thing went on around Mother's Day and every other major holiday for years, but my friend couldn't stay away. "Not going is just not an option," she told me. No wonder she goes, despite the anxiety, headaches, and upset stomach that often ensue. She keeps going back to the well of maternal attention to try to slake her thirst for unconditional recognition and approval, because for generations her cells have been programmed to do this. Though she sometimes gets a few sips of her mother's approval, there is never enough to truly fill her up, and the price is very high. She is being called upon to bear the brunt of her mother's unhappiness and lack of fulfillment. At the very time when she most needs her mother's support to move ahead in her own life, her mother is calling her back. The message may take many forms, from tears to anger to stony silence, but the subtext is always the same: if you really loved me, you'd stay here and suffer with me.
My friend's relationship with her mother needn't be this difficult. To help heal it, she must first identify and name the common web of expectations, needs, and miscommunication in which she and her mother both feel trapped. And then she needs to look below the surface of her mother's behavior and her habitual response to it. When she does, she'll see that her (and her mother's) behavior stems seamlessly from our cultural inheritance as women. Appreciating this is the first step toward healing.
Maternal Ambivalence: Our Cultural Legacy
Both men and women in this society are encouraged to view having a baby and raising a child as the most significant achievement in a woman's life. And on many levels, it is. For a significant number of women, however, motherhood brings up far more conflict and ambivalence than we feel comfortable admitting lest we be labeled as "bad" mothers whose love for our children is suspect. To admit our ambivalence about motherhood and the ensuing loss of control and status that so often accompany it is to fly in the face of one of our most cherished cultural myths.
The epidemic of undiagnosed and untreated postpartum depression and the toll it takes on society speaks volumes. Who wouldn't be ambivalent about the one decision in a woman's life that totally changes her future? Though the biological act of becoming pregnant requires little thought or planning for most, raising a healthy, secure child is, hands down, the hardest job on earth. It requires a degree of maturity and altruism for which there's no way to adequately prepare. Today it also means the loss of independence and freedom that women have fought so long to attain.
Contrary to the myth, nurturing isn't an innate default setting in the human female. It is active and requires strength, stamina, will, intelligence, and determination: all of the qualities that we tend to associate with maleness. And yet, because femaleness has so long been seen as inferior to maleness, the work of nurturing and raising our young has also been denigrated.
Instead of being honest about the less than wonderful aspects of motherhood, however, we oversentimentalize it on the one hand, while undersupporting and downplaying the actual work involved on the other.
No human mother was ever designed to be the sole source of sustaining life energy for her child without also receiving outside support for herself and her own individual needs. Although we mothers nurture initially through the very substance of our own bodies, and later through our hearts, minds, and souls, the energy we expend in nurturing must always be replenished with self-care and self-development if we are to mother optimally. No one would expect a field to produce bumper crops year after year without replenishing the soil regularly, yet we expect mothers to do this. And most mothers don't feel they can ask for help.
When the fuel required for mothering and nurturing others is not replenished regularly, or when mothers don't get their need for self-development met separately from their children's or family's needs, breakdowns and failures in the nurturing system manifest as depression, anxiety, and even violence that affect both mothers and children. Illness then becomes the most socially acceptable way to get nurturance needs met.
Doctor, Heal Thyself
I first wrote the proposal for this book in 1996 when both my daughters were still living at home with their father and me. At the time, I thought I knew what it was going to be about. After all, I had raised two healthy daughters, had a solid relationship with my own mother, and as an obstetrician-gynecologist, had helped countless other mothers give birth to and raise healthy daughters themselves. With great enthusiasm, I began writing what I thought of as an "owner's manual for raising a healthy daughter."
But every time my writing got under way, it was interrupted by another project. It took more than five years of starting and stopping before I finally understood why this kept happening. I wasn't ready. In order to write the book that needed to be written, I first had to come to grips with my own beliefs about mothering. I had to be willing to allow my own denial and sentimentality to be burned away so that I could clearly see how these primal mother-daughter bonds had influenced every cell in my body and every aspect of my life for more than fifty years. In retrospect, I saw that every project or event that appeared to interrupt the writing of this book was a necessary step in its preparation.
One of those intervening projects was writing The Wisdom of Menopause, a book that describes how and why the menopausal transition is, in essence, a biologically supported opportunity for major personal growth and transformation. It boils down to this: Grow or die. And the choice to grow always involves clearing up any unfinished emotional business from the first half of our lives.
My own midlife transition included the end of my twenty-four-year marriage. During the soul-searching that was part of this painful life change, it came to me that I had married my mother. Not every part of my mother, of course. Just the parts from our past together that were still crying out for resolution and healing. My relationship with my husband had been an opportunity to reenact, and thus bring to consciousness, some outmoded beliefs about myself that had been formulated years earlier in response to my mother. As a result of this new awareness, I was able to bring more love, joy, and health into all areas of my life, but especially into my relationship with my mother and my daughters.
None of this was easy, however. There were many days during the dissolution of my marriage when I was certain that I was a total failure as a woman and as a mother. After all, on the surface, I had it all--a physician husband, two lovely children, a nice home, and a career that has always felt like the work I was born to do. Why push it? I wasn't sure I was worthy of more.
