EMPOWERING WOMEN'S HEALTH
by Christiane Northrup, M.D.
What would your life be like if you learned how to respect your body as though it were a precious creation—as valuable as a beloved friend? What if you no longer lived in fear of germs or cancer? What would happen if you truly trusted your body’s messages?
Noted author and visionary Dr. Christiane Northrup asks us to ponder these questions because she finds that lasting health and wholeness are only possible when we discover and practice behaviors associated with true health and wholeness. And she believes that the time to listen to our body’s wisdom is now!
The purpose of this column is to help you see that once you engage your own inner wisdom, you can change or improve your habits of thought, your emotions, and your health, and create a more positive and joyful life experience right away. Dr. Northrup says, “This process, when engaged in regularly, heals both your present and your future.”
What Do We Owe Our Daughters?
What Do We Owe Our Mothers?
Excerpted with permission from Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Creating a Legacy of Emotional and Physical Health
In 2005, Dr. Northrup wrote a book that is very dear to her heart called Mother-Daughter Wisdom (Bantam), which explores how the mother-daughter bond sets the stage for a woman’s health throughout her life cycle. Because our mothers are our first and most powerful female role models, our most deeply ingrained beliefs about ourselves as women come from them. And our behavior in relationships—with food, with our children, with our mates, and with ourselves—is a reflection of those beliefs. Once we understand our mother-daughter bonds, we can rebuild our own health, whatever our age, and create a lasting positive legacy for the next generation.
In 2005, Mother-Daughter Wisdom was nominated for the prestigious Quill Award and also voted number one by the editors at Amazon.com in both their Health, Mind & Body category and Parenting & Families categories, and also recognized as one of the 50 Best Books of 2005. More than a quarter million copies of Mother-Daughter Wisdom have been sold in seven different languages. Here is an excerpt.
What Do We Owe Our Daughters? What Do We Owe Our Mothers?
When you have an “easy,” empathetic child who sails through life taking responsibility for herself and knows when and when not to ask for help, then a mother’s job is as easy and natural as breathing. Your daughter will go through normal “growing pains,” of course, but she manages to be responsible for her own life most of the time. Things become far more challenging when a daughter doesn’t easily negotiate the emotional and physical milestones that lead to maturity.
If a daughter becomes developmentally stuck at some stage of her life, whether it be at age five, sixteen, or twenty-five, what is a mother’s responsibility? Where does it begin? Where does it end? And how and when do you wean yourself from your role in trying to help your daughter succeed? When are you off the hook if she fails? What is a mother supposed to do for a seven-year-old who has no friends? What about a sexually precocious eleven-year-old who wants to start dating? What do you do with a fifteen-year-old who smokes or drinks alcohol regularly? What if she’s twenty-five and doesn’t have a job? What if she’s thirty and wants to move back in to save money on rent?
And what about your own mother? If she is unhappy or alone, what is a daughter’s responsibility? If she is widowed, chronically ill, or can no longer live by herself, what does she expect of you? What do you expect of yourself? Do you enjoy each other’s company or is your relationship based on guilt and obligation: “I did it for you. Now you should do it for me.” Is your willingness to “give back” related to how much your mother did for you, or is it simply part of being a daughter?
There is no one right answer to the questions above, but you cannot answer them for yourself until you clarify your own beliefs and behaviors. Mother-Daughter Wisdom will help you do that.
EMBRACING YOUR UNIQUE MOTHERING STYLE
Guilt and worry about whether or not we’re being good enough mothers has only intensified as more and more choices for self-development have become available to women. Increasingly, mothers are expected to keep perfect homes and prepare home-cooked meals, while also working full-time outside the home. Our culture then holds up the ever-popular and unrealistic “celebrity mom” profile as an example of how working mothers are supposed to look and act.
But there is no one right way to be a mother. I’ve found it helpful to think of mothering styles—or nurturing styles, if you don’t have children—as falling somewhere along a spectrum. Once you identify your mother’s style and also your own, you’ll be better able to appreciate and understand how you’ve influenced each other, and what choices are right for you.
At one end of the spectrum is the nontraditional mother or nurturer, the woman who is primarily turned inward toward meeting creative needs that come from deep within her. This type of mother has to take care of these needs if she is to remain emotionally balanced and physically healthy. My mother falls into this category. In women like my mother, activating the motherhood and nurturing circuits tends to take a toll physically unless they also have a lot of practical support. Though they love their children as much as anyone, they are not biologically wired for motherhood to fulfill them totally at the deepest levels. For my mother, skiing and other outdoor activities were as necessary as oxygen. When we were little, instead of missing a day of skiing, she’d bundle us all up and take us with her, putting one of us on skis between her legs and one in a backpack. We all learned to ski by the age of two!
My mother has often told the story of how, when she was a twenty-year-old new mother with her first child, my older brother, she sat on the back stoop wanting to run over the back hill to get away from the crushing responsibility of caring for her new baby. My father, sensing this, immediately hired someone to help her. My mother was neither temperamentally nor immunologically suited for the demands of motherhood in the 1950s, an era when women’s roles were far more circumscribed than they are now. Like most of the postwar brides of that time, she was expected to devote her life to taking care of her husband and her children. (She bore six children over a span of fifteen years, one of whom, my sister Bonnie, died within six months of birth.) This included the shopping for and preparation of three meals a day for over thirty years!
At the other end of the spectrum is the traditional mother, the classic “natural mother” or “earth mother.” Having babies and caring for them is the happiest and most fulfilling activity of her life. Her touch seems to automatically make things grow. She often keeps a garden. She likes nothing better than creating a home, baking cookies, and being available for her children. This mother’s focus is primarily on her children and she often doesn’t feel the need for a career or other interests. A woman with this temperament tends to adore and notice babies from the time she is a little girl. These women feel at their best when pregnant, nursing, or having their children around the house and underfoot. The motherhood circuitry seems to enhance and fulfill them and they have no problem caring for a number of children simultaneously. The traditional mother may go through considerable difficulty at midlife if she perceives that she is no longer needed by her family. She often continues her caregiving role throughout her life by doing such things as volunteering to care for her grandchildren or hosting holiday gatherings at which she prepares most of the food.
Somewhere near the middle of the spectrum is the woman who combines both the traditional and nontraditional types of mothers. I fall into this “combination mother” category. Like my mother before me, I was never interested in babies until I had my own children. And my need to pursue a career in women’s health was an all-consuming passion, just as my mother’s love of sports was for her. When my first child was three months old, I, like my mother before me, had some problems with immunologic compromise. Part of this came from the stress of working full-time and also trying to provide breast milk as my daughter’s exclusive diet. I always had full-time help but could have used even more given my on-call schedule.
Eventually my two worlds of nurturing and career collided with each other. When my children were age two and four, I stopped delivering babies in order to spend more time with them. This decision was very difficult, especially since I had gone into ob-gyn because of my love for delivering babies. Still, mothering my children and spending a significant amount of time with them was now my highest priority.
The Combination Challenge
Because of the way in which society has changed, many women who are traditional mothers by temperament are now being forced into being combination mothers. This presents enormous challenges. The biology of motherhood combined with our culture’s relentless 24/7 addiction to productivity and work makes mothering young children enormously difficult when both parents work. We don’t yet have good solutions in place for young families. Still, things were far better for me than they were for my mother. I don’t know what I would have done had I been a wife and mother back in the 1950s when my mother had her children. And I’m also very grateful that my work has given me the foundation for a very fulfilling second half of life now that my children are adults.