The truth is, a part of me had always felt that I had to prove myself in order to be loved. So, like many women, I overgave--both to my daughters and to my husband. I fell into the pattern easily enough, given that motherhood and sacrifice are still nearly synonymous in our culture. The needs of mothers are assumed to come last--after everyone else's. It was shocking to realize that even with all my outward success, I still lost myself at home. And now that I was divorced, I had to face the same issues with both my mother and my daughters.
Opening My Eyes
By this time, both daughters were in college. I'd look forward to their holiday and summer vacations and stock the house with their favorite foods. If I didn't have something they wanted, I'd feel awful about it. I'd fantasize about all the fun we'd have when they came home, only to be disappointed when they had already scheduled other activities with their friends that didn't include me. The problem was that I didn't know how to stop my automatic "mothering" behavior and the emotional needs that were fueling it. I didn't really know how to tell the difference between my healthy desire to nurture and care for my daughters, and my need to earn their love to affirm my worth.
My relationship with my mother was also changing. Ironically, she and I were now the only single adult women in my extended family with no children living at home. When she was my age, my mother had been forced by widowhood to individuate from her former role as wife and mother. She responded by becoming the mayor of her town for five years. After that, she fulfilled a dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and also of climbing the hundred highest peaks in New England.
Now that I was in a similar situation, however, I remembered more difficult parts of the story. How, after she was widowed, my mother's social life changed dramatically, because she was no longer invited to the events that she and my dad had attended for years. How she had been unable to take out a loan in her own name, even though she owned the farm where we grew up. (My own social and financial situation was different, but no less challenging to my sense of worth.) I also discovered that, as two single women, we were automatically paired as a "couple" at all family events. Did my newly single status mean that I was now expected to be both my mother's companion and caregiver?
Old memories kept coming up with new significance. I recalled that my mother had always been happiest when she was on the move. (Even today, at the age of seventy-eight, a perfect day for her involves participating in several different sports, then mowing the lawn and watering all the flowers on the property.) As a child I don't remember her ever lingering at the table after a meal. She'd begin to clear the table and get the dishes washed as soon as possible so she could get on to the next thing. Often I was not yet finished eating. Now I realized that from as far back as I could remember, she had had a kind of "caged lion" feel about her when she couldn't be active. I believe that stopping would have caused her to feel something she didn't want to feel. I also believe that, as a child, I sensed her uneasiness and unconsciously took on the responsibility of soothing her. This was my own soul choice, not my mother's doing, but it created a pattern that was now painfully outdated.
One day during this period of intense inner work, my left eye suddenly began to feel irritated. I took out my contact lens and cleaned it. That didn't help. Every time I put it back, there was still irritation. By the time I went to an eye specialist in Portland, the vision in my left eye was so clouded that I couldn't read the top line of an eye chart. At the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, I was diagnosed with infectious crystalline keratopathy, a very rare form of corneal ulcer that is usually seen only in patients who are immunocompromised in some way. The prognosis was blindness in that eye. I was terrified.
Even while I was searching out the most sophisticated medical care I could find, I kept asking myself, "Why this? Why now?" A chance remark by a female resident at Mass Eye and Ear really caught my attention: she said that when women have eye problems such as mine, it's always in the left eye. I knew that the immunosuppression that had led to this infection was related to the suppressed memories I had recently dredged up. This is not surprising, given that our first emotional center, which affects our blood, immune system, and sense of safety and security in the world, is heavily influenced by our relationship with our mother. The left eye is associated with the right brain, the part that is in touch with emotions that the left side of our brain, our intellect, often tries to deny. The left side of the body, including the organs on that side, are also said to represent the mother in traditional Chinese medicine.
Finally things turned around when, in addition to the antibiotic drops I was prescribed, I began to use very high doses of vitamin C (vitamin SEE, as a friend of mine pointed out) and also worked with several different healers. In retrospect, I see that my eye infection came about because of an obsolete belief I was carrying. I believed that in order to maintain my standing as a good mother and a good daughter, it was my job to care for my family in ways that were no longer appropriate for me. In traditional Chinese medicine, eyes are in the liver meridian. And the liver is associated with anger. (Are we surprised?) Unbeknownst to me, I was angry about what I believed I was "supposed" to be and do as a mother and daughter.
My eye infection was really my body's wisdom, letting me know, through a brush with blindness, that there was a different way to see the situation. I had to see that my mother and my daughters were all strong, capable adults who didn't need me to sacrifice anything for them or rescue them in any way. It was time for me to envision my role as both a mother and a daughter in a new, healthier way for all concerned. And as usual, this insight came to me through my body--quite literally through my eyes, which were signaling me to illuminate a previously dark and unexamined area of my psyche.
It was following this that I finally recognized the real book that was trying to come through me: not a doctor's parenting manual for daughters, but an entirely new and empowering way of looking at the mother-daughter relationship. I wanted to find a way to help women of all ages--whether or not they are raising a daughter--heal themselves physically and emotionally at the deepest possible levels.
From the Hardcover edition.
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