No matter what our individual temperament may be, our choices, like my mother’s, are shaped by the culture of our time and place. Many women of my mother’s generation have told me that they feel sorry for women in my generation. They look at the mothers of today, running around trying to get it all done, and just shake their heads. Compared to us, they say, they had far more free time and far more support. They expected their husbands to provide for them and for their children. The rules were simpler. There were fewer choices. Still, it would be naive to believe that all mothers willingly settled into the blissful domesticity of the post-WWII years, the “Happy Days” portrayed on the television sitcoms of the 1950s and ’60s. For many women, including my mother to some extent, having children and caring for their homes and husbands came at the expense of their own hopes and dreams for self-actualization.
Niravi Payne, a specialist in the psychological aspects of fertility, has pointed out that the baby boom generation was the first in human history to collectively delay childbearing beyond the age when their mothers had their first children. We were going to do it differently. Unlike our mothers, we were going to have it all: fulfilling careers, functional families, and partnership marriages with men who would understand and meet us halfway with everything from parenting to moving to a new city for a job promotion. But by saying “no” or at least “wait” to the strong biologic pull of fertility and motherhood in favor of career achievement in a male-dominated world, we were thrust unwittingly into completely new territory for which there were no road maps and no guidance available from either our mothers or society, let alone the men in our lives. Our generation had to make it up as we went along. And our daughters will pick up where we left off—and create even more balance.
Where We’re Going
What I didn’t know back then as a young mother was that my inner creative blueprint was knocking on the door, urging me to find the fulfillment I was seeking through creating a life in which the joys and fulfillment of motherhood and nurturing my children could be combined seamlessly with my work as a physician.
Thousands of other women were simultaneously asking the same questions and making the same kinds of changes in their work and personal lives. The generation of girls who are now coming of age, our daughters, are the result of this experiment.
Together, mothers and daughters are now ready to forge a legacy of true health and freedom for themselves and for each other. Deep in my heart, I know that this is the work for which I was born. And my mother, Edna, has been my mentor and greatest teacher from the beginning.
Collectively we are at a new frontier in which countless women, having tasted the heady fruits of individuation and personal power, are no longer willing to go back to the unconscious, unexamined caretaking roles that have been handed down to us for generations. Nor are we willing to accept the notion that getting older always means getting sick and needing care.
Most of us also want and need the satisfaction that comes from creating a home and a family. And despite our independence and economic clout, nearly every woman I’ve ever met also wants to be loved and cherished in an intimate partnership, though not if giving up control of her money, body, career, or time is the price she must pay.
Feminine energy is now rising up all over the planet to support us as we move into the new partnership archetype that is signified by the number 2 of this millennium. It is this energy that is supporting both men and women to create new family stories, new health and longevity stories, new work and fulfillment stories.
A SPIRITUAL PERSPECTIVE
From a higher perspective, the journey I’m describing in this book isn’t really about our mothers or our daughters at all. It’s about coming home to our deepest selves and being happy with our own company. This is a challenge all women face. Only by transforming ourselves can we hope to create the lives we’re longing for in the outer world.
I believe that all mothers and daughters are old friends on a soul level who are here to help each other bring love, skill, and discipline to the parts of our personalities that we took at birth to develop more fully. Because each of us was born with different gifts and challenges, no two of us will ever have exactly the same idea of what is right or what is best. But we can work toward a lifelong relationship in which each supports the full evolution of the other regardless of her life stage or age.
I am not my daughters’ Higher Power and I never have been. I gave them the best beginning I was able to, just as my mother did for me. What they do with this legacy is now up to them in partnership with their souls.
ENTER THE MOTHER BEAR
What is the most dangerous beast in a forest? A mother bear who is protecting her young. There is no more ferocious or dangerous creature. She knows what it takes to keep her young safe. And they are her first concern. Period. But she also knows what to teach them so that when the time is right, they can live independently without her.
Raising children in general and daughters in particular or healing our own relationships with our mothers and learning how to nurture ourselves requires that each of us bring back our instinctual knowledge—the parts of our biology that have been systematically routed out by our culture for thousands of years. This energy is symbolized by the Mother Bear in many traditional cultures.
The only way to raise a healthy, proud daughter or heal our own relationship with our mothers is to enter bear territory. The only way to become the mother you always wished you had is to enter bear territory. Listening to your instinctive maternal wisdom and allowing it to rise up through you and guide your mothering of yourself or someone else requires that you become ferocious and receptive simultaneously. If you are raising a daughter, you must be willing to open yourself to the place inside where you would willingly sacrifice your own life or that of someone or something else for your daughter. And paradoxically, it also means that you must know when to stop the sacrifice for her sake as well as your own. Likewise, if you are healing your relationship with your mother, you must learn when to take care of yourself and when to give to others.
We are each born with some Mother Bear energy in us. The processes leading up to the birth of a baby—gestation, labor, delivery, and the postpartum period—are designed to saturate us with the hormones and emotions we need to access this energy. But there are precious few truly ferocious Mother Bears guarding their young these days. Where has that Mother Bear energy in humans gone, and how can each of us get it back? For too long, our womanly instincts have been belittled, ignored, or degraded by the culture, leaving most women more than a little ambivalent about what we know deep within. We don’t talk about this much because we don’t want to appear too foolish, unsophisticated, or unscientific. And of course, we also want everyone to love us, including our daughters, our husbands, our friends, or our lovers.
Where is the Mother Bear? How is it that so powerful an instinct has gone underground or become so distorted? What is the full expression of this naturally? How can each of us remember it and apply it as needed to our own lives? Don’t get me wrong. Unconscious biologic instinct and biologic instinct that is honed and refined by consciousness and choice are two different things. Remembering our instinctual wisdom doesn’t mean negating our intellect or the contributions of science. It means using our intellect in partnership with our instinctive, or natural, wisdom.
Opening yourself to the power of your Mother Bear instinct will open you to depths of feeling that you never knew you possessed—and to the most heart-melting love you can imagine. At the end of my first book, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, I wrote, “We carry in our own bodies not only our own pain but that of our mothers and grandmothers—however unconsciously.” In writing this book, I have felt the truth of that statement more acutely than ever. I hope that you will feel it too, because when you do, you will soon find that that feeling place is the gateway through which you must walk if you are to create a truly joyous, creative, and full life for yourself and your daughters.
Copyright © 2006 Bantam. All rights reserved. Photocopying or reproduction without written permission from the publisher is strictly prohibited.
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The mother-daughter relationship is one of the most powerful in our lives. Starting even before birth, it impacts your physical health and emotional well-being, and that of future generations. Mother-Daughter Wisdom, now available in paperback, is a book very dear to my heart. Read it and discover:
- How to improve your genetic health legacy
- How to change deep-seated behaviors, including those related to food
- Wisdom on fertility issues, including pre-conception dos and don'ts
- The truth about immunization and the roots of disease
- The seven essential keys to well-being, including financial literacy
- How to foster healthy sexuality and future “love maps” in our daughters
- And much more
Improve your adult relationship with your mother. If you have a daughter, be the mother you always wanted to be. Read Mother-Daughter Wisdom.
Click here for more information or to order Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Creating a Legacy of Emotional and Physical Health
Please note: Dr. Christiane Northrup does not dispense medical advice or prescribe the use of any technique as a form of treatment for physical or medical problems without the advice of a physician, either directly or indirectly. In the event you use any of the information for yourself, neither Dr. Christiane Northrup, contributors to this article, nor the publisher accepts responsibility for your actions.
Christiane Northrup, M.D. is a board-certified OB/GYN physician who helps empower women to tune in to their inner wisdom and take charge of their health. Her latest book, Mother-Daughter Wisdom: Creating a Legacy of Emotional and Physical Health explores the mother-daughter relationship. She is also the host of a PBS special on the same topic. Dr. Northrup is the author of two best-selling books, Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom and The Wisdom of Menopause and authors a popular monthly e-letter on her website, www.drnorthrup.com, and a print newsletter, The Dr. Christiane Northrup Newsletter: Health Wisdom for Today's Woman.